Accounts of the Afterlife a comparison of


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Accounts of the Afterlife

A comparison of The Myth of Er and Scipio’s Dream

Josh Emington

Political Science 237

Political Theory and Philosophy I

Professor Philip J. Howe

Adrian College

Spring 2009

Short Paper II

Plato and Cicero both include a mythological account of the afterlife in their books which are both titled the Republic. The stories are used to suggest eternal consequences with moral and political implications. They also contain a great number of similarities in structure, topic, and theme. On the other hand they present major differences concerning the concept of what eternal ‘award’ may be received and entertain differing views on how mortals’ lives will be evaluated. Cicero’s work implies that men ought to focus on greater ‘virtuous’ political involvement in pursuit of a prestigious celestial home in the ‘Milky Way’ (Cicero, Republic 6.16). Plato’s selected account directs men to live lives of the high morality and piety in pursuit of a far more desirable trip through the afterlife (Plato, Republic 621b8-c9).

The Republic, written by Plato in 380 BCE, is an exhaustive discussion of ‘justice’ that concludes with The Myth of Er, an account of a warrior’s journey through the afterlife as an observer (Plato, Republic ix, 614a5-621c9). The nature of the story indicates that Socrates, Plato’s voice in the dialogue of the work, is providing a useful story to tell others and reinforcing the importance of morality with a significance that surpasses life. Cicero includes Scipio’s Dream in his political treatise, The Republic with similar intentions guided by a different view on political involvement. This work written after 54 BCE, in many ways, replicates and interprets the Socratic dialogues of Plato for the Greeks (Cicero, Republic xi-xv). The similarities in each author’s use of afterlife stories are used to illustrate Cicero’s affinity for Plato:

The obvious literary model was Plato’s Republic. Cicero’s direct homage to the master was expressed in the lost section at the beginning of the work, and is embodied in the concluding vision of the cosmos and the afterlife (the Dream of Scipio) which reflects the Myth of Er at the end of Plato’s tenth book.

Cicero, Republic xvi

Since Cicero has elected to use Plato’s strategy for extending his moral and political ideals the similarities between accounts can be attributed to this choice while the differences can be credited to the disparities found in the philosopher’s conclusions on morality, political involvement and the relationship between the two.

Similarities are primarily structural which is consistent with the predicted measure of comparison. Both accounts of the afterlife begin as a fictional story, in a ‘vision like state’, presenting a main character that has been specially selected to view the afterlife and the cosmos from a perspective not available to any other living being. In each account it is made abundantly clear that souls will be judged, and receive direct consequences for, their behavior on earth. Socrates introduces the Myth of Er in a conversation with Gaucon during which he proclaims that moral rewards of greater value will be received in death:

Socrates: Well, then, while the just man is alive, these are the sorts of prizes, wages, and gifts he receives from the gods and human beings, in addition to those good things that justice itself provides.

Glaucon: Fine and secure ones they are, too!

Socrates: Well, they are nothing in number or size compared to those that await each man after death. We must hear about them, too, so that, by hearing them, each of these men may get back in full what he is owed by the argument.

Plato, Republic 613e7-614a8

Similarly, the Dream of Scipio is introduced by a statement praising consequences enduring past one’s lifetime:

Scipio: For men of good sense and consciousness of their outstanding deeds is in itself the richest reward for their excellence. Nevertheless, that superhuman excellence longs, not for status held in place by lead nor for triumphs and their withering laurels, but for fresher and more long lasting kinds of reward.

Cicero, Republic 6.8-13

This concept is reinforced continuously as the major theme of each anecdote and is used as an instrument to bolster the philosopher’s respective views on the ends of mortal life. Both accounts also explain the cosmos in detail including models of movement and cycle for the planets and stars. In each case the universe (Plato Spindle of Necessity) (Cicero Celestial Place) is used to provide a context for comparing the significance of worldly accomplishments to the overall schema. The obvious reaction is new understanding and embarrassment at the value of worldly endeavors. At his moment of realization Scipio exclaims: “…the earth was so small to me that I felt ashamed of our empire, whose extent was no more than a dot...” (Cicero, Republic 6.16). The triviality of earthly glory is made increasingly clear to him when Africanas points out his homeland’s size on earth and explains the temporal nature of history to man (Cicero, Republic 6.22-24).

Both myths contain a description of orbital circles or spheres. In the Myth of Er these obits are spin by a giant ‘whorl’ and are eight in all, ‘whorls’ themselves (Plato, Republic 616d-e). Scorpio’s Dream outlines nine, but maintains that seven revolve contrary to the outer orbits just as Plato does (Cicero, Republic 6.17). Note the extreme similarity in direct quotes: “…seven inner circles gently revolve in the opposite direction to the whole” (Plato, Republic 617a6-7). And: “seven spheres which revolve backwards in a contrary motion” (Cicero, Republic 6.17). In the same way both accounts include harmonious music that is made across the universe. Plato portrays a ‘Sirin’ that emits the note made by the coordinated circles creating the music of the universe along with the Fates, who each sing in a tense: Past, Present, Future (Plato, Republic 617b4-c5). Cicero explains that the sound is a coordinated sound from the spheres (circles) themselves and goes on to say that we are unable to hear the sound because we become deaf to constant noises (Cicero, Republic 6.18-19). The difference between the descriptions of the cosmos’ music arises from the difference between the masters of each author’s afterlife. Plato’s account is dominated by judges, deities, and figures such as Lady Necessity sitting on her throne which places heavy emphasis on the power of supernatural entities that control everything from the music to the fates of men, and in this case animals (Plato, Republic 614d4, 617c1-4, d6-8). Conversely, Cicero’s account accredits the music to the natural motion of the circles which is consistent with the theme of visually recognizable celestial bodies containing the supernatural power (Cicero, Republic 6.18). This difference stems from Cicero’s belief that men ought to be involved in political and virtuous change during their lifetime while Plato believed that political action was inherently corruption (so long as the Kallipolis was non-existent) and that men ought to seek absolute truth while living morally benevolent lives. The central difference in the natures of the described universes is that Plato’s afterlife offers the morally upright happiness and pleasure while Cicero’s story provides those who “Respect justice and do your (their) duty.” with the prestige of dazzling and shining brightly (Cicero, Republic 6.16; Plato, Republic 621c1-9). This distinction is between the reward of fame and partial decadence, a more natural and worldly concept, and moral judgment which can only be passed down by a mighty deity or group of deities.

