At the end of Plato’s Republic, Socrates recounts for his friend, Glaucon, a story he once heard about a man named Er who fell in battle and was laid on a pyre, but after twelve days, returned from among the dead. This is how Socrates ends his retelling of Er’s story:
“The souls of the dead camped at eventide by the River of Forgetfulness, whose waters no vessel can contain. They were all compelled to drink a measure of the water, but those who were not saved by their good sense drank more than the measure; each one as he drank forgot all things. After they had fallen asleep, there was thunder and quaking in the middle of the night, and they were suddenly carried hence, one this way, one that, upward to their birth like shooting stars. But Er himself was prevented from drinking the water; how and in what way he returned to a body he did not know, but suddenly looking up he saw himself at dawn lying on the pyre.
“And so, Glaucon, a story was saved and not lost, and it might save us if we are persuaded by it, and we will cross the River of Lethe well and our soul will not be sullied. At least, if we are persuaded by me, holding that the soul is deathless and capable of bearing all bad and good, we will keep ever to the upward way and will pursue justice with prudence in all ways and manners, even so that we will be dear to ourselves and to the gods, both tarrying here now and when we recover our reward, as the victors in the games go about to gather theirs, and both here now and in that thousand-year journey, whereof I have gone through, we shall fare well.”
Here, in the closing lines of the Republic, Socrates suggests that the story of Er has great potential: it might save us if we were persuaded by it.
That a story should have the power to save is not surprising to Christians, who believe that the power of God to save comes through hearing the Gospel—“so then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God”—the good news, the report brought by a messenger with glad tidings for the audience.
The amazing thing about Er’s story is that he came back to the living from the afterlife. Er’s account of the afterlife differs, of course, from the Christian one. But a central subject of Er’s story is what happens after death. The saving stories are about the dead as experienced by the living, but why should this be necessary? T. S. Eliot gives us one reason:
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
In the classics, death teaches lessons both difficult to comprehend and mightily important. The conceit of Dante’s great poem is that through God’s grace, Dante has been permitted to journey through the afterlife while still in his earthly body. As the conclusion of The Divine Comedy tells it, the communication tongued with fire in which Dante participates eventually saves him.
An incomplete list of works (excepting the Indian, Far Eastern, Russian, African, Australian, and American traditions) that are similar to Plato’s example of a story that might save us:
- The Iliad, by Homer
- The Histories, by Herodotus
- The Republic, by Plato
- The Aeneid, by Virgil
- The Confessions, by Augustine
- Beowulf, by an anonymous poet
- The Book of Healing, by Avicenna
- The Divine Comedy, by Dante
- The Institutes of the Christian Religion, by Calvin
- Hamlet, by Shakespeare
- The King James Bible
- Don Quixote, by Cervantes
- Emma, by Austen
Although Er’s story would do Socrates and Glaucon no good if he had not returned from among the dead, the manner of his return teaches something, too. Er returns, first of all, at dawn, and secondly, by looking up.
In Homer’s Iliad, dawn, the rosy-fingered (rhododaktylos), first appears after Odysseus has returned Chryseïs to her father in order to save the Troy-besieging Greeks from Apollo-sent disease. Dawn emerges with new possibilities, but she herself changes nothing: when Odysseus returns to the Greeks camped on the beach near Troy, Achilles remains full of wrath. The new day has not changed Achilles; he sits consumed by his own heart.
Upon his own return at dawn, Er does what Achilles does not do upon the return of Odysseus. He looks up. The Greek word for “I look up” is “anablepō,” which can also mean “I recover (my) sight” or “I see again.” As Er looks up—perhaps he saw again the upward path to which Socrates refers, but if so, he also “saw himself ” on the upward road of his pyre—he recovers his sight.
Er in some respects resembles the three women coming to the sepulcher of Jesus at dawn. As Mark records in his portion of the biblical classic, these women also “looked up.” When they did, they did not see themselves on their deathbeds, but “they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great.” Their looking up was a recovery of their sight and an answer to their question, “Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulcher?” As readers will remember, when the women enter the sepulcher, they see not Jesus but a young man in white. The young man tells them to tell the disciples that they will find Jesus in Galilee, but the women, being afraid, do not. Similarly, the three men with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration were “sore afraid” and Peter in particular “wist not what to say.” But Mark writes that when the men look, they look not up but around (periblepō) and suddenly no longer see the two old men in white, but only Jesus, who then tells them to not speak of what they saw. Er, for some reason, was not so afraid of what he saw as to keep silent.
