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Metempsychosis (or Transmigration of Souls)

From the Greek meta, "after," and empsychos, "to animate," the belief that after death, the soul passes into another body, either human or animal. In ancient Greece it was roughly equivalent to the idea of reincarnation.

The idea seems to have originated in Egypt but to have first been advocated by Pythagoras around 455 B.C.E. Diogenes Laertius noted that Pythagoras once recognized the soul of a departed friend in a dog that was being beaten. Plato picked up on the idea and expounded it in several of his Dialogues, most notably the Phaedo and Republic. According to the vision of truth that one attains, one will be born in the next life in a body suitable to that attainment, Plato said. The most enlightened will be reborn as a philosopher, musician, artist, or lover. At the lowest level, he placed tyrants. Once a soul has beheld true being, it will pass from animal into human form, he said. Plato also put forth the idea that a person chooses his next life, the very choice being a sign of his character.

The idea of metempsychosis was also held by some of the Gnostics, and it became a source of disagreement between them and the leaders of the Christian church. Irenaeus, the second century bishop of Lyons, wrote at length against the Gnostics in his pacesetting Contra Heresies and singled out metem-psychosis as an idea that was incompatible with Christianity. The church has essentially followed Irenaeus's lead in its consideration of metempsychosis and reincarnation. Origen, a Christian theologian of the third century with a platonic background, tried to defend some aspects of the metempsychosis doctrine, primarily the prior existence of the soul, but soon gave up, having found the idea contrary to the New Testament teachings.

Metempsychosis found its last great philosophical defender in Plotinus (205-270 C.E.), the Neoplatonic philosopher. He saw repeated births of the soul as a means for its education. By being in the body, the soul learns how desirable is the nonphysical existence, Plotinus taught.

The idea of reincarnation lingered in the West, passing through a succession of Gnostic groups, but experienced a re-birth in the twentieth century. It's current spread, however, has a basis in Indian and Oriental ideas of reincarnation, usually attached to the additional notion of karma.


Crombie, I. M. Plato: The Midwife's Apprentice. London: Rout-ledge & Kegan Paul, 1964.

Ducasse, C. J. A Critical Examination of the Belief in a Life after Death. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas, 1961.

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Otherwise referred to as transmigration of souls or reincarnation, is a doctrine asserting not only the preexistence of the human soul before union with matter but also, after death, a return to life on earth in a different body, perhaps through several successive reincarnations. This notion pervades ancient pagan, Neoplatonic, and some Oriental and modern spiritualist beliefs. It has been condemned as heretical (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 403, 854, 857, 100008, 130506, 1316, 1440), since Christian doctrine teaches that "it is appointed unto men to die once and after this comes the judgment" (Heb9.27; cf. also Lk 16.1931; 23.43; 2 Cor 5.10). Man has but one life on earth in which to earn his eternal destiny.

The reasoning against metempsychosis is both negative, from the lack of any psychological evidence (C. Jung's archetypes are racial, not individual), and positive, from the unity of man as one being. If one's soul were to return and unite substantially with matter, it could form only the body of that person. This person cannot be someone else, regardless of changed material conditions. Lack of recognition by oneself or others, as happens in psychotic or deteriorated states, does not cause one to be another person. Even less could a human soul actuate matter to form a dog or other animal.

See Also: soul, human, origin of.

Bibliography: p. siwek, The Enigma of the Hereafter: The Reincarnation of Souls (New York 1952). j. head and s. l. cranston, eds., Reincarnation: An East-West Anthology (New York 1961).

[j. e. royce]

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metempsychosis transmigration of the soul. XVI. — late L. — Gr. metempsū́khōsis, f. metá META- + en IN1 + psūkhḗ soul (see PSYCHIC).

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Metempsychosis. The passing of some quintessential part or consequence of a person (e.g. soul or spirit) from one body to another through the process of death. It is frequently known as ‘rebirth’, especially in Indian religions, but in Buddhism there is no ‘self’ being reborn, only the process of caused and causal change.

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metempsychosis the supposed transmigration at death of the soul of a human being or animal into a new body of the same or a different species, chiefly in Pythagoreanism and certain Eastern religions.