The Judgment of the Dead -Part 1
The Meaning of Life and Death

[We continue with Voegelin's account of the Gorgias. The soul of a man must be purified of injustice either here and now or after death. The myth explains the necessary process of purgation.]

The transfer of authority from Athens to Plato is the climax of the Gorgias. The meaning of the transfer and the source of the new authority, however, still need some clarification. Let us recall what is at stake. The transfer of authority means that the authority of Athens, as the public organization of a people in history, is invalidated and superseded by a new public authority manifest in the person of Plato. That is revolution.

And it is even more than an ordinary revolution in which new political forces enter the struggle for power in competition with the older ones. Plato's revolution is a radical call for spiritual regeneration. The people of Athens has lost its soul. The representative of Athenian democracy, Callicles, is existentially disordered; the great men of Athenian history are the corruptors of their country; the law courts of Athens can kill a man physically but their sentence has no moral authority of punishment.

The fundamental raison d'etre of a people, that it goes its way through history in partnership with God, has disappeared; there is no reason why Athens should exist, considering what she is. The Gorgias is the death sentence over Athens.

But what is the nature of the authority that renders judgment? Plato reveals it through the Myth of the Judgment of the Dead, at the end of the Gorgias. Callicles has reminded Socrates repeatedly of the fate that awaits him at the hands of an Athenian court. In a final answer Socrates says that he would rather die with a just soul than go into the beyond with a soul full of injustice. For this would be the last and worst of all evils (522e). The reason for his resolution he sets forth in the myth.

From the Age of Cronos there stems a law concerning the destiny of man, which still is in force among the gods: that men who have led just and holy lives will go, after death, to the Islands of the Blessed, while those who have led unjust and impious lives will go to Tartarus for punishment. In the Age of Cronos, and even until quite recently in the Age of Zeus, the judgments were rendered on the day on which the men were to die; the men as well as the judges were alive. As a result, frequent miscarriages of justice occurred. For the men "had their clothes on," and the apparel of the body covered the true character of the souls; and the judges themselves were hampered "by their clothes" in perceiving correctly the state of the soul before them.

The complaints about misjudgments came to Zeus and he changed the procedure. Now the judgments are passed on the souls after death; and in judgment are sitting Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Aeacus, the dead sons of Zeus (523-524A).

Stripped of their bodies, the souls reveal their beauty or deformity; the judges can inspect them impartially because nothing indicates their earthly rank, and they can send them correctly to the Islands of the Blessed or to Tartarus.

The purpose of punishment is twofold. By temporary suffering the souls will be chastised unless they are too bad; some of them, however, are incurable and their eternal suffering will fill the improvable souls with fear and thus contribute to their chastisement.

The utterly bad souls who suffer eternal punishment seem to be always (if we can trust the authority of Homer) the souls of men who in their bodily existence were rulers and potentates; for the greatest crimes are always committed by those who have power. If, however, a good soul appears before the judges, it is most likely to be the soul of a man who has been a philosopher and who has refrained in his lifetime from interfering with the affairs of other men (526C).

The myth of the Gorgias is the earliest of the Platonic poems that concern a philosophy of order and history. It is very simple in its construction. Nevertheless, it contains in a rudimentary form the meanings expressed, by a more differentiated symbolism, in the later poems of the Republic, the Statesman, and the Timaeus. The present myth owes its value to its elemental terseness and its closeness to the experiences expressed in it.

Socrates opens his story with the warning that he is, indeed, telling the "truth," even though Callicles may consider the myth no more than a pretty tale (523a). In an abbreviated form Plato raises the issue of the truth of the myth, which becomes the object of elaborate discussion in the Timaeus. Hence we shall follow the same procedure as in the analysis of the other myths, that is, we shall not search for the "truth" on the level of the "pretty story" but translate the symbols into the experiences of the soul that they articulate.

The first symbols that offer themselves for such translation are the ages of Cronos and Zeus. They signify the historical sequence of the age of the myth and of the age of the differentiated, autonomous personality. Plato introduces them in the Gorgias for the purpose of dating the change in procedure for the judgment of the dead. In the Age of Cronos, and "until quite recently in the Age of Zeus," the souls were judged while they were still "alive"; that is, the judgment was biased by regard for the worldly station of the soul.

Now the souls are judged when they are "dead," that is, in their nakedness, without regard to worldly rank. This change in the mode of judgment is quite "recent"; that is, in historical time, Plato is speaking of the new order of the soul inaugurated by Socrates. Under the new dispensation, the naked souls are judged by the "Sons of Zeus." The Sons of Zeus are the men of the new age, the philosophers in general, and primarily Plato himself. These Sons of Zeus are "dead."

We have to ascertain, therefore, the meaning of the symbols "life" and "death" in the myth. The meaning of death in the myth has been carefully prepared by incidental remarks in the dialogue itself.

When Callicles praised the life of hedonistic happiness, Socrates suggested that in this case life would be something awful ( deinos ). Euripides might even be right in saying that life is death, and death is life. Most likely, at this moment we would have to be considered dead; for it would be true what a sage has said: that our body ( soma ) is our tomb ( sema ) (493A). The true life of the soul, thus, would be its existence free of the prison of the body, in a life preceding or following its earthly entombment.

Concerning the meaning of pre-existence and postexistence Plato has expressed himself at length in other dialogues. The great symbolization of pre-existence is given in the myth of the Phaedrus. Let us recall only one passage that clarifies the meaning of the "Sons of Zeus." In Phaedrus (250B) Plato speaks of the happy existence "when we [sc., the philosophers] followed in the train of Zeus," seeing the forms of eternal being that now can be recalled through anamnesis.

Concerning the idea of postexistence, in particular with regard to the purification of the soul in afterlife, there is an important passage in the Cratylus (403-404B). In this passage Plato rejects as unfounded the fear that men have of the ruler of the underworld. His names, Pluto and Hades, indicate that he is rich and consequently does not want anything of us, and that he has the knowledge of all noble things. If the souls who dwell in his presence had really reason to fear him, at least now and then one would escape from him. But, as a matter of fact, they like to dwell with him; they are bound to him by their active desire; for he has the knowledge of virtue and he points to the souls the path to their perfection.

In life, however, the souls have not fully developed this desire for perfection. That is the reason Pluto wants them only after they are freed from the passions of the body. Only after death will they be free to follow undisturbed their desire for virtue ( peri areten epithymia ). By this desire Pluto binds the souls to himself, for in the relation with him they will at last achieve a purification of which they were incapable as long as they were obsessed by "the fear and frenzy of the body." No compulsion, thus, is necessary to make the souls undergo their cathartic suffering in the underworld; on the contrary, here at last the soul is free to pass through the desired catharsis that was prevented in earthly existence by the obstacle of the body.

The various passages cast some light on the mythical play with the symbols of life and death in the Gorgias. Death can mean either the entombment of the soul in its earthly body, or the shedding of the body.

  Vol 16 ( Order and History, Vol III)
The Gorgias  (Chapter 2)
§ 5 The Judgment of the Dead
pp 93-96.