Today’s tragedy – the AI plane crash – got me pensive and I did some real soul-searching. Life is so delicate; so surreal and really so short-lived.
I didn’t want to delve into the hurt and sorrow of losing loved ones, so I went off on a tangent into philosophy. This is Plato’s philosophy on life after death – The Myth of Er and his perfect society.
Plato’s mentor, Socrates had strong belief in justice and a great desire to build his “perfect city”. He originally gives birth to a “City of Pigs” and then graduates from there to a more luxurious city which perhaps is livable from the physical point of view and not so much the mental and emotional (keeping in mind the ardent rules). The main purpose of building such a city was to provide an explanation for justice and its necessity. Plato has many conflicting notions regarding the same.
Once Plato had stressed on the great need for artists, music and poetry to improve the aesthetics of the soul and give it a more wholesome persona. He changes this strong stance of his by the end stating that poets and artists are not needed in his “just” city as they are fakes. They create mere copies of the copy of the original. In Plato’s eyes, they are twice away from the truth and this unreal depiction of life is not healthy and should be frowned upon.
Plato conveys his opinions on life after death through The Myth of Er. The myth of Er was embedded in the minds of the people so much that even today we see the concept of that very myth existing in many of our “forward-thinking minds”. The myth of Er is attributed solely to Plato. Even if we search so many thousands of years later for the myth of Er, we cannot help but come across the name of Plato or at least of his mentor Socrates.
The myth of Er is the story Plato used to convey the importance of justice. According to this story, Er was a man who died in a war. His body was recovered after 10days and since it was fresh, arrangements were made for his funeral. As his body lay there on the funeral pyre, his soul returned breathing life back again in his body. His purpose on earth henceforth was supposed to be to inform the people of his after-death experience – what he saw and experienced.
Er explained that there were two openings into earth and two others into the heavens. One gate in each case was for those leaving the respective place and the other for the souls entering. There was an exchange of formalities between those who knew each other when they passed by and there were discussions between the souls of the heavens entering earth and the souls leaving earth of their experiences – be it pleasurable and peaceful or painful and full of suffering.
Er then went on to explain the exact goings-on for a process like this. He said that the judges sitting between the heavens and the earth passed their judgment; thus deciding the fate of each soul and where it had to go. He said that every injustice committed was to be paid ten-fold. However every good deed that was done was not to go unnoticed but was to be rewarded in the same manner – ten-fold.
He told the stories of the souls of the tyrants like Ardiaius. Those who asked about him received this response: “He hasn’t arrived here yet and he never will”. Er spoke about stories of such souls and how they couldn’t go up the gates of heaven. Each time an incurably wicked soul or one who hadn’t paid his due penalty tried to go up, there was a fiery roar and the opening wouldn’t let them go through. The greatest fear of the rest of the souls, according to Er at that time, was the fear of the “roar”. When they were welcomed with silence, they relaxed and enjoyed the benefits of what they sowed in their past life.
Er goes on to say how souls get a chance to choose their life. He talks about the column of light stretching through the heavens and the earth, the “spindle of Necessity”, and his three daughters of “Fate” – Lachesis, Clotho, and Atropos. These three were to lead the souls to their destination. When the souls first arrived at this column of light, they were sent to Lachesis. The souls were first evaluated and then lots were thrown to decide who goes first. A number of different kinds of lives are laid out for the souls to choose from. Based on the lots, the order is formed and the souls are lined up in front of Lachesis where they get to choose the life they want. Most often the souls that went first chose the luxuries and didn’t make solid, informed decisions. As the list dwindled and the number of souls left was few, the decision-taking time was more – not for the lack of exorbitant lives but for the very simple reason that most of these souls had a chance to reminiscence of their days of suffering. Their judgment was not clouded by the power, fame or pleasures of life. They took long and decided carefully looking for a just and honest life – a man who did his own work honestly and truthfully and did not interfere with the work of others. This would help in their soon future life. The virtues possessed in these lives did not foretell the result of the future as the outcome of the soul would only depend on the manner in which the chosen life is lived.
They were then taken to Clotho where all details were finalized. After Clotho, the souls were to go to Atropos to make sure the choice was irreversible. From here, they were sent to the throne of Necessity in order to induce “Forgetfulness” before sending these souls on earth.
This was the myth of Er given by Plato, where Er supposedly came back on earth and recounted his experiences. This story was given by Plato to instill in the people of his city, a strong desire for justice. He wanted them to believe that to do the just thing was necessary and the only way to salvation. Plato encouraged thinking and rationalization yet by this myth he demeans his people and the ability to reason.
I don’t think Plato really believed in this story nor did he believe that this was really what happened after death. Plato believed strongly in honesty and integrity. He believed that these virtues should be practiced with fervor and the best way to get his people to do so was for them to believe that it was a message from God. The Greeks were superstitious and god-fearing so this would help them to follow the right path. There are many religions and many people who follow the same concept of this myth even today; me being one of them. I firmly believe in the concept of a heaven and a judgment day. I may not agree to the fact that the souls get sent back to earth. I believe they wait in a place called Purgatory till they have paid for their sins and when judgment day comes they either go to heaven or hell. This is what I believe and what Catholicism preaches. There are many other religions which believe in the circulation of souls or “reincarnation” as put by Hinduism.
