Ancient History & Civilisation


I. The Soul Immortal

The soul is immortal because its own specific fault, moral wickedness, cannot destroy it.

[608] (c) ‘Yet, you know,’ I said, ‘we haven’t yet described the chief rewards and prizes that goodness can win.’

‘If they’re greater than those we’ve described already, they must be enormous.’

‘Can anything really great grow in a short time?’ I asked. ‘For the span from youth to old age is surely short enough compared to the whole of time.’

‘A mere nothing,’ he agreed.

‘Then ought not a thing that is immortal to concern itself with (d) the whole of time rather than with so short a span?’

‘I suppose so,’ he replied, ‘but what of it?’

‘Don’t you know,’ I asked, ‘that our soul is immortal and never perishes?’

He looked at me in astonishment, and exclaimed, ‘Good Lord, no! Are you prepared to maintain it is?’

‘I ought to be,’ I said. ‘And so ought you; there’s nothing difficult about it.’

‘There is for me; but I should like to hear you explain it if it’s so easy.’

‘I will.’

‘Go on.’

‘You use the terms good and evil, don’t you?’

‘I do.’

‘I wonder if you think of them in the same way that I do.’ (e)

‘How is that?’

‘I call anything that harms or destroys a thing evil, and anything that preserves and benefits it good.’

‘I agree.’

‘Then hasn’t each individual thing its own particular good and evil? So most things are subject to their own specific form 609 (a) of evil or disease; for example, the eyes to ophthalmia and the body generally to illness, grain to mildew, timber to rot, bronze and iron to rust, and so on.’


‘And is not their effect to flaw anything they attack, and finally to disintegrate and destroy it altogether?’


‘A thing’s specific evil or flaw is therefore what destroys it, and nothing else will do so. For what is good is not destructive, (b) nor what is neutral.’

‘That is true.’

‘If, therefore, we find anything whose specific evil can mar it, but cannot finally destroy it, we shall know that it must by its very nature be indestructible.’

‘So it would seem.’

‘Then, is there anything which makes the soul evil?’

‘Yes, there certainly is – all the things we have been describing, injustice, indiscipline, cowardice, and ignorance.’ (c)

‘Do any of them finally destroy it? We must not make the mistake of thinking that, because injustice is a flaw in the soul, the unjust or foolish man, when he is caught doing wrong, is destroyed by his injustice. We must rather look at it like this. The body’s particular flaw is disease, which weakens and destroys it, till finally it ceases to be a body at all; and the result of the destructive presence of their particular evil is, in all the other (d) instances we quoted, annihilation, is it not?’


‘Let us examine the soul in the same way. Do injustice and other forms of evil by their persistent presence in it destroy and weaken it, till they finally kill it and sever it from the body?’

‘No, certainly not.’

‘But it would be quite illogical to suppose that anything could be destroyed by the specific evil of something else, but not by its own.’

‘Quite illogical.’

(e) ‘For you know, of course, Glaucon,’ I went on, ‘that it would not be right to suppose that the death of the body was due to the badness of its food, which might be old or rotten or have any other characteristic defect; if any such defect in the food set up a process of deterioration in the body, we should say that the body had been killed by its own particular evil, disease, of 610 (a) which the bad food was the occasion. But we ought not ever to say that the body, which is one kind of thing, has been killed by the badness of its food, which is another kind of thing, unless the bad food has produced the body’s own specific kind of evil.’

‘That is quite true,’ he agreed.

‘It follows by the same reasoning,’ I continued, ‘that unless a bodily flaw can produce in the soul one of the soul’s own flaws, we cannot suppose that it will destroy it in the absence of such a flaw, as that would imply that the specific evil of one thing could destroy another quite different thing.’1

‘Yes, that follows.’

‘Either we must refute this argument, therefore, or, so long as (b) it remains unrefuted, we must maintain that the soul remains quite unaffected by fever or disease or injury, or even by the body being cut to fragments – unless, that is, someone can prove to us that any of these experiences makes the soul more unjust or wicked than it was. We cannot admit that either the soul or anything else can be destroyed by the presence in it of another (c) thing’s specific evil in the absence of its own.’

