Teaching Plato in Translation
by Susan Gorman, Boston University
Original text © 2004 Susan Gorman
The Myth of Er
The Myth of Er is the culmination of the Republic. Students and all readers can be confused why this philosophical treatise ends with a myth. This contrast between logic and myth forms a strong basis for discussion. For example, ask the students how the content of the myth relates to the philosophy. Why might Plato think that this myth would form a strong ending to this long text? Ask the students to summarize the Myth of Er and produce thesis statements arguing for links to the rest of the material. Then put those thesis statements on the chalkboard and discuss them.
Summary of the Myth of Er
Er was killed in battle. He comes to life on the 12th day and tells what he saw. There were 4 holes, two below and two above. When souls came (after their bodies died), they would be judged. The souls of the just went to heaven for reward and the souls of the unjust went to Tartarus for punishment. After a while (depending on the goodness or badness of the soul), they came back full of stories about their rewards or punishments. They journey to the Spindle of Necessity where the Fates are found. Lots are drawn and each person is allowed to pick the kind of life they will have in the future. The philosopher, best trained to know what is the happy life, will be able to pick the happiest life, since it is not immediately apparent to all how to choose.
After linking the Myth of Er to the rest of the text, think about how textual connections can be made between this particular myth and more specific parts of the text. For example, look at the quote below with your students and think about how it relates to the myth.
“I believe, dear Glaucon, that this moment of choice is the time of man’s greatest peril. It admonishes each of us - even if we neglect all other studies - that a man should be concerned first of all with searching out and studying that which enables him to discern the good. He must seek out those who will give him the capacity and knowledge to distinguish the good life from the bad, so that he might always and everywhere make the best choice conditions allow.” (618 c)
Socrates says right before this statement that he has answered the Ring of Gyges challenge by proving that justice is worthwhile for its own sake. (612b) Why include the Myth of Er at all now? What function does it perform?