The Platonic Underworld

Plato presents the journey of the souls to the Underworld in three of his works: Gorgias, Phaedo, and the Republic. One of the most important innovations in Platonic thought is the inner journey of the soul towards self-knowledge, a view with roots in earlier philosophers like Herakleitos. Like Odysseus descending to the Underworld in search of knowledge (he sought out the seer Teiresias for guidance on his journey back to Ithaca), the journey of the soul is also, according to Plato, a quest for knowledge, but at an inner and deeper level. Hints about the inner journey are found both in the poetry of Parmenides and in Sophokles’ Oedipus Rex, but it is Plato who establishes the so-called ‘Platonic Odyssey’, as described primarily in the Republic (614 ff). The philosopher uses the centuries old and well-known motif of the descent (katabasis) to describe his view of the Beyond.

The Platonic Odyssey’s protagonist is Er, an Armenian soldier mortally wounded in battle, who comes back to life 12 days later, just before his body is cremated in a funeral pyre, to describe his posthumous experience. His soul traveled with other souls until it reached a divine place where it saw two openings in the earth and two in heaven. Between the openings were the judges of souls, who sent the righteous to the right in one of the heavenly openings and the unjust to the left in one of the earthly openings. The judges chose Er as a messenger and allowed him to see what was happening in order to return to life to describe it.

Er saw souls coming out through the openings and recounting their journey. The souls that had been sent to heaven belonged among the righteous and had spent one thousand years of happiness in a beautiful place. The souls that had been sent to the earthly openings were covered in dirt and mud: they were the sinners, who had been sentenced to one thousand years of torture and had to pay back each of their sins tenfold. There were even the souls of those who had committed heinous crimes, such as Aridaios, the tyrant of Pamphylia, who had killed his father and older brother, and who, even after one thousand years of torture, could not be purged but remained forever trapped in Tartaros.

After one thousand years, all souls, except for the latter, had to choose again a lot that would assign them a new life. The soul’s choice showed what it had learnt during those one thousand years, if it could distinguish good from evil and choose accordingly. After choosing, the souls drank water from the lake of forgetfulness and, forgetting all that was past, were reborn.

Unlike Homeric Hades, Plato’s Hades could not be seen with the eyes but only with the mind. Thus, the journey into Hades was not a physical experience, but an introspection of the soul. Self-awareness and adherence to ethical rules, the abolition of fear and control of emotions, are all topped by the use of man’s only weapon, reason and the conscious choice to live by philosophy. The greatest challenge for humans, especially for the philosopher, is to try to unite these two worlds, to overcome the separation of emotion and logic, and to use the latter as guide. Platonic Hades is not just another realm of the dead, but the other world that exists within each human. Each soul plays its part in uplifting the entire cosmos through its successive reincarnations in the material world and, after a long period of cohabitation, with the immortal divine element.

Plato introduces for the first time the concept of the benevolent divine element. A god cannot have human weaknesses, as Homer suggests. His essence is virtue, and his deeds can only lead to good. In Platonic philosophy, as expressed in the Laws, there is no room for humans who do not accept the existence of god. All religions are acceptable but not atheism, and atheists should be condemned to a kind of isolation so as to be rehabilitated in accordance with the correct laws. Man’s goal is immortality, which is achieved through the exaltation of spirit over the flesh and the effort to be as good and benevolent as possible in order to approach the virtues of the immortals. In any case, the human soul is immortal and man should try to extricate himself from the evils and weaknesses of the corruptible body through virtue so as to return to his natural place, which is none other than heaven.

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