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Metempsychosis (Greek: μετεμψύχωσις) is a philosophical term in the Greek language referring to transmigration of the soul, especially its reincarnation after death. It is a doctrine popular among a number of Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Druzism[1] wherein an individual incarnates from one body to another, either human, animal, or plant.[2] Generally the term is only used within the context of Greek Philosophy, but has also been used by modern philosophers such as Schopenhauer[3] and Kurt Gödel[4]; otherwise, the term "transmigration" is more appropriate. The word also plays a prominent role in James Joyce's Ulysses, and is associated also with Nietzsche.[5]. The term of metempsychosis has also been used by a spiritual teacher named Tathagata in answer to a member's question[6] about Enlightenment. Another term sometimes used synonymously is Palingenesia.

Contents

Europe before the pre-Socratic philosophers

It is unclear how the doctrine of metempsychosis arose in Greece. It is easiest to assume that earlier ideas which had never been extinguished were utilized for religious and philosophic purposes. The Orphic religion, which held it, first appeared in Thrace upon the semi-barbarous north-eastern frontier. Orpheus, its legendary founder, is said to have taught that soul and body are united by a compact unequally binding on either; the soul is divine, immortal and aspires to freedom, while the body holds it in fetters as a prisoner. Death dissolves this compact, but only to re-imprison the liberated soul after a short time: for the wheel of birth revolves inexorably. Thus the soul continues its journey, alternating between a separate unrestrained existence and fresh reincarnation, round the wide circle of necessity, as the companion of many bodies of men and animals." To these unfortunate prisoners Orpheus proclaims the message of liberation, that they stand in need of the grace of redeeming gods and of Dionysus in particular, and calls them to turn to God by ascetic piety of life and self-purification: the purer their lives the higher will be their next reincarnation, until the soul has completed the spiral ascent of destiny to live for ever as God from whom it comes. Such was the teaching of Orphism which appeared in Greece about the 6th century BC, organized itself into private and public mysteries at Eleusis and elsewhere, and produced a copious literature[citation needed].

The druids of Gaul, Britain and Ireland are recorded by Caesar to have had metempsychosis as one of their core doctrines (but little is known about the druids, who have become something of a blank slate upon which many enthusiastic pictures are drawn).

In Greek philosophy

The earliest Greek thinker with whom metempsychosis is connected is Pherecydes of Syros[7]; but Pythagoras, who is said to have been his pupil, is its first famous philosophic exponent. Pythagoras probably neither invented the doctrine nor imported it from Egypt, but made his reputation by bringing Orphic doctrine from North-Eastern Hellas to Magna Graecia and by instituting societies for its diffusion.

The real weight and importance of metempsychosis in Western tradition is due to its adoption by Plato[citation needed]. Had he not embodied it in some of his greatest works it would be merely a matter of curious investigation for the Western anthropologist and student of folk-lore. In the eschatological myth which closes the Republic he tells the story how Er, the son of Armenius, miraculously returned to life on the twelfth day after death and recounted the secrets of the other world. After death, he said, he went with others to the place of Judgment and saw the souls returning from heaven, and proceeded with them to a place where they chose new lives, human and animal. He saw the soul of Orpheus changing into a swan, Thamyras becoming a nightingale, musical birds choosing to be men, the soul of Atalanta choosing the honours of an athlete. Men were seen passing into animals and wild and tame animals changing into each other. After their choice the souls drank of Lethe and then shot away like stars to their birth. There are myths and theories to the same effect in other dialogues, the Phaedrus, Meno, Phaedo, Timaeus and Laws.[citation needed] In Plato's view the number of souls was fixed; birth therefore is never the creation of a soul, but only a transmigration from one body to another.[8] Plato's acceptance of the doctrine is characteristic of his sympathy with popular beliefs and desire to incorporate them in a purified form into his system.[citation needed] Aristotle, a far less emotional and sympathetic mind, has a doctrine of immortality totally inconsistent with it.[citation needed]

The extent of Plato's belief in metempsychosis has been debated by some scholars in modern times. Marsilio Ficino (Platonic Theology 17.3-4), for one, argued that Plato's references to metempsychosis were intended allegorically.

In later Greek literature the doctrine appears from time to time; it is mentioned in a fragment of Menander (the Inspired Woman) and satirized by Lucian (Gallus 18 seq.). In Roman literature it is found as early as Ennius, who in his Calabrian home must have been familiar with the Greek teachings which had descended to his times from the cities of Magna Graecia.[citation needed] In a lost passage of his Annals, a Roman history in verse, Ennius told how he had seen Homer in a dream, who had assured him that the same soul which had animated both the poets had once belonged to a peacock. Persius in one of his satires (vi. 9) laughs at Ennius for this: it is referred to also by Lucretius (i. 124) and by Horace (Epist. II. i. 52). Virgil works the idea into his account of the Underworld in the sixth book of the Aeneid (vv. 724 sqq.). It persists in antiquity down to the latest classic thinkers, Plotinus and the other Neoplatonists.

