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Honoring Pythagoras: Reincarnation Ideas in Classical Greece – Hans TenDam (Is.20)

by Hans TenDam

 A doctoral thesis at Princeton University Press in 1948, documents carefully and scholarly that Greek reincarnation ideas came from no other than Pythagoras; not from his teacher Pherecydes, the Orphics, Egypt, the Celts, or the Thracians. And as two of the most important doctrines associated with metempsychosis appear first in Greece, and only then in India, any transmission would have rather been from Greece to India than the reverse. It is also likely that the Celts acquired the doctrine from the Greeks.  In the Pythagorean view, metempsychosis is an ethical development and memories of past lifetimes are possible. We can still live with that.

Reincarnation or rather metempsychosis ideas were already known in classical Greece. Orphic and Pythagorean sources have been known. Originally, those ideas probably would have come from Egypt or India or both, and some have suggested that these ideas came from the Celts in Gaul or from the Thracians. Recently, I came across an excellent study by Robert Long. His doctoral thesis, A Study of the Doctrine of Metempsychosis in Greece from Pythagoras to Plato was published by Princeton University Press in 1948. This very scholarly work seems to set the record straight.

The source of Greek reincarnation ideas was certainly Pythagoras, not his teacher Pherecydes, not the Orphic religion, not Egypt, not the Celts, not the Thracians, and most probably not India.

The idea that metempsychosis came from the Egyptians rests on the tales of Herodotus. Herodotus saw the Egyptians as the source of about everything. Absolutely nothing of his story is confirmed by any Egyptian source, though we have a multitude of texts about death and afterlife.

Some have declared that the Thracians of the fifth century B. C. believed in metempsychosis. Because of its supposed presence in both Thrace and Gaul, others assumed a “Scythian” source for metempsychosis, the doctrine spreading from an area north of the Black Sea to Western Europe, to Greece and to India. This case depends on a few text passages on Thrace. Unfortunately, these passages do not refer to metempsychosis. The earliest evidence for metempsychosis in Thrace and Gaul is from the first century B.C. and so it is more likely that the Thracians and Celts acquired the doctrine from the Greeks than the other way round.

Pythagoras Greek Mathematician & Philosopher ( c. 570 – c. 495 BC)

All evidence points to Pythagoras as the source of metempsychosis in the Greek world as a doctrine with moral implications. Centuries later, in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the Greeks were convinced that the Orient was the source of all-important philosophical and scientific speculations. This resulted in a flood of tales connecting early Greek philosophers with the priests, prophets, and wise‑men of Egypt, Babylon, Persia, and India. The more the Orient became known, the longer and varied the stories about travels became.

In India, the first clear mention of metempsychosis occurs in the Brihadaraniyaka Upanishad, Book VI. There the doctrine already resembles the present-day doctrine in India: as a man acts, so will he be born. The Upanishads can be traced to just before 600 B. C. If the Greek belief in metempsychosis was derived from India, it must be from the Upanishads. But metempsychosis in the Upanishads and in early Greek religion differs considerably. There is no trace of a doctrine of recollection in India until after the time of Empedocles, although it was probably part of the teaching of Pythagoras in Greece. The doctrine of abstinence, e.g. vegetarianism, associated with Pythagorean metempsychosis appears in India, but considerably later than Pythagoras. In other words, two of the most important doctrines associated with metempsychosis appear first in Greece, then in India. If any transmission is to be assumed, it must have been from Greece to India rather than the reverse.

Metempsychosis does not pervade the Greek world like the Olympic pantheon does. The first four important known exponents of metempsychosis in the Greek world are Pythagoras, Pindar, Empedocles, and Plato. All are connected in one way or another with Sicily or Magna Graecia; apparently the doctrine of metempsychosis radiated from Pythagoras through the Italic part of the Greek world and from there to the mainland of Greece.

Pindar Greek poet (518 – 438 BC)

Pindar writes that in the afterlife, some souls continue in the realm of Persephone for eight years atoning for their sins. Then they return to the region of sunlight and assume several of the more desirable forms of human existence. After they die the second time, they become heroes for evermore.

Empedocles Greek Philosopher (494-443 B.C.)

