The Concept of Metempsychosis
in Early Greek Philosophy
Metempsychosis (Gr. meta empsychos, Lat. metempsychosis) or reincarnation – in other words the doctrine of the transmigration of souls – teaches that the same soul inhabits in succession the bodies of different beings, both men and animals. It was a tenet common to many systems of philosophic thought and religious belief widely separated from each other both geographically and historically. Although in modern times it is associated almost exclusively with the countries of Asia and particularly with India, there is evidence that at one period or another it has flourished in almost every part of the world and was for centuries part of Western thought, starting from the Greek Mystery Religions leading to Manichaeism, and Gnosticism, as well as to such modern religious movements as theosophy. This universality seems to mark it as one of those spontaneous or instinctive beliefs by which man's nature responds to the deep and urgent problems of existence.
The research would examine the origins and developing tradition of the concept of reincarnation in early Greek philosophy, showing how widespread it was and the important impact it had on the development of religious philosophy. Therefore it would cover an epoch in Western philosophy from the pre-Socratic period to the Middle Platonists, with focus on the transition of ideas from the Egyptian religion through Orphism and the Pythagoreans to Plato  and his successors. The investigation would also include such writers as Empedocles, Timaeus of Locri and Apollonius of Tyana. Although, Plato was the best-known supporter of metempsychosis, it was Plato's followers who first used the term.
The Greek idea, that the soul about to be reincarnated drinks from the river Lethe (forgetfulness) is typical of the assumption that those who are reincarnated remember little or nothing. From a philosophical point of view, reincarnation poses some interesting problems: What is it that is reincarnated? Presumably, it is the soul that is reincarnated, but what is the soul – a disembodied consciousness? The philosophical question is: In what sense does the reincarnation count as the same person as the deceased? The Buddhist critique of Hindu metaphysics centred on this, and "The Questions of King Milinda" argues that any determination of sameness is essentially arbitrary. Even if psychic drives of the deceased in some way led to the new life, the relation between the two lives could be compared to that of a new flame to the pre-existing flame from which it is lit. “Are these two different flames or the same flame?” – the Buddhist philosopher, Nagasena asks; and the implication is that there is no basis for an answer. Such issues would be in the focus of my investigation of early Greek thought…
Herodotus tells us in a well-known passage that "the Egyptians were the first to assert the immortality of the soul, and that it passes on the death of the body into another animal; and that when it has gone the round of all forms of life on land, in water, and in air, then it once more enters a human body born for it; and this cycle of the soul takes place in three thousand years" (ii. 123). That the doctrine first originated with the Egyptians is unlikely. It almost certainly passed from Egypt into Greece, but the same belief had sprung up independently in many cultures from a very early date. The accounts of Egyptian metempsychosis vary considerably: indeed such a doctrine was bound to undergo modifications according to changes in the national religion. In the "Book of the Dead", it is connected with the notion of a judgement after death, transmigration into infra-human forms being a punishment for sin. Certain animals were recognised by the Egyptians as the abode of specially wicked persons and were on this account, according to Plutarch, preferred for sacrificial purposes.  In Herodotus' account given above, this ethical note is absent, and transmigration is a purely natural and necessary cosmic process. Plato's version (see below) mediates between these two views. He represents the Egyptians as teaching that ordinary mortals will, after a cycle of ten thousand years, return to the human form, but that an adept in philosophy may hope to accomplish the process in three thousand years.
The Greeks, as already stated, probably borrowed the theory of transmigration from Egypt. According to tradition, among the ancient Greeks, it had been taught by Musaeus and Orpheus, and it was an element of the Orphic and other mystic doctrines. Pindar represents it in this relation (cf. 2nd Ol. Ode). The Orphic rhapsodies deal with such subjects as purification and the afterlife. The main topics can be centred around the themes of sin and guilt. The Orphics believed that there was a divine part in man – his soul – but it was wrapped up in the body, and man's task was to liberate the soul from the body. This could be achieved by living an Orphic life, which included abstinence from meat, wine, and sexual intercourse. Orphism held that a preexistent soul survives bodily death and is later reincarnated in a human or other mammalian body, and each time after death the soul would be judged. If a man had lived a righteous life, his soul would be sent to the meadows of the blessed in Elysium; but, if he had committed misdeeds, his soul would be punished in various ways and perhaps sent to hell. Following a period of reward or punishment, the soul would be incarnated in a new body. Only a soul that had lived a pious life three times could be eventually released from the cycle of birth and death and regaining its former pure state.
The introduction of metempsychosis as a philosophical doctrine is due to Pythagoras (c. 580-500 BC), who, we are told, gave himself out as identical with the Trojan hero Euphorbos, and added copious details of his subsequent soul-wanderings. Combining Orphic eschatology with their discoveries, he invested music, geometry, and astronomy with religious values. According to the Pythagorean doctrine, the original home of the soul was in the stars. From there it fell down to earth and associated with the body. Thus, man was a stranger on the earth, and he had to strive to liberate himself from the ties of the flesh and return to the soul's celestial home. The soul was immortal and merely resides in the body; therefore, it survived bodily death. Further teachings held the soul goes through a series of rebirths. Between death and rebirth the soul rests and is purified in the Underworld. After the soul has completed this series of rebirths is becomes so purified that it can leave the transmigration or reincarnation cycle. Vegetarianism and a general regard for animals was the practical Pythagorean deduction from the doctrine.
