At the very end of the Republic, Socrates tells a fascinating story about a man named Er who travels to the underworld while still alive. There he sees souls, about to be reborn, make a fateful choice between various models (παραδείγματα) that will determine the course of their next lives (βίοι; 617d–e). The souls are given lots that establish the order in which they choose, but the large number of models affords good options even for the last soul (617e, 619b). The motive for this arrangement is theological, pinning the responsibility for virtue and vice entirely on the one who chooses rather than the gods, pithily expressed in only four Greek words: αἰτία ἑλομένου: θεὸς ἀναίτιος (617e). Some of the models depict the lives of tyrants, others depict lives that end in poverty or exile, still others depict lives of men famous for beauty or athletic prowess, and so on (618a–b). Importantly, the “arrangement of the soul was not included in the model because the soul is inevitably altered by the different lives it chooses” (618b).1

Socrates calls this moment of choice “the greatest danger of all” because here each soul determines the whole fate of its next cycle of incarnation (618b). This is why, he says, it is so important to study philosophy in this life. By learning which kinds of life are better and worse for our souls we will be in a position to avoid the common error of choosing an evil life on the basis of surface appearances. The philosopher “will be able, by considering the nature of the soul, to reason out which life is better and which worse and to choose accordingly, calling a life worse if it leads the soul to become more unjust, better if it leads the soul to become more just, and ignoring everything else” (618d–e).

This story has puzzled commentators because it at once seems to give us a near-absolute freedom to choose everything about ourselves and simultaneously to bind us to an iron fate once chosen.2 By this account, the only freedom we have apparently lies outside the experience of this life. Although radical, it is a freedom that we cannot actually experience here and now.

I make no pretense here to give anything like an adequate interpretation of this passage within Plato’s whole philosophy. What matters for our purposes is simply the apparent conception of freedom that is present at the surface level of the text. The careful reader must, of course, account for the fact that the passage is a myth, found in a fictional dialogue, and couched in the hedgy terms of a narrative told by a friend of a friend. In fact, I think this is not the best representation of Plato’s considered views, and as Socrates himself says, there is a “longer way” of inquiry into the true nature of the soul that he does not undertake in the Republic (435c). Independent of the best interpretation of what Plato really meant, however, the indelible image of the myth remains in the minds of later generations and stands as one of the principal founts of inspiration for Western ideas of freedom.

Conceding that much of the imagery is stage-setting brought in to make a deeper point about the the radical responsibility we have for our lives, the nature of the choice itself is also a puzzling kind of freedom. All of the models are givens. We are not told who makes them or where they come from. They are just there. Socrates does mention that the number of models is so large that even if someone is the last to choose he will still be able to choose a good life, but the range of options is a finite, unalterable set nonetheless. The goodness or badness of these options is also objectively given. Some of the models are objectively the right choice (i.e. the “just” and the “mean”), and some of the models are objectively the wrong choice (i.e. the “unjust” and the “extreme”). The main point of the whole myth is that most souls will make the wrong choice because they choose quickly based on surface features and will later come to regret their choice. If there is any difference between the suitability of different lives to different souls, this is left unstated. Finally, choice is here construed as a mere act of selection. There is no sense that souls can interact with or modify the models, although the act of choice modifies the soul.

Leaving aside the text itself and the trappings of the myth, something like this image underlies much of our thinking about freedom. Versions of our future are “out there,” a set of determinate options, some objectively better and some objectively worse. We have the freedom to select from among the cards in the deck, but we can do nothing about the deck itself. Nothing about the cards comes from us, only the act of selection. This freedom-as-selection way of thinking may adequately characterize certain limited scenarios in our daily lives, such as ordering food from a menu or choosing to go to one college out of ten possibilities. It fails, however, to capture much about the way we experience the deeper moments of freedom, and it does not merit the near-universal prevalence that this way of thinking has among philosophical theories of freedom. This conceptual image leaves out any sense that the object of choice, the shape of my own life, proceeds from me along with the act of choice.

In a future post, I hope to develop more fully an alternative to freedom-as-selection, but for now, I will simply suggest that we think of free choice by analogy with artistic creation. A painter does not merely select a painting from set of possible paintings. (Even if we construe that set as the infinite set of possible arrangements of pigments, picking the arrangement is simply not what the painter does.) Instead, the painting proceeds from within the painter’s own soul, although he must also account for and work with the objective limitations of canvas, oil, and pigment. He may have some conception within his mind before he begins, but as he proceeds, the concrete painting begins to take on a life of its own, and the painter’s internal conception perpetually shifts in conversation with the work that as already been done. The end result is freely produced by the painter, but he could not have known exactly what it would be before he began the process, and it certainly wasn’t a determinate “option” that he merely selected from a range of other options.

Imagine, therefore, an alternative to the Myth of Er. Imagine that the souls are not confronted with a number of models lying on the floor but instead presented with a block of wet clay. I believe this comes closer to the way we experience freedom and responsibility.

  1. All translations from the Republic are from G.M.A. Grube as revised by C.D.C. Reeve.↩︎

  2. See, for example, T. M. Robinson, Plato’s Psychology (University of Toronto Press, 1970) 129: “At a stroke Plato seems to have solved the problem of free will by placing in another life the entire choice of this one.”↩︎