In literature after the Classical Era

"Metempsychosis" is the title of a longer work by the metaphysical poet John Donne, written in 1601. The poem, also known as the Infinitati Sacrum, consists of two parts, the "Epistle" and "The Progress of the Soule". In the first line of the latter part, Donne writes that he "sing[s] of the progresse of a deathlesse soule".

Metempsychosis is mentioned and is a key plot device in Edgar Allan Poe's 1832 short story, "Metzengerstein." Poe returns to metempsychosis again in "Morella" (1835) and "The Oval Portrait" (1842).

Metempsychosis is referred to and recurs as a theme in James Joyce's modernist novel, Ulysses (1920). [9] In Joycean fashion, the word famously appears, mispronounced by Molly Bloom, as "met him pike hoses." [10]

See also

References

  1. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica
  2. ^ Heart of Hinduism: Reincarnation and Samsara
  3. ^ Schopenhauer, A: "Parerga und Paralipomena" (Eduard Grisebach edition), On Religion, Section 177
  4. ^ Gödel Exhibition: Gödel's Century
  5. ^ Nietzsche and the Doctrine of Metempsychosis, in J. Urpeth & J. Lippitt, Nietzsche and the Divine, Manchester: Clinamen, 2000
  6. ^ Enlightenment Questions - Question From Jason N
  7. ^ Schibli, S., Hermann, Pherekydes of Syros, p. 104, Oxford Univ. Press 2001
  8. ^ "That is the conclusion, I said; and if a true conclusion, then the souls must always be the same, for if none be destroyed they will not diminish in number." Republic X, 611. The Republic of Plato By Plato, Benjamin Jowett Edition: 3 Published by Clarendon press, 1888.
  9. ^ List of occurrences of Metempsychosis in Ulysses
  10. ^ Cf. Joyce, Ulysses, §8 Lestrygonians

External links


1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

METEMPSYCHOSIS (Gr. j uETEt.L0xceoLs), or Transmigration Of The Soul., the doctrine that at death the soul passes into another living creature, man, animal, or even plant. This 'doctrine, famous in antiquity and still held as a religious tenet by certain sects of the civilized world, has its roots far back in primitive culture. It is developed out of three universal savage beliefs: (i) that man has a soul, connected in some vague way with the breath, which can be separated from his material body, temporarily in sleep, permanently at death; (2) that animals and even plants have souls, and are possessed to a large extent of human powers and passions; (3) that souls can be transferred from one organism to another. Innumerable examples might be mentioned of the notion that a new-born child is the reincarnation of someone departed, as in Tibet the soul of the Dalai-Lama is supposed to pass into an infant born nine months after his decease. Transmigration of human souls into non-human bodies is implied in totemism, for, as Professor Frazer says, "it is an article of faith that as the clan sprang from the totem, so each clansman at death reassumes the totem form." All these savage notions are to be regarded as presuppositions of metempsychosis, rather than identified with that doctrine itself as a reasoned theory.

Till full investigation of Egyptian records put us in possession of the facts, it was supposed that the Egyptians believed in metempsychosis, and Herodotus (ii. 123) explicitly credits them with it. We now know that he was wrong. All that they believed was that certain privileged souls might in the other world be able to assume certain forms at pleasure, those of a sparrow-hawk, lily, &c. Herodotus misunderstood the Egyptians to hold beliefs identical with those which were current in his day in Greece. In India, on the contrary, the doctrine was thoroughly established from ancient times; not from the most ancient, as it is not in the Vedas; but onwards from the Upanishads. In them it is used for moral retribution: he who kills a Brahman is, after a long progress through dreadful hells, to be reborn as a dog, pig, ass, camel, &c. This we always find in metempsychosis as a reasoned theory. It is formed by combina tion of two sets of ideas which belong to different planes of culture: the ideas of judgment and punishment after death elaborated in a relatively cultured society by a priestly class are combined with ideas, like that of totem-transmigration, proper to a savage society. In India we may explain the whole phenomenon as an infusion of the lower beliefs of the non-Aryan conquered races into the higher religious system of their Aryan conquerors. In later Hinduism metempsychosis reached a monstrous development; according to Monier-Williams it was believed that there were 8,400,000 forms of existence through which all souls were liable to pass before returning to their source in the Deity. Buddhism appeared as a reaction against all this, and sought by a subtle modification to harmonize the theory with its own pessimistic view of the world. According to Buddhism there is no soul, and consequently no metempsychosis in the strict sense. Something, however, is transmitted, i.e. Karma (character), which passes from individual to individual, till in the perfectly righteous man the will to live is extinguished and that particular chain of lives is brought to an end.

