Metempsychosis (Greek: μετεμψύχωσις), in philosophy, refers to transmigration of the soul, especially its reincarnation after death. The term is derived from ancient Greek philosophy, and has been recontextualised by modern philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer and Kurt Gödel; otherwise, the term "transmigration" is more appropriate. The word plays a prominent role in James Joyce's Ulysses and is also associated with Nietzsche. Another term sometimes used synonymously is palingenesis.
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 used for religious and philosophic purposes.
The Orphic religion, which held it, first appeared in Thrace upon the semi-barbarous northeastern 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 reimprison 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, Dionysus in particular—and calls them to turn to the gods by ascetic piety 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 forever as a God from whom it comes. Such was the teaching of Orphism, which appeared in Greece about the 6th century BCE, organized itself into private and public mysteries at Eleusis and elsewhere, and produced copious literature.
The earliest Greek thinker with whom metempsychosis is connected is Pherecydes of Syros, but Pythagoras, who is said to have been his pupil, is its first famous philosophic exponent. Pythagoras is not believed to have invented the doctrine or to have imported it from Egypt. Instead, he made his reputation by bringing the Orphic doctrine from northeastern Hellas to Magna Graecia and creating societies for its diffusion.
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The real weight and importance of metempsychosis in the Western tradition are due to its adoption by Plato. In the eschatological myth that closes the Republic, he tells how Er, the son of Armenius, miraculously returned to life on the 12th 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, and 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, including the Phaedrus, Meno, Phaedo, Timaeus and Laws. In Plato's view the number of souls was fixed; souls are never created, but only transmigrate 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. Scholars have debated the extent of Plato's belief in metempsychosis since at least the Renaissance. 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 that had descended to his times from the cities of Magna Graecia. In a lost passage of his Annals, a Roman history in verse, Ennius recounted that Homer had assured him in a dream that the same soul that had animated both poets had once belonged to a peacock. Persius in one of his satires (vi. 9) laughs at Ennius for this; Lucretius (i. 124) and by Horace (Epist. II. i. 52) also mention it. 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.
Metempsychosis was a part of Catharism in Occitania in the 12th century.
Created in the early 15th century, the Rosicrucianist movement also conveyed an occult doctrine of metempsychosis.
"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 a prominent theme 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 prominently in the concluding paragraph of Chapter 98, "Stowing Down and Clearing Up", of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.
Metempsychosis is mentioned as the religion of choice by the minor character Princess Darya Alexandrovna Oblonsky in Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.
Herbert Giles uses the term metempsychosis in his translation of the butterfly dream from the Zhuangzi (Chinese: 《莊子》). The use of this term is contested by Hans Georg Möller (de), though, who claims that a better translation is "the changing of things".
Metempsychosis is a recurring theme in James Joyce's modernist novel Ulysses (1922). In Joycean fashion, the word famously appears in Leopold Bloom's inner monologue, recalling how his wife, Molly Bloom, apparently mispronounced it earlier that day as "met him pike hoses."
In Thomas Pynchon's 1963 premiere novel V., metempsychosis is mentioned in reference to the book "The Search for Bridey Murphy" by Morey Bernstein, and also later in chapter eight.
Metempsychosis is referenced in Don DeLillo's 1982 novel The Names.
In David Foster Wallace's 1996 novel Infinite Jest, the name of the character Madame Psychosis is an intentional malapropism of metempsychosis.
Guy de Maupassant's story "Le docteur Héraclius Gloss" (1875) is a fable about metempsychosis.
In Marcel Proust's famous first paragraph from In Search of Lost Time, the narrator compares his separation from the subject of a book to the process of metempsychosis.
In Robert Montgomery Bird's fiction novel Sheppard Lee Written by Himself (1836) the protagonist is a serial identity thief by way of metempsychosis.
The eponymous Archy of Don Marquis's archy and mehitabel poems is a cockroach with the transmigrated soul of a human vers libre poet.
In The Discovery of Heaven, a novel by Harry Mulisch, a "thin man with a short black beard" asks for books on metempsychosis, and then explains "I mean the transmigration of souls."