Navigation – Plan du site

From Oblivion to Judgment

Afterlives, Politics, and Unbeliefs in Greek Tragedy and Plato
Amit Shilo

Résumé

How does the afterlife affect ethical and political considerations in this life when a culture has no unified religious dogma? This article focuses on the afterlife as an uncertain “elsewhere” invoked to rethink political imperatives in specific Ancient Greek literary and philosophical texts. First, it uncovers the political implications of radically divergent notions of the afterlife in both Aeschylus’s Oresteia and Sophocles’s Antigone—from nothingness, to continuation in a society of souls below, to ethical judgment by a divinity—significant examples of which have been neglected. It then follows out the almost congruent diversity of afterlife notions in Plato’s Apology and Phaedo. By examining how Socrates uses “unbelief” (apistia, among other words) concerning the afterlife to interrogate ethics and politics, this article gives a fresh perspective on the structure of debate in the Phaedo. The very emphasis on “unbelief,” however, demonstrates that the dialogue itself may not present Socratic views as definitive.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

Introduction

“Profundum, physical thunder, dimension in which

We believe without belief, beyond belief.”

Wallace Stevens, “Flyer’s Fall”

  • 1 On martyrdom, its monotheistic and political aspects, and the problem of labeling, see [van Henten (...)
  • 2 Perhaps this goes back as far as Paul, whose focus on the ethical judgment of the individual after (...)

1Belief in the afterlife, since ancient times, has engendered deadly warrant: as far back as the Antigone personal rewards after death explicitly justified the ultimate resistance against temporal powers. Political martyrdom and apocalyptic movements have been only the most spectacle-oriented of historical examples.1 Rather, the negation of this world through “another world” into which one will wake after death can be considered a major aspect of Western theological ethics.2 The nearly inaccessible “elsewhere” outside the autonomous individual and the laws of the state may lead to a grave fiat in this life: one must act “for one’s very soul.” Thus the physical thunder of the afterlife is neither an emotion nor an omen: it is the shaking when life’s ephemeral values encounter the immobile immensity of divine rewards and punishments. Even in the present, in a time of fractured religious belief, Stevens’ poem (to which we will return) obliquely reminds us of the afterlife’s continued inflection of personal and political motivations.

2Yet, as a projection onto an unknowable beyond, the afterlife presents the gravest perplexity for the human mind looking to derive a set of values. There must be a form of commitment, one that we label “belief,” attached to an idea of the end. The texts in the Western tradition that first represent the epistemological and teleological connotations of continuation after death also, in various ways, address the commitment of individuals. Their literary and philosophical engagements with diverse possibilities for the “beyond” represent interwoven problems of epistemology, individual motivation, and political values. This mixture, in some of its best-defined instances in Greek tragedy and Plato, is the topic of our investigation.

  • 3 [Segal 2004] gives a wide-ranging analysis of the afterlife in texts in the history of the major We (...)
  • 4 On the Mysteries as well as non-civic Greek cults for which the afterlife was central, see [Mylonas (...)
  • 5 Overviews of Greek beliefs concerning the afterlife are contained in [Vermeule 1979; Gnoli and Vern (...)
  • 6 For the influence of Plato’s concepts of the soul on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam see the essay (...)

3Emphasis on the individual in the afterlife, perhaps counter-intuitively, is far more prevalent in the Classical Greek roots of Western religions than the Biblical ones.3 In ancient Greece, mystery cults promised amelioration of one’s place after death: the Eleusinian Mysteries, along with the Orphic, Dionysian, and Pythagorean cults, bifurcated from the publically practiced state religion by emphasizing the improvement of individual existence in the afterlife through esoteric rituals and symbolic revelation.4 Yet only muffled whispers have filtered through the barriers of the beyond; enigmatically, they have left us no dogma. In contradistinction to the authoritative scriptures of Abrahamic religions, nearly the only preserved Classical Greek texts eloquent about the afterlife are literary and philosophical.5 Several examples have been perpetually influential: the lives of Antigone and Socrates have acted as a template for ‘philosophical martyrdom’ and the dialogues of Plato present myths of afterlife judgment, which, through Neo-Platonic education, helped shape the monotheistic concepts of divine judgment of individual souls and their relegation to eternal rewards or punishments.6

  • 7 Greek tragedy, as it survives, does not often dramatize the afterlife. While several tragedies stag (...)
  • 8 Many of the points about the afterlife in the Oresteia are raised here for the first time. For deba (...)
  • 9 Hades does make a brief appearance in articles about religion in the Oresteia, e.g. [Thomson 1935, (...)
  • 10 Their relationship to the beyond is thus not quite the notion of “belief in myths” that [Veyne 1983 (...)

4Of several possible examples, the discussion here takes four tragic approaches to the afterlife (three from the Oresteia trilogy and one from the Antigone) as illustrative of a range of possible effects it can have on the interaction between individuals and their political circumstances.7 Importantly, the insights that emerge from scrutinizing attitudes towards death and the afterlife in Aeschylus’s Oresteia (458 BCE), our only surviving trilogy, are absent from scholarly discussion.8 Depictions of the underworld in the Oresteia do not present a guide to Greek religious beliefs, almost the only perspective from which they have been examined up until now.9 On the contrary, most of the characters who describe the afterlife make no religious or prophetic claim to knowledge of this unknown beyond. The views of particular characters tend to be incommensurate with those of others, ambiguous when taken alone, contradictory compared with their previous statements, and even belied entirely by the final play’s staging of a ghost and more authoritative characterizations of the afterlife.10 Although they have never been a feature central to discussions of the trilogy as a whole, I argue both that references to the afterlife are crucial in their individual contexts and that the depiction of Hades as an active judge of ethical conduct provokes a rethinking of the entire premise of the Oresteia’s ending.

  • 11 [Butler 2000] reacting to Hegel’s use of Antigone to represent the household gods and Lacan’s readi (...)
  • 12 See [Smith 1963, p. 154], and the critique of this formulation in [Asad 2001, p. 213-17], who adds (...)

5The multiple perspectives in the Oresteia, subtly working against the state and each other, give way to a more direct confrontation between civic power and individual values in Sophocles’ Antigone (440 BCE). In this conflict, central to the play’s action, the heroine makes a stand traditionally understood as based on her faith in the connection between kinship and the divine, for which she herself dies.11 This is the first example in which explicitly affirming the afterlife leads to political action, and thus, though no term for it is used in the Greek, can be classed under a specific definition of “belief” that involves trusting in an epistemologically uncertain super-human structure of the universe.12 Yet even a brief comparison of Antigone’s statements concerning the afterlife over the course of the play will demonstrate their tenuous status as “belief.” Her backtracking undercuts the certainty of her claims. While this article can do little more than survey these tragic uses of the afterlife, I argue that they offer multiple conceptions of another realm after death as a literary “elsewhere” that gives space for disputing political values. Moreover, as uncertain and contradictory, they provoke a confrontation with the notion of grounding action on “belief”, a confrontation that Plato addresses.

  • 13 There is no evidence to link these tragic examples to the Socratic ones precisely, but tragedy’s in (...)

6The main discussion of Plato’s construction of relations between the afterlife, politics, and “unbelief” will be restricted to the Apology and the Phaedo. In these two dialogues the imbrications with tragic themes and aesthetics are clearest in the dramatically, emotionally, and intellectually haunting components of Socrates’ own death, in his personal stake in all manner of continuity. Moreover, they are remarkably similar in form to the four tragic examples.13 The possibilities Socrates raises, though, in explicitly grounding ethical and political stances on the afterlife engender a fundamental challenge: does basing Socrates’ open commitment to living ethically on what is self-consciously referred to in several dialogues as myths of the afterlife mean Plato is seeking an escape from the discursive, from what can be questioned? Any structure of values based on belief would be an end to discourse—non-sensible, non-dialectical, and thus non-logical. What happens to Socrates’ emphasis on critical thought under the pressure of the need for human continuity and a solid foundation for ethics? Starting with the questioning of belief in the afterlife from perspectives inspired by the tragic examples provides a productive, new approach to Plato’s dramatization of Socrates’ ethical, political, and philosophical questioning, from examined life to cheerful death.

Greek Tragedy

The Oresteia: Three Facets of the Afterlife and Political Action

The Chorus of the Agamemnon: Oblivion

  • 14 Zeus’s will is credited throughout the trilogy as the source of all events, which remain, neverthel (...)
  • 15 One of the several strengths of the treatment of language in [Goldhill 1984, esp. p. 29-33], is tha (...)
  • 16 As opposed to the tendency to read the Chorus as a symbolic representation of collective humanity, (...)

7Much striking and momentous action relates to particular views of the afterlife in the Oresteia. Characters’ affirmation or denial of the self’s continuity affects their immediate relationship to facing death, a theme that the Herald, Cassandra, and the Chorus all address in the Agamemnon, the first play of the trilogy. The recurrent metaphysical speculations of the Chorus (the Elders of Argos) demonstrate a craving for a framework larger than humanity and determinative of ethics.14 Yet the self- and divine-induced catastrophes of the house of Atreus are irreconcilable with their need to attribute events to the justice of Zeus.15 In the course of the action they are forced to turn from divine causation to their own too-human resources.16 Without proof of beneficent superintendence, they are alone in the world.

  • 17 All translations are my own unless otherwise noted.

8Infirm and aged, the Chorus cannot uphold their ideology of civic loyalty against precipitate violence. They neither countermand Agamemnon’s decision for war nor—hindered by untimely debate—forestall his bloody overthrow. It is thus after failure to influence political circumstances that they express a desire for life’s end, appraising demise as a positive: “even to die is a great favor” (Ag. 550).17 Verbally, at least, their need to escape their own powerlessness against the outrages of life manifests through transvaluing its end into a reward. Once the stage action fully reveals Clytemnestra’s murder of her husband and king, simultaneously capsizing political, social, legal, and even religious norms, the Chorus swerve from anguish to evasion, to a longing for release:

Alas, would that some not excruciating,

nor crippling fate come swiftly,

forever carrying to us

eternal sleep (Ag. 1448-51)

Oh Earth, Earth, if only you had received me

before I looked upon this man lying in

the makeshift deathbed of a silver-sided bathtub! (Ag. 1538-40)

  • 18 The instances of non-seeing as non-knowing, and even as an end to life are manifold in the Oresteia(...)
  • 19 The messenger of the Agamemnon continually speaks of closing off the memory of his companions falle (...)

9It is evident that rather than articulating an actual desire, each of these quotations employs highly potential language; it is a rhetorical trope. The Chorus equate death, as often in Greek literature, with privation of sight, therefore with abolishment of knowledge.18 In a malevolent world they are powerless to change, such rhetoric instantiates one specific conception of death: it obliterates earthly adversity. In both of these wishing, hypothetical situations, the Chorus’s language fixes the meaning of death—not as another world where anything of life continues, but as pure finality.19 Under such circumstances a modern reader might ask the nihilistic question: if death is nothingness, is any value whatsoever worthy of the grave? The Oresteia seems to address exactly this issue. Twice in the Agamemnon the Chorus threaten to resist the new tyrants at the cost of death, twice their threats fizzle (Ag. 1344-71 and 1652-53). Their denial of any continuation in the afterlife is tacitly coordinated with their failure to act in the political arena. The anesthesia of ending engenders inertia.

Clytemnestra’s Ghost: Society and Shame

10The Ghost of Clytemnestra presents the most extreme antithesis within the trilogy to the Chorus’s view of death. Murdered by her son Orestes in the second play of the Oresteia, Clytemnestra rises again in the third as a speaking character to demand the vengeance that she cannot take herself. Her speech is therefore intended to rouse, metaphorically and literally, the underworld spirits of universal requital, the Furies, whose incarnate forms sleep around her (Eu. 94-103, 114-16):

I, having been dishonored thanks to you thus 95

among the other dead—the reproach of those I killed

never ceases among the perished

and I wander shamefully. I proclaim to you that

I am blamed the most by them.

Having thus suffered appalling things

at the hands of my nearest kin, 100

not one of the divinities is wrathful on my behalf,

though I have been slaughtered by matricidal hands.

See these blows with your heart!

[…]

Hear me, as I have spoken for my very

soul! Mind it, oh underworld goddesses, 115

for I, a dream, Clytemnestra, now invoke you!

  • 20 Even though she returns as a Ghost, Clytemnestra does not seem to herself possess supernatural powe (...)

11The Ghost’s rhetoric uneasily projects shame-culture onto the world below:20 “reproach” (oneidos), “shamefully” (aischros) and “blamed” (aitia) combine to imply obligation to a community. The Ghost’s words here involve a contradictory attempt to protect timē (an “office,” a “duty,” as well as simple “honor”) despite having overturned communal mores through murdering her husband, the king, and seizing control of the state. In this passage, therefore, the phrase “having been dishonored” (apētimasmenē Eu. 95) undercuts reciprocal ethics and the social obligations implied in “office” or “duty.” Instead, Clytemnestra’s Ghost transforms the oneidos that should be her “shame” and “reproach”—that is, her punishment—into a method for compelling the Furies to murder on her behalf: “feel pain in your liver from just reproaches (oneidesin)” (Eu. 135). The Ghost has revised the term oneidos from “shame” as punishment to “reproach” as a social pressure that impels further violence. Waking, the Furies are haunted by this “reproach (oneidos) from dreams” (Eu. 155) and recommence their hunt of Clytemnestra’s killer, Clytemnestra’s son.

12Thinking through this scene as perhaps the earliest subversion of socially accepted ethical action by means of the afterlife in the Greek tradition, one understands that an imperative to acting positively in life (the conclusion which we will see Socrates draws) is far from the only possible reaction to continuation, social interaction, or even punishment below. The picture drawn by Clytemnestra’s Ghost makes no connection between socially positive actions and life-after-death. For the afterlife to induce ethical behavior the Oresteia turns to a divine force.

Hades and Athena: Multiplicity of Law

  • 21 Pindar’s Olympian 2 is somewhat earlier, on which see, e.g., [Lloyd-Jones 1984]. Note that Homer on (...)
  • 22 This passage is generally absent from discussions of the Oresteia’s progress from the retributive j (...)

