The platonic myth of Er recounts the post mortem experience of the homonymous hero. The moral behind the myth is that in the afterlife the just are rewarded, and the unjust severely punished.

The myth

Plato’s Republic closes with a lengthy eschatological myth (614b-621b). The myth describes the afterlife experience of the Oriental person Er. Er accidentally shared the same fate as Odysseus; it so happened to him to visit the world of the dead, and recount his experiences to the living people upon his return. Er returns to life twelve days after his death. He describes that he arrived, along with other souls, to a “marvellous place, where there were two adjacent openings in the earth, and opposite and above them two others in the heavens, and between them judges sat. These, having rendered their judgment, ordered the just to go upwards […] and the unjust to travel downward” (614c). The judges allowed Er to observe, and report his witnessing to the living. According to his narrative, the souls would return to life after their reward or punishment which endured for a thousand years.

After their purification, the souls spent seven days in a meadow, and on the eighth they went on a journey. “On the fourth day of that journey, they came to a place where they could look down from above on a straight column of light that stretched over the whole of heaven and earth” (616b). There, they encountered the spindle of Necessity. The spindle contained eight concentric circles, which gently revolved in a direction opposite to that of the spindle. Plato’s description allows the informed reader to understand that the spindle of Necessity portrays the “sphere” of the fixed stars and the seven planets.

The three fates, Lachesis, Clotho, and Atropos, turned the spindle, and sang of the past, the present, and the future. They announced the fates of the souls by informing them that each soul had to choose, among the many models of life, the one she wished to live. “The responsibility lies with the one who makes the choice; the god has none” (617e1-5). The souls would consider various criteria in making their choices, and then move onto the Plain of Forgetfulness, arrive at the river of Unheeding, and drink a measure of this water, the water of forgetfulness to the effect of forgetting everything they had lived in the other world. Then, they would go to sleep, and eventually be shot back to earth, where they would start their new lives

Platonic eschatological myths

Recourse to myth is one of the techniques included in Plato’s elaborate narrative battery. His myths are devised stories that appear to play an organic role, although not always distinct, in the philosopher’s line of argumentation.

Eschatological allusions or complete narratives situated in mythical contexts are common in many platonic dialogues: Gorgias, Meno, Phaedo, Republic, Phaedrus, Timaeus, and Laws. Worth noting is that three ethical dialogues, Gorgias, Phaedo, and the Republic, conclude in the exact same way. When Socrates deems that the discussion has come to an end, he takes up the recital of a myth about the afterlife fate of the souls; the intention is to uphold the common belief that the just are reward, whereas the unjust punished. The similarities between the three myths of these dialogues, and the one recounted in Phaedrus, are apparent. By using the same canvas, each one brings in new features, new material from mythology and mystical believes, new engaging details. All myths include both a judgment reached by judges, and the diptych of punishment and reward that clings on their conduct in life. Moreover, there is a connection between the eschatological and the cosmological elements of the narrative. That is because, in their course, the souls encounter cosmological secretes. In all dialogues, where such myths feature, the question about their truth or fictionality comes to play. The question is met with a tentative statement about the myth’s utility, and its plausibility. It could be said that, in essence, Plato works and reworks on the same eschatological myth.

nterpretation of the myth

In interpreting the myth, we could limit our evaluation to the obvious moral: the unjust are eventually punished. Socrates chooses to adduce this compelling story lest the arguments he put forth in the Republic have proven ineffective. But if his purpose is as simple as that, why is Plato so versed in his analytical, yet veiled, description of the spindle of Necessity? And why does he emphasize on the freedom of choice with regards to the soul’s future life? In the dialogues of his middle period, Plato is insistent on the premise that valid knowledge, that is, the knowledge of the Forms, is in fact a recollection – to know means to remember. The myth of Er tells us that both the prudent and the careless souls return to earth, and start their new lives. Their return is marked by the fact that they have forgotten their post mortem experience, everything they lived in the other world. The only thing that could help the wise souls approach the Just and the Good, in their new course of life, seems to be the cosmic secret that was revealed to them in the guise of an “intelligible vision”: the spindle of Necessity.

The astronomical content of the myth of Er is tailored according to what Plato propounds in the Seventh Book of the Republic about the “real astronomy”, which is a propaedeutic subject in the course of knowledge unto the cognition of the Forms. Conclusively, the encounter with the cosmic spindle amounts to the intellectual apprehension of the “real” astronomy. In their afterlife experience, the souls bare, without the clothing of their bodies, made a contact with the nature of the universe, and that of the numbers. This valuable lesson others will recollected in their future life, and others not.

Author: Vassilis Kalfas
  • Mattei, J.-F. Platon et le miroir du mythe. Paris, 1996.
  • Kalfas, V. "Plato’s “real” Αstronomy and the Myth of Er." Elenchos 17 (1996)
  • Annas, J. An Introduction to Plato’s Republic. Oξφόρδη, 1981.
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