These accounts differ in both the consequences and criteria for judgment passed on to the souls entering the afterlife. Plato indicates than men ought to behave justly and morally with piety in order to gain the highest rewards well Cicero implies that political action and the fulfillment of duty toward a virtuous earthly objective should grant the eternal award. Africanus refers to the body as a prison and goes on to outline Cicero’s criteria for eternal excellence by saying:

Human beings were born on condition that they should look after that sphere called earth which you see in the middle of this celestial place… You must not depart from your human life until you receive the command from him who has given you that soul otherwise you will be judged to have deserted the earthly post assigned to you by god. Instead, Scipio, be like your grandfather here, and me, your father. Respect justice and do your duty.

Cicero, Republic 6.15-17

He goes on to establish the consequences. If one is condemned for having not accomplished their duty but rather become a slave to lust and pleasure then his soul escapes from the body and they “swirl around, close to the earth itself, and they do not return to this place until they have been buffeted about for many ages” (Cicero, Republic 6.29). In the event that they do succeed and are released from their bodies “they dwell in that place which you see –a place which you have learnt from the Greeks to call the Milky Way” (Cicero, Republic 6.16). These consequences promote political action and duty above the concepts of passive morality and truth seeking. One obvious implication is that one should ot simply learn what is right but act to ensure justice for those around them which is a concept he builds earlier in his work. The first subtitle in Cicero’s The Republic is One should engage in politics (Cicero, Republic 1). . Cicero sums up his preference for action toward moral ideals when he says: “Nor indeed is there any occupation which brings human excellence closer to divine power than founding new states and preserving those already founded” (Cicero, Republic 1.12).

Plato’s account evaluates individuals based on how just, morally upright, good, and pious they were in life and deals out consequences in proportion to their quantified level of morality or immorality. Er finds himself in a field speaking with judges and souls who have received these consequences. Those who had “done good deeds and become just and pious…received commensurate awards” (Plato, Republic 615b6-7). On the other hand those punished “for all the unjust things they had done and for all the people they had wronged, they had paid the penalty for every one in turn, ten times over for each…each injustice once every hundred years” (Plato, Republic 615a6-b2). He also indicated: “greater wages for impiety or piety toward the gods or parents, and for murder” (Plato, Republic 615c4). For especially heinous crimes and those effecting large portions of people, special punishment was in order including dragging them along a thorny roadside and having wild men stab them (Plato, Republic 615d7-616b1). Note that Cicero has no equivalent for this punishment realm as Scipio’s afterlife either accepts or denies individuals. Each of Plato’s consequences, however are based on lifetime adherence to a dissectible subject of what is pious and morally right. This story is highly compatible with Plato’s view that one ought not to be involved in political action but rather should seek the truth continuously. Again the only way that Plato would agree one should pursue political action is if a perfect state existed which he consistently states is impossible (Plato, Republic 456bc, 502a-c, 540de). To summarize Socrates says of a just man and the Kallipolis: “he would take part in the politics of it alone, and of no other” (Plato, Republic 592b5). Plato also believed strongly in ‘forms’ or absolute truths which one ought to seek over a life time (xvii, xviii,). The greatest of these forms he saw as ‘good’ which explains his choice of afterlife story (505a). After the consequences part of the afterlife a five day journey takes the souls to a vantage point from which the entire cosmos can be viewed, called the ‘spindle of Necessity’ (616b3-c5). Here souls of animals and humans are organized and given lottery numbers that allow them to choose a next life for themselves and a deity to live it with (617d2-620e5). The souls then drank from a river that makes them forget and are born into their respective lives (621a1-c2). This view is consistent with Plato’s long arguments preceding the myth concerning the immortal nature of the soul. Socrates confirms this view when proclaiming at the conclusion of the story: “if we are persuaded by me, we will believe that the soul is immortal” (621c2-3). The implications of the story are as Socrates recounts following the tale. Men will respond by: “always hold to the upright path, practicing justice with wisdom every way we can, so that we will be friends to ourselves and to the gods” (621c5-6).

In conclusion the Cicero’s vision of the afterlife, Scipio’s Dream, and Plato’s account, The Myth of Er, are comparable in persuasive technique and structure well they diverge in overall objectives and views on the significance of political activity versus philosophy. The accounts each represent a means of motivating and influencing the populous toward a perspective. The perspectives differ in that Cicero viewed political duty as the highest good with the wages of eternal fame, well Plato considered morality, piety, and goodness to be the highest priority. For this reason Plato offers pain and happiness as consequences that offer an incentive to mortals. It is from these basic perspectives that the differences in the accounts arise.


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