13It is little known that the Oresteia presents among the first universal, ethically-based afterlife judgment in Greek literature.21 Dramatically, this comes about in a central confrontation between the roused Furies and Orestes, in which they threaten him with a blood-draining death and subsequent punishment in the underworld. Though this is already different enough from other perspectives on the afterlife, what slips in, nearly unnoticed by modern scholars, is that their vision of Hades applies to all humans (Eu. 267-75):22

And having shriveled you up while living, I shall haul you off below,

so that you may pay in requital matricidal sufferings.

And you will see – if some other mortal has transgressed,

dishonoring either a god, or a guest-friend,

or their dear parents –

each one getting due recompense of justice.

For Hades is the great assessor of mortals beneath the earth;

he watches over all with his tablet-writing mind.

  • 23 [Sommerstein 1989, n. 269-72] cites Supp. 701-9 and Ar. Ra. 145-50. Cf. also Eu. 538-48 where the F (...)

14These lines are delivered by divinities whose realm, as we are repeatedly reminded, is the chthonic underworld. Hence, the description of the opaque workings of the universe may come across as far more authoritative than speculations about the justice of Zeus or an overarching system of ethics by the human Choruses of the two previous plays. In the Furies’ menacing articulation, every mortal is subject to an omniscient judge after death and is punished in proportion to his or her transgressions. The implications are vast: by enumerating punishment for three major crimes of the Greek world (the fracture of either human-divine, guest-host, or child-parent relations), the passage provides an outline of an ethical code, represented not in the form of an establishing moment, nor as human surmise, but as the indisputable, cosmic framework of justice.23

  • 24 Athena warns future generations not to “pollute the clear water of the laws” (Eu. 693-5), an anxiet (...)
  • 25 [Bacon 2001, p. 55] demonstrates the connections of these themes: “mother and son have their first (...)

15The Oresteia’s confusing of terms and relationships, however, muddies the clear rules of Hades.24 The perverted history of kinship in the house of Atreus (Agamemnon murders his daughter Iphigenia, for which Clytemnestra murders him, for which, in turn, Orestes murders her); the subversion of the guest-host relationship (Orestes masquerades as a guest to kill his hosts);25 and the heavily compromised divinities (Artemis, for example, has demanded the sacrifice of innocent Iphigenia) all assault the self-evidence of Hades’ laws. How can the torrid cycle of retribution cease if the actions that necessitate punishment never do, when even Zeus (who imprisons his own father, Eu. 641-2) is guilty of breaching these very rules? What is one to make of such continual subversions? When humans and divinities continually transgress this code and even its enforcement engenders cyclical violence, the implication is that the law up to this point is insufficient.

  • 26 The “Semnai Theai,” who already had a cult and a different aitiology, see [Johnston 1999, p. 279-86 (...)
  • 27 In Eu. 490-515 the Furies predict that humanity will engage in unbridled slaughter if murderers are (...)
  • 28 Stasis, one of their self-descriptions (Eu. 311), often signifies “faction” and even “sedition” or (...)
  • 29 Examples, of stratos, “army, host” used for “people, city” occur in Eu. 566, 681-84, and 889.
  • 30 Contra [Euben 1982], who reads the Oresteia through Arendt’s ideas about the true political realm a (...)

16The reciprocal vengeance of the Furies and the criteria for judgment by Hades have to crumble for a new, civic edifice to be built over them. Athena’s law is presented as just such a durable, classical temple of justice: the goddess establishes the first homicide court, declares Athens to be a just city that she loves, integrates the Furies into it as the “August Goddesses,”26 and warns against ever changing the rules she establishes. However, in the new system the violence apparent in humanity is not squelched, rather its forces are redirected. Previously, by characterizing the nature and history of both humankind and divinities as bloody trespasses that must perpetually be punished, the Furies represented their function as a check.27 With the trial of Orestes, when acquittal for admitted murder becomes a possibility for the first time, they turn their factionalism, their “standing apart” (stasis) into a critique of Athena’s “new law,” for it no longer weighs personal actions directly against consequences.28 Law hereafter requires subordination of ethical punishment to the city’s welfare. Orestes and his guardian Apollo offer aid to Athens, Athena wants it to be a haven against cycles of vengeance—these political considerations appear to be a main reason Orestes goes unpunished. When the Furies are finally integrated into Athens, they become a divine part of the new, civic order. Together with Athena, they offer benedictions to Athens on two specific conditions that should immediately raise suspicions, at least for a modern reader: their blessings are predicated on Athenians’ total submission to civic authority and on a policy of endless external conquest. First, the divinities describe same-mindedness as the essential principle of politics, counseling the Athenians to “love with a common intention” and “to hate with one heart” (Eu. 985-6). According to them, love and hatred, as long as they are in unison, are a cure for all the troubles of a city (Eu. 987). Second, Athena consistently refers to Athens both as city and army,29 and wishes Athens “victory without evil” (Eu. 903). That is, She spurs the city to war and promises escape from its horrors, ones described earlier in the trilogy for the Trojan War. Instead of voting as indicative of multiple opinions and of reconciliation as a truly political advance in human justice the Oresteia’s ending espouses absolute collectivity and unconditional warfare30.

  • 31 This presents a somewhat different approach to the place of the individual in tragedy than the crit (...)

17Is there any check within the trilogy on the divine justifications for Athenian unity in militarism? It is, I argue, paradoxically, the unstaged, unhonored, unreciprocal Hades who is the remaining incommensurate divine force. After the Furies’ transformation Hades alone is the judge of behavior left unbound to Athens. He therefore represents a justice that implicitly sets the individual against the civic system. While the jury in the Eumenides is subjected to arguments about the benefit or harm to their city of acquitting Orestes, Hades is not only unbribeable, but also concerned with individual ethical action as opposed to civic good.31 Monologic, Hades (in the Furies’ threatening rhetoric, at least) relies on his singular, all-seeing nature, entirely antithetical to testimony and persuasion, staples of Athena’s and the Athenian notion of justice. This demonstrates the deliberate reserve in the Oresteia’s representation of polytheistic divinities in interaction with the polis: Greek gods are not all constrained to back the unity of the city or to sanction any political action in the world. Hades—the one divinity who is said to enforce an ethical code and is not beholden to Athens—allows an individual human a foothold to critique the collective on the basis of ethical behavior, rigorously judged after death.

18Attentive to the Oresteia's acknowledged problematization of unity, care must be taken not to attribute an easy philosophical validity to a single facet of any theme. Neither the glorifying of Athens eternally nor the abstract judgment in the underworld represents an untainted ethical structure. For, though Hades is part of a critique of totality and violence, his justice is predicated on punishment. In this respect, he is called miastōr (Eu. 177), properly rendered “polluted one.” That is, his law is not unproblematically judicial but also remains within the thematic circle of the Furies’ vengeance that the Eumenides prima facie abolishes. Once the Furies are yoked to the city by Athena’s law, Hades is the only divinity left who continues vindictive punishment, to the point that he ignores the sacred law of suppliants (Eu. 175-7). Like the spirits of vengeance who evoke him, Hades is too relentless.

19Through the resources of drama and polytheism the Eumenides demands reconsiderations of law, the polis, violence, and their justifications. In staging divinities, the tragedy also particularizes the law represented by each: Athena urges war and manifests on behalf of a specific city (though her worship was widespread); The blood-sucking Erinyes describe Hades as an implacable avenger. If the Eumenides dramatizes revelation, it nevertheless provides no plenary, singular imperative: its divine is manifold. Though Hades’ law and Athena’s are not explicitly contrasted, nevertheless, their diverging demands on humanity enjoin audiences ancient and modern to reapply the assumptions, character, and consequences of Hades to Athena and vice versa.

The Antigone: From Absolutes to Unbelief?

  • 32 [Vernant and Vidal-Naquet 1990, p.39-42], describe tragedy in general as setting the whole divine u (...)

20Such an opposition between political forces and the underworld becomes far more explicit in the Antigone. Of all the reasons the heroine gives for burying her brother and thus defying the ruler of her state, the afterlife in itself is one of the least emphasized in recent debates.32 Yet the transformations in her rhetoric of the afterlife from the start to the end of the play divulges the limits of Antigone’s faithfulness to her stated “beliefs.” It thus rewards a brief examination as an intellectual intermediary point between the Oresteia’s examples, with staged divinities, and Plato’s utterly human investigations into the afterlife, belief in it, and its political effects.

21Throughout, the Antigone extends no more than hints at a redemptive afterlife, nor does it refer to judgment in the “beyond.” Instead, Antigone’s language and action concerning the status of the dead remain as in her first formulation: her brothers’ positions in the afterlife depend entirely on their respective rites of burial. This creates the central conflict in the play, clashing with Creon’s prohibition of burial for Polynices, based the latter’s political treachery. However, for herself Antigone ignores the disposition of her body and declares that her situation in the afterlife depends on ethical, pious action (Ant. 72-76):

It is noble for me to die doing this deed.

As a loved one I will lie with him, with a loved one,

Having illicitly committed sacred acts; since for longer

I must be pleasing to those below than above.

For I will lie there always.

  • 33 The primacy of the underworld to her initial motivation is evident through Antigone’s topographical (...)
  • 34 Note also that the name Kreōn is merely a cipher for kreōn “ruler, lord, master,” as [Santirocco 19 (...)
  • 35 Whose name means “blood,” see the pun in Ant. 1175.
  • 36 Ismene, “my kindred true sister” (Ant. 1), is as close to Antigone as her brother by the logic of s (...)
  • 37 Debates concerning the “religious” nature of Antigone’s appeals have generally centered on the “unw (...)
  • 38 Various sources for the myth of Polynices’ burial, some preceding the Antigone, tell of Creon’s bei (...)
  • 39 E.g. Ant. 897-904. On the range of meanings of philia (“friendship” and “kinship,” among others) in (...)

22The only reference point for the eternity and absolute justness of her sacred transgression is the underworld, not honor given by the citizens, fame in song, or a high-heaped tomb, the Iliadic justifications for an early death.33 Her after-death continuation becomes the locus of pleasure and duration. Moreover, along with the Olympian gods Antigone argues from “Justice who lives among the gods below” (Ant. 451-2). Antigone’s revaluation is so extreme that she can deny not only her own life, but annul every connection and extirpate her living relations: she disobeys the dominant male of the city and her household, Creon;34 gives up her marriage to his son, Haemon;35 and disowns her sister.36 None of her relations, biological or social, no obligations to the city or herself affect her actions. Powerless to coerce Creon, Antigone creates an ethical compulsion for herself through an appeal to a realm outside of his political sphere:37 the afterlife, precisely because it is unknowable, is also uncontrollable by any human ruler.38 The same key words recur in her argument with Creon and her funeral speech, where she again makes kinship exclusive to the realm below.39 Antigone reflects the underworld into her main motivation in the upper one.

  • 40 Only through Tiresias does the audience have seemingly authoritative, though vague statements conce (...)

23Nevertheless, Antigone argues with a mouth full of shadows. Unlike Cassandra, priestess of Apollo, in the Agamemnon, Antigone has no second sight, no speech coerced and illuminated by the rays of divine revelation. She lacks even the blessings of a priestly intermediary.40 Her tenebrous, insubstantial connection to the afterlife cannot bear any of the weight she loads it with. Eventually, therefore, her infamous extremism begins to falter. While the phrase “I very much nourish the hope” (Ant. 897, referring to joining her dead family), and Ant. 925-8 (where she begins “if the gods approve [what is being done to me]”) could be adduced as evidence that Antigone wavers in her certainty, most relevant for the dynamics of her belief in the afterlife is a simple line (Ant. 521): “Who knows if these things are holy below?”Any understanding of Antigone as fanatic or martyr must be tempered by the epistemological uncertainty that she herself admits. As Antigone sings her own dirge her lyrics testify to an inability to offer a totalizing human or divine justification for her actions (Ant. 919-23):

Thus bereft of family and friends, doomed,

still living, I go to the catacombs of the dead.

What justice of divinities have I transgressed?

Why should I, wretched, still look to the gods?

24Antigone has acted, she has theorized her actions with relation to the underworld, but in the aftermath, in the light of consequences and lack of connection to the divine, begins to retract her absolutist claims.

Tragedy’s Versions of the Afterlife

  • 41 [Vernant and Vidal-Naquet 1990, p. 43], make the general point that in order to understand the conf (...)

25Of cardinal importance for comparison with Platonic examples is tragedy’s rewriting the afterlife within the same work. We encounter a transformation of life’s values, but one whose dramatic action turns reliance on the afterlife for ethical and political action away from singular conviction and toward a multiplicity that often ends up shaking convictions.41 In the first play of the Oresteia the emphasis on the epistemological problems of intuiting the divine structure of human life inflects the Chorus’s unease throughout. In their abruption of continuity after death is their political stance, which abets by inaction the takeover of the state. Antipodal is the meddling of Clytemnestra’s Ghost, whose description of underworld society upholds her claims on life, claims so twisted ethically that they alert us to the venomous potential of reliance on another world. A third perspective on the afterlife in the Oresteia, again contradicting the previous two, announces that Hades—in a role familiar to Abrahamic religions, but in no way a part of Athenian religion—watches over, judges, and punishes the ethical actions of all individuals. Athena’s new laws presumably transform man’s justice (at least in Athens) from self-edacious vengeance to a dissentless civic unity, rendering superfluous such post-mortem judgment. On closer examination, however, the city’s emphasis on violence and conquest means that Hades, whose prime focus is on the individual’s ethical action, remains a latent force for political resistance. The Antigone brings to the fore this contrast between civic submission and afterlife-based personal ethics. Antigone escapes from the values of the world above, especially the historically contingent, human political decree, to the absolutes of the world below. Antigone’s lack of religious certainty, her reliance on her own understanding of the afterlife to structure values culminates, however, in an announcement of abandonment. These tragic renditions of the relations between the afterlife, politics, and belief thus lay out a variety of possible groundings of ethics. They emphasize, literarily, the destructive play of opposing forces, and their mutually critical positions.

