« Metellopolis Metempsychosis Sir Thomas Metham »



(Gr. meta empsychos, Lat. metempsychosis: Fr. metempsychose: Ger. seelenwanderung).

Metempsychosis, in other words the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, teaches that the same soul inhabits in succession the bodies of different beings, both men and animals. It was a tenet common to many systems of philosophic thought and religious belief widely separated from each other both geographically and historically. Although in modern times it is associated among civilized races almost exclusively with the countries of Asia and particularly with India, there is evidence that at one period or another it has flourished in almost every part of the world; and it still prevails in various forms among savage nations scattered over the globe. This universality seems to mark it as one of those spontaneous or instinctive beliefs by which man's nature responds to the deep and urgent problems of existence; whilst the numerous and richly varied forms which it assumes in different systems, and the many-coloured mythology in which it has clothed itself, show it to be capable of powerfully appealing to the imagination, and of adapting itself with great versatility to widely different types of mind. The explanation of this success seems to lie partly in its being an expression of the fundamental belief in immortality, partly in its comprehensiveness, binding together, as for the most part it seems to do, all individual existences in one single, unbroken scheme; partly also in the unrestrained liberty which it leaves to the mythologizing fancy.



Herodotus tells us in a well-known passage that "the Egyptians were the first to assert the immortality of the soul, and that it passes on the death of the body into another animal; and that when it has gone the round of all forms of life on land, in water, and in air, then it once more enters a human body born for it; and this cycle of the soul takes place in three thousand years" (ii. 123). That the doctrine first originated with the Egyptians is unlikely. It almost certainly passed from Egypt into Greece, but the same belief had sprung up independently in many nations from a very early date. The accounts of Egyptian metempsychosis vary considerably: indeed such a doctrine was bound to undergo modifications according to changes in the national religion. In the "Book of the Dead", it is connected with the notion of a judgment after death, transmigration into infra-human forms being a punishment for sin. Certain animals were recognized by the Egyptians as the abode of specially wicked persons and were on this account, according to Plutarch, preferred for sacrificial purposes. In Herodotus' account given above, this ethical note is absent, and transmigration is a purely natural and necessary cosmic process. Plato's version mediates between these two views. He represents the Egyptians as teaching that ordinary mortals will, after a cycle of ten thousand years, return to the human form, but that an adept in philosophy may hope to accomplish the process in three thousand years. There was also a pantheistic form of Egyptian metempsychosis, the individual being regarded as an emanation from a single universal principle to which it was destined to return after having completed its "cycle of necessity". There are traces of this doctrine of a cosmic cycle in the Fourth Eclogue of Virgil. It has been thought that the custom of embalming the dead was connected with this form of the doctrine, the object being to preserve the body intact for the return of the soul. It is probable, indeed, that the belief in such a return helped to confirm the practice, but it can hardly have provided the sole motive, since we find that other animals were also frequently embalmed.


Greece, as already stated, probably borrowed the theory of transmigration from Egypt. According to tradition, it had been taught by Musaeus and Orpheus, and it was an element of the Orphic and other mystic doctrines. Pindar represents it in this relation (cf. 2nd Ol. Ode). The introduction of metempsychosis as a philosophical doctrine is due to Pythagoras, who, we are told, gave himself out as identical with the Trojan hero Euphorbos, and added copious details of his subsequent soul-wanderings. Vegetarianism and a general regard for animals was the practical Pythagorean deduction from the doctrine. Plato's metempsychosis was learnt from the Pythagoreans. He gave the doctrine a philosophic standing such as it never before possessed; for Plato exhibits the most elaborate attempt in the history of philosophy to find in the facts of actual experience justification for the theory of the pre-existence of the soul. In particular, sundry arguments adopted later on to prove immortality were employed by him to establish pre-existence. Such were the proofs from universal cognitions and the natural attraction of the soul towards the One, the Permanent, and the Beautiful. Plato ascribes to these arguments a retrospective as well as a prospective force. He seeks to show that learning is but a form of reminiscence, and love but the desire for reunion with a once-possessed good. Man is a fallen spirit, "full of forgetfulness". His sole hope is, by means of education and philosophy, to recover his memory of himself and of truth, and thus free himself from the chains of irrationality that bind him. Thus only can he hasten his return to his "true fatherland" and his perfect assimilation to the Divine. Neglect of this will lead to further and perhaps permanent degradation in the world beyond. The wise man will have an advantageous transmigration because he has practised prudence, and the choice of his next life will be put into his own hands. The vicious, ignorant, and passion-blinded man will, for the contrary reason, find himself bound to a wretched existence in some lower form. Plato's scheme of metempsychosis is conspicuous for the scope it allows to human freedom. The transmigration of the individual soul is no mere episode of a universal world-movement, predestined and unchangeable. Its course is really influenced by character, and character in turn is determined by conduct. A main object of his theory was to guarantee personal continuity of the soul's life, the point in which most other systems of transmigration fail. Besides Plato and Pythagoras, the chief professors of this doctrine among the Greeks were Empedocles, Timaeus of Locri, and the Neoplatonists, none of whom call for detailed notice. Apollonius of Tyana also taught it.


