In the tenth book of the Republic Socrates tells the story of Er of Pamphylian, who was killed in battle. Ten days after he was slain, when the bodies of his dead compatriots were already in a state of decomposition, his body showed no signs of decay. In this state he was carried home to be buried, but two days later, while he was lying on the funeral pyre, he suddenly came to life and told the story of what he had seen in the underworld.
Er’s tale is a kind of Platonic book of the dead, with ghostly meadows, souls carrying the symbols of their deeds on their backs, visions of heaven and hell, and cautionary judgment scenes. Near the end of his otherworldly journey, Er arrives at the spindle of necessity, a place where the lights of heaven turn around the past, the present, and the future. There a prophet takes from one of the fates, Lachesis, numbered lots and samples of lives, and then climbs up on a pulpit and speaks to the souls below: ‘Mortal souls, hear what I say, you are about to begin a new cycle of life and mortality. Your character will not be allotted to you, but you will choose your life. He who draws the first lot will have the first choice. The life which he chooses will be his destiny.’
The prophet then tosses the lots on the ground near where the souls stand, and each soul picks up a lot that falls near him and sees his number. Next the prophet throws to the ground many samples of lives. There are many more lives than souls, and they are lives of every kind, lives of different kinds of animals and of all kinds of men and women. Every kind of life is represented: lives of tyrants, lives of those that were cut off in youth or middle age, lives of poor people, lives of exiles and beggars, lives of famous athletes, lives of those known for beauty and grace, and lives of great wealth.
In the dialogue Socrates makes it clear that when the soul comes to this point he must be trained to choose well, and that only the philosopher’s life is rigorous enough to teach a man to be levelheaded when it comes to selecting his life. Wrong choices are made when the soul is blinded by vices like greed or vanity or fear.
What I like about this myth is the idea that we chose our life. Normally people feel that their lives have been, justly or unjustly, given to them, that they had no choice in the matter. This attitude, that we have been saddled with our lives, allows us to get angry or to complain when things don’t go our way. But what if we accepted the idea that we had some say in choosing this life? Then questions begin to emerge like: Why did I choose this life? What do I want to learn from it?
This is what I’m suggesting: the next time you want to complain about your life, imagine that your soul, before you were born, was offered a myriad of lives and that it chose the one you’re living now. Ask yourself why you would choose this life. What is it in this life that you wanted to add to your soul’s experience? Is there some special skill or challenge that the events of this life offer you?
Usually people either feel that they are a victim of circumstances or that they are in control and that their actions decide what happens to them. Most people go back and forth between these two extremes. When things are going well, they like to feel that they are in control; when things are going badly, they feel that they are a victim of circumstances. Plato offers a third possibility. He suggests that our choice was made a long time ago, when we chose to live this life, and that this choice does not extend to how individual events unfold, but that it doesn’t determine our character either. We determine our character. So that now, in the moment, the choice is whether or not to live as a philosopher. And what does it mean to live the life of a philosopher? It means to choose acceptance and forbearance over anger and pettiness, to choose to be levelheaded and calm at times when others are identified and losing their heads. It means to choose to examine what a life is and what it can be, and, most of all, it means to choose whether you want the events of your life to make you weak or strong.