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225 Of Beasts and Heroes The Promiscuity of Humans and Animals in the Myth of Er Francisco J. Gonzalez Plato’s Republic, which throughout nine books offers us the description of a utopian city meant to serve as a model in heaven, concludes with a very strange or atopos myth about a very atopos place: a place that is neither above nor below, neither here nor there, but a place of transition where souls choose their next lives to be reincarnated in a transitionless instant. In this “daimonic” place where normal dichotomies such as soul and body or this world and the beyond seem no longer to hold, we find human and animal lives tossed indiscriminately into the choice pool. What is more, we see animal lives chosen not by criminals nor even by mediocre human beings, but by great poets and heroes. Finally, among the souls choosing we find swans and other animals that are in no way prevented from choosing a human life for their next round of incarnation. The result is what the myth itself describes as an incredible and tragicomic spectacle. It is therefore no wonder that this myth, in this as well as in other ways, has disconcerted Plato’s readers, or at least those who have chosen to pay attention. After an examination of the text and the questions or problems it presents, I will consider some of the readings that have been proposed, with particular attention to their philosophical assumptions, and then propose a somewhat different reading. One thing that will emerge clearly is that Plato is certainly not a Platonist when it comes to defining the relation between humans and animals. The Problem: The Strange Status of Animals in the Myth of Er There will be no attempt here to provide an interpretation of the myth as a whole and of its function in the Republic: this is something I have undertaken else14 226 | Francisco J. Gonzalez where.1 Instead, the focus will be entirely on what can be described as the promiscuity of human and animal lives in the myth. The crucial texts and the problems they pose are the following: 1.  The patterns of lives (τὰ τῶν βίων παραδείγματα) among which the souls are to choose include all kinds of animals as well as all sorts of human lives (Ζῴων τε γὰρ πάντων βίους καὶ δε καὶ τοὺς ἀνθρωπίνους ἅπαντας, 618a). There is no suggestion here of any superiority of human lives over animal lives. All the emphasis is on the diversity of lives (εἶναι δὲ παντοδαπά, 618a). 2.  At 620a–c, different heroes are described as choosing the lives of animals: the soul of Orpheus chooses the life of a swan (κύκνου βίον αἱρουμένην), Thamyras the life of a nightingale, Ajax the life of a lion, Agamemnon the life of an eagle, and Thersites the life of an ape. It is significant that in this context other heroes are described as choosing human lives: Atalanta chooses the life of a great athlete and Odysseus chooses the life of an ordinary citizen. The kind of life seems more important than whether it is an animal or human life.2 3.  If the soul of Orpheus chooses the life of a swan, Er also sees a swan “changing over into the choice of a human life [ἰδείν δὲ καὶ κύκνον μεταβάλλοντα εἰς ἀνθρωπίνου βίου αἵρεσιν]” (620a). That this is not a passing joke is made clear when the general principle is stated that “other animals change over in the same way to humans and to each other, the unjust ones to the savage, the just to the tame, with all possible mixtures in between [καὶ ἐκ τῶν ἄλλων δὴ θηρίων ὡσαύτῶς εἰς ἀνθρώπους ἰέναι καὶ εἰς ἄλληλα, τὰ μὲν ἄδικα εἰς τὰ ἄγρια, τὰ δὲ δίκαια εἰς τὰ ἥμερα μεταβάλλοντα, καὶ πάσας μίξεις μίγνυσθαι]” (620d). What we seem to have here is a complete indiscriminateness in the multiplicity of human and animal lives. Indeed, it would seem implied that there is no absolute difference between an animal and a human soul. The souls choosing their lives are presumably in themselves neither human nor animal: they choose either human or animal lives, moving back and forth between them.3 It is therefore highly significant that the patterns of lives are said not to contain any particular determination of the soul as that will be conditioned by the kind of life chosen: ψυχῆς δὲ τάξιν οὐκ ἐνεῖναι διὰ τὸ ἀναγκαίως ἔχειν ἄλλον ἑλομένην βίον ἀλλοίαν γίγνεσθαι (618b). It seems that there are therefore no animal souls or human souls in the Myth of Er, only human and animal lives that condition the character of the soul and are in turn chosen according to the character of the soul. Furthermore, as already noted, when it comes to the character the soul acquires, the character of the life, rather than whether it is human or animal, is what appears...

Additional Information

ISBN
9780253016201
Related ISBN
9780253016133
MARC Record
OCLC
907092951
Pages
270
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-10
Language
English
Open Access
No
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