1902 Encyclopedia > Metempsychosis


METEMPSYCHOSIS, the transmigration of the soul, as an immortal essence, into successive bodily forms, wither human or animal. This doctrine, famous in antiquity, and one of the characteristic doctrines of Pythagoras, appears to have originated ion Egypt. This indeed is affirmed by Herodotus (ii. 123): -- "The Egyptians are, moreover, the first who propounded the theory that the human soul is immortal, and that when the body of any one perished it enters into some other creature that may be born ready to receive it, and that, when it has gone the round of all created forms on land, in water, and in air, the it once more enters a human body born for it; and this cycle of existence for the soul takes place in three thousand years."

Plato, in a well-known passage of the Phaedrus, adapts, as was his wont, the Pythagorean doctrine to his myth or allegory about the soul of the philosopher. That soul, he says, though it may have suffered a fall in its attempt to contemplate celestial things, still is not condemned, in its first entrance into another form to any bestial existence, but, according to its attainments, i.e., to the progress which it has made in its aspiration for celestial verities, it passes, in nine distinct grades, into the body of some one destined to become a philosopher, a poet, a king, a general, a seer, &c.; or, if very inferior, it will animate a sophist or an autocrat (_____). Plato extends the cycle of existence to ten thousand years, which is subdivided into periods of a thousand years, after the lapse of which ye souls undergo judgment, and are admitted to everlasting happiness or condemned to punishment. 1 It is after the period of a thousand years, he adds, that the human soul comes into originally was human.

Pythagons, who was said to have traveled in Egypt. 2 brought this fantastic doctrine into Magna Graecia, and made it a prominent part of his teaching. He declared that he had himself been Euphorbus, the son of Panthus, in the time of the Trojan War, and had successfully inhabited other human bodies, the actions of all which he remembered. 3 Closely connected with his theory of metempsychosis was his strict precept to abstain from animal food, even form eggs, from some kinds of fish, and (for some unknown, probably symbolical, reason) from beans. 4 There can be no doubt that the Egyptian custom of preserving the mummies of cats, crocodiles, and some other creatures had its origin in the notion that they had been inhabited by souls which might some day claim these bodies for their own. We cannot suppose that Plato or the later Greeks there are many allusions to it, generally of a somewhat playful character. Thus Menander, in the play called The Inspired Woman5 (_____), supposed some god to say to an old man, Crato, "When you die, you will have a second existence; choose what creature you would like to be dog, sheep, goat, horse, or man.’ To which he replies, "Make me anything rather than a man, for he is the only creature that prospers by injustice."

Absurd and fantastic as such a doctrine as metepsychosis appears at first sight to be, it was in reality a logical deduction form primitive ideas about the nature of the soil. It is necessary to explain these ideas (which have important bearings on other question) in order to show that metapsychosis was almost a necessary corollary to the belief that the soil was the vital or animating principles, -- that the one distinction between organic and inorganic was the existence in the former of a _____.

The difference between a dead body and a living body – or rather, one principle diffrence – was that the living animal breathed; and it was observed that as soon as the breath left the body began to decay. Life, therefore, was breath an opinion tacitly expressed by the Greek and Roman vocabulary, animus, anima, (_____), _____, _____, _____. But breath is air, and air is eternal and imperishable in its very nature. Therefore the "soul," or portion of air which gave animation to the body, did not perish at the dissolution of the body, but it was returned to the element of which it was composed, and out of which it came. It followed that, from the countless million of "souls" emancipated from bodies in all time, and still flitting about invisibly in space, the air must literally swarm with souls, -- a doctrine taught by Pythagoras.6 Hence, any creature, human or bestial, that first drew the breath of life, might, so to say, swallow a soul, i.e., take in with the act of respiration the very same particles of air which had animated some former body. For, although the soul was air and returned to its kindred element, it was supposed to retain a peculiar character in intelligence

_____ , remembrance of the past, and knowledge and experience gained ins some former existence. Any creature which first breathed might or might not inhale this or that soul, just as a net thrown into the water may catch this or that fish, or no fish at all. But if no "soul" was inhaled the creature was believed for that reason to die; and the different degrees of intelligence observed in different men and animals led to the notion that there must have been a difference in the souls that first animated them. Even the belief that the soul, especially near the time of dissolution form the body, could foretell future events was based on the notion of intelligence and consciousness resulting from experiences of the past.7

As all the science of modern times cannot say precisely what life is, nor how it first came upon this earth, it is nor wonderful that so obvious, though wholly erroneous, an explanation should have presented itself to primitive man when first he began to inquire into the causes of things. The extension of life, by the same term ______ to plants and apparently non-breathing things, which, however, had birth, growth, and death, was a development of a philosophic age, and we are not surprised to find Aristotle recognizing one form of life as vegetable, _____.8 The irrational confusion of "soul" with sentient bodily functions, the attribution to spirits (______) of motion, speech, or other muscular and material action, though still common, while metempyschosis is derided or forgotten, is in reality, perhaps, a less excustable superstition.

The Romans inherited the doctrine of metepsychosis from Ennius, the poet of Calabria, who must have been familiar with the Greek teachings which had descended to his times from the cities of Magna Graecia. In his Annals, or 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, a story that might seem to indicate Indian traditions. The Pavo Oythagorens and the Somnia Pythagorea are referred to by Persius and Horace, as well as by Lucretius.9

Theories suggesting element-worship naturally led to the notion that air and ether (upper air) were divine.10 Hence every soul, as being but a portion of it, was in itself divine, and therefore immortal. We thus see that the doctrine of the immortality of the soil, whether attained by a sound or a vicious course of reasoning, was an inevitable conclusion for early thinkers. Pantheism taught that all the universe was pervaded by a divine mind, and Virgil cites the opinion of some, that the intelligence of bees was due to a portion of this universe mind residing in them, a view closely allied to the doctrine of meteopsychosis.11 A divine thing might be polluted, but not destroyed; hence the notion of purifying souls by airing them or burning away a material defilement is enlarged upon by Virgil in the sixth book of the Aeneid (724 sq.). (F.A.P.)


FOOTNOTES (p. 107)
(1) P. 249 A. Comp. Rev. xx. 2, 13; Virg. Aen. Vi. 745, "Donec longa dies, perferto temporis orbe, concretam exemit labem," &c.
(2) Diogen, Laert., viii. 1, 3; Lucian, Gallus, §18 sq., where the doctrine of metempsychosis and the storied about the pre-existence of Pythagoras are wittily satirized.
(3) Lucian, Gallus, §§ 9, 10; Hor., Or. I. 28, 10, "habentque Tartara Panthoiden iterum Orco demissum."
(4) Gallus, 19, 33. For fanciful reasons for the prohibition of beans, see Lucian, Vitarum auctio, §5.
(5) Frag. 222, Meineke.
(6) Diogen. Laert., viii. 1 §32, GREEK

FOOTNOTES (p. 107)
(7) Diodor. Sic., xviii., § 1.
(8) Ethics, lib. i. 13.
(9) Pers., Sat vi. 9; Hor., Epist. Ii .1. 52; Lucret., i. 124.
(10) GREEK, Prometheus exclaims, Aesch., Prom., 88.
(11) Georg. Iv 219 --
His quidam signis, atque haec exempla secuti,
Esse apibus partem divinae mentis et haustus
Aetherios dixere; deum mamque ire per omnes
Terrasque tractusque maris caelumque profundum.

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