Though Er has the courage to speak, he does not seem to know everything of which he speaks. He was prevented from drinking from the River of Forgetfulness. Prevented by whom? The story doesn’t say. Likewise, how Er returned to his body is unknown to him. The full meaning of the classics elude us. Always exceeding our grasp, they frustrate comprehensive explanation but reward continued exploration.
Starting and stopping in the middle of things, the classics are incomplete. Only the considerable skill of the authors of the classics can leave us satisfied with the incomplete endings they offer. Consider Beowulf, a poem that ends with the death of a great king who has not made sufficient arrangements for the safety of his people after his death. Beowulf dies a glorious death in defense of his people, and the Swedes will now exact revenge. But what a poem!
Even as Er doesn’t know how he returned to his body, he is able to remember and understand what he had “seen” before he returned and could see again. He serves as an eyewitness to the events of the story Socrates retells just as the authors of the classics often serve as eyewitnesses to the veracity of their own works. But the authors of the classics also rely on what they have heard from others, too. The hearts, headwaters, creeks, tributaries, branches, and pools of classical material flow, pool, or dry up for many reasons: war and peace, good or bad weather, attention, indifference, disease, leisure. But as Socrates points out, the stories with the potential to save us must be remembered and not lost through forgetfulness. The classics tell us stories that we would have otherwise forgotten. They could lead us to a sea with breezes that might return us to our memories.
Reader, if you peruse the closing paragraph of the Republic, you will note that Plato writes that there are two things that might persuade us, only one of which is Er’s story. The second thing that might persuade us is Socrates himself: “At least, if we are persuaded by me, holding that the soul is deathless and capable of bearing all bad and good, we will keep ever to the upward way . . . .” Note carefully that first phrase, “at least,” or one might also translate, “nevertheless.” Or, the Greek permits something even starker: “But, if we are persuaded by me . . . .” After such a careful and deliberate retelling of Er’s story, is Socrates now setting himself at odds with it? According to Plato, if we are persuaded by Er’s story, we will cross safely through forgetfulness with a pure soul, but if Socrates persuades us we will fare well both now and in the future. These do not seem to be, strictly speaking, the same.
Socrates chooses not to identify his own ideas completely with the saving story of Er for the same reason Christians do not identify the Bible as the source of salvation: there is something other than the story, something ineffable working through the saving stories. If we are persuaded by the story alone, perhaps our souls haven’t been sufficiently prepared for what comes next. As beings who are living and not dead, we need to live lives of ongoing interaction with the classics and the God who is working through them in us.
The entire story of Er, examined a second time, seems woefully incomplete: Er’s story does not establish that the soul is deathless, and it only hints at the possibility that the soul is capable of bearing all that is bad and good. Looked at from the Socratic vantage point, the classics by themselves seem so incomplete as to make us wonder why we would ever have thought they were serious things rather than child’s play. But accompanied by lifelong discussion of them, perhaps they could purify our souls and we would fare well, both here and now and there and then.
Plato thinks the greatest evil, the thing from which we most need saving, is ignorance. We are, pretty much every one of us, extremely ignorant of the truth of our own condition and the truth of what is required to correct our condition. So thinks Plato, but that’s not quite the Christian doctrine of sin, from which, according to Christian theology, Er’s story cannot save us. Er’s story, like the classics it represents, can, however, save us from forgetting that there is another story, verified by eyewitnesses and passed down through history, of such power that it could save us if we were persuaded by the good news it announces of one living who has returned from the dead at dawn to remind us, through an ongoing, never-ending discussion, to look up.
Gary Hartenburg, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University and director of the Honors College. Dr. Hartenburg specializes in ancient philosophy and generalizes in other areas of philosophy, theology, and literature. His interest in ancient philosophy concerns the intersection of epistemology and metaphysics as well as the difference between knowledge and belief.