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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Myth of the Judgment of the Dead
By Plato (429–347 B.C.)
From the ‘Gorgias’: Translation of Benjamin Jowett

LISTEN then, as story-tellers say, to a very pretty tale, which I daresay that you may be disposed to regard as a fable only, but which, as I believe, is a true tale; for I mean, in what I am going to tell you, to speak the truth. Homer tells us how Zeus and Poseidon and Pluto divided the empire which they inherited from their father. Now in the days of Cronos there was this law respecting the destiny of man, which has always existed, and still continues in heaven: that he who has lived all his life in justice and holiness shall go, when he dies, to the islands of the blest, and dwell there in perfect happiness out of the reach of evil; but that he who has lived unjustly and impiously shall go to the house of vengeance and punishment, which is called Tartarus. And in the time of Cronos, and even later in the reign of Zeus, the judgment was given on the very day on which the men were to die; the judges were alive, and the men were alive: and the consequence was that the judgments were not well given. Then Pluto and the authorities from the islands of the blest came to Zeus, and said that the souls found their way to the wrong places. Zeus said:—“I shall put a stop to this: the judgments are not well given, and the reason is that the judged have their clothes on, for they are alive; and there are many having evil souls who are appareled in fair bodies, or wrapt round in wealth and rank, and when the day of judgment arrives, many witnesses come forward and witness on their behalf that they have lived righteously. The judges are awed by them, and they themselves too have their clothes on when judging: their eyes and ears and their whole bodies are interposed as a veil before their own souls. This all stands in the way: there are the clothes of the judges and the clothes of the judged. What is to be done? I will tell you: In the first place, I will deprive men of the foreknowledge of death, which they at present possess; that is a commission the execution of which I have already intrusted to Prometheus. In the second place, they shall be entirely stripped before they are judged, for they shall be judged when they are dead: and the judge too shall be naked, that is to say, dead; he with his naked soul shall pierce into the other naked soul as soon as each man dies, he knows not when, and is deprived of his kindred, and hath left his brave attire in the world above: and then judgment will be just. I knew all about this before you did, and therefore I have made my sons judges: two from Asia,—Minos and Rhadamanthus; and one from Europe,—Æacus. And these, when they are dead, shall judge in the meadow where three ways meet, and out of which two roads lead: one to the islands of the blessed, and the other to Tartarus. Rhadamanthus shall judge those who come from Asia, and Æacus those who come from Europe. And to Minos I shall give the primacy, and he shall hold a court of appeal in case either of the two others are in doubt: in this way the judgment respecting the last journey of men will be as just as possible.”  1
  This is a tale, Callicles, which I have heard and believed, and from which I draw the following inferences: Death, if I am right, is in the first place the separation from one another of two things, soul and body; this, and nothing else. And after they are separated they retain their several characteristics, which are much the same as in life; the body has the same nature and ways and affections, all clearly discernible. For example, he who by nature or training or both was a tall man while he was alive, will remain as he was after he is dead, and the fat man will remain fat, and so on; and the dead man who in life has a fancy to have flowing hair, will have flowing hair. And if he was marked with the whip and had the prints of the scourge or of wounds in him when he was alive, you might see the same in the dead body; and if his limbs were broken or misshapen when he was alive, the same appearance would be visible in the dead. And in a word, whatever was the habit of the body during life would be distinguishable after death, either perfectly, or in a great measure and for a time. And I should infer that this is equally true of the soul, Callicles: when a man is stripped of the body, all the natural or acquired affections of the soul are laid open to view. And when they come to the judge, as those from Asia came to Rhadamanthus, he places them near him and inspects them quite impartially, not knowing whose the soul is: perhaps he may lay hands on the soul of the great king, or of some other king or potentate, who has no soundness in him; but his soul is marked with the whip, and is full of the prints and scars of perjuries, and of wrongs which have been plastered into him by each action, and he is all crooked with falsehood and imposture, and has no straightness, because he has lived without truth. Him Rhadamanthus beholds, full of deformity and disproportion, which is caused by license and luxury and insolence and incontinence, and dispatches him ignominiously to his prison, and there he undergoes the punishment which he deserves.  2