‘At any rate no one will ever prove that death makes the soul more wicked.’

‘But even if anyone is brave enough to tackle our argument,’ I said, ‘and, in an attempt to avoid admitting the immortality of the soul, maintains that men become worse and more wicked when they die, we shall still claim that, if it is true, it is their wickedness which is fatal to them; it’s like a naturally deadly disease which sooner or later, according to the violence of the (d) attack, kills those who suffer from it, rather than the execution of a criminal by the external forces of the law.’

‘If wickedness really is fatal to its possessor,’ Glaucon exclaimed emphatically, ‘there’s nothing very terrible about it; it merely ends his troubles. The truth is surely just the opposite. It’s other people that wickedness kills, if it can, while so far removed is it from being fatal to its possessor that it makes him (e) full of life and tirelessly energetic as well.’

‘You are quite right,’ I agreed. ‘And if its own particular fault and its own particular evil has no power to destroy or kill the soul, it is not likely to be an exception to the general rule that nothing can be destroyed by an evil adapted to destroy something else, but only by one adapted to destroy itself.’2

‘No, that’s hardly likely, I should think.’

‘Then if there’s no evil that can destroy it, either its own or another’s, it must exist for ever; that is to say, it must be 611 (a) immortal.’

‘It must be.’

‘We can take that, then, as proved,’ I said. ‘And if so, it follows that the same souls have always existed. Their number cannot be decreased, because no soul can die, nor can it increase; any increase in the immortal must be at the expense of mortality, and if that were possible, everything would in the end be immortal.’


‘But that is something which our argument forbids us to believe. Nor should we believe, either, that in its essential nature (b) the soul is diverse and variable and full of internal conflicts.’

‘Why do you say that?’ he asked.

‘Because we were thinking just now of the soul as composed of a number of parts which do not fit perfectly together.3 In that case it could hardly be immortal.’

‘No, it hardly could.’

‘Well then, our recent argument and the others prove conclusively that the soul is immortal. But if we want to see it as it really is, we should look at it, not as we do now, when it is deformed (c) by its association with the body and other evils, but in the pure state which reason reveals to us. We shall then find that it is a thing of far greater beauty, and shall be able to distinguish far more clearly justice and injustice and all the other qualities we have talked about. We have described truly enough the soul as (d) we at present see it. But we see it in a state like that of Glaucus the sea-god, and its original nature is as difficult to see as his was after long immersion had broken and worn away and deformed his limbs, and covered him with shells and seaweed and rock, till he looked more like a monster than what he really was. That is the sort of state we see the soul reduced to by countless evils. For the truth we must look elsewhere.’

‘Where?’ Glaucon asked.

(e) ‘To the soul’s love of wisdom,’ I said. ‘Think how its kinship with the divine and immortal and eternal makes it long to associate with them and apprehend them; think what it might become if it followed this impulse whole-heartedly and was lifted by it out of the sea in which it is now submerged, and if it 612 (a) shed all the rocks and shells which, because it feeds on the earthly things that men think bring happiness, encrust it in wild and earthy profusion.4 Then one really could see its true nature, composite or single or whatever it may be. However, as it is, we have, I think, described well enough its character and experience in this mortal life.’

‘Quite well enough,’ he agreed.

2. The Rewards of Goodness in this Life

The purpose of the whole argument has been to show that goodness is its own reward, irrespective of consequences. But, now that has been proved, we may add that in fact the good man is rewarded by society in this life.

‘And now,’ I said, ‘I think our argument has fulfilled the conditions you laid down, and, in particular, has avoided mentioning(b) the rewards and reputation which justice brings, as you complained Homer and Hesiod do.5 We have found that justice is itself the best thing for our true self6 and that we should act justly whether or not we have Gyges’ ring, and a cap of invisibility into the bargain.’

‘That’s perfectly true.’

‘That being so, Glaucon,’ I asked, ‘can there be any objection if we go on and describe the rewards which justice and excellence of every kind bring at the hands of men and gods, in this life (c) and the next?’

‘No objection at all.’

‘Then you must give up the concession I made in our argument.’