Plato was a strong advocate of reality and did not believe in myths and fairytales. This is what makes me believe that he did not honestly feel this way about life after death. This concept was not rational nor could be explained or reasoned in any form. I do however believe that Plato was certain that this myth could help the people of his city to prosper and flourish – not in material wealth but in strength of character.
This myth leads us to believe that our soul chooses our own life and how we will live it. However if you dig deeper into the meaning of it, you realize that the soul just chooses the life. The family you are born into, the conditioning you get and the values you are brought up with all depend on the “Guardian”. When the soul chooses a life, a guardian is assigned to that soul – also known as Daimon. That guardian is the one who makes the decisions which will nurture us into the people we become – whether we follow what we are conditioned with or not is again entirely up to our soul. Great people like Martin Luther King, Florence Nightingale, Nelson Mandela or even Mother Teresa came into the world just like us. The soul was allowed to choose the life and the Guardian chose the type of conditioning that soul would receive. The soul chose to continue to live a life of good and we all can see the result of that. Thus, according to this myth, there is nothing special in any specific person that they were singled out for these great causes. It is the effect of their decisions that they have achieved this status. ‘The good they have done will be rewarded ten-fold’, as the story states. The English poet, William Wordsworth explains this beautifully in his poem, Imitations of Immortality.
Why do we need to go all the way to Plato to see and understand the differences in society and rationality? This very Myth of Er is expressed so well in the movie I Am Legend starring the popular Will Smith. I personally am a huge fan of Will Smith so I maybe a little biased towards him while writing this but the relation of the movie and the myth is something which if you dig deeper, you will realize its prominence. According to a popular review, the film has two sections which depict the concept of society Plato had in mind and the reason why he needed this myth to aid him very clearly. The concept is slightly entwined with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. I would first like to give a brief description of the notion of the allegory of the cave and then get back to the movie I am legend.
The cave allegory talks about how the people in the cave do not want to believe the “philosopher” who has gained knowledge. They are happy with the knowledge they have and the “fake” world they live in. Going back a few years in time, we all remember the movie Matrix. The Matrix depicts this allegory of Plato’s extremely well. It shows Neo (Keanu Reeves) to be the “enlightened One” trying to make a difference in the world – trying to bring knowledge and show the people the truth. He is however looked down upon and his story is not believed. The movie, I believe, is something we can relate better to than Plato’s strong-charactered stories.
After the allegory of the cave, Plato needed a way to convince the people in the cave (the general public) that this story was true and it was in their best interest to believe it. He felt the only way he would be able to achieve such steadfast integrity would be if the people believe in the strength of the “other” world. The maker of ‘I Am Legend’ must be feeling the same way. He has taken a story similar to the Allegory of the Cave (or Matrix) and then combined it with the Myth of Er to make it sound more believable.
The first section of the movie describes the world and humanity as it really is. The robotic zombies show how our world has become. It shows how we all believe in this one fantasy story fed to us and we don’t want to move out of that world because it is our “comfort zone”. The first part of the movie consists of the film till the part of Will Smith’s suicide mission. His dog has died and he has lost all hope. At that part in the film, where the zombie almost devours him, there is a bright light seen. This light now signifies the column of light where the souls reach spoken about in the Myth of Er.
This is where the second part begins and so does the myth. The Brazilian woman and the child come into the film now to bring Will’s lost hope back – to make him believe in himself and the world again. She discovers a safe place in Vermont where humanity is starting again – to regain and restore itself to what it was before. She tries to convince Will but unfortunately he has been so blinded by pain that he refuses to accept that such a place exists. We do have the eventual “happy ending” story which is the reason why this film was accepted perhaps.
This film could have ended at the first part; which, in fact, it does to a certain extent. For philosophers and advocates of Plato, the remainder of the film is probably not the reality and does not exist and the movie ends with humanity being in a mess crying for help and Will Smith all out of hope and ready to give up. The first part of the movie only signifies hopelessness, death, and destruction of all things human – the truth. The second part, however, signifies a more fantasy like life – one easier for us to believe in, hope for and work towards.
In the second part, Will is trying to restore humanity and mankind towards goodness. He tries to eradicate the evil of the new zombie world formed. This is perhaps what Plato tried to do and Er was his tool to help him achieve that goal. He uses a religious myth in order for people to believe in his standards and to work towards his idea of a “good human race”.
I don’t believe that Plato’s rigidity was the right way to achieve his goal. Saying that, I would like to conclude by saying that Plato was right in his stance and tried to achieve integrity the only way he knew how. His intentions were right but maybe his method was too harsh for us “democratic, forward people of today”. All the same, he was the first of his kind and should be given his due credit for coming up with an idea which is still making popular movies today!
One actually feels a calm within one’s self when one thinks of souls living life. The tragedy of death somehow will always be that – tragedy and hurt. We will always ask ourselves… Is life fair and just?