Plato

Legal Fiction and the Void

  • 42 The Republic, the Gorgias, and the Phaedo incorporate extensive afterlife myths, the Apology, Crito(...)
  • 43 E.g. [Dodds 1945, p. 21-24], intuited “Plato’s personal faith” and religious emotion for a single F (...)
  • 44 Latching onto the absence of the doctrine of separation between body and soul, those who posit a “h (...)

26What separates the ‘martyrdom’ of Antigone from that of Socrates? How does Plato, that consummately subtle rewriter of myths, diagnose belief in the afterlife and its roles in the predicament of humanity’s place in the world?42 The drama of Socrates’ trial and execution concatenates freedom (intellectual and political), the laws of the city, and the whole range of possibilities concerning the afterlife we have already addressed. The urgent question, the one that would address a genuine analogy or rift between Socrates and Antigone, is: “does Socrates ground his ethics on the afterlife?” Are we presented with a theological truth that Socrates believes in and that alters his perspective on human justice? Whereas the multiplicity of perspectives in the Oresteia and the wavering faith of Antigone implicitly raised the problem of trust in the afterlife, Plato makes belief and unbelief an explicit topic of debate. The following sections will commence from an analysis of passages in the Apology and Phaedo where Socrates professes belief in the afterlife in line with other aspects of what is identified as his commitment to metaphysical truths (the eternity of the soul and the absolute forms).43 If the afterlife (or any myth or metaphysical doctrine) is indeed an unquestioned belief in any dialogue where Socrates displays his ethical commitments then it is necessarily also an end of investigative discourse, of logos, a place opposite to and destructive of philosophy.44 Thoughtlessness would contaminate ethics.

27 Does Plato fail to understand the problem (key to the tragic examples) of building ethical foundations on an abyss when he has Socrates invoke the inscrutable underworld? In the Crito it is his prosopopoeia of the city’s laws that contains an intimation of the answer, if only by raising more difficulties (Cri. 54b-c):

Now, however, you will leave, if you do leave, wronged not by us, the laws, but by men: but if you flee having so shamefully reciprocated injustice and wrongdoing, having transgressed our agreements and covenants and wronged those one should least of all—yourself, your friends, your fatherland, and us—then both we shall be harsh with you while you live, and there our brothers, the laws in the house of Hades, will not receive you kindly, knowing that you tried, for your part, to destroy us.

  • 45 On the haphazard nature of the Athenian legal system, especially as applied in surviving court spee (...)
  • 46 One can contrast Plato’s much closer formulation in the Republic (III.386a): appropriate tales for (...)
  • 47 Imagination in Plato is an issue interwoven with the role of his literary or poetic engagement—a fa (...)

28The “laws (nomoi) and the commonwealth of the city” (Cri. 50a) that are speaking present a much more ambiguous and phantasmal collective than modern readers, used to a structured legal system might think. In fact, Socrates was charged, convicted, and executed under no specific, stable, written code; laws were subject to widely varying formulations in contemporary Athens.45 In Socrates’ projection into the afterlife, moreover, analogous rules punish one’s living actions, another concept that seems perfectly intuitive. Yet afterlife laws, which in Socrates’ presentation are cognate with (“brothers” of) the civic ones, were even further from being an established system. The divergent appeals to Hades in the Oresteia and the Antigone as well as the lack of any unified doctrine concerning the afterlife demonstrate sufficiently that there existed neither “religious” nor cultural consensus on these. Socrates’ set comprises the self, friends, and the state, diverging substantively from the laws of Hades reported in the Eumenides, which only refer to human-divine, guest-host, and child-parent relations.46 In the tragic examples above, moreover, the individual-centered ethics of underworld laws was seen to oppose state law. In fact, Socrates does not appeal to the structures of Greek religion, the “gods the city believes in” (in the Apology’s phrasing), nor to any provision of actual Athenian law—and, of course, not to the correctness of the jury’s verdict. Instead, Plato’s Socrates patently uses his imagination to transmute Athens’ laws into a concept of law valid anywhere. Socrates creates an ethical imperative by the use of poetic devices in a fictional speech from an anthropomorphized entity (“the laws”) that lacked divinity in the Greek pantheon.47 The conjunction of politics, the afterlife, ethics, and the question of belief in these stories must be interpreted by reexamining the Apology and the Phaedo, which ring further Platonic changes on tragic versions of the afterlife. It will become evident that not only is Plato aware of the problems of dependence on theological claims but that he confronts in philosophical conversation the very conundrums of human values that tragedy performs.

The Apology: Rewriting the End, Again and Again

  • 48 Socrates’ provocation in these passages perhaps echoes (and transforms) the trope in Sophocles (OC (...)
  • 49 “The customary prophetic (sign or voice) of the demonic thing” (Apol. 40a-c). Cf. 31c-d where Socra (...)
  • 50 Similar issues arise from the Delphic Oracle’s marking Socrates as having achieved the height of hu (...)
  • 51 [Strauss 1964, p. 51] points out that this is the great barrier to generalizing ethical lessons for (...)
  • 52 On the embarrassment for rationalizing interpretations of Socrates’ reliance on the divine sign, se (...)
  • 53 Phdr. 275c-e. [Derrida 1981 (1968), p. 167-8 et passim], argues from this notion, among others, for (...)

29As he gathers the jurors who voted for his acquittal for intimate discussion, calling them the “true judges,” Socrates shuns the obvious purport of his loss in court, of his imminent execution: an amazing thing has happened, and who knows if death is not a good thing.48 All who thought otherwise—including, presumably those same “true judges” who voted not to end Socrates’ life—could easily have been deluded by the unknowability of death. Compounding the unexpected nature of this reversal, Socrates at first bases it on terms idiosyncratic and thus impossible of generalization. For Socrates’ “great proof” of his re-valuation of death and life is that his personal intervenient sign failed to stop him at any point during this day, although since childhood it was accustomed to ward him away from harmful actions he himself had chosen.49 The ethical paradigm is that of a prophet. 50 Forces beyond knowledge, even contrary to knowledge, regulate Socrates’ endeavors.51 Thus, the inscrutable voices of heaven cancel the human meaning of the trial. The events of history, the winners and losers, the voters’ condemnation, death itself, are all reversed. Socrates’ interpretation of the double negative—that is, his belief that the sign’s absence indicates that the events of the day are good—is, as many have pointed out, utterly unconvincing.52 Even more disturbingly, there is no elenchos, philosophical cross-examination, of such a sign possible. One could bring to bear against it the infamous charge that Socrates levels against writing in the Phaedrus: though it speaks, it cannot answer for itself.53 Yet the divine sign is problematic beyond that: in contradistinction to the unerotic love-logos of Lysias, to which Socrates replies with his own counter-speech and the structured counterargument that spans the Phaedrus­­ as a whole, the demon voice of the Apology does not even make an argument, it simply negates. Socrates therefore presents himself as divinely justified—unquestionably.

  • 54 Note the circumscribed role of religion in the Republic and the discussion of lawmaking as a human (...)

30Our suspicions are well-founded: above all Plato characterizes Socrates’ life as a protracted examination of others and himself. More specifically, Socrates critiques even a (self-proclaimed) religious expert’s reliance on piety or any knowledge concerning the will of the gods for ethical action in the Euthyphro. Implicitly, he also undercuts the notion that divine imperatives could govern political decisions.54 In the Apology, the critique of reliance on the actuation of a divine will is ingenious to the point of deviousness. For Socrates immediately counterbalances the highly individual appeal to his daimonion with two universal possibilities (Apol. 40c):

Let us reflect also that in this way there is much hope that it [what happened to me] is good. For being dead is one of two things: either it is almost nothing, and a dead man has not any perception of anything, or it happens to be—as people say—some change and migration of the soul from here to another place.

31Though introduced as simply another reason for reappraising his situation, the derivation of value in this passage is immeasurably discrepant from the previous one: neither alternative is dependent on a divine voice. In fact, were either of these notions of being dead guiding Socrates’ calculations from the start, the demon sign would be entirely superfluous. It is crucial to connect this presentation of alternatives with tragedy’s perspectives on “elsewhere.” Even though the Apology is not devoted to questioning the afterlife per se, the very use of imagined, alternative, mutually exclusive models in close conjunction ought to put us on guard against simplifying the Socratic afterlife into a unitary master-scheme, a set of unchallenged beliefs.

  • 55 Kerdos “gain, profit” is a loaded word in itself, economic in origin. In this context it immediatel (...)
  • 56 In that ambiguous space the actual “true judges” exist, though it is left unspecified what they mig (...)

32The alternatives themselves are problematic. Death is inherently good because of what it offers: either it is the best sleep a human can have, eternally, which Socrates would count as a “gain”;55 or, it is nearly an exact continuation of one’s daily existence, but better.56 Either way, by the dialogue’s end, complete is the subversion of Athenian values. Non-life comes across as potentially more restful or more authentic and desirable for its nobler cast of characters, than life itself.

  • 57 Apol. 41d. This is a reversal of the charge in the trial, of not cultivating or caring for the gods (...)
  • 58 Apol. 42a and cf. the last line of the Crito: “let us act in this way, since in this way the god le (...)

33Neither absolute cessation nor eternal continuity seems to have anything to do with the circumstances of Socrates’ trial. They are equally applicable to any death. When he does turn his attention to the trial and the city, Socrates supplements these possibilities with additional relationships to death and the afterlife. First is the inability of the good man to be hurt in any way, whether living or dead, because “his affairs (pragmata) are not uncared for (ameletai) by the gods.”57 This double negative that applies to the class of good men appears to connect neither with sleep nor an afterlife spent cross-examining the dead. Divine concern for ethical living remains nebulous. The conjunction between an unspecified god (this time in the singular) and a human’s status is repeated when, in the final line of the Apology, only “the god” knows which state (pragma in the singular) is better, to live or to die.58 Instead of a religious truth to which humans may appeal, we find alternatives and vagaries.

34These proliferate further when one takes into account that between the two mentions of divine oversight are three separate further types of non-afterlife continuity for Socrates: by family (his sons), by his effect on Athenian mores (or that of his imitators), and by the perpetuation of the way of life he has been advocating. Analogously to the still extant Serpentine Column, Socrates melts his enemies’ weapons to cast a victory trophy with these three themes intertwined (Apol. 41d-42a):

And yet it was not with that intention that they condemned and accused me, but thinking that they were injuring me. It is right to blame them for that. However, I make this request of them: when my sons grow up, oh men, punish them by troubling them as I have troubled you; if they seem to you to care for money or anything else more than for virtue, and if they think they amount to something when they do not, rebuke (oneidizete) them as I rebuke you because they do not care for what they should, and think they amount to something when they are worth nothing. If you do this, both I and my sons will have been treated justly by you.

  • 59 The Odyssey’s reversal of the Iliad’s focus on personal glory is distinctly manifest in the underwo (...)
  • 60 Sons in Homer and Classical culture were known by patronymics. “Glory” (kleos) is connected in Gree (...)
  • 61 Note oneidizete, from oneidos, The Ghost of Clytemnestra’s word of reproach from beyond the grave.

35Socrates’ own status after death remains elusive in this account of continuity: the last line refers to an “I” who “will have received” justice, even though the speaker of the “I” will be dead. It is fruitful to compare this with the “vengeance on the city” by an unrestrained crowd of imitators that Socrates prophesies in Apol. 29c-d. These non-pupils (for he denies he has taught anyone, Apol. 33a-c) are distinct from the preservation of Socrates’ self and legacy. Continuity through filial imitation is as old as the Odyssey,59 yet Socrates’ last wishes are neither for glory nor for his sons to carry on his manner of life.60 Rather, he takes a type of vengeance on his judges and prosecutors, by asking them—facetiously, to be sure—to embark upon the very habit of judgment and rebuke for which they executed him, and to apply it to his sons as an education.61 Socrates is concerned about his method, but, parallel to his refusal to write down any philosophy, he does not seriously undertake to provide for any biological, glory-based, or formally structured (one might say “Academic”) succession.

  • 62 [Derrida 1981 (1968)] recognizes the deliberate flowering of meanings in Platonic texts and deals w (...)

36What, then, is left of Socrates? Why this florescence of alternative views on personal continuity, each fighting for rootholds in the minds of the readers, and sunlight in Socrates’ own language, yet bound, perhaps, to wither as the next springs up? Plato turns considerable literary and philosophical resources in the Apology to having Socrates raise incommensurate alternatives and then deliberately forego choice. Recognizing this framework proves vital to understanding the interconnectivity of Socrates’ reasons. The contradictory universal claims concerning death following closely upon the divine sign dramatize an implicit critique of the notion of belief in a single argument about the goodness of death. Instead of dismissing Socratic myth or striving to declare only one of these strands consistent with his dialectical argument, it is essential to understand that Plato has Socrates end on creative multivalence, rather than privileging a single choice or a determinate explanation.62 The polysemy of death is foremost, for a reason. It marks the fictional, projecting aspects of his statements. To make sense of why, one could cite Socrates’ zetetic approach to life in the Apology and connect the fecundity of his reasons with an understated encouragement of each listener’s critical thinking. Nevertheless the Apology does not demonstrate any explicit philosophical ratiocination concerning its own alternatives: Socrates’ reasons go unquestioned and his personal example of the examined life is far too general to act as a template. How, then, is one to specifically assess the place of “belief” in the afterlife for ethics and politics in Plato? Further insight into its morphology must be sought in a reading of the Phaedo, which will uncover Plato’s use of the afterlife as a particular kind of motive force.

The Phaedo

Cycles of Unbelief

  • 63 For several approaches to the problem of how Plato can seriously claim his myths to be “true,” see (...)
  • 64 [Jansen 2013, p. 335] is the most recent to raise this issue and connect it with Socrates’ “swan so (...)
  • 65 Wallace Stevens challenges the imaginative effect of Plato’s myths, writing about the chariot of th (...)

37Plato’s stance towards the myths in the Phaedo—whose very presence seems at odds with logical argument—continues to bedevil interpreters.63 Why does Socrates insist that it’s the poet’s job to make myths (mythous) but not arguments (logous, 61b), deny that he is a mythmaker (mythologikos, a combination of muthos and logos, Phdo. 61b), and then immediately proceed to tell myths (mythologein, 61e, with the same coupling), continuing on to a logos (70c) and a muthos (114d) of the afterlife?64 Is Socrates only trying to secure the agreement of his friends through the obfuscations and contradictions of dramatic art? 65 Is Plato endeavoring to cozen his readers?