‘What was that?’

‘I agreed that the good man should have a reputation for wickedness and the wicked man for goodness; you said that, though it might in fact be impossible for either men or gods to be so deceived, yet you wanted the concession for the purposes of the argument so that we could judge between justice and injustice in themselves, without their consequences. Don’t you (d) remember?’

‘I can hardly deny it,’ he said.

‘Then, now that judgement has been given,’ I said, ‘I want to ask that we should agree to restore Justice her good name with gods and men; she can then gather the rewards gained from appearances and give them to her possessor, just as we have seen her faithfully giving the benefits of the reality to those who really hold to her.’7

‘That’s a fair request.’ (e)

‘Then will you first grant that neither the just nor the unjust man’s character is hidden from the gods?’


‘If so, then, as we agreed at the beginning,8 they will love one and hate the other.’

‘That’s true.’

‘And the man they love may expect, may he not, all the blessings heaven can give him, except in so far as there is 613 (a) necessary punishment due to him for offences committed in a former life?’


‘So we must assume that, if the just man is poor or ill or suffering from any other apparent misfortune, it is for his ultimate good in this life or the next. For the gods will never neglect (b) the man whose heart is set on justice and who is ready, by pursuing excellence, to become as like god as man is able.’

‘If he is like them, they are not likely to neglect him.’

‘On the other hand, we must suppose that the reverse of all this is true of the unjust man.’

‘Most certainly.’

‘These, therefore, are the rewards the just man receives from the gods.’

‘I should certainly agree.’

‘And what about men?’ I asked. ‘If the truth be told, isn’t it this – that the clever rogue is rather like a runner who does well over the first half of the course, but then flags? He is very quick off the mark, but in the end is humiliated and runs off with his (c) tail between his legs9 without any prize. The real runner stays the course and carries off the prize in triumph. Isn’t the same thing true in general of the just man? In any action, in dealings with others, or in life itself, isn’t he the man who in the end gets both the rewards and the good name among his fellows?’


‘Then will you allow me to say about him all that you said (d) about the unjust man?10 That is, that the just man, when he grows old, will, if he wishes, hold positions of authority in the state, marry whom he likes and marry his children to whom he likes, and so on, as you said of the unjust man. Conversely the unjust man will, in general, even if he gets away with it when he is young, be caught at the end of the course and humiliated; his old age will be miserable, he will be an object of contempt to (e) citizen and foreigner alike, and will be whipped and suffer all those punishments you so rightly called brutal – torture and branding; there is no need for me to repeat them. Will you let me say all this?’

‘Yes, you may fairly say it.’

3. The Myth of Er

The Good Man’s rewards in the life after death. The responsibility of the individual and the doctrine of transmigration. This concluding section of the dialogue is cast in the form of a myth, as is Plato’s habit when he wishes to convey religious or moral truths for which plain prose is inadequate. Much of the detail is borrowed from contemporary sources, probably Orphic.

‘These, then,’ said I, ‘are the prizes and rewards and gifts which the just man receives from gods and men while he is still alive, over and above those which justice herself brings him.’ 614 (a)

‘And very sure and splendid they are,’ he replied.

‘Yet they are nothing in number and magnitude when compared to the things that await the just man and unjust man after death; you must hear about these too, so that our discussion may pay in full what it owes to both of them.’

‘There are few things I would hear more gladly.’ (b)

