Metempsychosis: The Pythagorean Doctrine of the Soul

Metempsychosis: The Pythagorean Doctrine of the Soul

In my last essay, I presented the myth of Pythagoras and argued for its abiding relevance.[1] I’d now like to move on to explore some of the basic teachings of Pythagoreanism and how those teachings have influenced the development of Greek philosophy. Specifically, this essay will examine the Pythagorean doctrine of metempsychosis, or the transmigration of the soul. Metempsychosis is the idea that the soul survives the death of the body and eventually comes to inhabit a new one, perhaps another human one or perhaps that of some other kind of animal. Some of our earliest sources concerning Pythagoras and the Pythagorean tradition attest that he taught such a doctrine. For example, Diogenes Laertius preserves a fragment from Xenophanes which mocks Pythagoras for believing that he perceived the soul of his friend in a beaten dog. Xenophanes claims:

“They say that once, as passing by he saw a dog severely beaten, he did pity him; and spoke as follows to the man who beat him: ‘Stop now, and beat him not; since in his body abides the soul of a dear friend of mine, whose voice I recognized as he was crying.”[2]

Though Xenophanes attempted to mock Pythagoras through this story, I personally find it endearing. It reminds me of a similar legend concerning Nietzsche which recounts how he fell into madness upon seeing a horse being beaten. He was so moved by the horse’s suffering that he wept and embraced it, exclaiming he understood its sorrow. Such stories present philosophers as empathetic to the suffering of all sentient beings.

The doctrine of metempsychosis thus has practical consequences for those who adopt it. For, this metaphysical doctrine about the soul’s fate after death grounds a corresponding set of ethical responsibilities. In the case of Pythagoreanism, it provides the metaphysical rationale for the practice of vegetarianism. Porphyry, for instance, records that Eudoxus claimed that “Pythagoras practiced the greatest purity, and was shocked at all blood shedding and killing, that he not only abstained from animal food, but never in any way approached butchers or hunters.”[3] And, in the poetic tradition, we have the testimony of Ovid, who claims near the conclusion of the Metamorphoses that Pythagoras was the first man:

 “To denounce the serving of animal flesh at table; the first voice, wise but not believed in, to say, for example, in words like these :

    ‘Human beings, stop desecrating your bodies with impious foodstuffs. There are crops; there are apples weighing down the branches; and ripening grapes on the vines; there are flavoursome herbs; and those that can be rendered mild and gentle over the flames; and you do not lack flowing milk; or honey fragrant from the flowering thyme. The earth, prodigal of its wealth, supplies you with gentle sustenance, and offers you food without killing or shedding blood.

    ‘Flesh satisfies the wild beast’s hunger, though not all of them, since horses, sheep and cattle live on grasses, but those that are wild and savage: Armenian tigers, raging lions, and wolves and bears, enjoy food wet with blood. Oh, how wrong it is for flesh to be made from flesh; for a greedy body to fatten, by swallowing another body; for one creature to live by the death of another creature! So amongst such riches, that earth, the greatest of mothers, yields, you are not happy unless you tear, with cruel teeth, at pitiful wounds, recalling Cyclops’s practice, and you cannot satisfy your voracious appetite, and your restless hunger, unless you destroy other life!” (XV:60-142).[4]

            In addition to its practical consequences, the doctrine of metempsychosis also had an epochal theoretical impact, reshaping the Greek view of humanity and its place in the cosmos. Previously, on a Homeric worldview, the soul lived a pitiful existence after death as a withered shade in the underworld. There was an essential connection between the body and soul even after death. If the body, for example, was not properly burned or buried, the soul could not enter the underworld, but was forced to wander the earth. Heroes thus fought battles and undertook great feats to retrieve the bodies of their comrades from enemies who might deny them proper burial. Likewise, even when the body was given its proper funerary rites, the soul still shared its parched and powerless existence as a shade. We see this in Homer’s depiction of Odysseus’s descent to the underworld in the Odyssey where the great tactician travels to the realm of Hades to consult the ghost of the seer Tireseas. To communicate with the dead, Odysseus must pour blood for the shades to drink before they can speak. Homer describes the scene as follows:

 “Now when, with sacrifices and prayers, I had so entreated the hordes of the dead, I took the sheep and cut their throats over the pit, and the dark-clouding blood ran in, and the souls of the perished dead gathered to the place, up out of Erebos, ….these came swarming around my pit from every direction with inhuman clamor, and green fear took hold of me.” (Od XI. 34-43 trans. Lattimore).

This swarm of hungry shades surrounds the blood, looking to once more drink in the power of life and find a voice to tell their tales. This pitiful existence awaits all humans regardless of station or actions. Even the great warrior Achilles confesses that he would rather be a slave in the mortal world than leader of the dead. Homer describes this encounter as follows. Odysseus, seeing Achilles, addresses him:

 “Son of Peleus, far the greatest of the Achaians, Achilleus… no man before has been more blessed than you, nor ever will be. Before, when you were alive, we Argives honored you as we did the gods, and now in this place you have great authority over the dead. Do not grieve, even in death, Achilleus” (Od XI:478-486).