  • 66 “And those who established the rites of initiation for us are possibly not some petty men but in re (...)

38Such a set of deliberate contradictions about myth forces a productive reexamination of the limits of credence that the Phaedo repeatedly nears as it presents arguments, counterpoints, and questions. Socrates’ own statements of belief, which readers often take for an end-point, a declaration of his immovable commitments, are in fact repeatedly met with startling denials. The cycle begins with what one might call the “bifarious trope,” where Socrates raises a pair of alternatives which he declines to choose between: because of the body’s hindrances, the Truth either cannot be acquired at all or it can only be acquired after death (Phdo. 66e-67a). Next, Socrates defends his belief that, like those initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries,66 he will be going to a better place after death because of his practice of philosophizing correctly, and hopes that it was more persuasive (pithanōteros, from peithō, persuasion”) to his interlocutors than his defense to the Athenian jury (Phdo. 69d-e). At this moment Cebes objects with what he describes as a culturally prevalent agnosticism (Phdo. 70a):

The things you say concerning the soul produce much unbelief (pollēn apistian) in men…perhaps no little explanation (paramuthias, from muthos) and persuasion (pisteōs) is required to show that when a man is dead the soul still exists and has any power and intelligence.

39Active doubt concerning the eternity of the soul and therefore continuity into the afterlife are the response to Socrates’ affirmation. Unbelief (the negative a-pistian) is a general, human truth with which Socrates must contend—beyond mere dictum.

  • 67 [Peterson 2011, p. 162-193], details the Pythagorean connections of the frame and the interlocutors (...)

40A recrudescence of unbelief mars the next round of argument as well, where Socrates provides yet another reason for his almost cheerful acceptance of death. He begins from his memory of “an ancient story” (logos) that the souls of men go to the house of Hades and are reincarnated (Phdo. 70c-d). It is important to interrupt the flow of our analysis at this point and note—against the usual way of reading Socrates’ commitments here—that both the characteristics that Socrates attributes to “the true philosopher” (Phdo. 63e-69e) and the afterlife logos he “recalls” are deeply Pythagorean. There is conclusive internal evidence that Socrates does not share these beliefs, at least in the absolute way in which he formulates them.67 This adds a layer of complexity to the second instance of belief and unbelief, but does not change its basic pattern. For the cycle—declaration of belief in the afterlife, reasoning about life, and unbelief—repeats itself when the convincing and reassuring Socrates has given fails. Socrates’ interlocutors are even fearful that their abiding doubts will aggravate his last moments, so that Socrates, seemingly frustrated, declares (Phdo. 84e):

Oh, Simmias! Surely I could hardly persuade (peisaimi) other people that I do not consider my present situation as a disaster, when I cannot even persuade (peithein) you…”

  • 68 “Such was the end (teleutē), Echecrates, of our friend, who was, as we may say, of all those of his (...)
  • 69 To pile on the objections, in the Gorgias Socrates’ failure to persuade his Sophist interlocutors o (...)

41Socrates has not convinced anyone. Even with his dying words, Socrates struggles to create a separation in language between his “I” (egō) and his corpse (Phdo. 115c-e), a condition of continuity of self beyond death. Finally, in the closing of the dramatic frame, Socrates is referred to by the storyteller as finished, using the very word for ending and death that Socrates uttered earlier for the alternative of being dead without any afterlife.68 Plato forces his readers to deeply reconsider the argumentative value of the afterlife, seeing as its use for persuasion founders internally.69 Why dramatize an utter failure to convince, a genuine lack of acceptance of these afterlife possibilities? Plato appears to be an utter skeptic about his own myths.

Skepticism and its Discontents

  • 70 On Plato as specific type of skeptic concerning specific issues in epistemology, as opposed to meta (...)
  • 71 “Let us not permit into our soul the chance that there is no health of arguments at all” (Phdo. 91e (...)
  • 72 On the subtle connections between this anti-purity argument and the earlier emphasis on a philosoph (...)
  • 73 90d-91a, and cf. [Vlastos 1971, p. 5-6].

42Total doubt seems to wind the umbilical cord around Socrates’ tales; the midwife cannot save them before birth. Yet there is a last step in the cycle—omitted in the above description of the dramatic action—that exhibits Socrates’ methodological answer to the skeptical objection:70 Socrates refracts the interlocutors’ challenges away from skepticism and toward a further philosophical questioning. In the first example from the Phaedo Socrates is heartened by the need for a return to the investigation; claims (presumably rebutting the charges concerning religion made in Aristophanes’ Clouds and by his prosecutors) that the afterlife concerns him personally in his present circumstance; and finally urges the group to examine the matter to the end (Phdo. 70b-c). In the second example, Socrates makes a crucial admonition: he warns his internal audience against becoming haters of argument, misologists (misologoi, Phdo. 89d), and demands that the group renounce skepticism and cynicism, avant la lettre.71 Socrates describes the naivety of those seeking total integrity and absolute Truth in the world, either in people or in argument. Wishing for such purity, when disappointed, leads to hatred of people, misanthropy, or of arguments, misology. Instead, he insists, one must grasp the in-betweenness of most life (Phdo. 89d-90d). If one contrasts this line of argument with Socrates’ earlier statements, it becomes clear that it is a sly assault on the entire basis of the beginning of the Phaedo. There Socrates led his interlocutors into assenting that it is “purity” from the body’s needs, achieved in the afterlife, that enables “true philosophers” to deal with arguments “purely.”72 Forcing oneself to be “in the world” demonstrates Socrates’ ethical emphasis: rather than surrendering, in action or thought, to an “elsewhere” outside the body or seeking pure Truth in abstractions, one must rather strive to improve one’s health through good argument and ethical action, whether one is to go on living and or is about to die.73 The integral connection, then, between the so devastatingly scripted expressions of doubt and the structure of the Phaedo is that the critical force of unbelief serves to propel a larger ethical and argumentative movement. Doubt and disbelief are eristically productive.

43And yet, Socrates follows this insight into his philosophical technique with a prodigious, astounding declaration (Phdo. 91a-b):

‘For I am in danger just now of not being in a philosophical frame of mind as regards this particular question, but being contentious, like quite uncultured persons. For when they argue about anything, they do not care what the truth is in the matters they are considering, but are eager only to make their own theses seem (doxei) true to their hearers. And I seem to myself (moi dokō) to differ from them in the present circumstance only to this extent: I shall not be eager that what I say seem (doxei) to be true to my hearers, except as a secondary matter, but to consider how it very much seems to me (emoi doxei). For I reason that—look, dear companion, how greedily!—if what I say happens to be true, it is good to have been persuaded (peisthēnai); and if nothing exists for one having died (teleutēsanti), still, at least I shall be less disagreeable to those present by lamenting in this time before death. And this insanity (a-noia “mindlessness”) of mine will not last—that would be bad—but will soon perish. So,’ he said, ‘Simmias and Cebes, I advance against the argument (logon) thus prepared.’

  • 74 [Kierkegaard 1989, p. 78-9].

44Kierkegaard pounces on this passage as a high point of entirely negative Socratic irony. From his perspective Socrates undercuts all arguments and subverts true dialectic by emphasizing nothingness and selfishness, not as a middle point but as the end of thought.74 There is, further, a lightness in Socrates’ presentation of alternatives (the “bifarious trope” once again) that jars readers who desire the profundities of seriousness. As in the Apology, he bluntly phrases the possibility of nihilism: the entire argument for belief is presented as a ‘non-annoying’ or even an insane alternative to rational nothingness. Understanding the motivation for such parlance, clarifying the turns of belief in the Phaedo cannot but add to understanding Socrates’ relation to myth, the afterlife, and his metaphysical claims.

Where Logic Falters?

  • 75 [Arieti 1986] argues for the primacy of the dramatic aspect of the Phaedo over its philosophical co (...)
  • 76 [Destrée 2012] revives the view that Platonic myth acts as the “emotional” component of the dialogu (...)
  • 77 [Annas 1982, p. 125-9], postulates that the Phaedo has not combined the ideas of judgment and reinc (...)

45Could we interpret the multiple possibilities about the afterlife and Socrates’ theorization of belief at this last moment as performative? More clearly, can his argument be effective at inducing philosophy without necessarily being true? Much has been made of drama in Plato, and especially these dying scenes. Through the pathos of the dialogue, the death scene, and the reverential, though non-philosophical reactions of the frame audience, Socrates becomes assimilated to the tragic hero (or heroine).75 Further, some have generalized Plato’s myths as a way to ensnare readers with emotion and transfer the charge to the argument.76 We might find “great proofs” in Socrates’ own words to support such a reading: at the end of the Phaedo, the alternative to nothingness is the notion that ‘if the soul is immortal we must take care of it’ (Phdo. 107b-d), which gains strength until it is the dominant impression of the dialogue. After the description of the soul’s journey and a poetic cosmogony (Phdo. 107d-114b), Socrates, in the vaguest of terms (“not easy to describe”), invokes the release of those who have “sufficiently purified themselves by philosophy” from their bodies and from the cycle of rebirth (114b-c).77 Yet, in a direct contradiction, the speaker of this story himself prevents us from taking his own position as philosophically investigative, only one that is useful and even necessary to believe (Phdo. 114c-115a):

But because of these things that we have gone through in detail, oh Simmias, we ought to do everything so as to partake of virtue and wisdom in life. For the prize is fine and the hope great. Now, affirming that these are the way I went through them is not fitting for a man of sense, but that these things or some such things concerning our souls and their dwellings—since the soul is manifestly immortal—this seems to me both fitting and worth risking, since I think it is the case—for fine is the risk—and he must repeat such things as if he were to sing charms to himself, which is the reason why for my part I have been lengthening out the story (muthon) so long. So on account of these things a man must to be brave concerning his own soul […] thus he awaits his journey to the house of Hades, in order that he go when destiny calls him.

  • 78 [Derrida 1981 (1968), p. 123-24], brings to the fore the inversion that the pharmakon causes in the (...)
  • 79 “And thus, Glaucon, a mythos was saved and not lost; and it could save us, if we are persuaded (pei (...)
  • 80 The Gorgias ends not only without the interlocutors conceding ground, but with Socrates forced into (...)
  • 81 On this two-layered notion in the Gorgias see [Rowe 2012]. [Edmonds 2012, p. 182-83] argues against (...)
  • 82 [Rowe 2012, p. 192-5]. This is also the gist of the argument that Socrates is mainly concerned with (...)
  • 83 [Brisson 1998] argues that Platonic myth persuades through an inferior, non-argumentative reliance (...)

46Unable to convince with argument, Socrates ends with what seems to be a desperate use of afterlife myth, as a song, charm, and remedy for the fear of death, for the emotional, childish component of ethical thought, which must be lulled, rather than persuaded by rigorous argument.78 This passage is analogous to the ending lines of the Republic where Socrates has sympathetic interlocutors and is committed to the positive value of the myth for people’s lives.79 The theme of myth as only somewhat plausible but intrinsically soothing also sheds light on the ending of the Gorgias, where the interlocutors refuse to ratify Socrates’ points.80 If myths have no persuasive value for the immediate conversation, as Socrates admits they do not, there remains the distinct probability that Plato is nevertheless endeavoring to exceed the limits of his written work. He is addressing his contemporaries in the prevalent vocabulary of myth, simultaneously warping mythic situations into ideas that radically question Greek cultural assumptions.81 In the Gorgias, for instance, Socrates’ insists that the eternal underworld punishment of the truly vicious serves as an example. As many have, we must ask again the question of profit: “who, exactly, will benefit from this example?” The souls ground in the maw of eternal torment cannot cash in on this lesson, nor can the recalcitrant Sophists who refuse to transcend their lucrative, but delimited logic-games, heedless of the ethical consequences. It is a simple claim that the targets are actually the bystanders within and without the dialogue: the audience of eternity.82 But even after redirecting the argument outward from spoken myth to internal listeners, from written dialogue to external readers, we must still deal with the central difficulty: is afterlife myth meant to induce belief, as a supplement to argument?83 Does it cover for the hollowness of Socratic reason?

Doxa

  • 84 “How it very much seems to me (emoi doxei).” (Phdo. 91a-b). On Plato’s use of doxa as the exclusive (...)
  • 85 [Arendt 2005, p. 7-37], addresses the problems of forming doxa about the highest matters and Plato’ (...)

47Socrates has dropped a clue about the relationship between philosophical thinking and belief in the afterlife: the “unphilosophical” strain in his own facing of death (Phdo. 91a-b, quoted above) is not because he differs from “the uncultured” in regards to convincing others, but arises from his own effort to argue for a doxa, “opinion.”84 The philosopher’s perspective, his unproven theory concerning the eternal questions of value, does after all intrude.85 Yet opinion is only a starting point, for doxa, even that of the philosopher, must be questioned, Socrates declares before the court in the Apology. As we have seen above, the Phaedo repeats a pattern of positing universal claims to which characters assent, then investigating in a different vein until the argument transcends the starting point, even at the cost of undermining metaphysical certitude. This appears to be the entire argumentative movement, to which the Phaedo conjoins the dramatic element of Socrates’ political and personal story. If Platonic argument were to stop at this re-individualization, the tragic element would be paramount, emotion would rule the day, and one could insist that the correct interpretation of Plato’s myth and drama is that he attempts to complete argument with pathos.

48Socrates does not allow it. After the soothing charm of an afterlife structured to reward the good and punish the malevolent, and after the emotional force of his own situation has touched his audience, Socrates demands that they reverse perspective again and cancel the personal (Phdo. 91b-c):

But you, if you are persuaded (peithēsthe) by me, will think little of Socrates and much more of the Truth (alētheias); and if I seem to you (dokō) to speak a true thing (alēthes), agree wholly to it, and if not, resist with every argument (logō), taking care that I do not deceive myself and you alike through eagerness and go away, like a bee, leaving my sting sticking in you.

