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 common beliefs: (1) 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 Tibetan Buddhism 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 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 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, etc. 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 Brahmin is, after a long progress through dreadful hells, to be reborn as a dog, pig, ass, camel, etc. This we always find in metempsychosis as a reasoned theory. It is formed by combination of two sets of ideas which belong to different planes of culture: the ideas of judgment and punishment after death (purgatory) elaborated in a relatively cultured society by a priestly class are combined with ideas, like that of totem-transmigration, found in a less structured society.
In pre-Hinduism, metempsychosis began to reach an elabourate 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 might be seen as a reaction against all this chaos, and sought by a subtle modification to harmonize the theory with its own view of the world. According to Buddhism there is no permanent and unchanging soul (tenet of Anatta), and consequently no metempsychosis in the strict sense. Something, however, is transmitted, i.e. Karma and the tendencies of the individual, which passes from individual to individual. Once winning Awakening, the perfectly enlightened man breaks this particular chain of lives, metempsychosis is brought to an end, and Nirvana is attained.
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 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.
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 doses 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) 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.
Attempts have been made with little success to find metempsychosis in early Jewish literature. But there are traces of it in Philo of Alexandria, 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 (or rather reincarnation 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. The idea of reincarnation is also part of the New Age culture.
Objections to metempsychosis include: 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 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's body to another.
Adapted from a 1911 encyclopedia