When people die, those who lived a neutral life set out for Acheron, and spend a certain period of time in the underworld, where they are punished for their sins and rewarded for their good deeds, and then are returned to the earth once more. Those who have been irredeemably wicked are hurled into Tartarus, never to return. Those who have been good, however, ascend to the true surface of the earth, and those who have completely purified themselves through philosophy will live without a body altogether, and will reach places indescribably more beautiful even than the true surface of the earth.

Commentary

Obviously, this myth is not intended as a literal account of what Plato thinks the earth or the afterlife is like. Instead, it is a way of summarizing and contextualizing many of the themes in the dialogue in a very attractive and readable way. (We find similar myths at the end of the Gorgias and the Republic.)

The main focus of the myth lies in the contrast between the world as we know it and the true surface of the earth, which is in every way more pure and beautiful than what we know. The analogy here, quite clearly, is to the contrast between the sensible, immanent world that we know, and the invisible, transcendent world of Forms that is being posited. Just as what we see and touch are pale reflections of the Forms in which sensible objects participate, the world we inhabit is a pale reflection of the true surface of the earth. The air and water and mist that surround us are but the dregs that seep down from this more perfect world.

According to the myth, people who live on the true surface of the world can speak directly with the gods and can see the sun and moon as they truly are. By contrast, the ancient Greeks could only communicate with their gods through oracles, and a proper understanding of the heavens was considered the highest and most difficult task of physics. The people who live on the true surface of the earth are the model philosophers who, through an understanding of Forms, can see things for what they really are. In the Republic, Plato gives us the famous analogy of the cave where ordinary people are seeing mere shadows of puppets representing the real world, while philosophers, through an understanding of the Forms, can leave the cave and see things as they really are.

Plato's myth, and his account of the afterlife, have also had a profound effect on Christianity. In the traditional Greek account, all souls suffered the same fate after death, descending to Hades, where they remained as shades for eternity. Plato's account is an early version of the Christian ideal, in which our fate after death is determined by our virtue in this life. The evil are swept into an eternity in Tartarus in the middle of the earth, while the good ascend to a pure and perfect world. The only difference is that the good for Plato are not those who possess Christian virtues, but those who possess a knowledge of Forms, and thus a proper understanding of things. Plato and Socrates both are of the opinion that knowledge and goodness are one and the same.

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