Myth of Er
The Myth of Er is a story from book ten of Republic, by Plato. It describes a soldier dying, visiting the afterlife, and returning to life and describing what he saw. The story is one of the oldest accounts of a near-death experience.
A skeptical friend of mind brought up this story while we were discussing the origin of the Western concept of the soul, but I was unfamiliar with it, so I read the story on 2022-08-04. I found it to be a perfect prototypical example of the Western concept of the afterlife.
The story doesn't have a special title in Republic. The name, "Myth of Er," is just the way scholars address it. Actually, the name is out of date since the word "myth" is not used in its modern context, but, today, would more accurately translated to, the "Account of Er."
Authorship and Dating
The completed Republic is dated to around 375 BCE, although sections of the work are clearly based on earlier works, so this story may not be original to Republic. In the book, Plato describes Socrates re-telling the story to someone, which, if true, would mean the story predates the book, although this might just have been part of the dialogue framing device.
In the book, the story is framed by Socrates telling a story to Glaucon where Er, the son of Armenius of Pamphylia, is killed in battle. Ten days later, when other soldiers are collecting the corpses to burn them they discover that Er's body has not decayed like the others. It is another two days before they are able to place Er's body on the funeral pyre, but as they do, he awakens and tells about his time while he was dead. He explains that he was with many other souls, standing before judges who passed judgment on them. The righteous ascended into the heavens, while the wicked were saddled with symbols of their misdeeds and sent into the underworld where they would be punished ten times the severity of their crimes. After that, there was a place of meeting where people from the heavens would descend and those from the underworld would climb up out of the pit. They would talk about the delights or horrors they endured by "wild men of fiery aspect." Then, he saw the Spindle of Necessity, the ancient Greek model of the cosmos, and described it. Next, they moved to a place where they would choose how they wanted to be reincarnated. They would have to choose from a bunch of possible lives from rich and powerful, to poor and abused, to various animals. The inexperienced chose rich and powerful, while the wise chose simple lives. Next, everyone except for Er drinks from the Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, to forget their former lives and are reborn, though the wise don't drink so much that they forget everything.
- It has several nice morals. The most obvious is that good is rewarded, while evil is punished, but there are also several about learning how to become content with what is good in life and being wise enough to make good long term decisions.
- Since it predates the solidification of the Christian view of the afterlife by several centuries, it makes it clear that the heaven and hell model also predates Christianity by several centuries. And, because this story is so old, but also so similar to modern day accounts where people claim they died and saw the afterlife, you can point faith believers to it and they can see that these sort of afterlife stories are thousands of years old.
- As far as afterlife's go, this one isn't that bad. The good are rewarded, the bad are punished in a manner equivalent to their misdeeds, and both are allowed to be reincarnated after a time; the righteous after they get bored with heaven, and the evil, after they've worked off their debt.
- I like that the story doesn't make much of a distinction between the souls of animals and people.
- The story still has the same problems as any other story where the gods fail miserably at trying to communicate their message to mortals. Why choose a single man in a single place who speaks a single language, why not tell everyone everywhere in their own language? Why choose a man who is delirious from blood loss so there is no reason to trust his ramblings?
- The afterlife model still has some people being tortured forever which isn't just.
- The Spindle of Necessity has since been discovered to be a completely wrong model of the universe. I can't even understand what it's doing in this story as it's not needed. Perhaps it's not supposed to be?
- thoughtco.com/the-myth-of-er-120332 - English translation by Benjamin Jowett.
- ldysinger.stjohnsem.edu/@texts/0-03_plato/03_myth_er.htm - Same translation, but with with the Greek and some illustrations.