We do not know exactly how the doctrine of metempsychosis arose in Greece; it cannot, as was once supposed, have been borrowed from Egypt and is not likely to have come from India. It is easiest to assume that savage ideas which had never been extinguished were utilized for religious and philosophic purposes. The Orphic religion, which held it, first appeared in Thrace upon the semi-barbarous north-eastern frontier. Orpheus, its legendary founder, is said to have taught that "soul and body are united by a compact unequally binding on either; the soul is divine, immortal and aspires to freedom, while the body holds it in fetters as a prisoner. Death dissolves this compact, but only to re-imprison the liberated soul after a short time: for the wheel of birth revolves inexorably. Thus the soul continues its journey, alternating between a separate unrestrained existence and fresh reincarnation, round the wide circle of necessity, as the companion of many bodies of men and animals. To these unfortunate prisoners Orpheus proclaims the message of liberation, that they stand in need of the grace of redeeming gods and of Dionysus in particular, and calls them to turn to God by ascetic piety of life and self-purification: the purer their lives the higher will be their next reincarnation, until the soul has completed the spiral ascent of destiny to live for ever as God from whom it comes." Such was the teaching of Orphism which appeared in Greece about the 6th century B.C., organized itself into private and public mysteries at Eleusis and elsewhere, and produced a copious literature.

The earliest Greek thinker with whom metempsychosis is connected is Pherecydes; but Pythagoras, who is said to have been his pupil, is its first famous philosophic exponent. Pythagoras probably neither invented the doctrine nor imported it from Egypt, but made his reputation by bringing Orphic doctrine from North-Eastern Hellas to Magna Graecia and by instituting societies for its diffusion.

The real weight and importance of metempsychosis is due to its adoption by Plato. Had he not embodied it in some of his greatest works it would be merely a matter of curious investigation for the anthropologist and student of folk-lore. In the eschatological myth which closes the Republic he tells the story how Er, the son of Armenius, miraculously returned to life on the twelfth day after death and recounted the secrets of the other world. After death, he said, he went with others to the place of Judgment and saw the souls returning from heaven and from purgatory, and proceeded with them to a place where they chose new lives, human and animal. "He saw the soul of Orpheus changing into a swan, Thamyras becoming a nightingale, musical birds choosing to be men, the soul of Atalanta choosing the honours of an athlete. Men were seen passing into animals and wild and tame animals changing into each other." After their choice the souls drank of Lethe and then shot away like stars to their birth. There are myths and theories to the same effect in other dialogues, the Phaedrus, Meno, Phaedo, Timaeus and Laws. In Plato's view the number of souls was fixed; birth therefore is never the creation of a soul, but only a transmigration from one body to another. Plato's acceptance of the doctrine is characteristic of his sympathy with popular beliefs and desire to incorporate them in a purified form into his system. Aristotle, a far less emotional and sympathetic mind, has a doctrine of immortality totally inconsistent with it. In later Greek literature the doctrine appears from time to time; it is mentioned in a fragment of Menander (the Inspired Woman) and satirized by Lucian (Gallus § 18 seq.). In Roman literature it is found as early as Ennius, who in his Calabrian home must have been familiar with the Greek teachings which had descended to his times from the cities of Magna Graecia. In a lost passage of his Annals, a Roman history in verse, Ennius told how he had seen Homer in a dream, who had assured him that the same soul which had animated both the poets had once belonged to a peacock. Persius in one of his satires (vi. 9) laughs at Ennius for this: it is referred to also by Lucretius (i. 124)124) and by Horace (Epist. i. 52). Virgil works the idea into his account of the Underworld in the sixth book of the Aeneid (vv. 724 sqq.). It persists in antiquity down to the latest classic thinkers, Plotinus and the other Neoplatonists.

Attempts have been made with little success to find metempsychosis in early Jewish literature. But there are traces of it in Philo, and it is definitely adopted in the Kabbala. Within the Christian Church it was held during the first centuries by isolated Gnostic sects, and by the Manichaeans in the 4th and 5th centuries, but was invariably repudiated by orthodox theologians. In the middle ages these traditions were continued by the numerous sects known collectively as Cathari. At the Renaissance we find the doctrine in Giordano Bruno, and in the 17th century in the theosophist van Helmont. A modified form of it was adopted by Swedenborg. During the classical period of German literature metempsychosis attracted much attention: Goethe played with the idea, and it was taken up more seriously by Lessing, who borrowed it from Charles Bonnet, and by Herder. It has been mentioned with respect by Hume and by Schopenhauer. Modern theosophy, which draws its inspiration from India, has taken metempsychosis as a cardinal tenet; it is, says a recent theosophical writer, "the master-key to modern problems," and among them to the problem of heredity.

Outside the somewhat narrow circle of theosophists there is little disposition to accept the doctrine: but it may be worth while to point out that there are two fatal objections to it. The first is that personal identity depends on memory, and we do not remember our previous incarnations. The second is that the soul, whatever it may be, is influenced throughout all its qualities by the qualities of the body: modern psychology discredits the idea that the soul is a metaphysical essence which can pass indifferently from one body to another. If (to suppose the impossible) the soul of a dog were to pass into a man's body it would be so changed as to be no longer the same soul; and so, in a less degree, of change from one human body to another.

See A. Bertholet, The Transmigration of Souls (trans. from the German by H. J. Chaytor); E. Rohde, Psyche. (H. ST.)


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