49Philosophical exhortation here operates paradoxically: Socrates must convince his interlocutors not to be deceived by Socrates. Where is the grounding of this self-edacious command? A related challenge is the canon for critique: Socrates evokes “the Truth” (alētheia the noun) and a “true thing” (alēthes the adjective, used substantively) in close conjunction, eliding a possible difference between a metaphysical Idea of the Truth and words that are merely referentially true. In fact, Socrates seems not to refer here to a universal form of Truth, in line with his speculations about the Ideas elsewhere, but to be concerned with dialectic: the argumentative method rejects, on the one hand, the pathos of Socrates and, on the other, any grounding in a singular notion of pure Truth to which Socrates might have uniquely privileged access. The rereadings of the argument that Socrates urges to the point of discomfiture in nearly every interlocutor, these interminable returns require an exceeding of Socrates’ command as well. We must move beyond belief in Socrates.

Conclusions: Judgment Ethical, Political, Philosophical

“This man escaped the dirty fates,

Knowing that he died nobly, as he died.

Darkness, nothingness of human after-death,

Receive and keep him in the deepnesses of space —

Profundum, physical thunder, dimension in which

We believe without belief, beyond belief.”

Wallace Stevens, “Flyer’s Fall”

  • 86 Another diagnostician of modernity, Saul Bellow, confronts us with the opposite perspective on the (...)
  • 87 [Arendt 1970, p. 67-8] claims that the analysis of death as a motive for political action is almost (...)

50It is worth quoting the whole of Wallace Stevens’ poem, from which the epigraph was taken, so as to reinscribe our shared heritage into the heterogeneous perspectives on death encountered above. Whereas the Furies were literalized in the Oresteia as dog-faced, blood dripping embodiments of vengeance, Stevens’ flyer escapes the modern equivalent: his “dirty fates,” uncapitalized, are the vague possibilities of either a dishonorable end of life or its abject, meaningless, indefinite, atrophying extension. The second line sings a young man’s certitude concerning his own value and the world’s reception of a war hero’s death, the modern equivalent to ancient “glory.” But the narrator’s prayer that “nothingness of human after-death” paradoxically “keep him,” proclaims a modern destitution of religious language, and thus undermines, even makes ironic his certainty of nobility.86 The weaponized viciousness of a post-dogmatic era is surreptitiously guided by relations of life to what lies beyond, relations rooted in defunct formulations. The triply loaded final verse, however, reclaims something for the modern afterlife, asserting that our own perspective is not in-between but dual—we both believe and do not. Though moderns lack the ability to fully commit to a binary, almost Manichean view of punishment and thus consequentalist ethics, we have not replaced the need to make political meaning of death.87 A surface reading would stop at the truism that we still percuss the bones of a fossilized symbolic order, hoping to make music. In a profounder sense, however, the categories of religious thought return and self-other: Stevens’ final verse and his poem as a whole imply that we find ourselves filling in a content that is no longer the lipped, conventional one, but is still somehow valid—and therefore the creative reworking of forms, symbols, and language disestablishes pure unbelief.

51It is the greatest part of Stevens’ genius to sketch this vortex of the modern mind in six lines of unshaded verse, to force us to reinterpret through his enigmatic “believe…beyond belief”; it is Greek tragedy’s to act out the problems of beliefs in a world of plural values and fill them with the ever-valid pathos of individuals rent by the disparate forces that clutch them; it is Plato’s to dramatize a thinker battling with his native city, its myths and religion, a man who declares his belief in myths and yet challenges through subverting them, retelling them as new stories, and looking “beyond” them. Socrates demands that we not abandon symbols and forms to others, but wrestle with them, in daylight, in language, at whatever cost.

  • 88 George Steiner links the power of the imagination and potentiality with grammar, articulating the a (...)
  • 89 One of Nietzsche’s many accusations against dogmatic religion concerns its beyondness, which he equ (...)

52Against the proliferating babel of contingency, against the welter of undifferentiated meanings atop which the city violently squats, both tragedy and Platonic dialogue oppose the afterlife.88 Yes, in each of its iterations, from oblivion to the judging of ethical actions, the afterlife also subverts the instincts and the values of life and community.89 Yet in tragedy these challenges do not create any fixed system. In reinforcing individual ethics through Hades as avenger, the end of the Oresteia maintains a counterbalance to the dread alliance of divinities and city. Hades represents both a personal and a universal force, but ultimately one that is also polluted by its own violence. Lacking a single doctrine, emphasizing reversals in each case, the Oresteia and the Antigone frustrate a monologic conception of either life or the afterlife. Repeatedly they oblige a reappraisal of both political and universal rules. These tragic examples, nevertheless, emphasize limits and discord: crises of epistemology, the diremption of ethical action from earthly reward, and the blood-soaked opposition of even divine imperatives are the ending-point. Further discussion is external.

53Rather than remaining within the compass of tragedy, which harnesses irresolvable clashes in large part for an aesthetic experience, the Apology and Phaedo compel us to engage multiplicity and its challenge to thought. Parallel to the tragic examples that precede him and to the monotheism that follows in Western religions, Plato’s Socrates creates and recreates the afterlife to obvert political contingency. History becomes the ephemeral as opposed to the eternal fate of the soul. Despite the emotional comfort that Socrates claims from his belief, however, he provokes his audiences through alternative possibilities, irony, and elsewhere worlds. Specifically, he encourages a multifaceted complexity to conceptualizing human life and thus disrupts purity and belief in absolutes. This is especially true concerning the afterlife; unbelief is the driving force, rather than the exception. We are invited to think with, through, and against Socratic points, regardless of the certainty Socrates seems to posses. Plato creates a world for us in which others do not believe Socrates, and even Socrates does not believe Socrates. Moreover, Plato challenges us to disbelieve Socrates, to think through the argument regardless. Simply put, any one of these beliefs, were Plato to hold them (which has been widely claimed), would eviscerate thinking. As we have seen, Plato leverages the horde of continuities after death evoked in tragedy to subvert belief in any particular afterlife as an ethical basis, as an external code. The “bifarious trope” and every example of alternatives jammed together forces a continuation of inquiry at any cost, even past the beliefs and the emotional death of the mouthpiece or master. What separates Socratic dialogues from tragedy is that though the historical Socrates—already dead at the time of writing—might no longer be able to profess belief, the character Socrates always anyway couches his claims in ironies and subversions productive of debate. Plato’s tale of Socrates can thus present the afterlife as a way of breaking out of the actual as a first step: Socrates’ inability to convince, his execution by those he would improve, the lack of any succession to his mission, these are only the background. Socrates may have been made tragic, may even be a proto-martyr in the history of the West, but Plato’s subversion of the language of belief vitiates the force of that martyrdom, in favor of method. By breeding possibilities Plato chokes belief in Socrates’ ghost—for the life of philosophical judgment.

Haut de page

Bibliographie

Julia Annas, « Plato's Myths of Judgement », Phronesis 27(2), 1982, p. 119-43

Hannah Arendt, On Violence, New York, Harcourt, 1970

Hannah Arendt, The Promise of Politics, New York, Schocken, 2005

James A. Arieti, « A Dramatic Interpretation of Plato's Phaedo », Illinois Classical Studies 11(1/2), 1986, p. 129-42

James A. Arieti, Interpreting Plato: The Dialogues as Drama, Savage, Md., Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1991

Talal Asad, « Reading a Modern Classic: W. C. Smith's "the Meaning and End of Religion" », History of Religions 40(3), 2001, p. 205-22

Helen H. Bacon, « The Furies' Homecoming », Classical Philology 96(1), 2001, p. 48-59

Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler's Planet, New York, Viking Press, 1970

Alberto Bernabé, et Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristóbal, Instructions for the Netherworld: The Orphic Gold Tablets, Leiden, Brill, 2008

Ruby Blondell, The Play of Character in Plato's Dialogues, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002

A. M. Bowie, « Religion and Politics in Aeschylus' Oresteia », The Classical Quarterly 43(1), 1993, p. 10-31

Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1994

Jan N. Bremmer, The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife, London, Routledge, 2002

Thomas C. Brickhouse, et Nicholas D. Smith, « Socrates and Obedience to the Law », Apeiron: A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science 18(1), 1984, p. 10-18

Thomas C. Brickhouse, et Nicholas D. Smith, « Socrates and the Laws of Athens », Philosophy Compass 1(6), 2006, p. 564-70

Thomas C. Brickhouse, et Nicholas D. Smith, « Socrates' "Daimonion" and Rationality », Apeiron: A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science 38(2), 2005, p. 43-62

Luc Brisson, Plato the Myth Maker, trad. G. Naddaf, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1998

Ronna Burger, The Phaedo: A Platonic Labyrinth, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1984

Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1985

Judith Butler, Antigone's Claim: Kinship between Life and Death, New York, Columbia University Press, 2000

Elizabeth A. Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making, New York, Columbia University Press, 2004

Jacques Derrida, « Plato's Pharmacy », trad. B. Johnson, dans Dissemination, Chicago, University Press, 1981 (1968), p. 63-171

Pierre Destrée, « The "Daimonion" and the Philosophical Mission — Should the Divine Sign Remain Unique to Socrates? », Apeiron: A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science 38(2), 2005, p. 63-79

Pierre Destrée, « Spectacles from Hades. On Plato's Myths and Allegories in the Republic », dans Plato and Myth, C. Collobert, P. Destrée et F. J. Gonzalez (dir.), Leiden, Brill, 2012, p. 109-26

Pierre Destrée, et Nicholas D. Smith, Socrates' Divine Sign: Religion, Practice, and Value in Socratic Philosophy, Kelowna, BC, Academic Printing and Pub., 2005

Faisal Devji, Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity, Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press, 2005

Monique Dixsaut, « Myth and Interpretation », dans Plato and Myth, C. Collobert, P. Destrée et F. J. Gonzalez (dir.), Leiden, Brill, 2012, p. 25-46

E. R. Dodds, « Plato and the Irrational », The Journal of Hellenic Studies 65, 1945, p. 16-25

K. J. Dover, « Some Neglected Aspects of Agamemnon's Dilemma », JHS 93, 1973, p. 58-69

Radcliffe G. Edmonds, Myths of the Underworld Journey: Plato, Aristophanes, and the "Orphic" Gold Tablets, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2004

Radcliffe G. Edmonds, The "Orphic" Gold Tablets and Greek Religion: Further Along the Path, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011

Radcliffe G. Edmonds, « Whip Scars on the Naked Soul: Myth and Elenchos in Plato’s Gorgias », dans Plato and Myth, C. Collobert, P. Destrée et F. J. Gonzalez (dir.), Leiden, Brill, 2012, p. 165-85

Lowell Edmunds, « Thucydides' Ethics as Reflected in the Description of Stasis (3.82-83) », Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 79, 1975, p. 73-92

Mark W. Edwards, « Agamemnon's Decision: Freedom and Folly in Aeschylus », California Studies in Classical Antiquity 10, 1977, p. 17-38

Maha Elkaisy-Friemuth, et John M. Dillon (dir.), The Afterlife of the Platonic Soul: Reflections of Platonic Psychology in the Monotheistic Religions, Boston, Brill, 2009

Darel Tai Engen, Honor and Profit: Athenian Trade Policy and the Economy and Society of Greece, 415-307 B.C.E, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2010

J. Peter Euben, « Justice and the Oresteia », The American Political Science Review 76(1), 1982, p. 22-33

Helene Foley, « Antigone as Moral Agent », dans Tragedy and the Tragic: Greek Theatre and Beyond, M. S. Silk (dir.), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 49-73

Bernard Freydberg, « 'Oracles and Dreams' Commanding Socrates: Reflections on Apology 33c », dans Reexamining Socrates in the Apology, P. Fagan et J. E. Russon (dir.), Evanston, Ill., Northwestern University Press, 2009, p. 5-15

Timothy Gantz, « The Chorus of Aischylos' Agamemnon », Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 87, 1983, p. 65-86

Timothy Gantz, « Inherited Guilt in Aischylos », CJ 78, 1982, p. 1-23

Manuela Giordano-Zecharya, « As Socrates Shows, the Athenians Did Not Believe in Gods », Numen 52(3), 2005, p. 325-55

Gherardo Gnoli, et Jean-Pierre Vernant, La Mort, les morts dans les sociétés anciennes, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1982

Simon Goldhill, « The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology », dans Nothing to Do with Dionysos? Athenian Drama in Its Social Context, J. Winkler et F. Zeitlin (dir.), Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1990, p. 97-129

Simon Goldhill, Language, Sexuality, Narrative, the Oresteia, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1984

Simon Goldhill, Reading Greek Tragedy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986

Jill Gordon, Turning toward Philosophy: Literary Device and Dramatic Structure in Plato's Dialogues, University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999

Fritz Graf, « Dionysian and Orphic Eschatology », dans Masks of Dionysus, Thomas Carpenter et C. Faraone (dir.), Ithaca, N.Y., 1993, p. 239-58

Fritz Graf, et Sarah Iles Johnston (dir.), Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets, London, Routledge, 2007

William Chase Greene, « Dramatic and Ethical Motives in the Agamemnon », Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 54, 1943, p. 25-33

Mark Griffith (dir.), Antigone, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999

N. G. L. Hammond, « Personal Freedom and Its Limitations in the Oresteia », JHS 85, 1965, p. 42-55

Edward Monroe Harris, Democracy and the Rule of Law in Classical Athens: Essays on Law, Society, and Politics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006

James J. Helm, « Aeschylus' Genealogy of Morals », Transactions of the American Philological Association 134(1), 2004, p. 23-54

Albert Henrichs, « Between Country and City: Cultic Dimensions of Dionysus in Athens and Attica », dans Cabinet of the Muses, M. Griffith et D. J. Mastronarde (dir.), Atlanta, Scholars Press, 1990, p. 257-77

Bonnie Honig, Antigone, Interrupted, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013

Bonnie Honig, « Antigone’s Laments, Creon’s Grief: Mourning, Membership, and the Politics of Exception », Political Theory 37(1), 2009, p. 5-43

Jacob Howland, « Plato's "Apology" as Tragedy », The Review of Politics 70(4), 2008, p. 519-46

Sarah Jansen, « Plato’s Phaedo as a Pedagogical Drama », Ancient Philosophy 33, 2013, p. 333-52

