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A Story From Western Culture About Life-After-Death Experiences

In this page I want to tell a story about life-after-death experiences from western culture.

I have mainly been writing about things from Chinese culture in this website. This article is the first time for me to specially write something about western culture. Different cultures all have their unique history and features, and we can all discover very shining wisdom and knowledge from each culture. In my knowledge, the most brilliant parts in western culture are two things. One is the western classical music, and the other is western philosophy, of which Socrates was the initiator. This story on life-after-death experiences that I am going to tell was originally told by Socrates.

The Story

This tale is about Er the son of Armenius. Er was killed in war, but twelve days later he returned to life while lying on the funeral pile. Er then told people of his after-death experiences in the other space.

He described in detail about the space where he went to after death. It was an intermediate space, where souls stay between reincarnations. In that space, there were both openings up to the heaven and those down to the hell. Those who have come down from heaven and those who have come up from hell were all meeting up there and exchanging their different experiences.

Particularly, Er told people in great detail about a process of how souls were given a chance to select what kind of human life they are going to live in the next cycle of life.

It turned out that the choices made by the souls were largely influenced by their experiences in the previous life. Socrates quotes many different examples.

"There he saw the soul which had once been Orpheus choosing the life of a swan out of enmity to the race of women, hating to be born of a woman because they had been his murderers; he beheld also the soul of Thamyras choosing the life of a nightingale; birds, on the other hand, like the swan and other musicians, wanting to be men. The soul which obtained the twentieth lot chose the life of a lion, and this was the soul of Ajax the son of Telamon, who would not be a man, remembering the injustice which was done him the judgment about the arms. The next was Agamemnon, who took the life of an eagle, because, like Ajax, he hated human nature by reason of his sufferings. About the middle came the lot of Atalanta; she, seeing the great fame of an athlete, was unable to resist the temptation: and after her there followed the soul of Epeus the son of Panopeus passing into the nature of a woman cunning in the arts; and far away among the last who chose, the soul of the jester Thersites was putting on the form of a monkey. There came also the soul of Odysseus having yet to make a choice, and his lot happened to be the last of them all. Now the recollection of former tolls had disenchanted him of ambition, and he went about for a considerable time in search of the life of a private man who had no cares; he had some difficulty in finding this, which was lying about and had been neglected by everybody else; and when he saw it, he said that he would have done the had his lot been first instead of last, and that he was delighted to have it."

The choice has not been easy. For example, the first soul who made the choice was very careless and chose the greatest tyranny, for which he regretted very soon, because it turned out that in this tyranny's life "he was fated, among other evils, to devour his own children."

"There was every other quality, and the all mingled with one another, and also with elements of wealth and poverty, and disease and health; and there were mean states also."

The Essential Task of Life

So, this tale tells us about one important thing, which is one's soul, mind and memory does not distinct after death. One carries the mind and memory to the other world after death and furthermore, the experiences, knowledge and opinions formed during one's life in human world can greatly influence one's way of thinking in the other world.

Therefore, the most meaningful thing one should be doing during one's human life is ┬ĘC to study to distinguish what is good from what is bad. After studying correctly, one may be able to make the right choice when choosing one's next life path so that one can walk a continuous right path upward to a better place in the universe all crossing different lives.

Nowadays, with the fast development of media, computer and internet, the amount of knowledge and information develop at an exploding speed. There are too many sensual and material things to distract people. Such essential teachings has been thus buried deeply and people have mostly forgotten these most essential things or even regard philosophy being the same as ordinary theories or even not as useful as learning some practical living skills.

Debating Chamber,Graduate Memorial Building, Trinity College Dublin
Debating Chamber,Graduate Memorial Building, Trinity College Dublin

Socrates' teachings have had a very deep influence in western culture even in today's western colleges. Especially his way of explaining things through questioning, reasoning and debating has been well inherited.

In Trinity College Dublin where I studied, there is a Debating Chamber in Graduate Memories Building. The Philosophical Society and History Society are holding debating in the Debating Chamber nearly every week and they often invite very famous and prestigious guests from all over the world. I would say today's democracy in western counties, which is typically manifested in parliamentary hearings and debating is also based on such a culture imparted by Socrates.

However, the debating, questioning and reasoning are only the superficial forms and are not the fundament of Socrates' teachings. What Socrates has told in this tale has revealed the fundament. And that is about why we are here being a human and what is the best thing we should be doing in our human life. In my opinion, this is the very central part of philosophical studies.

Once in New York Metropolitan Museum, I saw a painting "The Death of Socrates. In the painting, Socrates' friends, who have gathered to mourn his imminent death, stare down in grief and sorrow; yet Socrates sits assuredly, teaching his friends of the immortality of the soul and encouraging them to look heavenward, where he will soon find release from earthly injustice. The painting refers to the trial and death of Socrates in the year 399 B.C. when a jury of 500 Athenian citizens convicted the seventy-year-old Socrates of state crimes and sentenced him to death.

The death of Socrates
The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). The original hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Although normally regarded as a philosopher, Socrates is actually a prophet and enlightened person. This human world is a dimension where the good and the evil co-exist. When one teaches something very good, those bad people will just oppose him and make him suffer or even die. Socrates was sentenced to death wrongly. So was Jesus.

Other Readings

The concept of reincarnation, intermediate space, transition between different levels of heave and hell etc from manifested in this western story, are quite similar to the understandings in Chinese culture. In Chinese culture, there are a lot of ancient stories on life-after-death experiences.

The full story of Chinese Tang Dynasty Emperor Tang Tai Zong's life-after-death experiences can be found in one of the four main Chinese classical literary works "Journey to the West" (10th Episode). Clich here to read my page about the book "Journey to the West" as well as information to buy the book.

For detailed graphic depictions about hell in Chinese Buddhism culture, please click here.


[1] This death-back-to-life story is recorded in the ending part of Book 10 of "The Republic" written by Socrates' disciple Plato. (

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