The Myth of Er is widely believed to be one of the earliest examples of a near-death experience in history. In the telling of this story, Plato reveals much about classical spirituality and his own concepts of the eternal soul. This post compares the structure of the NDE as relayed by Plato to modern near-death experiences, as well as examining the role culture, mythology and personal belief have in the subjective imagery of near-death experiences.
Plato was a great classical Greek philosopher and mathematician who lived circa 423 BCE. He is well known for his enormous contribution to western philosophy, science and mathematics. Although he lived four centuries before the supposed birth of Christ, Christian theologians have credited Plato for influencing Christian thought. It’s true that Platonic thought did influence Christianity, but only after it was sanitized and pared down to the elements that didn’t conflict with the bible. If one looks closely at Plato’s original metaphysical doctrines, they bear far greater resemblance to modern new-age philosophy.
Today, Plato is very well known for Republic, what some would call his most influential work on political theory. In it, he discusses the idea of justice, and of “The Just Man”, including thoughts on personal morality and virtue, and civil issues, such as the idealized system of governance.
Also in Plato’s Republic, however, comes one of our earliest descriptions of a near-death experience called The Myth of Er. Because of it’s similarity to modern near-death experiences, NDE researchers have viewed this as one of the earliest NDE accounts in history.
You can read the full text of the Myth of Er here. The text is rather long to paste it all in this post, but there are some interesting characteristics of the afterlife that Plato describes as he retells the experience of a soldier named Er who is ‘killed’ on the battlefield, visits the afterlife, and returns to tell his tale. Like all spiritual and religious beliefs, they are influenced by the culture and ideas of the time in which he lived. The underlying description, however, if remarkably similar to NDEs that are reported today.
- “Er” has a soul that leaves it’s body and travels to what we would define as an afterlife.
- There is a judgement of deeds, and the final destination of the soul is determined based on those deeds.
- Souls returning to the afterlife meet with loved ones and friends long dead.
- The afterlife was a place of great beauty and brilliance, filled with a great radiant light.
- Past, present and future are represented by Greek figures common to Plato’s time, and described as each singing in harmony with one another, simultaneously.
- Souls are bid to choose new lives that are different in character and experience than their previous life.
- Plato describes the choice of lives and their characteristics: beauty, wealth, disease, poverty, etc. Plato stresses to his listeners that one must evaluate the combination of qualities in these lives in order to know how they might create a better opportunity for the soul (and thus, mankind). He also warns his listener not to be dazzled solely by wealth and beauty, for it may create tyranny and evil in the life to come.
- Souls tend to choose lives that contrast and relate directly to the lives they had directly prior.
- Once lives have been chosen and rebirth is imminent, souls must drink from the river of forgetfulness, so they are born without the knowledge of the eternal nature of the soul and of all previous lifetimes.
Whether Er really lived and returned to relay his experience is not important; framing the story using elements of what we would consider a modern near-death experience means that this must have been a common way of visualizing the death process at that time. Whether that is a cultural belief, or based on real anecdotal reports of NDEs during that time is unknown.
Although Christianity held on to the concept of judgment and of heaven and hell, Plato’s conception of what we might label reincarnation was left behind. The concept of returning to earth to live a contrasting lifetime to balance one’s experience and the idea that we must return to the earth with forgetfulness of our past lives is also left by the wayside. I would argue that the cycle of rebirth is central to The Myth of Er, making this more about a lesson in reincarnational balance than of judgement and punishment.
Through Republic and other literature attributed to Plato, we can glean his spiritual philosophy as follows:
- The body and soul are separate entities.
- The soul is divinely bestowed.
- The body is discarded after life ends, but the soul is eternal.
- Souls will undergo many lifetimes to achieve maximal experiences
- Lifetimes chosen are meant to contrast with the lifetime before, expanding on lessons or experiencing a different perspective (the rich will become poor, the athletically gifted will choose a life of philosophy, etc)
- Souls face a judgement when gifts are abused.
