Plato’s Myth of Er

The conclusion of Plato’s Republic is the Myth of Er.  What are we to make of the Myth of Er and why is it important?  Why does it come at the very end of the work and not earlier?  It is important to remember that – as I’ve said before in other explanatory summaries of the highlights of The Republic, that Plato is asking us to question what kind of city do we live in?  After all, so many of the conversations between Socrates and his sophist interlocutors deal with the polis—of human society in general.

Plato’s inclusion of the Myth of Er serves several purposes.  First is that it is a story of resurrection—but a resurrection to knowledge (to truth).  It is here that we finally arrive at a city of light (knowledge).  Second is that the story comes after the descent through the cities presented by the sophists: the savage city (surface city) of Thrasymachus (Book I), the murderous and nihilistic city (a devolution from the savage city) of Glaucon and Adeimantus (Book II), and the tyrannical city of the Cave (ignorant, totalitarian, and underground).  The trajectory of Plato’s descent-ascent narrative is that we enter the underground city (the city of absolute death) but eventually leave to arrive at the light (the city in which Er now finds himself).  Third is the command from the guardians for Er to venture back to his land and inform his countrymen of what he has seen (come to know).

In being a story about resurrection, ‘the new life’ that is invoked in Er is the life that comes with Truth.  Christians will be familiar with this idea in the narrative of the resurrection of Jesus; it is not so much that the resurrection showed Jesus’s divinity (it was his suffering on the Cross that did that) but that the Truth and Wisdom that Jesus preached has come to fruition in the resurrection.  In knowing the Truth Er has attained what the good life, the true life, entails for Plato.  The intellectual life is the good life; knowledge of the Truth is what brings about the fulfillment of life itself.  This lack of life that is highlighted through the cities presented by sophists.

Since the story is also one that comes in the aftermath of Plato’s descent through the hell of the cities of the sophists, it is contingent that the Myth of Er is the end product of the running question of what kind of city do we live in.  According to Plato, it is not the heavenly city that we live in.  It is the ignorant and savage city (minimally) that we exist in; whether we live in the Cave remains an open question for us to answer for ourselves.  Throughout The Republic it is important to remember that since the sophists lack true knowledge their cities lack true virtue and true life.  Thrasymachus’s city is dominated by brute force.  Glaucon’s city of natural injustice and the Ring of Gyges leads to murder and theft.  The Cave, which Socrates describes, is the fulfillment of the debasement of the city that the sophists describe and ultimately promote.  It is a city of ignorance, the world of pure opinion, where technology and power (chains and false material images) are utilized to keep the populace enslaved while thinking they are free: in the form of thinking they understand by barking at one another about the nature of shadows.

The Myth of Er upends the devolutionary descent into the city of tyranny.  Er is found above ground in a world of light.  It is the exit from the Cave and the true arrival at the Sun.

Finally comes the command to Er to return home and tell his countrymen what he has seen (come to know).  This is a command of sociality.  Throughout the Republic, in the many analogies and metaphors, the philosopher is often detached from the world around him.  Recall the philosopher on the ship as the owner and crewmen argue the philosopher is far away from the conflict.  The philosopher is not living up to humanity’s social nature.

At the beginning of The Republic the dialogue starts with a festival.  A festival, in ancient times, was a very intimate and social event.  Plato’s understanding of man is that he is not an isolated, solitary, and atomistic individual.  Rather, man is a social animal—which is what Aristotle later put to paper when he declared man was a political animal in his Politics.  Socrates, throughout the dialogue, is a living representative of the real philosopher king.  He is engaged with his city and its citizens.  He discusses all the important questions of life, politics, and justice.

The command for Er to return home (with his newfound knowledge, e.g. life) is the consummation of man’s social nature.  Part of man’s social nature is to come to know the Truth through social interaction.  This is the quintessential reality of the Socratic dialectic.  It may be the case that an individual in complete solitude can come to know the Forms but it is more likely that he will do so in the company of others as they discuss the seminal questions relating to the Forms.  Plus, since we are social animals it is more akin to our nature that we have friends and a degree of sociality with one another.  Since the city is the highest expression of the social nature of men, a city that is cut-off from itself (e.g. its members take no concern or care for each other) is a city that cannot stand or function.  If people do not live by the standard of Truth, or know the Truth, then the city is liable to become a tyrannical cesspool (the Cave).

Knowledge is the basis of liberty for Plato.  You cannot be free without knowledge of the Truth.  The free and just city, thus, is the city that knows the Forms (the Truth) and lives by that standard.  Er’s mission is nothing short of the hope for all to live in a free and just society-something that is prevented when lacking proper knowledge (e.g. living in the Cave).  This is why it is so important to recognize why the Myth of Er comes at the conclusion of the work, especially having just been inside the world of the Cave.

This was originally posted on Hesiod’s Corner, 19 July 2018.


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