The Myth of Er is fucking weird. Way the fuck weirder than the Allegory of the Cave, where at least every part of the story had a clear function. The Myth of Er has sky assholes? And birds? I’m way out of my depth here. So I’m letting Ovid over at Myths Retold handle the actual retelling of this one, and when he’s done, then we can come together and talk about what it all means.
Okay great. See what I mean? Fucked up shit, right? But I’d say the point for the modern, cosmopolitan reader is pretty simple: the Universe has a way of punishing dickheads and rewarding chill, contemplative bros, and it’s not like it’s a big fucking secret or anything. “How was I supposed to know I had to be virtuous just because it’s literally the only thing that matters in the end?” Yeah man that’s a tough one, jeez, I dunno.
Take that guy who has to eat his own children. Of course that guy had to eat his own children. You think that was just a weird prank he fell for, like everything was perfectly reasonable right up until the infantophagy? There’s an entire basket of every kind of life ever, with enough good lives that literally everyone could have one, and what does this motherfucker do? Does he examine them? Does he look closely at all? Does he take one second to say, “This is literally an entire lifetime’s worth of shit I’m picking, maybe I should try to get this right?” No. He reaches in and grabs the first shiny fucking thing he sees, like “Oh! This life will let me oppress people!” Fuck that guy! Fuck him, is what I’m trying to say.
And then this motherfucker wants to complain about the gods. “Oh, woe is me, I was dumb and I rushed and totally overlooked the part where I eat my kids for fuckssake, but this is really the gods’ fault! Fortune fucked me, that’s what happened!” And it’s like, dude, what do you want me to say here? The guy handing out the lives warned you to be virtuous, but because you had it easy the first time around, you never slowed down and thought about your life. You just coasted on the fact that you were born into a pretty great situation and grabbed the most power you could as soon as you got the chance. No one is mad you were born into a good, stable situation, but if you don’t take a second to ask, “Wow, hey, seems like I got pretty lucky, what would life be like if I didn’t have these specific advantages?” then you also don’t get to complain about how the dinner you made for yourself is chewy and overcooked and also your daughter.
And look, the point isn’t just “fuck people who don’t examine their privilege and fuck people who want to be tyrants,” though that is a little bit the point. There are tons of lives available here. I would go so far as to say, oodles. Sure, some of them have child-eating, and others are like Socrates’ badass life, but those ones are going to go fast. And then what? Some options are for moderately famous lives with no family; some options include being a very successful and not not-rich Greco-Roman oil wrestler, but don’t include time for contemplation. Some of them have a huge, loving family and a life of contemplation, but come with a weird, shitty heart condition where it only beats most of the time, which sounds not too bad, but the thing about hearts is, they really need to beat all the time. How the fuck do you decide among all those different options? How can you tell which of those will allow you to be most virtuous, and which ones will cost you? Don’t look at me, I don’t know for sure.
That’s much harder than “don’t eat your kids,” and it’s not supposed to be easy. But being virtuous is what makes us happy, so if you fuck up that part, literally nothing else matters. You don’t have to believe in sky b-holes or eternal recurrence or the immortal soul to see that carefully, attentively discerning virtue is the central task of our lives. No one is saying you have to get it right the first time; I mean, fuck, Odysseus decides to come back as a quiet loner who doesn’t have any responsibility, and Ajax goes with the life of a lion. Who the fuck knows how virtuous a lion is going to be, right? All you can do is work with the information you have, which isn’t perfect, but by doing philosophy you can make that shit stretch out as far as possible, and learn as much as you can as you make your choice. And if you fuck up, then yes, there are some unpleasant consequences you have to just deal with. But now you know better, so stop complaining and try to do better next time.
Anyway, that’s the Myth of Er: there are a whole lot of things you could be, and some of them are mighty shiny and appealing. Think very, very carefully about what kind of life will make you truly happy.