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 metempsychosis
as an idea that was incompatible with Christianity.
The church has essentially followed Irenaeus’s lead in its conMetals
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sideration 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 rebirth
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.
Sources
Crombie, I. M. Plato The Midwife’s Apprentice. London Routledge
& Kegan Paul, 1964.
Ducasse, C. J. A Critical Examination of the Belief in a Life after
Death. Springfield, Ill. Charles C. Thomas, 1961.