22 December 2012

Roles of the Myth of Er in Plato’s Republic

Plato. Looking rather superior.

Though Plato’s true intentions in ending his Republic with the Myth of Er will likely forever remain hidden, evidence in the text itself leads scholars to several suppositions about its purpose. Two major roles that the myth is thought to portray are:
  1. To provide a kind of balance and unity to the work, by reflecting back to Socrates’ conversation with Cephalus near the beginning of the work and/or as the last recurrence of his use of myths and allegories throughout.
  2. To illustrate that the rewards of the pursuit of justice in life carry with us to the afterlife (and future lives).
In examining these two possible meanings of the conclusion, one might also be directed towards the meaning, or point, of the Republic as a whole.

… the one who came up first chose the greatest tyranny.  In his folly and greed he chose it without adequate examination and didn’t notice that, among other evils, he was fated to eat his own children as a part of it…. He was one of those who had come down from heaven, having lived his previous life under an orderly constitution, where he had participated in virtue through habit and without philosophy (Rep.  619b-c).

Given Socrates’ focus in earlier books of the Republic on balance, harmony and order in the soul, city and all things, for Plato to use the Myth of Er as a tool of symmetry in concluding the book makes perfect sense.  The style and content of the conclusion, though thought to be sloppy and out of place by some (like Julia Annas in her An Introduction to Plato’s Republic), is recognized by others as ending a rhythm created by earlier passages in the work and as reflecting back to its beginning.
In Book I, upon arriving at Cephalus’ house, Socrates and the old gentleman converse on the nature of old age and the approach of death.  At the beginning of the conversation, while Socrates’ inquiries are pleasant small-talk, Cephalus is happy to engage.  However, when Socrates pushes into more philosophic discourse, Cephalus breaks away, citing that he must make sacrifice to the gods.  It is clear that Cephalus has no interest in philosophy, but instead deems important the habitual/ritual act of sacrifice to appease the gods.
Several scholars have espoused that Socrates’ description of the first person to choose in the “Lottery of Lives” is in line with the depiction of Cephalus at the beginning of the work.  In his article, “Plato’s Myths and the Mystery Tradition,” W.T.S. Thackara states, “It is surely with deliberate intent that Plato opens the Republic with a brief conversation between Socrates and his elderly friend Cephalus on the subject of death...  In counterpoint to Cephalus’ story, Plato ends the Republic with the Vision of Er” (6).
The future tyrant described in the myth is said to have participated in the common idea of justice through habit, while Cephalus’ idea of justice (and indeed Thrasymachus’ later in the work) includes the ritual sacrifice to the gods to atone for one’s sins.  Socrates believes that only the pursuit of philosophy in this life will assist one in choosing the next, and Cephalus has demonstrated that he has no interest in pursuing philosophy.  His soul, rather than being well-ordered and ruled by the rational part, has been ruled by the appetitive part and a love of wealth.  Therefore, it is very likely that although he is thought to be a good and just man, he will not choose his next life wisely (Steinberger 194).
Another way in which the telling of the myth could be viewed as a tool of creating a structural symmetry is in its resemblance of other earlier passages appearing throughout the work.  Because Er descends into the underworld, the myth is a tale of “going down” (Greek word kateban).  The opening line of the work, too is a kateban in that Socrates “went down to the Piraeus.”  Another kateban appears in the middle of the work in Socrates’ telling of the Allegory of the Cave.  John Evan Seery declares these “scenes of descent” to be important punctuation of the Republic, creating a harmonious rhythm in the work.
Other themes presented earlier in the work recur in the conclusion, as well--- the Ring of Gyges and the criticism of imitative poetry, for example.  “There is evidence for the myth’s continuity with the rest of the book if only by virtue of its recollecting certain themes that are carried over from the main text” (Seery 241).  And so, unlike Annas, Seery is able to reconcile the Myth of Er with the rest of the work.
In his article, “A New Interpretation of Plato’s Republic,” Robert S. Brumbaugh makes reference to the “intrusive description” of the universe as a series of whorls with Sirens and the Fates singing harmoniously together.  He argues that, even here, Plato was using the ordered and balanced mechanics of his universe to stress the balance that pervades his argument in the Republic.  This conscious aesthetic choice helps to reiterate the order of the city, the soul and the argument (Brumbaugh 665-666).
These features indicate a fairly clear skeletal balance to the work and a conclusion that neatly ties up themes appearing in the very beginning.  While these views fit the conclusion into the structure of the work, they do not stress its relevance to the main argument of the work.