The doctrine of transmigration is not found in the oldest of the sacred books of India, viz., the Rig-Veda; but in the later works it appears as an uncontested dogma, and as such it has been received by the two great religions of India.

(1) Brahmanism

In Brahmanism, we find the doctrine of world-cycles, of annihilations and restorations destined to recur at enormous intervals of time; and of this general movement the fortunes of the soul are but an incident. At the same time, transmigrations are determined by moral worth. Every act has its award in some future life. By irreversible law, evil deeds beget unhappiness, sooner or later; these, indeed, are nothing else but the slowly-ripened fruit of conduct, which every man must eat. Thus they explain the anomalies of experience presented in the misfortunes of the good and the prosperity of the wicked: each is "eating the fruit of his past actions ", actions done perhaps in some far-remote existence. Such a belief may tend to patience and resignation in present suffering, but it has s distinctly unpleasant effect upon the Brahmanical out-look on the future. A pious Brahman cannot assure himself of happiness in his next incarnation; there may be the penalty of great unknown sin still to be faced. Beatitude is union with Brahma and emancipation from the series of births, but no degree of actual holiness can guarantee this, since one is always exposed to the danger of being thrown back either by sin past or sin to come, the fruit of which will have to be eaten, and so on, we might be tempted to imagine, ad infinitum. Hence a great fear of re-incarnation prevails.

(2) Buddhism

Brahminism is bound up with caste, and is therefore strongly aristocratic, insisting much on innate superiorities. Buddhism, on the contrary, cuts through caste-divisions and asserts the paramount importance of "works", of individual effort, though always with a background of fatalism which the denial of a personal Providence entails. According to the Buddhist doctrine, the ambition to rise to the summit of existence must infallibly be fulfilled; and the mission of Gautama was to teach the way to its attainment, i.e., to Buddhaship and Nirvana. It is only through a long series of existences that this consummation can be reached. Gautama himself had as many as five hundred and fifty transmigrations in various forms of life.

The characteristic feature in Buddhistic metempsychosis is the doctrine of Karma, which is a subtle substitute for the conception of personal continuity. According to this view it is not the concrete individuality of the soul that survives, and migrates into a new life, but only the karma, or action, i.e., the sum of the man's deeds, his merits, the ethical resultant of his previous life, its total value, stripped of its former individuation, which is regarded as accidental. As the karma is greater or less, so will the next transmigration be a promotion or a degradation. At times the degradation may be so extreme that karma is embodied in an inanimate form, as in the case of Gautama's disciple who, for negligence in his master's service, was reduced after death to the form of a broomstick.

Later Jewish Teaching

The notion of soul-wandering is familiar to the Jewish Rabbins. They distinguish two kinds of transmigrations,

  • Gilgul Neshameth, in which the soul was tied down to a life-tenancy of a single body:
  • Ibbur, in which souls may inhabit bodies by temporary possession without passing through birth and death.

Josephus tells us that transmigration was a doctrine of the Pharisees, who taught that the righteous should be allowed to return to life, while the wicked were to be doomed to eternal imprisonment. It was their gloomy conception of Sheol, like the gloomy Greek conception of Hades, that forced them to this shift for a compensation to virtue. On the other hand, some of the Talmudists invoke endless transmigration as a penalty for crime. The descriptions of the soul's journeys over land and sea are elaborated with a wealth of imagination, frequently verging on the grotesque. The retributive purpose was rigorously maintained. "If a man hath committed one sin more than his good works, he is condemned to transformation into some shape of lower life." Not only so, but if his guilt had been extreme, he might be doomed to an inanimate existence. The following is a sample of what awaits the "guiltiest of the guilty". "The dark tormentors rush after them with goads and whips of fire; their chase is ceaseless; they hunt them from the plain to the mountain, from the mountain to the river, from the river to the ocean, from the ocean round the circle of the earth. Thus, the tormented fly in terror, and the tormentors follow in vengeance until the time decreed is done. Then the doomed sink into dust and ashes. Another beginning of existence, the commencement of a second trial, awaits them. They become clay, they take the nature of the stone and the mineral; they are water, fire, air; they roll in the thunder; they float in the cloud; they rush in the whirlwind. They change again; they enter into the shapes of the vegetable tribes; they live in the shrub, the flower, the tree. Ages on ages pass. Another change comes. They enter into the shape of the beast, the bird, the fish, the insect. . . . Then at last they are suffered to enter into the rank of human beings once more." After still further probations in various grades of human life, the soul will at length come to inhabit a child of Israel. If in this state it should fall again, it is lost eternally.

How far these and such like descriptions were really believed, how far they were conscious fable, is difficult to determine. That there was a fairly widespread belief in the doctrine of pre-existence in some form, seems likely enough.

