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Transmigration of Souls


The supposed passing of the soul at death into another body is called transmigration of souls (reincarnation, metempsychosis). This doctrine, in its most developed form, as in Greece and India, involved three restrictions: the place where the soul and its new body dwell must be, at least in part, in this world; the new body must be acquired for more than a temporary period; and the soul must be that which creates an individual personality common to the several incarnations. More or less elaborate doctrines of transmigration have been widespread in the world, occurring in Asia, Africa, Australia, Oceania, among North and South American Indians, and in parts of Europe. It is most unlikely that the doctrine spread from a common center; in fact, it could easily have been developed separately in these places in order to account for the resemblance of children to their parents or other relativesas a pseudoscientific theory of heredity. This article deals almost exclusively with the idea of transmigration in Western European culture.

In ancient Greece, transmigration was a tenet of restricted groups and appeared first, so far as is known, at the end of the archaic period, in the 6th century b.c. It was probably a native development. The doctrine hardly occurred in Egyptian religion, though Herodotus (2.123) supposed that the Greeks learned of it in Egypt; moreover, there was no communication between Greece and India at this early date. Greece itself already had the basic beliefs upon which such a doctrine could be constructed (Nilsson 1:654658). Greeks had entertained the idea that the soul of a dead man can pass into an animal (ibid., 182184), and the belief that the soul is divine, and therefore immortal and preexistent. This posed the question of where the soul comes from (see soul human).

Pythagoras. The Greek lexicon of Suidas (c. a.d.1000) attributes the doctrine to Pherecydes, Pythagoras's supposed teacher. But pythagoras himself (late 6th century) is the earliest Greek to whom the doctrine can be assigned almost certainly, although he left no written works and became a legendary figure even in his own day, so that the task of delineating "the real Pythagoras" is complex (cf. K. von Fritz, "Pythagoras," and H. Dörrie, "Pythagoreer," Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, 24 [1963] 209277). Later authors, beginning with Diodorus Siculus (5.28.56), were sure that Pythagoras taught transmigration; but there is an excellent early testimony also in a fragment of Xenophanes (H. Diels, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker: Griechisch und Deutsch, 21 B 7), a near contemporary of Pythagoras. Xenophanes wrote in a satirical poem that Pythagoras once ordered a man to stop beating a dog because he recognized the voice of a departed friend in the dog's howls. Another early testimony (Empedocles in Diels op. cit., 31 B 129) alleges that Pythagoras, when he really exerted his mind, could recall the events of 10 and 20 human generations, i.e., over a millennium, on the normal system of reckoning generations.

Herodotus (2.123) also probably referred to Pythagoras and his followers by the phrase "some earlier" (ομν πρότεροι). Herodotus wrote: "The Egyptians were the first to enunciate the following doctrine: the human soul is immortal, and when the body perishes the soul enters one animal after another in succession, and when it has made the rounds of all the land, sea and air creatures, it returns to a human body. The cycle requires 3000 years." The doctrine described here was very probably not Egyptian; it may have been Pythagorean. Whatever the details of Pythagoras's doctrine of transmigration were, they probably had ethical implications, for Pythagoras enjoyed a reputation among the Greeks as an inculcator of morality (e.g., Plato, Rep. 559B600C).

Among the Orphics and Others before Plato. Transmigration is often said to have been introduced to Greece by the Orphic sect(s), but the doctrine was not ascribed to the Orphics in the early sources (Stettner, 8688; Long, Appendix II). Some scholars have greatly emphasized the extent, importance, and organizational and philosophic unity of the Orphic movement. O. Kern (Die Religion der Griechen [Berlin 1935]) 2:144) and W.K. C. Guthrie (Orpheus and Greek Religion [London 1935]) insist on a unity for which I. M. Linforth (The Arts of Orpheus [Berkeley 1941]) finds little evidence in his methodical study of the ancient testimonies. (see orphism.) Without becoming involved in the details of this controversy, it seems fair to state that, on the available evidence, transmigration seems to have been taught in Pythagorean circles and also, perhaps at the same time and certainly a little later, in other religious groups as well.

