Myth of Er
The Myth of Er is a legend that concludes Plato's The Republic (10.614-10.621). The story includes an account of the cosmos and the afterlife that greatly influenced religious, philosophical, and scientific thought for many centuries.
The story begins as a man named Er (Greek: Ἤρ, gen.: Ἠρός; son of Ἀρμένιος, Armenios of Pamphylia) dies in battle. When the bodies of those who died in the battle are collected, ten days after his death, Er remains undecomposed. Two days later he revives on his funeral-pyre and tells others of his journey in the afterlife, including an account of reincarnation and the celestial spheres of the astral plane. The tale introduces the idea that moral people are rewarded and immoral people punished after death.
Although called the Myth of Er, the word "myth" means "word, speech, account", rather than the modern meaning. The word is used at the end when Socrates explains that because Er did not drink the waters of Lethe, the account (mythos in Greek) was preserved for us.
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Plato from The School of Athens by Raphael, 1509
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With many other souls as his companions, Er had come across an awesome place with four openings - two into and out of the sky and two into and out of the earth. Judges sat between these openings and ordered the souls which path to follow: the good were guided into the path in the sky, the immoral were directed below. But when Er approached the judges he was told to remain, listening and observing in order to report his experience to mankind.
Meanwhile from the other opening in the sky, clean souls floated down, recounting beautiful sights and wondrous feelings. Others, returning from the earth, appeared dirty, haggard and tired, crying in despair when recounting their awful experience, as each was required to pay a tenfold penalty for all the wicked deeds committed when alive. There were some, however, that could not be released from the underground. Murderers, tyrants and other non-political criminals were doomed to remain by the exit of the underground, unable to escape.
After seven days in the meadow the souls and Er were required to travel further. After four days they reached a place where they could see a rainbow shaft of light brighter than any they had seen before. After another day's travel they reached it. This was the spindle of Necessity. Several women, including Lady Necessity, her daughters and the Sirens were present. The souls were then organized into rows and were each given a lottery token apart from Er.
Then of their lottery tokens, they were required to come forward in order and choose their next life. Er recalled the first to choose a new life, a man who had not known the terrors of the underground, but had been rewarded in the sky, hastily chose a powerful dictatorship. Upon further inspection he realized that, among other atrocities, he was destined to eat his own children. Er observed that this was often the case of those who had been through the path in the sky, whereas those who had been punished often chose a better life. Many preferred a life different from their previous experience. Animals chose human lives while humans often chose the apparently easier lives of animals.
After this each soul was assigned a guardian spirit to help them through their life. They passed under the throne of Lady Necessity, then traveled to the Plane of Oblivion, where the River of Forgetfulness (River Lethe) flowed. Each soul was required to drink some of the water, in varying quantities, apart from Er. As they drank, each soul forgot everything. As they lay down at night to sleep each soul was lifted up into the night in various directions for rebirth, completing their journey. Er remembered nothing of the journey back to his body. He opened his eyes to find himself lying on the funeral pyre, early in the morning, and able to recall his journey through the afterlife.1
In the dialogue Socrates introduces the story by explaining to his questioner, Glaucon, that the soul must be immortal, and cannot be destroyed. Socrates tells Glaucon the "Myth of Er" to explain that the choices we make and the character we develop will have consequences after death. In Book II of the Republic, Socrates points out that even the gods can be tricked by a clever charlatan who appears just while unjust in his psyche, in that they would welcome the pious but false "man of the people" and would reject and punish the truly just but falsely accused man. Thus in the Myth of Er, the gods send the falsely-pious and those moral out of conformity to norms to choose another life. The true characters of these are revealed when they choose the lives of tyrants. Missing from the people who choose their next life is what only the philosopher can give them: an appreciation of the intrinsic worth of wisdom, justice, courage and moderation--- not the pretense of these virtues but their genuine habituation in the character of the person. No matter how life treats one or how successful or famous or powerful one becomes, one way or the other, or even, as in the Myth, how many temporary heavenly rewards or hellish punishments one experiences, these virtues will always work to one's advantage. The truly virtuous is the megalopsuchia or great-souled person and this person has eudaimonia, that is, fully flourishing humanity. In the Myth of Er we are led to believe that philosophy will break the cycle of reward and punishment.
The myth mentions "The Spindle of Necessity", in that the cosmos is represented by the Spindle attended by sirens and the three daughters of the Goddess Necessity known collectively as The Fates, whose duty is to keep the rims of the spindle revolving. The Fates, Sirens, and Spindle are used in The Republic, partly to help explain how known celestial bodies revolved around the Earth according to Plato's cosmology.
The "Spindle of Necessity", according to Plato, is "shaped . . . like the ones we know"—the standard Greek spindle, consisting of a hook, shaft, and whorl. The hook was fixed near the top of the shaft on its long side. On the other end resided the whorl. The hook was used to spin the shaft, which in turn spun the whorl on the other end.
Placed on the whorl of his celestial spindle were 8 "orbits", whereof each created a perfect circle. Each "orbit" is given different descriptions by Plato, which no doubt represent known bodies of our solar system.
- Orbit 1 - Stars
- Orbit 2 - Saturn
- Orbit 3 - Jupiter
- Orbit 4 - Mars
- Orbit 5 - Mercury
- Orbit 6 - Venus
- Orbit 7 - Sun
- Orbit 8 - Moon
The descriptions of the rims accurately fit the relative distance and revolution speed of the respective bodies as would appear to an observer from Earth.
- Er's tale is abridged from Desmond Lee's translation in the Penguin/Harmondsworth edition of The Republic.
- Biesterfeld, Wolfgang (1969). Der platonische Mythos des Er (Politeia 614 b - 621 d): Versuch einer Interpretation und Studien zum Problem östlicher Parallelen, Münster : Diss.
- Brumbaugh, Robert S. (1951). "Colors of the Hemispheres in Plato's Myth of Er (Republic 616 E)". Classical Philology 46 (3): 173–176. doi:10.1086/363397.
- Brumbaugh, Robert S. (1954). "Plato Republic 616 E: The Final "Law of Nines"". Classical Philology 49 (1): 33–34. doi:10.1086/363719.
- Moors, Kent (1988). "An Apolline Presence in Plato's Myth of Er?". Bijdragen 49 (4): 435–437. doi:10.2143/BIJ.49.4.2015443.
- Morrison, J. S. (1955). "Parmenides and Er". Journal of Hellenic Studies (The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 75) 75: 59–68. doi:10.2307/629170. JSTOR 629170.
- Richardson, Hilda (1926). "The Myth of Er (Plato, Republic, 616b)". The Classical Quarterly 20 (3/4): 113–133. doi:10.1017/S0009838800024861.
- Waters Bennett, Josephine (1939). "Milton's Use of the Vision of Er". Modern Philology 36 (4): 351–358. doi:10.1086/388395.