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The so-called “Myth of Er” has long puzzled Plato’s readers. Socrates, whose teachings and conversations Plato chronicles, tells the story of Er, who journeyed to the afterlife and came to life again to tell his story. The tale is not found in any source except Plato and is obviously fictional. Earlier in The Republic, meanwhile, Socrates argues against telling stories that are untrue (377d), and even bans any falsely imitative writing from his imaginary republic (595a). Moreover, the philosophical system which he presents is based entirely upon reason, as made evident through his method of using deductive questioning to teach his students. Why, then, does Plato choose this clearly fantastic and apparently trivial tale to conclude his seminal work? Through examining the mythical nature of the tale and its purpose in The Republic, the true significance of the story of Er becomes clear, showing that this tale is the culmination of Plato’s work.
The very title “myth of Er” is a serious misnomer. The text of The Republic never refers to the account as a myth, but rather as a “story” or “tale.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a myth is “a traditional story concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, typically involving the supernatural.” The mythology of the Greek and Roman gods, for example, profoundly influenced every aspect of cultural life, from individual morality to public observances and institutions. Myths are inherently spiritual in nature; as seen in the religious practices of ancient Greece and Rome, myths are often the foundation for entire religious systems. Myths are believed to be true, at least in part, by wide segments of their hearers.
Another definition of myth is “a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Clear examples of this type of myth exist in ancient mythologies, such as the Demeter and Persephone tale which explained the change of seasons and gave rise to the powerful cult of the Eleusinian Mysteries. At the least, myths serve to shape personal beliefs through explaining the world. In this sense, myths bring hope to their believers by offering an accessible understanding of natural phenomena. Frequently the province of anagogy, myths offer spiritual exaltation through trust in the supernatural. A myth, then, is a story that presents supernatural explanations for events, shaping the worldview of a people; that proposes an ostensibly true method for understanding the world; and that usually has a major impact on cultural life.
The so-called “myth of Er” is, in fact, not a myth at all. It explains neither a people’s history nor a demonstrable phenomenon, presenting the ideas of one person rather than the beliefs of a culture. No long line of tradition supports its claims. It has no evident spiritual significance and connotes neither religious fervor nor a sufficient explanation of natural phenomena. It gives rise to no cultural practices or observances, and offers no sense of hope to benefit a people. Clearly originating with Plato himself, it is unlikely that any of his hearers would have fully believed his tale. It does contain elements of the supernatural and offers a way of understanding the world, but its origin, content, and limited traditional and cultural scope impede its effectiveness. As a false story told with no clear purpose, the account of Er seems inconsistent with Plato’s most fundamental ideas, and does not fulfill the qualifications of a traditional myth. As a myth, the story of Er is an utter failure.
This failure makes evident the true nature of this tale. Plato never intended the legend of Er to be a myth, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, Plato uses this story to clarify and conclude several points of his teaching. This story offers a way of understanding the world as an extended fiction with serious meaning. It is analogy rather than anagogy. This story is not a myth, but rather a metaphorical example, and is no more a myth than were the parables of Jesus or the textual allegories of a modern writer. The myth of Er is wrongly named; it should instead be the parable of Er, the allegory of Er, and most profoundly, the lesson of Er.
If the Er account fails as a myth, it succeeds most significantly as a lesson that encapsulates Plato’s guiding beliefs throughout The Republic. The lessons it imparts are clear both in the content of the story and in the meaning behind its very telling. Earlier in Book X, Plato argues for the immortality of the soul (608c-611b). The story of Er presents a possible outcome of such an immortality. Plato argues for most of The Republic that justice, as pursued by the philosopher, brings happiness and is worth pursuing for its own sake. The fate of philosophical souls like Odysseus, who alone are able to consistently travel through the heavenly realm rather than alternating between it and the hellish underground, critically illustrates the superiority of the philosophical and just lifestyle. Finally, Plato condemns the common belief in a dreary afterlife, believing that this belief steals the courage of soldiers facing battle. Plato stresses that the citizens in his republic will be taught to never fear death (386c). The myth of Er, which describes how the virtuous will enjoy one thousand years of bliss and the wicked one thousand years of torture after death, presents exactly the type of belief Plato desired for his citizens. Plato’s belief in the immortality of the soul, in the advantage of the philosophical lifestyle, and in courage when faced with death, are all demonstrated and developed in the tale of Er.
The greatest significance of the parable of Er, however, lies in the manner in which it is presented. A central theme of The Republic is the education and instruction of the guardians of Plato’s imaginary city. Plato’s educational philosophy emphasizes the need to train the future leaders of the city-state, enabling them to govern wisely and justly. He encourages caregivers to “shape souls with tales” (377b) that are inspirational and teach a valuable moral. Despite his protestations against false tales, Plato values tales that edify and instruct in the ways of virtue, whether true or not. He describes the stories permissible in his republic, emphasizing that they must prevent the young guardians from fear of death and must guide them to live virtuously (386a-402b). In relating the myth of Er, Socrates addresses the young men who are to be Athens’ leaders. His tale is false, yet it instructs his listeners in his key beliefs. He shapes their souls, encouraging them to live with justice and philosophy and to be fearless in the face of death. The myth of Er is the sort of story permitted, even encouraged, in the republic. Through it, Socrates educates his listeners in the wisdom of philosophy and the good life, beginning to live in practice the principles he has been teaching.
The “myth” of Er is not a myth at all, but rather a lesson to instruct hearers. Through it, Plato demonstrates the sort of tales acceptable in his city-state and the values which he develops throughout The Republic. Illustrating Plato’s theories on justice and education as it does, and encouraging the Athenians to pursue the “good life” of philosophy, the lesson of Er is a fitting culmination to Plato’s greatest work.
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