The existence of such groups is clearly implied in a passage of Pindar, who referred to the doctrine twice (Olympian 2.5383 and Frg. 127 [ed. M. Bowra ]). Since Pindar's usual view of the life after death was Homeric, it is likely that these two passages were composed to suit the beliefs of particular persons or groups, one of which was located in Sicily, for Olympian 2 (476 b.c.) was written for Theron, tyrant of Acragas. Transmigration, as delineated in these passages, was a doctrine with obvious and emphatic ethical implications: sin must be punished; atonement is part of the very order of nature; the possibility of a blessed life in the other world is held out to men as an inducement to righteous living in this.

The philosopher Empedocles (c. 493433 b.c.), another resident of western Greece, believed in transmigration (see Frgs. 117, 129, 146, 115, 126, 127, 120, 119, 1213, in H. Diels, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker: Griechisch und Deutsch, ). He taught that all souls are divine by nature, and originally enjoyed a divine status. Whenever any soul stains itself with sin it is condemned to wander for 30,000 seasons away from the company of the blessed and to assume all sorts of mortal forms (plant, animal, and human), retaining the memory of its previous incarnations.

Plato. The importance of transmigration in European thought is due in no small measure to plato's concern with the doctrine. He became interested in it after his first journey to western Greece (Long, 6973), and described it in a number of striking passages (Meno, 81AD: Phaedo, 70A73B, 80A84b; Rep. 10.614Bend; Phaedrus, 245C256E; Tim. 41D42E). These passages are fundamentally consistent, although there are variations of detail among them; the details are usually similar to or identical with those found in Herodotus, Pindar, and Empedocles (Long, 85). The purport of these passages is as follows: Human souls were originally created by the Demiurge out of Existence, Sameness, and Difference, and placed each upon a separate star, from which they were shown the nature of the universe and the laws of destiny. All of them are, at various times, incarnated as humans. They die, are judged, experience punishments or rewards for their deeds in life, and after 1,000 years are again incarnated. They choose their own new bodies, and this choice is of crucial importance; but it is governed partly by the necessities of their own nature. A soul that has kept itself free from bodily taint for three lives is released completely from the cycle of births; most souls must live ten earthly livesspread over 10,000 years and then they rise again to the region of the gods and a vision of Truth. According to the Phaedo (81E82B), incarnation is possible into animals, birds, or even insects, but some Neoplatonists insisted that Plato was here speaking allegorically. Since the concept of orthodoxy scarcely existed in Greek religion, Plato or any other philosopher was free to borrow details of any doctrine from various sources, combining them to produce the sort of synthesis he wished. Plato gave us a doctrine of transmigration that is constructed to emphasize in particular the divine source and nature of the soul and that encourages righteousness to the end that the soul may return to its proper divine status.

From 300 b.c. to a.d. 200. In the Hellenistic and Roman period transmigration was accepted in at least some branches of neo-pythagoreanism, as well as by some Stoics, who are thought to have been influenced by Posidonius or Varro. The normal Stoic doctrine was that the soul is actualized at the moment of birth by a process of cooling; but there seems no doubt that some Stoics did accept transmigration (see Vergil, Aen. 6.724751, with Norden's introduction and notes ad loc.; Pseudo-Tibullus4.1.206212; Seneca, Epist. Mor. 65.20; 104.11; 108.1921; and the passages quoted in H. Diels, Doxographi Graeci [Berlin 1929] 571587; 614). Epicureans naturally opposed the doctrine: e.g., Lucretius3.670783. Platonic sources lie behind the speculations of Philo Judaeus (De somniis 1.133149, in his interpretation of Jacob's dream) and of Plutarch (De facie 30; De esu carn. 996bc, 998cf; De gen. Soc. 591c; De ser. num. vind. 565e567f; and De def. orac. 431e). The doctrine played a part also in the Mysteries of Mithra (see F. Cumont, The Mysteries of Mithra, Eng. tr. T. J. McCormack [New York 1956] 144).