Sarah Iles Johnston, Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1999

Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony: With Continual Reference to Socrates, H. V. Hong et E. H. Hong (dir.), Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1989

H. D. F. Kitto, Greek Tragedy: A Literary Study, 3ème éd., London, Methuen, 1961

George Klosko, « The Insufficiency of Reason in Plato's Gorgias », The Western Political Quarterly 36(4), 1983, p. 579-95

David Konstan, Friendship in the Classical World, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997

Anne Lebeck, The Oresteia: A Study in Language and Structure, Washington, Center for Hellenic Studies, 1971

Albin Lesky, « Decision and Responsibility in the Tragedy of Aeschylus », JHS 86, 1966, p. 78-85

Ivan M. Linforth, The Arts of Orpheus, New York, Arno Press, 1973

Hugh Lloyd-Jones, « The Guilt of Agamemnon », The Classical Quarterly 12(2), 1962, p. 187-99

Hugh Lloyd-Jones, « Pindar and the Afterlife », Entretiens sur L'Antiquité classique 31, 1984, p. 245-83

Laura McClure, Spoken Like a Woman: Speech and Gender in Athenian Drama, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1999

Mark L. McPherran, « Recognizing the Gods of Socrates », Apeiron: A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science 30(4), 1997, p. 125-39

Paul Middleton, Martyrdom: A Guide for the Perplexed, New York, T & T Clark, 2011

George E. Mylonas, Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1961

Michael Naas, « Earmarks: Derrida's Reinvention of Philosophical Writing in 'Plato's Pharmacy' », dans Derrida and Antiquity, M. Leonard (dir.), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 43-72

Andrea Wilson Nightingale, Genres in Dialogue: Plato and the Construct of Philosophy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996

Martha Craven Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001

Hiroshi Obayashi (dir.), Death and Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions, New York, Greenwood Press, 1992

Kirk Ormand, Exchange and the Maiden: Marriage in Sophoclean Tragedy, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1999

Clifford Orwin, « Stasis and Plague: Thucydides on the Dissolution of Society », The Journal of Politics 50(4), 1988, p. 831-47

Hugh Parry, The Lyric Poems of Greek Tragedy, Toronto, Samuel Stevens, 1978

Sandra Peterson, Socrates and Philosophy in the Dialogues of Plato, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011

Simcha Paull Raphael, Jewish Views of the Afterlife, Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield, 2009

P. J. Rhodes, « The Athenian Code of Laws, 410-399 B. C », The Journal of Hellenic Studies 111, 1991, p. 87-100

David Roselli, « Polyneices' Body and His Monument: Class, Social Status, and Funerary Commemoration in Sophocles' Antigone. », dans Antigone's Answer: Essays on Death and Burial, Family and State in Classical Athens., C. Patterson (dir.), Lubbock, Texas Tech University Press, 2006

Stanley Rosen, The Quarrel between Philosophy and Poetry: Studies in Ancient Thought, New York, Routledge, 1988

Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, The Art of Aeschylus, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1982

Christopher Rowe, « The Status of Myth in the Gorgias, or: Taking Plato Seriously », dans Plato and Myth, C. Collobert, P. Destrée et F. J. Gonzalez (dir.), Leiden, Brill, 2012, p. 187-98

Matthew Santirocco, « Justice in Sophocles' Antigone, », Philosophy and Literature 4, 1980, p. 180-98

Robert Schmiel, « Achilles in Hades », Classical Philology 82(1), 1987, p. 35-37

Alan F. Segal, Life after Death: A History of the Afterlife in the Religions of the West, New York, Doubleday, 2004

Charles Segal, « Messages to the Underworld: An Aspect of Poetic Immortalization in Pindar », The American Journal of Philology 106(2), 1985, p. 199-212

N. J. Sewell-Rutter, Guilt by Descent: Moral Inheritance and Decision Making in Greek Tragedy, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007

Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion: A New Approach to the Religious Traditions of Mankind, New York, Macmillan, 1963

Alan H. Sommerstein, Aeschylean Tragedy, London, Duckworth, 2010

Alan H. Sommerstein (dir.), Aeschylus: Eumenides, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989

Alan H. Sommerstein, « Sleeping Safe in Our Beds: Stasis, Assasination and the Oresteia », dans The Tangled Ways of Zeus: And Other Studies in and around Greek Tragedy, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 143-63

Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, "Reading" Greek Death: To the End of the Classical Period, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1995

Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, « To Die and Enter the House of Hades. Homer, before and After », dans Mirrors of Mortality: Studies in the Social History of Death, J. Whaley (dir.), New York, St. Martin's Press, 1982, p. 15-39

Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, Tragedy and Athenian Religion, Lanham, Md., Lexington Books, 2003

George Steiner, Grammars of Creation, New Haven, Yale Nota Bene, 2002

Wallace Stevens, « The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words » (1942), dans The Necessary Angel, New York, Vintage Books, 1965, p. 1-36

Leo Strauss, The City and Man, Chicago, Rand McNally, 1964

Sonja Tanner, In Praise of Plato's Poetic Imagination, Lanham, Md., Lexington Books, 2010

Harold Tarrant, « Literal and Deeper Meanings in Platonic Myths », dans Plato and Myth, C. Collobert, P. Destrée et F. J. Gonzalez (dir.), Leiden, Brill, 2012, p. 47-66

George Thomson, « Mystical Allusions in the Oresteia », The Journal of Hellenic Studies 55, 1935, p. 20-34

J. W. van Henten, et Friedrich Avemarie, Martyrdom and Noble Death: Selected Texts from Graeco-Roman, Jewish, and Christian Antiquity, London, Routledge, 2002

George H. van Kooten, « St. Paul on Soul, Spirit and the Inner Man », dans The Afterlife of the Platonic Soul: Reflections of Platonic Psychology in the Monotheistic Religions, M. Elkaisy-Friemuth et J. M. Dillon (dir.), Boston, Brill, 2009, p. 25-44

Emily Vermeule, Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1979

Jean-Pierre Vernant, La Mort dans les yeux: figures de l'autre en Grèce ancienne, Artémis, Gorgô, Paris, Hachette, 1985

Jean-Pierre Vernant, La Mort héroïque chez les Grecs, Nantes, Pleins Feux, 2001

Jean-Pierre Vernant, et Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, New York, Zone Books, 1990

Paul Veyne, Les Grecs ont-ils cru à leurs mythes? Paris, Seuil, 1983

Gregory Vlastos, The Philosophy of Socrates: A Collection of Critical Essays, Garden City, N.Y., Anchor Books, 1971

Gregory Vlastos, Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher, Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press, 1991

Katja Maria Vogt, Belief and Truth: A Skeptic Reading of Plato, New York, Oxford University Press, 2012

Samuel Weber, Theatricality as Medium, New York, Fordham, 2004

M. L. West, The Orphic Poems, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1983

Victoria Wohl, Law's Cosmos: Juridical Discourse in Athenian Forensic Oratory, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010

Froma Zeitlin, « Thebes: Theater of Self and Society in Athenian Drama », dans Nothing to Do with Dionysos? Athenian Drama in Its Social Context, J. Winkler et F. Zeitlin (dir.), Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1990, p. 130-67

Haut de page

Notes

1 On martyrdom, its monotheistic and political aspects, and the problem of labeling, see [van Henten and Avemarie 2002; Castelli 2004; Devji 2005; and Middleton 2011].

2 Perhaps this goes back as far as Paul, whose focus on the ethical judgment of the individual after death contrast with the heavily legal, communal, and ethnic framework of resurrection for his Jewish and Jewish-Christian contemporaries, see, e.g. [Boyarin 1994].

3 [Segal 2004] gives a wide-ranging analysis of the afterlife in texts in the history of the major Western religions up to the present and their Near Eastern and Greek predecessors. For other general overviews of the afterlife in the ancient world see [Obayashi 1992], which includes non-Western texts, and [Bremmer 2002], who is more anthropological in approach.

4 On the Mysteries as well as non-civic Greek cults for which the afterlife was central, see [Mylonas 1961; Linforth 1973; West 1983; Burkert 1985, p. 276-301; Bremmer 2002, p. 15-26; Graf 1993; Graf and Johnston 2007; Bernabé and Jiménez San Cristóbal 2008; and Edmonds 2004 and 2011].

5 Overviews of Greek beliefs concerning the afterlife are contained in [Vermeule 1979; Gnoli and Vernant 1982; Vernant 1985; Vernant and Vidal-Naquet 1990; Vernant 2001; Sourvinou-Inwood 1995, and Johnston 1999].

6 For the influence of Plato’s concepts of the soul on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam see the essays in [Elkaisy-Friemuth and Dillon 2009]. Concerning the broad impact of Greek sources, such as (indirectly) Plato’s ideas of the soul on Paul specifically, see [van Kooten 2009]. [Raphael 2009, p., 77-115] traces biblical strands and foreign influences on the changing traditions of the Jewish afterlife up to the present day. Fascinatingly, it is in the apocryphal period (ca. 200 BCE-200 CE), under the influence of Hellenism, that Judaism saw a flourishing of contradictory afterlife views, including post-mortem judgment. However, these views seem to have been suppressed to a large extent in the following rabbinical period, to reemerge only in medieval Midrash and Kabbalah, outside the mainstream.

7 Greek tragedy, as it survives, does not often dramatize the afterlife. While several tragedies stage ghosts (e.g. the Persians of Aeschylus, 472 BCE, dramatizes the summoning of a dead king’s soul, and the prologue to Euripides’ Hecuba, ca. 424 BCE, is spoken by a ghost) and even the character of Death (Alcestis of Euripides, 438 BCE), the examples discussed here cover a range of approaches to the afterlife, one that is picked up almost exactly by the Platonic dialogues covered in the second half of this article.

8 Many of the points about the afterlife in the Oresteia are raised here for the first time. For debates over ‘moral’ choice in the Oresteia, variously defined, see [Lloyd-Jones 1962; Hammond 1965; Lesky 1966; Dover 1973; Edwards 1977; Helm 2004; and Sewell-Rutter 2007]. Discussions of decision making in the trilogy have focused on the restrictions governing human freedom, citing such forces as necessity, the divine, and the family curse or guilt of the sons of Atreus (on which see also [Greene 1943 and Gantz 1982]) while almost entirely overlooking the role of the afterlife in plot, action, or deliberation.

9 Hades does make a brief appearance in articles about religion in the Oresteia, e.g. [Thomson 1935, p.31-4], who combines the references to the underworld with mystery religions and Greco-Roman texts from all periods to create an amalgam of Greek and Christian views. [Bowie 1993, p. 247-51] also seeks allusions to the Mysteries in the passages discussed below.

10 Their relationship to the beyond is thus not quite the notion of “belief in myths” that [Veyne 1983] discusses from a sociological perspective concerning the Greek relationships to stories set in the mythical past (see also the article reexamining Veyne’s views in this issue of ThéoRèmes). Nor is it the ritual with which [Burkert 1985; Sourvinou-Inwood 1982, 1995, and 2003; and Johnston 1999] reconstruct Greek beliefs. Rather, as will become clear below, in the Oresteia the afterlife is presented outside of a structured religious framework, without as individuals in particular situations encounter it, or fail to. Neither the vocabulary of “belief” nor anything like a theoretical discussion is evident in the Oresteia, yet it presents a series of examples that lay the foundation for both the Antigone and, even more so, Plato’s engagement with “belief” and “unbelief.”

11 [Butler 2000] reacting to Hegel’s use of Antigone to represent the household gods and Lacan’s reading of her as symbolic of kinship relations, counters with an analysis of Antigone’s speech as subversive of these very relations and even state power structures in general.

12 See [Smith 1963, p. 154], and the critique of this formulation in [Asad 2001, p. 213-17], who adds that in order to understand the concept of “faith” one must study how it is enacted in activities. In part, this is what the tragic examples and Plato’s dramatization of Socrates’ death offer us, in contrast with purely theoretical discussion.

13 There is no evidence to link these tragic examples to the Socratic ones precisely, but tragedy’s influence on Plato is a major topic of debate. Invaluable are [Arieti 1991], who reads the dialogues as dramas more than philosophy; [Nightingale 1996, p. 60-92], who analyzes Plato’s relation to tragedy as a genre; [Gordon 1999], who focuses on dramatic structure; [Blondell 2002], who draws out the dramatic aspects of Platonic treatment of his characters and compares Plato’s dialogue forms with theater; and [Howland 2008], who reads the Apology as tragic in its conception of irreconcilable political forces leading to death and in its dramatic form, which follows Aristotelian categories.

14 Zeus’s will is credited throughout the trilogy as the source of all events, which remain, nevertheless, mysterious to men. On tragic choral poetry in general and Aeschylean in particular as a tension between the Chorus’ role as character and the more “cosmic” viewpoint natural to the choral genre, see [Parry 1978, p. 73-107]. [Rosenmeyer 1982, p. 145-87] describes their maxims as tapping into “the near anonymous life preserving spirit which sustains civic life while heroes come and go.” [Lebeck 1971, esp. p. 35-6] takes the Chorus’s understanding of Zeus’s plan as justified at the end by the success of Athena.

15 One of the several strengths of the treatment of language in [Goldhill 1984, esp. p. 29-33], is that he persistently returns to the genuine difficulty—which the Oresteia itself seems to emphasize—of applying choral gnomes to the action, due to their manifest gaps in language and reasoning.

16 As opposed to the tendency to read the Chorus as a symbolic representation of collective humanity, [Gantz 1983] more correctly treats the Agamemnon’s Chorus as a character with their own motivations.

17 All translations are my own unless otherwise noted.

18 The instances of non-seeing as non-knowing, and even as an end to life are manifold in the Oresteia, e.g. the Furies are described as the ones who abstract a human into invisibility, which is also Hades (Ag. 462-67). Moreover, it connects to Platonic notions of the negative attachment of vision to life, and the disappearance of the dead, which culminate in Plato’s pun, as old as Homer (e.g. Il. 5.844-5), which derives Hades from the word for “not to see”: “of all who are in Hades (haidou)—meaning of course the invisible (a-ides)” (Gorg. 493b).

19 The messenger of the Agamemnon continually speaks of closing off the memory of his companions fallen in the Trojan War (Ag. 567-573). Contrast Pindar’s trope of the poet as messenger into the afterlife who maintains the memory of the dead, for which see [Segal 1985].