  Now the proper office of punishment is twofold: he who is rightly punished ought either to become better and profit by it, or he ought to be made an example to his fellows, that they may see what he suffers, and fear and become better. Those who are punished by gods and men, and improved, are those whose sins are curable: still the way of improving them, as in this world so also in another, is by pain and suffering; for there is no other way in which they can be delivered from their evil. But they who have been guilty of the worst crimes, and are incurable by reason of their crimes, are made examples; for, as they are incurable, the time has passed at which they can receive any benefit themselves. But others get good when they behold them forever enduring the most terrible and painful and fearful sufferings as the penalty of their sins; there they are, hanging up as examples, in the prison-house of the world below,—a spectacle and a warning to all unrighteous men who come thither. And most of those fearful examples, as I believe, are taken from the class of tyrants and kings and potentates and public men; for they are the authors of the greatest and most impious crimes, because they have the power. And Homer witnesses to the truth of this; for those whom he has described as suffering everlasting punishment in the world below are always kings and potentates;—there are Tantalus, and Sisyphus, and Tityus. But no one ever described Thersites, or any private person who was a villain, as suffering everlasting punishment because he was incurable. For to do as they did was, as I am inclined to think, not in his power; and he was happier than those who had the power. Yes, Callicles, the very bad men come from the class of those who have power. And yet, in that very class there may arise good men, and worthy of all admiration they are; for where there is great power to do wrong, to live and die justly is a hard thing, and greatly to be praised, and few there are who attain this. Such good and true men, however, there have been, and will be again, in this and other States, who have fulfilled their trust righteously; and there is one who is quite famous all over Hellas,—Aristides the son of Lysimachus. But in general, great men are also bad, my friend.  3
  And as I was saying, Rhadamanthus, when he gets a soul of this kind, knows nothing about him, neither who he is nor who his parents are: he knows only that he has got hold of a villain; and seeing this, he stamps him as curable or incurable, and sends him away to Tartarus, whither he goes and receives his recompense. Or again, he looks with admiration on the soul of some just one who has lived in holiness and truth: he may have been a private man or not; and I should say, Callicles, that he is most likely to have been a philosopher who has done his own work, and not troubled himself with the doings of other men in his lifetime: him Rhadamanthus sends to the islands of the blest. Æacus does the same; and they both have sceptres, and judge; and Minos is seated, looking on, as Odysseus in Homer declares that he saw him,—
  “Holding a sceptre of gold, and giving laws to the dead.”
Now I, Callicles, am persuaded of the truth of these things; and I consider how I shall present my soul whole and undefiled before the judge in that day. Renouncing the honors at which the world aims, I desire only to know the truth, and to live as well as I can; and when the time comes, to die. And to the utmost of my power, I exhort all other men to do the same. And in return for your exhortation of me, I exhort you also to take part in the great combat, which is the combat of life, and greater than every other earthly conflict. And I retort your reproach of me, and say that you will not be able to help yourself when the day of trial and judgment, of which I was speaking, comes upon you: you will go before the judge, the son of Ægina, and when you are in the hands of justice you will gape and your head will swim round, just as mine would in the courts of this world; and very likely some one will shamefully box you on the ears, and put upon you every sort of insult.
  Perhaps this may appear to you to be only an old wife’s tale, which you contemn. And there might be reason in your contemning such tales, if by searching we could find out anything better or truer: but now you see that you and Polus and Gorgias, who are the three wisest of the Greeks of our day, are not able to show that we ought to live any life which does not profit in another world as well as in this. And of all that has been said, nothing remains unshaken but the saying, that to do injustice is more to be avoided than to suffer injustice, and that the reality and not the appearance of virtue is to be followed above all things, as well in public as in private life; and that when any one has been wrong in anything, he is to be chastised; and that the next best thing to a man being just is, that he should become just, and be chastised and punished; also that he should avoid all flattery of himself as well as of others, of the few as of the many; and rhetoric and any other art should be used by him, and all his actions should be done, always with a view to justice.  5

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