Transmigration was so well known as a doctrine that it could become a literary theme. See, for example, Ennius's dream, Annals 2 Frgs. 414 (ed. E. H. Warmington), probably based on Callimachus (Frg. 191, verses 5663 [ed. Pfeiffer]); Ovid, Metamor. 15.1581721; and the jibes of Lucian (Oneiros 4, Alexander 43, Gallus 20).

In Neoplatonism. Transmigration was taught by many of the forerunners of neoplatonism, such as Cronius, who wrote a monograph on it (not extant), Albinus, Numenius, Harpocration, and possibly Celsus, the general tenor of whose doctrines implies belief in transmigration (see O. Glöckner in Philologus 82 [1927] 336). It was a standard tenet of Neoplatonism, though members of the school did not agree whether transmigration into an animal was possible, and some of them taught that, while a human soul can be confined in an animal's body for punishment, it exists alongside of the animal's proper soul. The fullest extant discussion is that of plotinus (Enn. and 8), but the doctrine is also attested for Porphyry (see especially the Frgs. of De regress animae, quoted in St. Augustine [Civ. 10.9, 29, 30; 12.21, 27; 22.19, and elsewhere]), Iamblichus and his pupil Sallustius (ch. 1921, Sallustius Philosophus ed. [Cambridge, Eng. 1926]), and the members of the later Athenian group: Theodorus of Asine, Hierocles of Athens, Syrianus, and Proclus. The doctrine became so widely held among pagans at this time that Nemesius, Bishop of Emesa (c. a.d. 400, περ φύσεως νθρώπου 2.50) could write that all Greeks who believed in immortality at all believed in transmigration.

Later History. The doctrine was held by some Jewish sects (as the Karaites) and by some Muslims, as well as by Gnostic groups (cf. Tertullian, De anima 28, esp. 3435). Though flatly opposed to the Christian doctrine of redemption, it also found adherents among nominal Christians. Origen was accused of believing it by Theophilus (see St. Jerome, Ep. 98.10f), though his extant works, such as the De principiis, rather imply that the soul is variously embodied in successive worlds. The doctrine was held by the Manichaeans and, in the Middle Ages, by the groups known collectively as cathari. It was held also by Giordano bruno (chiefly in Degli heroici furori ) and J. B. van Helmont. It interested Soame Jenyns (17041787), Goethe, Lessing, J. B. Fourier (17681830), and some of J. K. Lavater's (17411801) followers, among others, and it enjoyed a recrudescence in the 19th century under the influence of translated documents from the Far East. Hitherto the chief inspiration had come from Plato and Neoplatonism. At present the doctrine is studied seriously by Western adherents of the vedanta and other Oriental philosophies, and held in a more fantastic form by theosophists (see A. Besant, La Réincarnation, [Paris 1910]) and others.

Bibliography: h. von glasenapp, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 5:163739. n. w. thomas et al., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. j. hastings, 13 v. (Edinburgh 190827) 12:425440. g. f. moore, Metempsychosis (Cambridge, Mass. 1914). m. p. nilsson, Geschichte der griechischen Religion, 2 v. (2d ed. Munich 195561) 1:654658, 663664, 772774. e. rohde, Psyche, ed. o. weinreich (9th and 10th ed. Tübingen 1925). w. stettner, Die Seelenwanderung bei Griechen und Römern (Stuttgart 1934). h. s. long, A Study of the Doctrine of Metempsychosis in Greece from Pythagoras to Plato (Princeton 1948). a. dÖring, "Die eschatologischen Mythen Platons," Archiv für die Geschichte der Philosophie 6 (1893) 475490. j. a. stewart, The Myths of Plato (London 1905). p. frutiger, Les Mythes de Platon (Paris 1930). h. w. thomas, EIIEKEINA (Würzburg 1938).

[h. s. long]

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