The philosophy of Plato (c. 428 BC) by no means resulted from connections with a mystery cult. Yet Plato did take up many ideas from earlier Greek religion, especially from the Pythagorean brotherhood and from the Eleusinian communities, and often described his philosophy in terms derived from the mysteries. For example, the notion of searching and finding, so important in Eleusis, became an important notion in Plato's philosophy: the philosopher should never cease or relax in his quest for truth. A value was thus attached to the very act of searching. Later mystery religions, in their turn, borrowed freely from the rich imagery of Plato's dialogues and are thus deeply tinged with Platonism.
Plato's metempsychosis was learnt from the Pythagoreans. He gave the doctrine a philosophic standing such as it never before possessed; for Plato exhibits the most elaborate attempt to find in the facts of actual experience justification for the theory of the pre-existence of the soul. In particular, various arguments adopted later on to prove immortality were employed by him to establish pre-existence. Such were the proofs from universal cognitions and the natural attraction of the soul towards the One, the Permanent, and the Beautiful. Plato ascribes to these arguments a retrospective as well as a prospective force. He seeks to show that learning is but a form of reminiscence, and love but the desire for reunion with a once-possessed good. Man is a fallen spirit, "full of forgetfulness". His sole hope is, by means of education and philosophy, to recover his memory of himself and of truth, and thus free himself from the chains of irrationality that bind him. Thus only can he hasten his return to his "true fatherland" and his perfect assimilation to the Divine. Neglect of this will lead to further and perhaps permanent degradation in the world beyond. The wise man will have an advantageous transmigration because he has practised prudence, and the choice of his next life will be put into his own hands. The vicious, ignorant, and passion-blinded man will, for the contrary reason, find himself bound to a wretched existence in some lower form. Plato's scheme of metempsychosis is conspicuous for the scope it allows to human freedom. The transmigration of the individual soul is no mere episode of a universal world-movement, predestined and unchangeable. Its course is really influenced by character, and character in turn is determined by conduct. A main object of his theory was to guarantee personal continuity of the soul's life, the point in which most other systems of transmigration fail.
Many other traditional religious images were taken over by Plato, including the music of the spheres, the migration of the soul, the soul's remembrance of its celestial origin, and the idea of rewards for the righteous and punishment for the wicked. Later mystery associations adopted these concepts, which Plato had expressed so beautifully, and were deeply influenced by Plato's explanations.
Besides Plato and Pythagoras, the chief professors of this doctrine among the Greeks were Empedocles (c. 460-430 BC), and Timaeus of Locri. Apparently a firm believer in the transmigration of souls, Empedocles declared that those who have sinned must wander for 30,000 seasons through many mortal bodies and be tossed from one of the four elements to another. Escape from such punishment requires purification, particularly abstention from the flesh of animals, whose souls may once have inhabited human bodies.
There are various versions of some kind of soul-migration in the writers of the Platonic Academy, although the concepts are less consistent: Plato's nephew Speusippus (c. 410-339 BC) for example organized reality into spiritual spheres; between the spheres of pure numbers, or "mathematicals," and of the body, or "the sensible," he inserted the sphere of the soul, considered immortal in all of its parts. Xenocrates (396-314 BC) thought that men die twice, the second time occurring on the Moon and consisting in the mind's separation from the soul to make its ascent to the Sun. Crantor (c. 330-270 BC) was allegedly the first to write commentaries on Plato, particularly on the Timaeus. One of Crantor's consolatory arguments, reminiscent of Plato's Phaedo or Aristotle's Eudemus, was that life is actually punishment; death, the release of the soul.
Reincarnation was also in focus around the first century AD when both the Greek and Roman writers were surprised by the fact that the Druids, a priestly caste of the Celts, believed in reincarnation. The Greek writer Diordus Siculus (c. 60 BC - 30 AD) noted that the Druids believed "the souls of men are immortal, and that after a definite number of years they live a second life when the soul passes to another body." The Greek philosopher Strabo (c. 63 BC - 21 AD) observed the Druids believed that "men's souls and the universe are indestructible, although at times fire and water may prevail." One of the main teachers of metempsychosis of this time is the Neo-Pythagorean Apollonius of Tyana (fl. 1st century AD).
Definition of Reincarnation
A distinct new bodily life, generally with a new identity and usually as a rebirth, of someone who has died. Beliefs in reincarnation can be found both in ancient Greece and in ancient India, and the Greek idea that the soul about to be reincarnated drinks from the river Lethe (forgetfulness) is typical of the assumption that those who are reincarnated remember little or nothing. The interesting philosophical question is: In what sense does the reincarnation count as the same person as the deceased? The Buddhist critique of Hindu metaphysics centred on this, and The Questions of King Milinda argues that any determination of sameness is essentially arbitrary. Even if psychic drives of the deceased in some way led to the new life, the relation between the two lives could be compared to that of a new flame to the pre-existing flame from which it is lit. 'Are these two different flames or the same flame?', the Buddhist philosopher asks; and the implication is that there is no basis for an answer.
