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10.8: Suffering, Philosophy, and the Choice of a Lifetime

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    See 614a-621d. The dialogue ends as a monologue, but one dramatically placed, with Glaucon and Adeimantus, Polemarchus, Lysias, and Euthydemus, Niceratus, Charmantides, Cleitophon, and Thrasymachus listening to Socrates tell a story. It is about a man named Er who is given a look at the afterlife and is allowed to return to tell about it (similar to Dante Alighieri in the Divine Comedy). In this afterworld, some souls go off to be rewarded for being relatively just in their previous lives, while others are punished for being relatively unjust. After a time the rewarded souls come down to be readied for rebirth; and the punished souls – those that have been successfully cleansed of their injustice – come up, also to be reborn. The Fates explain that each soul gets the opportunity to choose the guardian spirit who will determine certain elements of that soul’s next embodied life. It is a little unclear what this means, but it appears that what one gets to choose are aspects of one’s life that normally are thought to be outside of one’s choice: matters of genetics, the nation of one’s birth, illnesses one will face, social opportunities, and so on. Here, Socrates thinks, in making the choice of a lifetime, the benefits of philosophy become especially evident: the person will “know what the good and bad effects of beauty are when it is mixed with wealth or poverty and this or that state of the soul; what the effects are of high and low birth, private lives and ruling offices, physical strength and weaknesses, ease and difficulties in learning, and all the things that are either naturally part of the soul or can be acquired by it, when they are mixed with one another. On the basis of all that he will be able, by considering the nature of the soul, to reason out which life is better and which worse and choose accordingly, calling worse the one that will lead the soul to become more unjust, and better the one that leads it to become more just. Everything else he will ignore.” The first soul who gets to choose – “one of those who had come down from heaven, having lived his previous life in an orderly constitution, sharing in virtue through habit but without philosophy” – blunders, and chooses the life of a tyrant. Interestingly, most of the people foolish enough to choose tyrannical situations are “souls who came from heaven, and so were untrained in sufferings.” In contrast, the last soul to choose is that of Odysseus – “long-suffering Odysseus” as Homer frequently calls him – a timocratic soul in his last life. He looks and looks and then chooses, with relief, “the life of a private individual who did his own work” – not a proud sacker of cities, but a quiet man, who desires only to do his part in a just community. Socrates seems to be suggesting, along with the poet Aeschylus, that there is another way to gain some wisdom in life besides engaging in philosophy. There is suffering.

    • Do you agree that there is wisdom to be found through suffering? If so, what sort of wisdom is it? How is it different from philosophicalwisdom?

    This page titled 10.8: Suffering, Philosophy, and the Choice of a Lifetime is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Douglas Drabkin.

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