20 Even though she returns as a Ghost, Clytemnestra does not seem to herself possess supernatural powers. She must convince. Instead of providing instructions for improving her state after death (as Patroclus does in Il. 23.71-74), her whole speech, including the underworld scenes is directed to persuasive, motivating language. On Clytemnestra’s rhetoric while alive, see [McClure 1999, p. 70-92].

21 Pindar’s Olympian 2 is somewhat earlier, on which see, e.g., [Lloyd-Jones 1984]. Note that Homer only describes penalties for infamous transgressors and rewards for those connected in some way with the gods (cf. [Johnston 1999, p. 11-12]). The first example of reward or punishment for ordinary people’s actions in life being the Hymn to Demeter (ca. 7th century BCE), which emphasizes ritual (participating in the Eleusinian Mysteries), rather than ethical goodness. [Burkert 1985, p. 198-9], attributes structured concern with one’s place in the afterlife to mystery cults—which only demanded rites—and ethical concerns to the sophists. He claims that Plato synthesizes the two for the Western tradition. I argue that the following passage from the Oresteia presents an overlooked exception to such a narrative.

22 This passage is generally absent from discussions of the Oresteia’s progress from the retributive justice of the Furies to the institutionalized justice of the trial court in Athens (a recent example is [Sommerstein 2010, p. 193-202], following [Kitto 1961, esp. p. 90-95]). It is even excluded from studies that deal extensively with justice, morality, and the Furies, e.g. [Sewell-Rutter 2007, p. 18]: “with the notion of post mortem punishment, which does not figure prominently in tragedy, we shall not be concerned.”

23 [Sommerstein 1989, n. 269-72] cites Supp. 701-9 and Ar. Ra. 145-50. Cf. also Eu. 538-48 where the Furies reiterate similar guidelines as a universal rule for all time.

24 Athena warns future generations not to “pollute the clear water of the laws” (Eu. 693-5), an anxiety within the text over the purity of even divinely revealed legislation.

25 [Bacon 2001, p. 55] demonstrates the connections of these themes: “mother and son have their first on-stage encounter, in the roles of hostess and guest. Aeschylus underlines this by using xenos [guest-host] and its compounds thirteen times in this sixty-six-line scene.”

26 The “Semnai Theai,” who already had a cult and a different aitiology, see [Johnston 1999, p. 279-86].

27 In Eu. 490-515 the Furies predict that humanity will engage in unbridled slaughter if murderers are no longer subject to their divine vengeance.

28 Stasis, one of their self-descriptions (Eu. 311), often signifies “faction” and even “sedition” or “discord.” For instance, Thucydides uses stasis as a keyword to describe degeneration into inter-city violence during the Peloponnesian war, see [Edmunds 1975 and Orwin 1988. [Sommerstein 2010, esp. p. 161] relates stasis in the Eumenides to contemporary political assassinations in Athens and the resultant turmoil. Yet stasis can sometimes mean “band” or “group” without mutinous intent, and it is this more neutral meaning that would give space to see the Furies’ function as critique.

29 Examples, of stratos, “army, host” used for “people, city” occur in Eu. 566, 681-84, and 889.

30 Contra [Euben 1982], who reads the Oresteia through Arendt’s ideas about the true political realm as requiring freedom, plurality, judgment, and participation. The dangers of totalitarianism of the type in the Oresteia’s ending are, in fact, Arendt’s main political concern. For her, justifying violence through appeal to any collective cause is a dream of political unity only feasible under tyranny. See, e.g. the quotation from her notebooks that prefaces [Arendt 2005].

31 This presents a somewhat different approach to the place of the individual in tragedy than the critical structuralist focus on tragedy as the conflict between the new city-state and the previous Homeric, heroic mentalities. See [Vernant and Vidal-Naquet 1990, esp. p. 23-27; and Goldhill 1990].

32 [Vernant and Vidal-Naquet 1990, p.39-42], describe tragedy in general as setting the whole divine universe in conflict, citing as an example Antigone’s “justice below” colliding with the “throne of justice above” in 853ff., and the gods of family, the hearth, and the dead opposing civic values. [Ormand 1999, p. 90-98] describes Antigone’s threat to the political world Creon creates. In recent decades a number of deep-rooted debates concerning the play have interacted with philosophical theories, especially Hegel’s. A reading of Antigone’s opposition of the individual to the state, the problem of her justifications through appeals to family, and Hegel’s reading of the play along these lines, is [Weber 2004, p. 121-140]. [Honig 2009] presents a politically informed reading of Antigone’s excess as Homeric and aristocratic (contra [Roselli 2006]), and Creon’s regulatory policies as more in tune with fifth-century democracy. Moreover, reacting to points raised in [Butler 2000], she reads Creon’s breakdown at the end of the play as subversive to the same extent as others read Antigone’s “feminine,” “familial” or even discursive resistance to the state. [Honig 2013] expands on a number of previous articles to discuss the reception of Antigone in political theory, philosophy, and art and suggest a new “politics of mourning,” claiming that productively engaging Antigone means focusing on her way of promoting life and engaging in political acts.

33 The primacy of the underworld to her initial motivation is evident through Antigone’s topographical formulations: “under the earth” (Ant. 24) and “among the dead below” (Ant. 25). [Henrichs 1990, p. 266-7], argues that Antigone signifies to the many initiates of the Eleusinian mysteries in the audience about the possibility of life continuing after death when she refers to reunification with her family below in 883-902, 897, and when she names Persephone, 894. He cites Sophocles in a lost play: “To those (initiates into the mysteries) alone there is life there, but to others (the underworld is said) to hold all evils” (267 and n. 43). [Griffith 1999, n. 1115-54] regards these possible references to the mysteries as nothing more than hints, if there at all.

34 Note also that the name Kreōn is merely a cipher for kreōn “ruler, lord, master,” as [Santirocco 1980, p. 188] points out.

35 Whose name means “blood,” see the pun in Ant. 1175.

36 Ismene, “my kindred true sister” (Ant. 1), is as close to Antigone as her brother by the logic of sibling blood, which Antigone describes as motivating her actions beyond parents and children (Ant. 905-14). In fact, this sister and these brothers are doubly siblings through Oedipus. For the self-destructive nature of family at Thebes and its meaning for plays set there, see [Zeitlin 1990, p. 101-123]. The turmoil of family, the one value she seemingly treasures, demonstrates the promiscuity of Antigone’s motivation. [Foley 1996, p. 51-3], convincingly argues that Antigone tailors her arguments over the course of the play to her different interlocutors. This insight does not remove the difficulties of finding a consistent motivation to Antigone’s actions. It does, however, point to the strong desire of some portion of the reading and (presumably) viewing audiences for such consistency—and tragedy’s refusal to acquiesce.

37 Debates concerning the “religious” nature of Antigone’s appeals have generally centered on the “unwritten laws” (Ant. 454-5) that she invokes against Creon’s civic decree. For Aristotle’s understanding of this conflict see [Griffith 1999, ad loc.]. For a legal analysis of the status of these “laws” see [Harris 2006, esp. p. 41-61].

38 Various sources for the myth of Polynices’ burial, some preceding the Antigone, tell of Creon’s being cajoled or coerced by Theseus—with or without a military expedition of Athenians, see [Griffith 1999, p. 6-8, and n. 1080-83]. This demonstrates several of the contrasts with Athenian myths that Sophocles establishes: Antigone seems physically powerless, is required to be politically mute, and, of course, remains militarily a non-entity. Yet she accomplishes the same undertaking that in other versions require either a hero or an entire army of religiously justified males.

39 E.g. Ant. 897-904. On the range of meanings of philia (“friendship” and “kinship,” among others) in Greek tragedy and specifically the Antigone see [Goldhill 1986, p. 79-106]. Cf. also [Konstan 1997, p. 28-31 and 53-91], who traces the history of philia in Archaic and Classical Greece.

40 Only through Tiresias does the audience have seemingly authoritative, though vague statements concerning the afterlife. The play’s action, though, never joins Antigone to Tiresias, and perhaps even separates them deliberately. Tiresias’s wording does echo Antigone’s when each confronts Creon: “of the gods below… to which neither you nor the gods above have a claim” (Ant.1070, 1072-3).

41 [Vernant and Vidal-Naquet 1990, p. 43], make the general point that in order to understand the conflict of concepts in any tragedy the individual spectator must acquire a “tragic consciousness.” The claim, in other words, is that tragedy drives thinking away from the need for immediate, unifying resolution, and toward a conceptualization of the universe as irreconcilably multiple. This thesis sets tragedy against a Romantic quest for a unified good, and perhaps a Socratic one, as well—on which see more below.

42 The Republic, the Gorgias, and the Phaedo incorporate extensive afterlife myths, the Apology, Crito, and Laws contain significant references, while other dialogues mention it in passing.

43 E.g. [Dodds 1945, p. 21-24], intuited “Plato’s personal faith” and religious emotion for a single Father-god. Concerning philosophical reception of ‘irrational’ elements that Socrates claims motivate him see [Freydberg 2009, p. 6 and n. 5-9].

44 Latching onto the absence of the doctrine of separation between body and soul, those who posit a “historical Socrates” (in the “early dialogues,” such as the Apology) and a separate “Plato’s Socrates” (beginning in the “middle dialogues,” such as the Phaedo) argue that only later does Plato make of Socrates a metaphysician. According to this theory, passages about the afterlife in the Crito and the Apology demonstrate a lack of investigation into beliefs, a simple acceptance on faith, see [Vlastos 1991, p. 45-80]. His theory, though seemingly based on close readings, actually depends on a variety of psychological assumptions, including an emphasis on Socrates’ belief (esp. p. 59). Further, it requires acceptance of an unprovable and tenuous developmental hypothesis of Plato’s works. Much has been written against this theory: Peterson, e.g., counterposes an “interlocutor-centered account” of a Socrates who “is permanently convinced he knows nothing” (even in the dialogues Vlastos tags as later and metaphysical) and thus is always only questioning from different perspectives suited to his respondents [Peterson 2011].

45 On the haphazard nature of the Athenian legal system, especially as applied in surviving court speeches, see [Wohl 2010, esp. p. ix-xi]. [Rhodes 1991] traces out the turbulent state of the Athenian “law code” in the years before Socrates’ trial. On the question of whether Socrates’ references to law contain a contradiction concerning obedience see, e.g. [Brickhouse and Smith 1984 and 2006].

46 One can contrast Plato’s much closer formulation in the Republic (III.386a): appropriate tales for his citizens from childhood would encourage them to “honor the gods, their parents, and not make their friendship with one another of little value.”

47 Imagination in Plato is an issue interwoven with the role of his literary or poetic engagement—a far-ranging debate, much of it outside of the current scope of “unbelief” and the afterlife. It is vital, however, to mention the modern swing toward understanding all of Plato and even all philosophy in general as poetic activity, for example, [Rosen 1988, p. 26] writes that “philosophy without poetry, exactly like poetry without philosophy, is immoderate or unmeasured.” Moreover, he claims the good life is not an “ontological,” eternal endeavor, but a demiurgic or poetic mixture. [Gordon 1999, p. 161] writes that “philosophy and philosophical activity are… artistic or creative (literally, poetic) endeavors.” [Tanner 2010, p. 119] specifically emphasizes the imaginative aspects of Plato, linking them to philosophy through poetry: “poetry is involved in not only how we craft a good life, but how we come to know what a good life is.”

48 Socrates’ provocation in these passages perhaps echoes (and transforms) the trope in Sophocles (OC 1225-7) and Theognis (425 ff.) that not being born is best of all but that once one is born it would be better to seek Hades as quickly as possible.

49 “The customary prophetic (sign or voice) of the demonic thing” (Apol. 40a-c). Cf. 31c-d where Socrates claims the voice restrained him from entering politics. The irony being that although the voice saved Socrates formerly from death, in the Apology it appears to serve as confirmation of Meletus’s accusation. See [Destrée and Smith 2005 ]for an overview of the sign and Socratic thinking.

50 Similar issues arise from the Delphic Oracle’s marking Socrates as having achieved the height of human wisdom—at least of his day—and Socrates’ strained interpretation of it in the Apology as an imperative to live “doing the work of god” (or proving the oracle) by grilling his contemporaries regarding their supposed wisdom (Apol. 21a-23c and 33c). [Freydberg 2009] claims that oracles and dreams are singularly interpreted by Socrates as commanding his actions and that the debt to images holds us, the interpreters of Socrates, within the bounds of humankind, away from hubris.

51 [Strauss 1964, p. 51] points out that this is the great barrier to generalizing ethical lessons for ourselves from Socrates’ life (as opposed to his teaching): we have no demon sign.

52 On the embarrassment for rationalizing interpretations of Socrates’ reliance on the divine sign, see [Brickhouse and Smith 2005]. After critiquing other theories, they offer a psychological one concerning Socrates’ belief: “But anyone given a very unusual sort of experience—one that provides obvious content that can then be corroborated in other ways—and who finds that such experience is highly reliable in providing true information about the world, would be rational to trust the experience when it occurs” (62). [Destrée 2005] argues that the divine sign is merely a marker of Socratic philosophical thinking, that it is not, philologically speaking, anywhere labeled unique to Socrates by Plato’s language, and that it or its effects should not, therefore be out of reach of anyone reasoning correctly. Both these interpretations seem to circumvent Socrates’ repeated claim of the sign’s divinity altogether, while attempting to rationalize and generalize it in ways unsupported by the text.

53 Phdr. 275c-e. [Derrida 1981 (1968), p. 167-8 et passim], argues from this notion, among others, for a Platonic “metaphysics of presence,” that is, a privileging of presence and speech over absence and writing. [Naas 2010] explains and defends Derrida’s controversial claim and is an example of its continuing influence. This interpretation is inadequate to Plato’s methods of dealing with belief, as demonstrated below.

54 Note the circumscribed role of religion in the Republic and the discussion of lawmaking as a human endeavor that looks to the good in the Laws, in precise opposition to the Cretan’s and Lacedaimonian’s ascription of their states’ codes to divinities (e.g. 630c-d). Further, Socrates displays much caution about human knowledge of divine will and affairs, e.g. Cratylus 400d: “since we know nothing about the gods” and cf. 401a.