Empedocles sees people as fallen “demons” (we would rather say: angels); reincarnation is a form of retribution, not a mechanical and necessary process. Empedocles’ great contribution is this doctrine of the soul’s divine nature. He never refers to the soul as psyche, but always as daimon. Originally all souls were divine. Whenever any daimon stains itself with sin, particularly with murder or perfidy, it has to wander 30000 seasons away from the company of the blessed and has to assume all sorts of mortal forms, buffeted and tossed about among the four elements. All living things in this world are demons returning to immortality. Empedocles divides all life into four categories: plant, animal, man, and god. Within each of the three lower categories there is a gradation of members: the laurel is the highest plant; the lion, the highest animal; and soothsayers, singers, physicians, and princes are the highest men. The soul, after its ejection from among the blessed, passes into a plant; then through several more plants, living an unspecified time in each; next, through several animals; and later through several sorts of human beings till at last it joins the company of the immortals once more. The transformation from one form to another, at least within humans, seems to take place in the nether world in an unlovely place.

We have no indication in the known fragments of Empedocles whether every soul will attain divinity or only the righteous will, but the latter is more probable. The general trend in the development of Greek philosophy is toward practical morality. Pindar’s doctrine of metempsychosis is more insistent upon ethics than Pythagoras appears to have been. Each of the four earliest exponents of metempsychosis presents the doctrine so as to be more conducive to practical morality than his predecessors. Pythagorean metempsychosis seems to have been revised in the interests of morality by some religious group in Sicily. Just so, Plato’s chief interest in the doctrine seems to have been its moral aspect. This gradual purification and restatement of the doctrine of metempsychosis follow the general tendency of Greek philosophy and religion towards practical ethics.

Plato Greek philosopher (428-348 B.C.)

Plato discusses metempsychosis in the Meno, the Cratylus, the Phaedo, the Republic, the Phaedrus, and the Timaeus. Metempsychosis is not stated in the Meno as a demonstrable fact, but as a likely opinion. Socrates says that he is accepting metempsychosis on faith from certain holy men and women (most probably Pythagoreans).

In the Phaedo, Socrates does not insist upon the absolute accuracy of his account of the judgment, but considers it likely. The soul is obliged to appear before its judges naked except for the marks left by its earthly life. The Phaedo and the other dialogues are essentially consistent, although details vary. In the Phaedo, Plato emphasizes the necessity of righteousness and the inevitable punishment for sin; he never insists upon the details of metempsychosis, but is assured that something like it must be true.

The process of metempsychosis described in detail in the Republic fits with the description of transmigrations in the Phaedrus. Most souls reincarnate ten times, once in about one thousand years. Only the souls of the guileless philosopher or the philosophizing lover of youth (!) are freed from the cycle of births after only three similar lifetimes.

In Timaeus, Plato says that the first incarnation is the same for all. If we master our passions and live righteously for a suitable period, we will return to our stars for a happy life; but if we are unrighteous, we will be born as women and may continue to degenerate through the various animals until they learn to curb their passions. (Yes ladies, you read this right!)

Metempsychosis has been considered a part of the Orphic religion, and its rise and spread in the Greek world have been attributed to the Orphics. But “Orphism” has been used as a catchall for a large group of beliefs, some of which are never connected by ancient writers with the name of Orpheus. Most references to Orphic groups and practices are from the Hellenistic and Roman time. In the 19th century and early 20th century a whole Orphic religion has been reconstructed, but hardly substantiated by the earlier texts.

Among others, Empedocles has been seen as influenced by Orphism. Empedocles advocated vegetarianism. But the two earliest Greeks whom tradition connects with vegetarianism, Epimenides and Abaris, have Pythagorean connections, but are nowhere said to be Orphics. No early evidence connects the Orphics with vegetarianism, so it is more likely that Empedocles acquired this from the Pythagoreans.

It is Pythagoras who introduced metempsychosis to the Greek world and it spread from Pythagorean centers. In the Pythagorean view, metempsychosis is an ethical development and memories of past lifetimes are possible. Apart from all the metaphysical speculations that have accrued to this, we can still live with this core, I presume.

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metempsychosis, Orphic tradition, Plato, Pythagoras