‘What I have to tell won’t be like Odysseus’ tale to Alcinous,11 I continued, ‘but the story of a brave man, Er, son of Armenius, a native of Pamphylia. He was killed in battle, and when the dead were taken up on the tenth day the rest were already decomposing, but he was still quite sound; he was taken home and was to be buried on the twelfth day, and was lying on the funeral pyre, when he came to life again and told the story of what he had seen in the other world. He said that when his soul (c) left his body it travelled in company with many others till they came to a wonderfully strange place, where there were, close to each other, two gaping chasms in the earth, and opposite and above them two other chasms in the sky. Between the chasms sat Judges, who having delivered judgement, ordered the just to take the right-hand road that led up through the sky, and fastened the evidence for the judgement in front of them, while they ordered the unjust, who also carried the evidence of all that they had done behind them, to take the left-hand road that led (d) downwards. When Er came before them, they said that he was to be a messenger to men about the other world, and ordered him to listen to and watch all that went on in that place. He then saw the souls, when judgement had been passed on them, departing some by one of the heavenly and some by one of the (e) earthly chasms; while by the other two chasms some souls rose out of the earth, stained with the dust of travel, and others descended from heaven, pure and clean. And the throng of souls arriving seemed to have come from a long journey, and turned aside gladly into the meadow and encamped there as for a festival; acquaintances exchanged greetings, and those from 615(a) earth and those from heaven inquired each other’s experiences. And those from earth told theirs with sorrow and tears, as they recalled all they had suffered and seen on their underground journey, which lasted a thousand years, while the others told of the delights of heaven and of the wonderful beauty of what they had seen. It would take a long time to tell you the whole story, Glaucon, but the sum of it is this. For every wrong he has done to anyone a man must pay the penaltyin turn, ten times for each, (b) that is to say, once every hundred years, this being reckoned as the span of a man’s life. He pays, therefore, tenfold retribution for each crime, and so for instance those who have been responsible for many deaths, by betraying state or army, or have cast others into slavery, or had a hand in any other crime, must pay tenfold in suffering for each offence. And correspondingly those who have done good and been just and god-fearing are rewarded (c) in the same proportion. He told me too about infants who died as soon as they were born or who lived only a short time, but what he said is not worth recalling. And he described the even greater penalties and rewards of those who had honoured or dishonoured gods or parents or committed murder. For he said that he heard one soul ask another where Ardiaeus the Great was. (This Ardiaeus was the tyrant of a city in Pamphylia some thousand years before, who had killed his old father and elder (d) brother and done many other wicked things, according to the story.) “He has not come, and he never will,” was the reply. “For this was one of the terrible things we saw. We were near the mouth of the chasm and about to go up through it after all our sufferings when we suddenly saw him and others, most of them tyrants, though there were a few who had behaved very wickedly in private life, whom the mouth would not receive (e) when they thought they were going to pass through; for whenever anyone incurably wicked like this, or anyone who had not paid the full penalty, tried to pass, it bellowed. There were some fierce and fiery-looking men standing by, who understood the sound, and thereupon seized some and led them away, while others like Ardiaeus they bound hand and foot and neck, flung 616 (a) them down and flayed them, and then impaled them on thorns by the roadside; and they told the passers-by the reason why this was done and said they were to be flung into Tartarus.” And Er said that the fear that the voice would sound for them as they went up was the worst of all the many fears they experienced; and when they were allowed to pass in silence their joy was great.

‘These, then, are the punishments and penalties and the corresponding rewards of the other world.’

The paragraph which follows gives, in brief and allusive form, a picture of the structure of the universe, in which the rings on the spindle-whorl are the orbits of the planets and the sphere of the fixed stars. A brief note on the details is given in Appendix II.

