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Short description: Transmigration of the soul

In philosophy, metempsychosis (Greek: μετεμψύχωσις) is the 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,[1] Kurt Gödel[2] and Magdalena Villaba;[3] otherwise, the term transmigration is more appropriate. The word plays a prominent role in James Joyce's Ulysses and is also associated with Nietzsche.[4] Another term sometimes used synonymously is palingenesis.

A section of Metempsychosis (1923) by Yokoyama Taikan; a drop of water from the vapours in the sky transforms into a mountain stream, which flows into a great river and on into the sea, whence rises a dragon (pictured) that turns back to vapour; National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (Important Cultural Property)[5]

It is unclear how the doctrine of metempsychosis arose in Ancient Greece, where it was never a mainstream belief. It is easiest to assume that earlier ideas, which had never been extinguished, were used for religious and philosophic purposes.


The Orphic religion, which believed in metempsychosis, 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 but immortal and aspires to freedom, while the body holds it in fetters as a prisoner. Death dissolves that contract but only to reimprison the liberated soul after a short time, for the wheel of birth revolves inexorably. Thus, the soul continues its journey and alternates between a separate unrestrained existence and a fresh reincarnation around the wide circle of necessity, as the companion of many bodies of men and animals. To those 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 their next reincarnation will be, 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.[6][7][8]

Pre-Socratic philosophy

The earliest Greek thinker with whom metempsychosis is connected is Pherecydes of Syros,[9] 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 Ancient Greece to Magna Graecia and creating societies for its diffusion.[citation needed]

Platonic philosophy

The real weight and importance of metempsychosis in the Western tradition are from its adoption by Plato.[10] In the eschatological myth that closes the Republic, he tells 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 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.[citation needed] In Plato's view the number of souls was fixed; souls are never created or destroyed but only transmigrate from one body to another.[11]


Scholars have debated the extent of Plato's belief in metempsychosis since at least the Renaissance. Marsilio Ficino argued that Plato's references to metempsychosis were intended to be allegorical.[12] Modern scholars, including Chad Jorgensen and Gerard Naddaf, have tended to agree with Ficino.[13]

"Metempsychosis" is the title of a longer work by the metaphysical poet John Donne, written in 1601.[14] The poem, also known as the Infinitati Sacrum,[15] 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".[15]

Metempsychosis is a recurring theme in James Joyce's modernist novel Ulysses (1922).[16] 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."[17]

See also


  1. Schopenhauer, A: "Parerga und Paralipomena" (Eduard Grisebach edition), On Religion, Section 177
  2. Gödel Exhibition: Gödel's Century
  3. Villaba, Magdalena (1976). "An Interpretation on the Doctrine of Transmigration". Philippiniana Sacra. 
  4. Nietzsche and the Doctrine of Metempsychosis, in J. Urpeth & J. Lippitt, Nietzsche and the Divine, Manchester: Clinamen, 2000
  5. "Masterpieces". National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. 
  6. Linforth, Ivan M. (1941) The Arts of Orpheus Arno Press, New York, OCLC 514515
  7. Long, Herbert S. (1948) A Study of the doctrine of metempsychosis in Greece, from Pythagoras to Plato (Long's 1942 PhD dissertation) Princeton, New Jersey, OCLC 1472399
  8. Long, Herbert S. (16 February 1948) "Plato's Doctrine of Metempsychosis and Its Source" The Classical Weekly 41(10): pp. 149–155
  9. Schibli, S., Hermann, Pherekydes of Syros, p. 104, Oxford Univ. Press 2001
  10. Plato. Republic, Book 10, section 620. 
  11. "That is the conclusion, I said; and if a true conclusion, then the souls must always be the same, for if none be destroyed they will not diminish in number." Republic X, 611. The Republic of Plato By Plato, Benjamin Jowett Edition: 3 Published by Clarendon Press, 1888.
  12. See Platonic Theology 17.3–4.
  13. Jorgensen 2018: 199 says that Plato's eschatological accounts are "much better suited to a creative discourse aimed at capturing the imagination of a particular audience than to an attempt to describe an independently existing reality." See Jorgensen, Chad. The Embodied Soul in Plato's Later Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge  University Press, 2018. Naddaf 2016: 113 says that this part of Plato's thinking can be represented "only by eschatological or cosmological myths. It is inaccessible to explanation." See Naddaf, Gerard. "Poetic Myths of the Afterlife: Plato's Last Song," Reflections on Plato's Poetics: Essays from Beijing. Academic Printing and Publishing: Berrima, NSW, 2016, 111–136.
  14. Collins, Siobhán (2005) "Bodily Formations and Reading Strategies in John Donne's Metempsychosis" Critical Studies 26: pp. 191–208, page 191
  15. 15.0 15.1 full text of Metempsychosis or Infinitati Sacrum from Luminarium Editions
  16. "List of occurrences of Metempsychosis in Ulysses". 
  17. Cf. Joyce, Ulysses, §8 Lestrygonians

External links

it:Reincarnazione#Reincarnazione in filosofia