Plato and Ancient Myths About the Afterlife

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco...
English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Continuing with the theme of thinking about souls, but moving in a very different direction, here is an interesting observation that occurred to me not long ago:

Most ancient religions in what will become Western or Middle-Eastern Civilization have a very grim view of the afterlife.  The afterlife is a shadow of the current life, a dark, damp, cave beneath the real world in which souls continue to exist in a half-real way.  We can see this in ancient Greek mythology, for instance, as well as many religious systems from around the Ancient Near-East.  A similar view seems to be behind the very few statements about the afterlife that appear in the Old Testament as well.

It is also the case that such views of the afterlife have a kind of universal nature to them:  all people experience this grim half-life fate, whether they were a king or a slave.  Death is the great equalizer, it brings everyone down to the same low place.

There are really only two major exceptions to this view that I am aware of in the ancient world.

The first is the Egyptians, whose views about the afterlife can be seen reflected in the elaborate tombs of the ancient Egyptian kings, which were thought to provide for them the means necessary to successfully achieve a happy existence in the next world.

The second exception is Plato.

Plato argues that it is actually this life that is the shadow of reality and that upon being released from this life our souls are able to journey back to the truly real existence found among the Forms.  For Plato, the physical world is a limitation on our knowledge, not something which makes life more full and complete.  Thus, to loose the physical world is to be set free– the next life is a fuller life than this one, not less than it.

I think this is interesting to point for a few reasons.

First, Plato is in clear conflict with the dominant religious myths of his day.

Second, Plato’s view of the afterlife, though skewed toward the rich (who have the luxury of a life of contemplation on the Forms to prepare them for the next life), is much more optimistic than the grim story told by the Greek myths.

Third, the Platonic view (or some variation on it) comes to dominate much of ancient Western thought in the Hellenistic and Roman periods.  We can see the effect of that, perhaps, in the difference between the popular notions of the afterlife that crop up in Christianity (the idea of the souls of those who have been saved enjoying an eternal existence in heaven) and the Old Testament perspective (which seems much more in line with the grim, universal norm of the Ancient Near-East).

This then raises a few significant questions worth asking:

What might motivate Plato to offer such a starkly different view of the after-life from that found in his culture’s religious beliefs?

Is the Platonic view of the afterlife more compelling than the view of other ancient myths or does it merely appeal to our desire to be happy?

How does the influence of Plato effect or change early Christian theology?  Does this (and if so, to what extent) create discontinuity between Christian theology and its scriptural heritage?  Is Christianity inherently “Platonic” when it comes to understanding what lies beyond our experience of this life?


7 thoughts on “Plato and Ancient Myths About the Afterlife

  1. So then premonitions are explained then as eternal memories originating from the distant eternal future, existing outside of time and space and thus more true in form. Now then is the then past, and a illusion or shadow. This shadow then illuminating and enlightening the now present; hence originating the term enlightenment? Just talking out of my ass, but I do wonder..

  2. My thoughts are that the Platonic view of the afterlife does not agree with Biblical teaching, especially that of Paul, John and the New Testament. My understanding, which has been enlightened by N.T. Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope, is that we will have physical bodies in the afterlife when we are resurrected from the dead, and that the nature of our bodies will be the same as the nature of the risen Lord Jesus. They will be free from disease and corruption and most of all and best of all, immortal, that is free from death. We will not be just some out of body existence, a soul without a body. The resurrection of Jesus defeated the last enemy, death. To have an eternal life existence without a body is not what the New Testament teaches. Maybe Plato, but not the Bible,

  3. hi! came across you while reading up on origins of the hell myth.. and Plato.. Loved your blog post! Except for one thing, in the Old Testament, death, it seems to me is simply death. And the place of the dead, the grave. (Jus sayin’!) God bless! 🙂

  4. As Glen Marshall says above, Plato saw death as a transition from the corruptible physical world into the eternal spiritual world. The Greeks saw this resurrection idea as foolishness. Who would want to leave the perfect spiritual existence to come back to this corrupted earth?
    The NT sees death as a necessary step to eventual bodily resurrection, and we will live in this resurrected body for eternity.
    Very different from Plato…

  5. What’s up,I log on to your blog named “Plato and Ancient Myths About the Afterlife – There And (Almost) Back Again” daily.Your writing style is awesome, keep it up! And you can look our website about powerful love spells.

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