Plato: The Republic
5th century BC, Ancient Greek. Athens
'Souls, here is a new beginning for you, a new cycle of life. To each who chooses, that life shall be his destiny.'
'Do you not know,' said Socrates, 'that a human soul is immortal and cannot be destroyed?'
'I will not relate the story that Odysseus told to King Alcinous but yet I shall tell the tale of a hero and of his journey nonetheless. Er was killed in battle and after twelve days had passed he was lying on his funeral pyre when he came back to life and was able to tell everybody what he had seen of the afterlife. He said that he had joined a multitude of souls and had journeyed to a strange place where there were two yawning chasms in the ground and two similar openings in the sky.
'He saw the souls of those who had recently been judged either descending or ascending as their judgment decreed – where it was their destiny to spend a thousand years in their allotted place – and he saw returning souls duly emerging from the earth and souls descending from the sky and all seemed to have arrived back after a long journey. These were taken to a meadow where they were able to converse and chatter away as though they were at a social gathering.
'When seven days had passed in the meadow, the souls were required to continue their journey; and after four days of travel Er said that they arrived at a place where, each sitting upon a throne, were the three Fates, Lachesis, Clotho and Atropos; Past, Present and Future. When they had arrived, each soul was required to go to Lachesis; but first the soul was guided by a seer who took from the lap of Lachesis an armful of lots and a multitude of lives and proclaimed to the waiting souls: "Listen to the words of Lachesis, daughter of Necessity. Souls, here is a new beginning for you, a new cycle of life. To each who chooses, that life shall be his destiny."
'Then the lots were cast and each soul took up the one that landed nearest to it. And the multitude of lives was spread out, far more than there were souls waiting to choose, and they were of every kind, both animal and human.
'He who had the first choice came forward, and it was especially noteworthy, Er said, that the choice of life that each soul made was coloured by its experience in a previous life. The soul which had been Orpheus chose the existence of a swan, not wishing to be born of one of the creatures that had murdered him; the soul of Thamyras chose to be a nightingale; some who had been birds chose to exercise their musical talents now in human form. The soul whose lot had given him the twentieth choice was Ajax and he chose to be a lion. Agamemnon chose to be an eagle since he had no desire to live another human life. Last of all came Odysseus. He looked around for the life of an ordinary man and found one that had been passed over by all before him. But he was delighted with it and declared that if he had been given first choice instead of last, his choice would have been the same.
'Humans sometimes chose to become animals and animals chose to be other animals or to take on human form. And when all the souls had chosen, they went first to Lachesis, and then to Clotho and finally to Atropos, who spun the threads of their destiny. Then they made their way to the Plain of Forgetfulness and the waters of the River Lethe.'