But if we are persuaded by me, we’ll believe that the soul is immortal and able to endure every evil and every good, and we’ll always hold to the upward path, practicing justice with reason in every way.  That way we’ll be friends both to ourselves and to the gods while we remain here on earth and afterwards--- like victors in the games who go around collecting their prizes--- we’ll receive our rewards (Rep. 621c-d)

Early on in the Republic, Glaucon and Adeimantus ask Socrates to strip the rewards of justice from his argument and to argue simply for the good of justice, in and of itself.  Having spent most of the work doing just that, it is in the recounting of the Myth of Er that Socrates returns the idea of consequences to the practice of justice or injustice.   These consequences, though obviously having importance in the present life, also carry with us beyond death (Philippakis 37-38).
In order for Socrates to argue strongly for the importance of the consequences of being just or unjust, he must first argue for the immortality of the soul.  Were the soul to end at death, there would be only punishment or reward in this life as consequence. However, to show that the punishments or rewards garnered by one’s constitution and actions in life carry with them not only into the afterlife, but also into a series of future lives is to intensify the argument severely.
He must also add to the argument an element of personal responsibility for one’s own fate.  The common Greek religion, as noted early in the Republic by Glaucon and Adeimantus, had, basically, an ethical loophole through which the unjust could be absolved of their transgressions.   One could simply make sacrifice to the proper god or goddess and clear his or her conscience.  By restoring the reputation, consequences and personal responsibility to the just or unjust person, Socrates is then able to further strengthen his argument for justice as good for its rewards.
The description Er gives of the soul of the tyrant, Ardiaeus, is one good example of this facet of his argument.  Ardiaeus no doubt has a despicable reputation, and thus Er and the other souls recognize him.  However, it his not his reputation which is judged, but his soul.  Socrates has already commented on the soul of a tyrant being ruled by desire rather than being well-ordered, so we know that Ardiaeus is unable to escape the consequences of the actions taken during his lifetime.
The Lottery of Lives, too, reiterates this aspect of personal responsibility, in that even though the order in which souls are allowed to choose their lives is determined by chance, there are more than enough just lives for everyone to choose.  The last to choose, then, could not blame the Fates for leaving him with nothing but an unjust life.  In fact, Odysseus, in the case of Socrates’ tale, is the last to choose and because of the trials encountered during his lifetime, chooses a simple, private life, saying that he would have made the same choice had he been first to choose.  “The possibility that chance, rather than understanding, might determine one’s condition of life is tacitly undercut by the myth” (Moors 170).
The Myth of Er serves to present a view of the world beyond this one as not only one of heavenly reward and punishment, but also a cycle of rebirths into new lives chosen based on knowledge they have sought in the previous life.  This was not a view commonly held by the Greeks at the time, and Julia Annas and John Evan Seery have both noted that it should be seen as a tip-off to search for deeper levels of meaning in the myth (Annas 353; Seery 243).
Both Annas and Kent Moors (in his “Parabaseis and Symbolic Instruction in Plato’s Myth of Er”) argue in different ways that, if not the meaning, the importance of the myth is actually explained by Socrates himself when he breaks away from the narration and speaks directly to Glaucon.  Annas adopts the view that in these moments, Plato speaks to us, the readers, through Socrates’ words, “stressing the need of wisdom to choose what leads to a just life, avoiding false values and making the most of what life provides.  He is talking about the choices that we make” (351).
Moors sees the three moments of parabasis, in which Socrates steps away from his story to speak directly to Glaucon, as revealing the point of the work as a whole:
On three separate occasions during its presentation, Socrates steps aside from the narration and speaks directly to his interlocutor (Glaucon).  These parabaseis, or digressions, constitute a specific theme in the myth, and are basically connected to the concluding passage of the dialogue.  Through these parabaseis, Socrates will relate the significance of the tale to the overall purpose of the Republic, indicating thereby why the myth should be considered more than merely an appendix to the discussion (Moors 155).