55 Kerdos “gain, profit” is a loaded word in itself, economic in origin. In this context it immediately invites the question of who is left to benefit from this nothingness? For the use of kerdos as a key word in Athenian imperialism of this period, see [Engen 2010]. Note that the Chorus of the Agamemnon had a similar grouping of ideas: death-sleep-boon.

56 In that ambiguous space the actual “true judges” exist, though it is left unspecified what they might judge. Socrates will cross-examine the famous dead, too—demi-gods like Minos, and heroes—just as he does now with the living (Apol. 41b). Note that this form of nearly exact continuity of action, absurd as it may seem, is analogous to Greek burial markers and grave goods, which consistently depict the dead in their profession while alive, see [Vermeule 1979 and Sourvinou-Inwood 1995]. Odysseus while storytelling his journey into the underworld in Odyssey 11, describes the shades below as they were above. His tale includes kings who judge disputes of men. These, however, are in no way said to asses ethical conduct in life (Od. 11.568-72): “There I saw Minos, the famous son of Zeus, / holding a golden scepter and sitting, delivering judgments to the dead. / And around him interrogated the lord of justice / men who sat or stood by the wide-gated house of Hades.”

57 Apol. 41d. This is a reversal of the charge in the trial, of not cultivating or caring for the gods (the culturally prevalent translation of theous ou nomizōn). On possibilities for this phrase and its meaning for notions of cultivation and belief, see [Giordano-Zecharya 2005], who demonstrates that over the course of the Apology Socrates transforms the term from its previous meaning of “cultivating the gods” to his own, “believing in.” [McPherran 1997, esp. p. 135-38] characterizes Socrates’ as believing in the city’s gods but converting them from mythical and religious beings into moral ones. He further argues that Athenian society felt that the danger Socrates presented was precisely this claim for a “superior” interpretation of the gods.

58 Apol. 42a and cf. the last line of the Crito: “let us act in this way, since in this way the god leads.”

59 The Odyssey’s reversal of the Iliad’s focus on personal glory is distinctly manifest in the underworld scene: the so widely quoted sulking ghost of Achilles, who would rather be a slave above than a king of the dead (Od. 11.488-91), ends up (in the just as widely neglected continuation of the scene) bounding away across the asphodel fields, jubilant, having been told of the bravery and glory of his son (Od. 11.538-40), see [Schmiel 1987].

60 Sons in Homer and Classical culture were known by patronymics. “Glory” (kleos) is connected in Greek to “voicing” the deeds of the one named. Diotima’s speech in the Symposium, esp. 208c-209e, opposes both children and kleos (using Achilles’ concern with glory in the Iliad as an example) to philosophical “children,” such as virtue and good laws, and ultimately the pure, absolute vision of the eternal forms.

61 Note oneidizete, from oneidos, The Ghost of Clytemnestra’s word of reproach from beyond the grave.

62 [Derrida 1981 (1968)] recognizes the deliberate flowering of meanings in Platonic texts and deals with them in a specific, problematic manner: tracing out the “ordered polysemy” of the text that he identifies as a set of structured dichotomies, he claims that Plato attempts to end the game of language, that is, to dominate writing through “opposition as such” (103). Derrida argues that through the play of language in general words outstrip the author’s meaning through the very excess Plato attempts to control (e.g. 71-2, 95-6, 98-9, 103-4, 167-9). The following sections take a far different view of Plato’s approach to the alternate possibilities that he has Socrates present.

63 For several approaches to the problem of how Plato can seriously claim his myths to be “true,” see [Rowe 2012].

64 [Jansen 2013, p. 335] is the most recent to raise this issue and connect it with Socrates’ “swan song” and prophecy in the service of Apollo (84e-85b).

65 Wallace Stevens challenges the imaginative effect of Plato’s myths, writing about the chariot of the soul in the Phaedrus: “In Plato’s figure, his imagination does not adhere to what is real. On the contrary, having created something unreal, it adheres to it and intensifies its unreality. Its first effect, its effect at first reading, is its maximum effect, when the imagination, being moved, puts us in the place of the charioteer, before the reason checks us. The case is, then, that we concede that the figure is all imagination.” (Stevens 1965 (1942), p. 6]. [Tarrant 2012] returns to the earliest readers of Plato for their notion that his myths contain a surface provocation of disbelief in the image that leads to a second level, allegorical reading.

66 “And those who established the rites of initiation for us are possibly not some petty men but in reality hinted, in a riddle, that whoever enters into the house of Hades uninitiated and without rites lies in filth, but he who arrives there purified and initiated will live with the gods” (Phdo. 69c). Socrates plays with Greek religious practice by rewriting the call for ritual initiation as an allegory: instead of referring to anybody who participates in mystical revelatory rites, in his reading the terms “purified and initiated” cover only “the true philosophers” (Phdo. 69d).

67 [Peterson 2011, p. 162-193], details the Pythagorean connections of the frame and the interlocutors in the Phaedo. She demonstrates that Plato creates a variety of disjuncts between Socrates’ “true philosopher” (especially his emphasis on the body as entirely preventing humankind from philosophizing, forcing everyone to acquire wealth, etc.) and Socrates’ habitual actions, as well as those within the dramatic frame. From this Peterson argues her larger thesis that Socrates’ metaphysics is only part of his engagement with his interlocutors, in this case Pythagoreans: “The hypothesis that Socrates is now in persuasive mode, drawing out the implications of the convictions of his Pythagorean friends and saying what appeals to them, would explain Socrates’ extreme claims more plausibly than the putative explanation that Socrates now believes his extreme claims about philosophers to which he is an obvious counter-example” (91). It is worth keeping this background in mind as one of the levels of dialogue, and it certainly warns one away from taking his disconcerting and unusual emphasis on “purity” and “purification” from the body in this dialogue at face value—something far better suited to a Pythagorean cult than to Socrates’ life. On the other hand, the notion that Pythagoreanism is the major key to interpreting the presence of afterlife in the dialogue is problematic on a number of fronts. The most serious objection is that neither the interlocutors nor frame audience actually treat Socrates as though they believe in doctrines of reincarnation; Socrates is the only one who attributes to himself continuity after death.

68 “Such was the end (teleutē), Echecrates, of our friend, who was, as we may say, of all those of his time whom we have known, the best and wisest and most righteous man.” (Phdo. 118a). Compare this notion of absolute end with Socrates’ alternative: “if nothing exists for one having died (teleutēsanti)” (91b).

69 To pile on the objections, in the Gorgias Socrates’ failure to persuade his Sophist interlocutors of the ethical value of his afterlife stories seems to entirely undercut his rationale for mythmaking in the first place. This has caused some to bound to the conclusion that Socrates’ entire ethics and philosophy are invalid. [Klosko 1983, p. 593-4], for example, insists that this failure to convince is “the tragedy of philosophy” and that “the slender hold of dialectical reciprocal relationships on interlocutors must be replaced by the might of the state.”

70 On Plato as specific type of skeptic concerning specific issues in epistemology, as opposed to metaphysical “Platonism” constructed by thinkers as early as Aristotle or a complete skepticism concerning all possibility of knowledge, see [Vogt 2012, esp. p. 3-9].

71 “Let us not permit into our soul the chance that there is no health of arguments at all” (Phdo. 91e).

72 On the subtle connections between this anti-purity argument and the earlier emphasis on a philosopher’s need for total purity to understand total Truth see [Burger 1984, p. 115-21].

73 90d-91a, and cf. [Vlastos 1971, p. 5-6].

74 [Kierkegaard 1989, p. 78-9].

75 [Arieti 1986] argues for the primacy of the dramatic aspect of the Phaedo over its philosophical content. [Nussbaum 2001, p. 131] sees the opposite movement, with the real point of the Phaedo being the intellectual overcoming the emotional, the banishment of the tragedy of Socrates’ death in favor of philosophical inquiry. For a recent contribution on drama in the Phaedo, describing the whole dialogue as philosophically “reformed poetry,” see [Jansen 2013].

76 [Destrée 2012] revives the view that Platonic myth acts as the “emotional” component of the dialogues. Destrée differentiates himself from previous readings in calling the argument a myth as well. That is, he claims that the Platonic dialogue as a whole is intended as only a comi-tragic protreptic to understanding.

77 [Annas 1982, p. 125-9], postulates that the Phaedo has not combined the ideas of judgment and reincarnation successfully because of this escape route for philosophers, which does not exist in the Republic.

78 [Derrida 1981 (1968), p. 123-24], brings to the fore the inversion that the pharmakon causes in the Phaedo and Crito, as both charm and myth that makes death palatable through cancelling its meaning. [Rosen 1988] claims this role of soothing or charming for entire swaths of Platonic thought: “The pedagogical function of the Republic is that of a pharmakon or noble lie, which is designed to inoculate us against the vitiating consequences of the recognition that justice is impossible” (26).

79 “And thus, Glaucon, a mythos was saved and not lost; and it could save us, if we are persuaded (peithōmetha) by it, and we shall make a good crossing of the river of Lethe and not defile our soul. But, if we are persuaded (peithōmetha) by me, believing (nomizontes) that the soul is immortal and capable of bearing all evils and all goods, we shall always keep to the upper road and practice justice with prudence in every way” (Republic X, 621b-c).

80 The Gorgias ends not only without the interlocutors conceding ground, but with Socrates forced into admissions of futility concerning their belief in the myths he has spun, while he holds on to his belief for reasons not particularly robust (Gorg. 526d-527b, Lamb 1967 translation): “Now for my part, Callicles, I am convinced (pepeismai) by these accounts (logōn), and I consider how I may be able to show my judge that my soul is in the best of health […]. Possibly, however, you regard this as an old wife's tale, and despise it; and there would be no wonder in our despising it if with all our searching we could somewhere find anything better and truer than this: but as it is, you observe that you three, who are the wisest of the Greeks in our day—you and Polus and Gorgias— are unable to prove that we ought to live any other life than this, which is evidently advantageous also in the other world.”

81 On this two-layered notion in the Gorgias see [Rowe 2012]. [Edmonds 2012, p. 182-83] argues against the simple mechanism often invoked, that myths add “hellfire” to otherwise insufficiently convincing arguments. Rather he posits that Plato uses myth for clarifying and amplifying the argument through transforming a shared cultural vocabulary in a way that adds authority, credibility, and persuasion for what would otherwise be unpalatably revolutionary ideas.

82 [Rowe 2012, p. 192-5]. This is also the gist of the argument that Socrates is mainly concerned with pushing others towards philosophy but will not make any steps for them himself, for which see [Vlastos 1971, p. 7-21]. Vlastos correlates this harsh method with Socrates’ “failure of love” for his fellow humans (16) and characterizes Socratic emphasis on the ascendency of the examined life over the unexamined as nothing short of “faith” (21).

83 [Brisson 1998] argues that Platonic myth persuades through an inferior, non-argumentative reliance on its oral and storytelling aspects. [Dixsaut 2012, esp. p. 44-46] describes myth’s persuasion of the irrational part of the soul through estrangement of the choices we make, that is, through forcing us to face the incomprehensibility of life.

84 “How it very much seems to me (emoi doxei).” (Phdo. 91a-b). On Plato’s use of doxa as the exclusive noun for “belief” and the related verbs doxazein and dokeō, see [Vogt 2012, esp. p. 10-24], where she discusses the Socratic notion of replacement of “belief” with “knowledge” and the philosophical issues to which this leads.

85 [Arendt 2005, p. 7-37], addresses the problems of forming doxa about the highest matters and Plato’s opposition of doxa to “truth,” which she claims introduces “the Absolute” into politics. Arendt further separates the doxa that the crowd acts on from the shock and wonder that inform the philosopher’s reengagement with his own privately formed ideas.

86 Another diagnostician of modernity, Saul Bellow, confronts us with the opposite perspective on the same crux in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, [Bellow 1970, p. 238]: “It was not the behavior that was gone. What was gone was the old words. Forms and signs were absent. Not honor but the word honor. Not virtuous impulse, but the terms beaten into flat nonsense. Not compassion; but what was a compassionate utterance? And compassionate utterance was a mortal necessity. Utterance, sounds of hope and desire, exclamations of grief. Such things were suppressed, as if illicit.”

87 [Arendt 1970, p. 67-8] claims that the analysis of death as a motive for political action is almost unexamined in political philosophy, though it was understood as potent in Greek prephilosophic thought: “death, whether faced in actual dying or in the inner awareness of one’s own mortality, is perhaps the most antipolitical experience there is…it signifies that we shall disappear from the world of appearances and shall leave the company of our fellow-men, which are conditions of all politics.” She implies that individual loneliness, despair, and anomie are primary reasons in the twentieth century for individuals to join any group on the move, regardless of its dangerous ideals. They then feel life “surging upwards” through the group’s violence, building on the deaths of its members.

88 George Steiner links the power of the imagination and potentiality with grammar, articulating the abstract transformative effect of all futures and conditionals in language: “There is an actual sense in which every human use of the future tense of the verb ‘to be’ is a negation, however limited, of mortality. Even as every use of an “if”- sentence tells of a refusal of the brute inevitability, of the despotism of the fact. ‘Shall,’ ‘will,’ and ‘if,’ circling in intricate fields of semantic force around a hidden center or nucleus of potentiality, are the pass-words to hope” [Steiner 2002, p. 7]. As we have seen, the afterlife, in its futurity and even merely its conditional power, provides philosophical leverage to transform the political defeats of Antigone and Socrates into philosophical victory.

89 One of Nietzsche’s many accusations against dogmatic religion concerns its beyondness, which he equates with denying the (Greek) goods of a noble, enjoyable life (e.g. The Anti-Christ, section 43).

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Amit Shilo, « From Oblivion to Judgment », ThéoRèmes [En ligne], 5 | 2013, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2013, consulté le 29 juin 2017. URL : http://theoremes.revues.org/554 ; DOI : 10.4000/theoremes.554

Haut de page

Auteur

Amit Shilo

Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard |  https://harvard.academia.edu/AmitShilo

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
ThéoRèmes – Enjeux des approches empiriques des religions est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page