Christian Ages

St. Jerome tells us that metempsychosis was a secret doctrine of certain sectaries in his day, but it was too evidently opposed to the Catholic doctrine of Redemption ever to obtain a settled footing. It was held, however, in a Platonic form by the Gnostics, and was so taught by Origen in his great work, Peri archon. Bodily existence, according to Origen, is a penal and unnatural condition, a punishment for sin committed in a previous state of bliss, the grossness of the sin being the measure of the fall. Another effect of that sin is inequality; all were created equal. He speaks only of rational creatures, viz., men and demons, the two classes of the fallen. He does not seem to have considered it necessary to extend his theory to include lower forms of life. Punishment for sin done in the body is not vindictive or eternal, but temporal and remedial. Indeed, Origen's theory excludes both eternal punishment and eternal bliss; for the soul which has been restored at last to union with God will again infallibly decline from its high state through satiety of the good, and be again relegated to material existence; and so on through endless cycles of apostasy, banishment, and return (see ORIGEN). The Manichaeans (q. v.) combine metempsychosis with belief in eternal punishment. After death, the sinner is thrust into the place of punishment till partially cleansed. He is then reclaimed to the light and given another trial in this world. If after ten such experiments he is still unfit for bliss he is condemned forever. The Manichaean system of metempsychosis was extremely consistent and thorough-going; St. Augustine in his "De Moribus Manichaeorum" ridicules the absurd observances to which it gave rise. For traces of the doctrine in the Middle Ages see articles on the Albigensians and the Cathari. These sects inherited many of the cardinal doctrines of Manichaeanism, and may be considered, in fact, as Neo-Manichaeans.

Advocates of metempsychosis have not been wanting in modern times, but there is none who speaks with much conviction. The greatest name is Lessing, and his critical mind seems to have been chiefly attracted to the doctrine by its illustrious history, the neglect into which it had fallen, and the inconclusiveness of the arguments used against it. It was also maintained by Fourier in France and Soame Jenyns in England. Leibnitz and others have maintained that all souls were created from the beginning of the world; but this does not involve migrations.

Savage Races

It remains to touch very briefly on the abundant data furnished by modern anthropological research. Belief in transmigration has been found, as stated above, in every part of the globe and at every stage of culture. It must have been almost universal at one time among the tribes of North America, and it has been found also in Mexico, Brazil, and other parts of the American continent; likewise among the aborigines of Australia and New Zealand, in the Sandwich Islands and many parts of Africa. It often takes the form of a belief in the return of long-departed ancestors, and thus provides a simple explanation of the strange facts of heredity. On the birth of a child the parents eagerly examine it for traces of its identity, which, when discovered, will determine the name of the child and its place in their affections. Sometimes the mother is informed beforehand in a dream which ancestor of the house is about to be born of her. The belief in the soul as an independent reality is common among savage races. The departed soul was thought to hover round the place of burial at least for a time after death. Hence, e.g., among the Algonquins, if a speedy return was desired, as in the case of little children, the body was buried by the wayside that it might find a mother in some of the passers-by. A curious freak of superstition is the belief of many of the dark races, e.g., in Australia, that their fair-skinned brethren from Europe are re-incarnations of people of their own race. Among the uneducated classes of India, as Sir A. Lyall tells us, the notion that witches and sorcerers, living or dead, have the power of possessing the bodies of animals still prevails. A similar idea prompted the Sandwich Islanders to throw the bodies of their dead to the sharks in the hope of thus rendering them less hostile to mankind.

In the face of a belief at first sight so far-fetched and yet at the same time so widely diffused, we are led to anticipate some great general causes which have worked together to produce it. A few such causes may be mentioned: (1) The practically universal conviction that the soul is a real entity distinct from the body and that it survives death; (2) connected with this, there is the imperative moral demand for an equitable future retribution of rewards and punishments in accordance with good or ill conduct here. The doctrine of transmigration satisfies in some degree both these virtually instinctive faiths. (3) As mentioned above, it offers a plausible explanation of the phenomena of heredity. (4) It also provides an explanation of some features of the infra-rational creation which seems to ape in so many points the good and evil qualities of human nature. It appears a natural account of such phenomena to say that these creatures, are, in fact, nothing else than embodiments of the human characters which they typify. The world thus seems to become, through and through, moral and human. Indeed, where the belief in a personal Providence is unfamiliar or but feebly grasped, some form of metempsychosis, understood as a kind of ethical evolutionary process, is almost a necessary makeshift.

HARDY, Manual of Buddhism (London, 1853); BEAUSOBRE, Histoire du Manicheisme (Amsterdam, 1734 - 9); DUBOIS, People of India; BASNAGE, History of the Jews, tr. TAYLOR (London, 1883); Traditions of the Rabbins (Quarterly Review, April, 1833); MAX MUELLER, Chips from a German Workshop (London, 1857); ALGER, Doctrine of a Future Life (New York, 1866); STOCKL, History of Philosophy, tr. FINLAY (Dublin, 1887); TYLOR, Primitive Culture (London, 1871); WILKINSON, Ancient Egyptians (London, 1841); LYALL, Asiatic Studies (London, 1882); MACDONNELL, The Ancient Indian Conception of the Soul in Journal of Theological Studies (1900).


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