JULIA ANNAS (Julia Annas is a British American philosopher. She is Regents Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona).


“In interpreting the "Myth of Er" there are two possibilities. Either Plato means this myth of his own invention to be taken literally, in which case he is asserting the fact of reincarnation, or he intends it to be understood figuratively. It seems more likely that he meant this story to be taken figuratively, since, as Julia Annas* (An Introduction to Plato's Republic , Oxford 1982, 353) has pointed out, belief in reincarnation was by no means universal among Plato's contemporaries and his vision of the afterlife was not a commonly accepted one”.

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“The status of the judgment and reincarnation stories in Plato is very disputed. Some have hailed these narrative myths as poetic invocations of insights that go beyond argument; others have seen them as ways of introducing ideas which evade argument. It is likely that they do not all have the same tone, or function. Some seem ironic particularly when describing humans as reincarnated as animals, others quite serious. We should remember that Plato avoids presenting his ideas as dogma, in treatises; he employs various strategies of indirectness”. (Julia Annas, Plato, a brief insight, Sterling Publishing Co, 2003, p.122)

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SARA BRILL (Dr. Sara Brill received her Ph.D. in 2004 from the Pennsylvania State University, having written on the role of medicine in Plato's Republic, with specializations in Ancient Philosophy and Ethics. Since then she has published articles on several Platonic dialogues, the Hippocratic corpus and Greek tragedy, and is finishing a book on Plato's psychology. She teaches classes on Plato, Aristotle, Tragedy, Women in Classical Literature, and Ancient Medicine and Philosophy)


“Thus, Socrates uses animality in the context of transmigration as one means of  providing a vocabulary for virtue or viciousness; an account of varieties of living beings is thereby connected to an account of  psychical conditions.” (Sara Brill, The Geography of Finitude. International Philosophical Quarterly, March, 2009).

H.S.THAYER (H. S. Thayer is Professor of Philosophy at The City College of the City University of New York)


Thayer, H. S. “The Myth of Er.” HPQ 5 (1988): 369–84. Thayer 1988, esp. pp. 377–79, explicitly discards literalism. Citado em History of Philosophy Quarterly Vol. 5, No. 4, Plato Issue (Oct., 1988), pp. 369-384. Published by: University of Illinois Press

STEPHEN HALLIWELL (The University of St Andrews is a charity registered in Scotland)


“On the most thoroughgoing literalism, the fluctuating outcomes of metempsychosis lead into impenetrable obscurity. What, for example, are the future prospects of just souls that choose reincarnation as tame animals (620d)? Will the circumstances of their animal lives enhance or impede their possibilities of moral progress when the next cycle of existence comes round? If Er’s own reactions to the mass spectacle of reincarnation are any guide, no overall inference can be drawn from the process; its mixed results encompass the pitiful, the ridiculous, and the amazing (620a), lending a tragicomic aura to the cosmic scene. One thing alone seems clear. Er’s observations and Socrates’ comments converge on the idea that, whatever the partial impact of other factors, the exclusive hope of happiness lies in the choice of justice for its own sake. Thus belief  in this model of reincarnation, while it may theoretically limit the ethical autonomy of the embodied soul, can orientate the aspirations of that soul in only one direction: acting as though nothing other than justice matters (618e). But how different is that upshot from a reading of reincarnation as an allegory of the life of the soul in this world? If, with some prompting from Socrates’ comments at both 618b–19a and 619d, we focus on a this-worldly reading of the myth, the motif of a prenatal life choice can be interpreted as a stark emblem of the inescapably self forming consequences of ethical agency, a magnified image of how at every moment (“always and everywhere”) the individual soul/person is intrinsically responsible for what matters most about its existence. Every action, we might thus say, brings with it its own “afterlife.” Every choice makes us what we are; when we choose, we activate (and become) something, and therefore cannot simply pull back from ourselves, as the greedy soul would like to do – a graphic exemplification of Book 9’s idea of the tyrant as peculiarly enslaved by, and imprisoned in, his own desires (577d–e, 579b). The emphasis placed by such an interpretation on this-worldly moral agency can help, among other things, to underscore a major difference between the myth and the premises of Greek mystery religion, some of whose symbolism undoubtedly colors Er’s story. While mystery religion offers an essentially ritualized route (i.e., initiation) to postmortem happiness (and the same was probably true for the practices we call Orphism, belittled by Adeimantus in Book 2), Plato’s myth, as reinforced by Socrates’ exegesis, suggests that the soul’s salvation – at any and every point of its existence – is to be found nowhere else than inside its capacity to determine its own ethica self by choosing between good and evil. Insofar as this capacity is fulfilled most authentically in “philosophy,” we can call philosophy itself the true form of initiation, but initiation from within, as the Phaedrus intimates (249c–d). In broader terms, a this-worldly reading of the myth of Er supports the cumulative moral case made by the entire Republic for the identification of a good and happy life with a just life, even though, as I earlier stressed, such a reading must still acknowledge, in line with Socrates’ second comment, an element of “chance” or circumstantial contingency that can in extreme cases occlude the possibility of philosophy itself.” (Stephen Halliweel, The Life-and-Death Journey of the Soul: Interpreting the Myth of Er, The Cambridge Companion to Plato's Republic)

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DAVID GALLOP (David Gallop is Professor of Philosophy (Emeritus) at Trent University, Ontario).


David Gallop rightly sees a conflict between the myth at 114c and 81a ("those who haved purified themselves...live in the future altogether without a body" and "truly spend the rest of time with gods") and the apparent claims of endless rebirths at 77d. The purified are supposed to be immune from rebirth (i.e., not brought back as they also are in 107e). (David Gallop, Plato: Phaedo,224).

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