In the first parabasis, Socrates reveals that the myth is but a summary of Er’s story upon waking from death on his funeral pyre.  In the second, Socrates states that belief in the myth has the power to save one’s soul and purify it.  The third and final parabasis reiterates that if one pursues philosophy in his present life, he will escape the tortures of the underworld in the afterlife (Moors 158-169).  This reading seems in accord with Socrates’ earlier depiction of the philosopher as the best form of ruler of a city and rationality as the best ruler of one’s soul.
It is interesting to note that this teaching has its counterpart in the Eastern religion of Buddhism, in which a person attempts to escape from the cycle of rebirth through discipline and study.  The Buddha taught that one should strive to avoid the excesses of life and follow a “Middle Way.” Kent Moors finds this teaching in the Republic, as well, as espoused by Socrates, “An existence lived between excesses is the preferable mode of life, one which produces the best condition of the soul” (166).

It is strange that Plato should end the Republic with a dramatic tale, when he has so clearly railed against such work at the beginning of Book 10 and earlier in Book 4.  In fact, to use Odysseus (perhaps, the most well-know Homeric character) in his Myth of Er seems to be using the exact material he opposes.  It is possible that he is attempting to show (what he believes to be) the proper use of myth as a tool in the pursuit of philosophy, rousing the intellect and rationality, rather than the passions.
Added to the mystery of why Plato uses this form of writing is the mystery of its purpose.  The two possibilities covered here, that it provides the work with a structural balance and that it provides a means of arguing for the importance of the rewards of justice, are but two of many possibilities.  To search for the meaning of the Myth of Er is to search for the meaning of the Republic.
As John Evan Seery writes, “This is the comedy and tragedy and wonder of the Republic, when we realize that it is we who are those souls now, at every moment, choosing their lives” (245).

Works Cited
Annas, Julia.  An Introduction to Plato’s Republic.  Oxford: Clarendon, 1981.
Brumbaugh, Robert S.  “A New Interpretation of Plato’s Republic.”  The Journal of Philosophy 64 (1967): 661-670.
Griswold, Charles.  “The Ideas and the Criticism of Poetry in Plato’s Republic, Book 10.”  Journal of the History of Philosophy 19 (1981): 135-150.
Moors, Kent.  “Parabaseis and Symbolic Instruction in Plato’s Myth of Er.”  Politikos: Volume I.  Selected Papers of the North American Chapter of the Society for Greek Political Thought.  Ed. Kent Moors.  Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1989.  154-172.
Philippakis, Katherine.  “See No Evil: The Story of Gyges in Herodotus and Plato.” Justice v. Law in Greek Political Thought.  Ed. Leslie G. Rubin.  Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.  27-40.
Plato.  Republic.  Trans. G.M.A. Grube. Rev. C.D.C. Reeve.  2nd ed.  Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992.
Seery, John Evan.  “Politics as Ironic Community: On the Themes of Descent and Return in Plato’s Republic.”  Political Theory 16 (1988): 229-256.
Steinberger, Peter J.  “Who is Cephalus?”  Political Theory 24 (1996): 172-199.
Thackara, W.T.S.  “Plato’s Myths and the Mystery Tradition.”  Sunrise Dec. 1988-Jan. 1989.  <http://www.theosophy-nw.org/theosnw/world/med/my-wtst2.htm>.

1 comment:

Matt Bennett said...

At Xavier, my interest in Buddhism was expressed across disciplines. Even had to tie this paper on Classical Greek philosophy to Buddhism.