‘After seven days spent in the meadow the souls had to set (b) out again on the eighth and came in four days to a place from which they could see a shaft of light stretching from above straight through12 earth and heaven, like a pillar, closely resembling a rainbow, only brighter and clearer; this they reached after a further day’s journey and saw there in the middle of the light stretching from the heaven the ends of the bonds of it,13 for this light is the bond of heaven and holds its whole circumference (c) together, like the swifter14 of a trireme. And from these ends hangs the spindle of Necessity, which causes all the orbits to revolve; its shaft and its hook are of adamant, and its whorl a mixture of adamant and other substances. And the whorl is (d) made in the following way. Its shape is like the ones we know; but from the description Er gave me we must suppose it to consist of a large whorl hollowed out, with a second, smaller one fitting exactly into it, the second being hollowed out to hold a third, the third a fourth, and so on up to a total of eight, like a nest of bowls. For there were in all eight whorls, fitting one (e) inside the other, with their rims showing as circles from above and forming the continuous surface of a single whorl round the shaft, which was driven straight through the middle of the eighth. The first and outermost whorl had the broadest rim; next broadest was the sixth, next the fourth, next the eighth, next the seventh, next the fifth, next the third, and last of all the second. And the rim of the largest and outermost was many-coloured, that of the seventh was the brightest, the eighth was illuminated by the seventh, from which it takes its colour, 617 (a) the second and fifth were similar to each other and yellower than the others, the third was the whitest, the fourth reddish and the sixth second in whiteness. The whole spindle revolved with a single motion, but within the movement of the whole the seven inner circles revolved slowly in the opposite direction to that of the whole, and of them the eighth moved fastest, and (b) next fastest the seventh, sixth and fifth, which moved at the same speed; third in speed was the fourth, moving as it appeared to them with a counter-revolution; fourth was the third, and fifth the second. And the whole spindle turns in the lap of Necessity. And on the top of each circle stands a siren, which is carried round with it and utters a note of constant pitch, and the eight notes together make up a single scale. And round about (c) at equal distances sit three other figures, each on a throne, the three Fates, daughters of Necessity, Lachesis, Clotho, and Atropos; their robes are white and their heads garlanded, and they sing to the sirens’ music, Lachesis of things past, Clotho of things present, Atropos of things to come. And Clotho from time to time takes hold of the outermost rim of the spindle and helps to turn it, and in the same way Atropos turns the inner rims with her left hand, while Lachesis takes inner and outer (d) rims with left and right hand alternately.

‘On their arrival the souls had to go straight before Lachesis. And an Interpreter first marshalled them in order and then took from the lap of Lachesis a number of lots and patterns of life and, mounting on a high rostrum, proclaimed: “This is the word of Lachesis, maiden daughter of Necessity. Souls of a day, here you must begin another round of mortal life whose end is death. No Guardian Spirit will be allotted to you; you shall choose your own. And he on whom the lot falls first shall be the first to (e) choose the life which then shall of necessity be his. Excellence knows no master; a man shall have more or less of her according to the value he sets on her. The fault lies not with God, but with the soul that makes the choice.” With these words he threw the lots among them, and each picked up that which fell beside him, all except Er himself, who was forbidden to do so. And as each 618 (a) took up his lot he saw what number he had drawn. Then the Interpreter set before them on the ground the different patterns of life, far more in number than the souls who were to choose them. They were of every conceivable kind, animal and human. For there were tyrannies among them, some life-long, some falling in mid-career and ending in poverty, exile and beggary; there were lives of men famed for their good looks and strength (b) and athletic prowess, or for their distinguished birth and family connections, there were lives of men with none of these claims to fame. And there was a similar choice of lives for women. There was no choice of quality of character since of necessity each soul must assume a character appropriate to its choice; but wealth and poverty, health and disease were all mixed in varying degrees in the lives to be chosen.

‘Then comes the moment, my dear Glaucon, when everything (c) is at stake. And that is why it should be our first care to abandon all other forms of knowledge, and seek and study that which will show us how to perceive and find the man who will give us the knowledge and ability to tell a good life from a bad one and always choose the better course so far as we can; we must reckon up all that we have said in this discussion of ours, weighing the arguments together and apart to find out how they affect the good life, and see what effects, good orill, good looks have when accompanied by poverty or wealth or by different dispositions of (d) character, and what again are the effects of the various blends of birth and rank, strength and weakness, cleverness and stupidity, and all other qualities inborn or acquired. If we take all this into account and remember how the soul is constituted, we can (e) choose between the worse life and the better, calling the one that leads us to become more unjust the worse, and the one that leads us to become more just the better. Everything else we can let go, for we have seen that this is the best choice both for living and dead. This belief we must retain with an iron grip when we 619 (a) enter the other world, so that we may be unmoved there by the temptation of wealth or other evils, and avoid falling into the life of a tyrant or other evil-doer and perpetrating unbearable evil and suffering worse, but may rather know how to choose the middle course, and avoid so far as we can, in this life and the next, the extremes on either hand. For this is the surest way (b) to the highest human happiness.