[The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, © Oxford University Press 1995.]
See also Buddhist philosophy; death; immortality. Bibliography Wendy O'Flaherty (ed.), Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions (Berkeley, Calif., 1980).
The postulated rebirth of the human soul in another form after death. It is most commonly associated with Indian thought, but is also found amoung Australian Aborigine peoples, and in African traditional religions. In Hinduism, a single soul or atman is subject to an endless cycle of births, deaths, and rebirths, through the process of samsara. In Buddhism, however, the concept of 'non-self' (anatta), one of the Three Marks of Existence, is a central belief. There is no personal or transcendent soul, and therefore no continuing spiritual entity. Rebirth is explained through the process of dependent origination, in which each embodied existence, conditioned by karma, is linked to the next.
[Oxford Paperback Encyclopedia, © Oxford University Press 1998. ]
The migration of the soul from one body at death and its re-entry into another (human or animal) body. Belief in reincarnation appears in many different cultures, partly because it offers an explanation for the perplexing differences between individuals' characters and destinies, these being ascribable to traces of previous characters and the rewards or punishments for actions in previous lives. The cycle of reincarnation (samsara) is fundamental to Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain conceptions of the world, all spiritual effort being directed towards release (moksa) from the cycle. Plato and Pythagoras also subscribed to reincarnation, but orthodox Christianity rejected it as contrary to belief in the resurrection of the body.
[The Macmillan Encyclopedia 2001, © Market House Books Ltd 2000.]
A belief in which the soul goes from one body from another, until either time ends or the soul is made pure or complete. This belief is older than recorded history, and was probably a feature of the early religions of the Indo-Europeans and South Asians. It is fully present in Hinduism and Buddhism. In Judaism, medieval Kabbalists developed a limited form of it. In Greek philosophy, Plato was its best-known supporter; it was Plato's followers who first used the term. Through Plato, it influenced some early Christians, including Origen. Yet, Augustine of Hippo argued vigorously against it, and it was eventually condemned at the Council of Florence in 1439.
Metempsychosis conflicts with Christian belief in resurrection of the entire person, a belief that does not separate the body and the spirit from the soul. Metempsychosis treats the body as a 'container' that's not an essential part of who we are. Thus it stands with gnosticism in not treating the physical world and bodily life as being real or of any ultimate value.
[Spirithome Copyright © 1995, 2002 Robert Longman Jr.]
- Encyclopaedia Britannica [©1994-1998]The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume X. [© 1911 by Robert Appleton Company]
- The Macmillan Encyclopedia 2001 [© Market House Books Ltd 2000.]
- The Oxford Companion to Philosophy [© Oxford University Press 1995.]
- Oxford Paperback Encyclopedia, [© Oxford University Press 1998. ]
- Spirithome [© 1995, 2002 Robert Longman Jr.]
 Through Plato, the concept of reincarnation influenced some early Christians, including Origen. Yet, Augustine of Hippo argued vigorously against it, and it was eventually condemned at the Council of Florence in 1439, because metempsychosis conflicts with Christian belief in resurrection of the entire person; a belief that does not separate the body and the spirit from the soul. Orthodox Christianity rejects metempsychosis as contrary to belief in the resurrection of the body, because it treats the body as a 'container' that's not an essential part of who we are. Thus it stands with gnosticism in not treating the physical world and bodily life as being real or of any ultimate value.
 There was also a pantheistic form of Egyptian metempsychosis, the individual being regarded as an emanation from a single universal principle to which it was destined to return after having completed its "cycle of necessity". There are traces of this doctrine of a cosmic cycle in the Fourth Eclogue of Virgil. It has been thought that the custom of embalming the dead was connected with this form of the doctrine, the object being to preserve the body intact for the return of the soul. It is probable, indeed, that the belief in such a return helped to confirm the practice, but it can hardly have provided the sole motive, since we find that other animals were also frequently embalmed.
 In the Timaeus, which is an exposition of his theory of the universe, Plato also developed his theory of the soul. The earth is surrounded by the spheres of the seven planets; the eighth sphere is that of the fixed stars. Beyond the eighth sphere is the realm of the divine. The sphere of the fixed stars, moved by the divine, continuously turns to the right at an even speed. This clockwise rotation affects the spheres of the planets, although they have their proper movement, which runs to the left, or counter-clockwise. The sphere of mortality begins with the planets. The original home of each soul is in one of the fixed stars. As a result of the movement of the spheres, the soul falls through the planetary spheres to earth, where it is united with the body. The soul must then try to liberate itself from the body and ascend to the fixed star from which it fell. In later generations this picture was vividly worked out. The soul, in the course of its fall through the planetary spheres, was thought to acquire the qualities of the planets: sloth from Saturn, combativeness from Mars, lust for power from Jupiter, voluptuousness from Venus, greed from Mercury. After death, when the soul returned to the fixed star, it discarded these qualities, just as the mystes, in certain initiations, discarded his everyday garment before entering the sacred place.
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