skip to Main Content

The Judgment of the Dead

The Judgment Of The Dead

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of authority means that the authority of Athens, as the public organization of a people in history, is inval­idated and superseded by a new public authority manifest in the person of Plato.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

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

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

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

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

The complaints about misjudgments came to Zeus and he changed the procedure. Now the judgments are passed on the souls after death; and in judgment are sitting Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Aeacus, the dead sons of Zeus (523-524A). Stripped of their bodies, the souls reveal their beauty or deformity; the judges can inspect them impartially because nothing indicates their earthly rank, and they can send them correctly to the Islands of the Blessed or to Tartarus.

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

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

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

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

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

Now the souls are judged when they are “dead,” that is, in their nakedness, without regard to worldly rank. This change in the mode of judgment is quite “recent”; that is, in historical time, Plato is speaking of the new order of the soul inaugurated by Socrates. Under the new dispensation, the naked souls are judged by the “Sons of Zeus.” The Sons of Zeus are the men of the new age, the philosophers in general, and primarily Plato himself. These Sons of Zeus are “dead.” We have to ascertain, therefore, the meaning of the symbols “life” and “death” in the myth. The meaning of death in the myth has been carefully prepared by incidental remarks in the dialogue itself.

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

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

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

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

The various passages cast some light on the mythical play with the symbols of life and death in the Gorgias. Death can mean either the entombment of the soul in its earthly body, or the shedding of the body. Life can mean either earthly existence, or freedom of the soul from the frenzy of the body. The shifting between these several meanings is the source of the richness of the Gorgias.

Let us begin with the meaning of the symbols on the level of history. In the historico-political process those who live lustfully like Callicles are the “dead,” entombed in the passion and frenzy of their body; they are judged by the “living,” that is, by the philosophers who let their souls be penetrated by the experience of death and, thus, have achieved life sub specie mortis in freedom from somatic passion. The transfer of authority means the victory of the life of the soul over the deadliness of earthly passions.

This tension between the life of the soul and the tomb of the body, however, has only “recently” developed in history. Formerly, in the age of the myth, the distinction between life and death had not been so clear; at that time earthly existence could easily be mistaken for the life of the soul. The soul had first to be separated from the body through the experience of death. Only when Thanatos had entered the soul could it be distinguished clearly from the sema of the body; only then could its nonsomatic nature, the co-eternity of its existence with the cosmos and the autonomy of its order, become intelligible.

The life and death of Socrates were the decisive events in the discovery and liberation of the soul. The soul of Socrates was oriented toward the Agathon through its eroticism; and the Agathon invaded the soul with its eternal substance, thereby creating the autonomous order of the soul beyond the passions of the body. Through this catharsis, the soul in its earthly existence received the stigmata of its eternal postexistence.

The life of Socrates was the great model of the liberation of the soul through the invasion of death into earthly existence; and the imitatio Socratis had become the order of life for his followers, and above all for Plato. Only now, when the Sons of Zeus have died, when death embraces them in life, is the catharsis of the soul revealed as the true meaning of life; and only the souls who have died have the clearness of view that enables them to judge the “living.” The authority of the judges, thus, is the authority of death over life.

But what is the status of those who do not have the experience of death in existence and through this experience gain the life of the soul? On this question hinges the problem of history as a meaningful order, i.e., as the process of revelation.

The revelation of divinity in history is ontologically real. The myth of the people and the poets is really superseded by the myth of the soul. The old myth is in full decadence; it is corroded by pleonexy and reason, as evidenced by Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles. The order of the soul as revealed through Socrates has, indeed, become the new order of relations between God and man. And the authority of this new order is in­escapable. To bury oneself in the tomb of bodily existence (the escape of Callicles) is of no avail; the way from the old myth leads, not to the darkness of nature, but to the life of the soul; and the soul must die and, divested of its body, stand before its judge.

The new order is understood secretly even by those who meet it with sulkiness and recalcitrance, for this secret understanding binds the partners of the dialogue together at least for its duration. We remember the passage of the Cratylus. The “desire for virtue” is present even if it is obscured by the mania of the body; and it will reign freely when the obstacle of the body is removed. Insofar as the dialogue is an attempt at existential communication, it is an attempt to liberate the soul from its passions, to denude it of its body.

Socrates speaks to his interlocutors as if they were “dead” souls, or at least as if they were souls who are capable of death. On the part of Socrates, the dialogue is an attempt to submit the others, at least tentatively, to the catharsis of death. The judgment of the dead thus is enacted in part in the dialogue itself, concretely, in the attempt of Socrates to pierce through the “body” of his interlocutors to their naked souls. He tries to make die, and thereby to make live, those who threaten him with death.

Hence Socrates, after he has finished the tale of the myth, turns to Callicles for the last time and offers him an exhortation of his own in exchange for his former friendly admonitions. He assures Callicles that he is persuaded of the truth of the judgment and that he wishes to present his soul undefiled before the judge; and that, to the utmost of his powers, he exhorts all men to be equally persuaded. He now exhorts Callicles, therefore, to take part in this combat (agon), which is the agon of life and greater than any other. Otherwise he will suffer before his eternal judges the fate that he predicted for Socrates before the earthly judges. “Follow my persuasion” — and he will lead Callicles to eudaimonia in this life and after death (527C).

The existential appeal is now supported by the ultimate authority of the demand to submit freely to the inevitable judgment right here and now: to enter the community of those whose souls have been liberated by death and who live in the presence of the judgment.

The barriers between the earthly existence of the soul and its post-existence have broken down. Catharsis is the meaning of existence for the soul on both sides of the dividing line of disembodiment. The catharsis that the soul has not achieved in earthly existence will have to be achieved in postexistence. Hence the punishment, the timoria, that the soul will have to undergo in afterlife does not differ from the punishment that it has to undergo in this life for the purpose of purification.

This purifying timoria is a social process; it can be applied by gods or by men. Those who are touchable by it are those whose misdeeds (hamartemata) are curable; they are able to undergo the purification by pain and suffering. And there is no other way for the soul to be delivered from evil (adikia) “in this world or the next” (525C). In this idea of the catharsis through suffering “in this world or the next” there can again be felt the Aeschylean touch of the wisdom through suffering as the great law of the psyche for gods and men.

The curable soul, thus, is permanently in the state of judgment; to experience itself permanently in the presence of the judgment, we might say, is the criterion of the curable soul; “only the good souls are in hell,” as Berdiaev, on occasion, has formulated the problem.

This conception, however, would have an unexpected consequence if it were understood not existentially but dogmatically. If the symbol of punishment in afterlife were misunderstood as a dogmatic hypoth­esis, the not-so-good souls might arrive at the conclusion that they will wait for afterlife and see what is going to happen then; if suffering is the lot of the soul under all circumstances, they can wait for their share of suffering (which is no more than a dogmatic assertion) in postexistence and meanwhile enjoy some pleasurable criminality.

It is a problem in the psychology of dogmatic derailment similar to that which has arisen in some instances in Calvinism: If the fate of the soul is predestined, some may arrive at the conclusion that it does not matter what they do. This psychological derailment, through the dogmatic misunderstanding of the existential truth of the myth, Plato forestalls by the threat of eternal condemnation for the incur­able souls.

In the symbolism of the myth eternal condemnation is the correlate to the refusal of communication on the level of the myth of the soul; eternal condemnation means, in existential terms, self-excommunication. The revelation of the divinity in history moves on; the authority rests with the men who live in friendship with God; the criminal can achieve nothing but the perdition of his soul.


This excerpt is from Order and History (Volume III): Plato and Aristotle (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 16) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999)

Eric VoegelinEric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.

Back To Top