‘But to return. Er told us that the Interpreter then spoke as follows: “Even for the last comer, if he chooses wisely and lives strenuously, there is left a life with which he may be well content. Let him who chooses first look to his choice, and him who chooses last not despair.” When he had spoken, the man with the first lot came forward and chose the greatest tyranny he (c) could find. In his folly and greed he chose it without examining it fully, and so did not see that it was his fate to eat his children and suffer other horrors; when he examined it at leisure, he beat his breast and bewailed his choice, ignored the Interpreter’s warning, and forgot that his misfortunes were his own fault, blaming fate and heaven and anything but himself. He was one of the souls who had come from heaven, having lived his previous life in a well-governed state, but having owed his goodness to habit and custom and not to philosophy; and (d) indeed, broadly speaking, the majority of those who were caught in this way came from heaven without the discipline of suffering, while those who came from earth had suffered themselves and seen others suffer and were not so hasty in their choice. For this reason and because of the luck of the draw there was a general change of good for evil and evil for good. Yet it is true also that anyone who, during his earthly life, faithfully seeks wisdom and whose lot does not fall among the last may hope, if we may (e) believe Er’s tale, not only for happiness in this life but for a journey from this world to the next and back again that will not lie over the stony ground of the underworld but along the smooth road of heaven.

‘And to see the souls choosing their lives was indeed a sight, 620 (a) Er said, a sight to move pity and laughter and wonder. For the most part they followed the habits of their former life. And so he saw the soul that had once been Orpheus15 choose the life of swan; it was unwilling to be born of a woman because it hated all women after its death at their hands. The soul of Thamyris16 chose the life of a nightingale, and he saw a swan and other singing birds choose the life of a man. The twentieth soul to choose chose a lion’s life; it was the soul of Ajax,17 son of(b) Telamon, which did not want to become a man, because it remembered the judgement of the arms. It was followed by Agamemnon,18 who also because of his sufferings hated humanity and chose to be an eagle. And Atalanta’s19 turn cam e somewhere about the middle, and when she saw the great honours of an athlete’s life she could not resist them and chose it. After her he saw Epeius,20 son of Panopeus, taking on the role of (c) a skilled craftswoman, and right among the last the buffoon Thersites21 putting on the form of an ape. And it so happened that it fell to the soul of Odysseus to choose last of all. The memory of his former sufferings had cured him of all ambition and he looked round for a long time to find the uneventful life of an ordinary man; at last he found it lying neglected by the others, and when he saw it he chose it with joy and said that (d) had his lot fallen first he would have made the same choice. And there were many other changes from beast to man and beast to beast, the unjust changing into wild animals and the just into tame in every kind of interchange.

‘And when all the souls had made their choice they went before Lachesis in the order of their lots, and she allotted to each its chosen Guardian Spirit, to guide it through life and fulfil its choice. And the Guardian Spirit first led it to Clotho, thus (e) ratifying beneath her hand and whirling spindle the lot it had chosen; and after saluting her he led it next to where Atropos spins, so making the threads of its destiny irreversible; and then, without turning back, each soul came before the throne of 621 (a) Necessity and passing before it waited till all the others had done the same, when they proceeded together to the plain of Lethe through a terrible and stifling heat; for the land was without trees or any vegetation.

‘In the evening they encamped by the Forgetful River, whose water no pitcher can hold. And all were compelled to drink a certain measure of its water; and those who had no wisdom to save them drank more than the measure. And as each man (b) drank he forgot everything. They then went to sleep and when midnight came there was an earthquake and thunder, and like shooting stars they were all swept suddenly up and away, this way and that, to their birth. Er himself was forbidden to drink, and could not tell by what manner of means he returned to his body; but suddenly he opened his eyes and it was dawn and he was lying on the pyre.

‘And so, my dear Glaucon, his tale was preserved from perishing (c), and, if we remember it, may well preserve us in turn, and we shall cross the river of Lethe safely and shall not defile our souls. This at any rate is my advice, that we should believe the soul to be immortal, capable of enduring all evil and all good, and always keep our feet on the upward way and pursue justice with wisdom. So we shall be at peace with the gods and with ourselves, both in our life here and when, like the victors in the games collecting their prizes, we receive our reward; and both (d) in this life and in the thousand-year journey which I have described, all will be well with us.’

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