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Plato’s Myth of Er and the Reconfiguration of Nature

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 October 2019

University of Oxford and University of California, Santa Barbara
*Tae-Yeoun Keum, Christopher Tower Junior Research Fellow, Christ Church, University of Oxford; and from Fall 2020: Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of California, Santa Barbara,


Why did Plato conclude the Republic, arguably his most celebrated work of political theory, with the Myth of Er, an obscure story of indeterminate political-theoretical significance? This paper advances a novel reading of the Myth of Er that attends to the common plot that it shares with two earlier narrative interludes in the Republic. It suggests that Plato constructed the myth as an account of a search, akin to the sorting of potential philosopher-kings that underwrites the kallipolis’ educational curriculum, for natures that have successfully absorbed the cumulative effects of their philosophical upbringing. The model of nature presented in the myth, in turn, helps us approach the category of nature as a working concept: we can recognize contexts in which it is useful to assume in otherwise complex and fluid individuals a fixed, indelible nature, while granting that our sense of what that consists in is subject to revision.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2019 

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I have been thinking about the texts and themes in this paper for several years. I am indebted to the conversations I have had in that time with many generous individuals, including Rachel Barney, Aaron Garrett, Kinch Hoekstra, Matthew Kozlark, Jonathan Lear, and Malcolm Schofield. For comments and encouragement on earlier drafts, I am especially grateful to Jacob Abolafia, Adriana Alfaro, Danielle Allen, Robert Balling, Jonathan Bruno, Marianne Bauer, Matthew Landauer, Derin McLeod, Joe Muller, Oded Na’aman, Jon Templeman, Nancy Rosenblum, John Zumbrunnen, and audiences at the Harvard Political Theory Workshop, the Harvard Safra Center Graduate Workshop, the 2014 Meeting of the Northeastern Political Science Association, and the 2018 Meeting of the American Political Science Association. I am additionally grateful to Leigh Jenco and three anonymous reviewers, whose incisive comments improved the paper significantly.



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