- Souls are perfect, but can be corrupted by an experience in a body
- In rare cases, a soul can leave the body, travel to the afterlife, and return with memories intact.
Consider modern spiritualism, also unavoidably tinged by our culture and experiences. Many non-religious spiritual or new-age beliefs include all of the above tenets except for the concept of external judgement. NDEs now usually feature a life review, where we judge ourselves.
Perhaps in our greater collective consciousness there was an earlier need for a sense of external justice that is no longer necessary. As our society evolves, so does our consciousness become more refined and our spirituality less dependent on the need for gods to assign judgement and morality. Doesn’t this square with the strides that have been made in our civil democracies and greater sense of the importance of individual liberties and responsibility?
Skeptics would point to such cultural influence as proof that these experiences are based on the psychology and cultural traditions of man as related to the evolution of ancestor worship, pantheism and animism. They might also claim that a brain starved of oxygen is going to construct a mythological idea of the afterlife based on our culture and experiences.
But what if we turn that thinking around?
What if the purpose of near-death experiences is not to return with a glimpse of an objective, never-changing afterlife, but as a personal revelation tailored toward the individual? The cultural, religious or spiritual imagery is that which will best convey the experience in a way they will understand when they return to their lives. Would it have served Er to see people and places that he didn’t understand? He expected to see Greek imagery, and seeing this would have made the experience real to him and created the most impact upon his return. Similarly, people who are best served to experience spirituality through the lens of religion might see religious figures, whereas others experience a sense of unity and joy rather than any overt doctrine.
Interestingly, NDE studies show that Europeans and Americans are more likely to see a tunnel and life review, where as Indians will experience “a mix-up”. They might stand before a sort of gatekeeper who consults a book and says “This is not the Raj Patel I asked for! Bring him back, I wanted Raj the data consultant!” Why these differences occur, I can’t say, but it’s clear that culture influences still affect NDE experiences.
Although people tend to focus on the content of near-death experiences as proving or disproving a particular religion or belif, and skeptics dismiss any references to cultural or religious mythology as brain-based, I believe we need to instead refocus on the underlying structure of NDEs that have remained the same throughout history. Surely an afterlife scenario constructed by a dying brain might differ widely from one person to another, just as drug-induced hallucinations do. But instead, despite any personal imagery involved, age, religion, or culture, the basic NDE consistently retains the following features, even in Atheists, who certainly wouldn’t construct any afterlife scenario:
- The separation of consciousness from the body; the concept of a nonphysical “soul” that can exist separate from the physical body.
- Entering another space, dimension or realm, possibly through a tunnel, cave or other passageway.
- Seeing an idealized version of reality; brighter colors, beautiful and brilliant landscapes or cities.
- Seeing and sensing an all knowing light.
- Feeling an overriding sense of joy and acceptance.
- Meeting deceased loved ones and friends.
- Accounting for our deeds in the previous lifetime
- Reaching a barrier or being told one cannot continue
- A physical feeling of descending or ascending before returning to the body
- Complete and total recall of the experience
- Certainty of the reality of the experience, and dramatic psychological changes as a result of the experience.
What Plato’s spiritual philosophy tells us is that the underlying structure and purpose of an eternal soul remains unchanged, even if the mythology surrounding it does. NDE experiences today reflect both the beliefs and ideas that permeate our collective consciousness as well as our personal beliefs, even as these ideas are constantly evolving. I believe it would be beneficial to stop thinking of the afterlife as an objective physical world like earth. Perhaps then we won’t be so hung up on the subjective properties of these experiences, but the purpose and universality of the experience itself and the extraordinary changes that occur to the individual as a result.
If you would like to read about the NDE debate in full with arguments from both skeptics and proponents, please visit my page on The NDE Debate. In addition, visit Resources for Afterlife Research to to find books and websites related to NDE stories, analysis and scientific studies.
If you have a story, comment or opinion on the topic of NDEs, please share in the comments below – I’m always interested in discussing this fascinating topic!