But to this, Achilleus responds:

“O shining Odysseus, never try to console me for dying. I would rather follow the plow as thrall to another man, one with no land allotted him and not much to live on, than be a king over all the perished dead.” (XI.488-491).

Thus, for Homer, all men, heroes and cowards, kings and slaves, noble and base, meet the same end and take up residence in the same wretched abode. This, according to Homer, is what it means to be a mortal, one of the dying ones, rather than a god, one of the deathless whose veins run with ichor rather than blood.

Pythagoras’ doctrine of metempsychosis contests such a Homeric worldview. For, if the soul not only transcends the body and survives its death, but also goes on to take up residence in a different one, it allows for the possibility that one’s current decisions can have lasting effects on one’s future life. Plato, inspired by this Pythagorean conception of the soul, illustrates such an account in his myth of Er at the end of the Republic. It is interesting to note how he explicitly contrasts his account with that of Homer, when he observes that “it isn’t, however, a tale of Alcinous that I’ll tell you but that of a brave Pamphylian man called Er, the son of Armenias, who once died in a war.” (Rep. X.614b).[5] Alcinous was the mythical king of the Phaeacians, whom Odysseus was addressing when he told his story of his descent to the underworld, and books 9-11 of the Odyssey were traditionally called “the tales of Alcinous.”[6] Thus, at the very outset of his tale Plato, lets us know that his myth will stand as a rival to those of Homer.

 According to Plato’s myth, Er was a soldier who died on the battlefield. His body was collected with the rest of the fallen ten days later, but it, unlike the other corpses, had not decayed. On the twelfth day,[7] when his comrades were going to be performing funerary rites for him, he awoke and declared that he had seen the world beyond death. According to Er, men are judged for their lives, the just ascending to the heavens–with an account of their deeds hung on their chests, and the unjust descending into the earth–with the account of their actions hung across their backs. In each realm people receive a tenfold recompense for their earthly conduct, with the just being rewarded and the unjust punished. After this, the souls return back to a meadow, where they prepare to once more incarnate on earth. Er claims that this process is, for the most part, self-determined. Souls choose the daemon that will guide them and the pattern of the life they will live. Plato has Lachesis, one of the three fates and daughters of necessity, announce this point explicitly when she claims: “Your daemon or guardian spirit will not be assigned to you by lot; you will choose him.… Virtue knows no master; each will possess it to a greater or less degree, depending on whether he values or disdains it. The responsibility lies with the one who makes the choice; the god has none.” (Rep. X. 617e). People thus choose the life they will inhabit based on their previous experiences and what they believe constitutes a good life. For example, the scoffer Thersites chooses the life of a monkey, Agamemnon, remembering his sufferings as a man, chooses the life of an eagle instead, and Odysseus who previously lived a notable life and suffered for it, instead chose “the life of a private individual who did his own work” (Rep. 620c-d).

            This myth upends the Homeric account in two key ways. First, it grounds that the idea that people’s actions matter a cosmic sense. Instead of good and bad withering away alike in misery in the underworld, according to Plato’s Pythagorean account, a life worthy of happiness will result in happiness, and a life worthy of misery will lead to misery. Second, people are responsible for the choices that they make, and the successful exercise of this responsibility depends on identifying one’s true good. For if we can hold fast to an accurate conception of the soul’s true good, we will not be deceived at the critical moment of choosing a form of life. We will not be like the soul who, in “folly and greed” chose the life of tyranny, only to find, upon closer examination, that “among other evils, he was fated to eat his own children as a part of it.” (Rep. X. 619c). Rather, as Socrates observes at the end of the Republic, “we’ll believe that the soul is immortal and able to endure every evil and every good, and we’ll always hold to the upward path, practicing justice with reason in every way. That way we’ll be friends both to ourselves and to the gods while we remain here on earth and afterwards–like victors in the games who go around collecting their prizes–we’ll receive our rewards. Hence, both in this life and on the thousand-year journey we’ve described, we’ll do well and be happy.” (Rep. X.621c-d).


[1] See http://premieretat.com/the-myth-of-pythagoras/

[2] Diogenes Laertius, Life of Pythagoras, § 20, trans. Gutherie.

[3] Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras, §7, trans. Gutherie.

[4] Ovid, Metamorphosis, trans. Kline. https://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Metamorph15.htm

[5] Trans. Cooper.

[6] See ft. 11 in Cooper’s translation of the Republic.

[7] Note how Plato here once more sets up a parallel to the Homeric account. Compare this to the 12th day on which the negotiated truce for funerary rites comes to an end at the conclusion of the Iliad.

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