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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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Various forms of this doctrine are transmigration,
metempsychosis, palingenesis, and rebirth. It does not
necessarily imply the eternity of the soul since
Buddhism, which teaches reincarnation, denies it. The
belief that the soul of a dead individual reenters im-
mediately (or as in the Tibetan book of the dead, the
Bardo Tödol, after 49 days) that of a newborn child
eliminates the difficulty of visualizing a totally disem-
bodied soul and the question of its destiny after it leaves
the body. The doctrine of reincarnation seems to have
originated in India, possibly in prehistoric times. Many
primitives in various parts of the world believe that
man possesses several souls, one of which reincarnates
in a descendent of the deceased, a notion which may
have been suggested by the sometimes striking resem-
blance between a child and his dead relative. It is
interesting, however, that no traces of the belief in
reincarnation can be found among the ancient Egyp-
tians or the Assyro-Babylonians. There is also no hint
of it in Homer, or Hesiod, and no mention of it in
the Old Testament. Among the Jews we find it much
later, and the sect of the Pharisees which adopted it
had been obviously influenced by their Greek contem-
poraries. In Greece itself, the doctrine of reincarnation
was first taught by Pythagoras in the sixth century B.C.
and is usually assumed to be of orphic origin. Some
scholars, however, claim that the doctrine was
“invented” by Pherecydes of Syros and base their
opinion on a passage in Cicero's Tusculan Disputations.
Others point out that to trace it to Orphism of which
little is known is to beg the question of an even earlier

It is tempting to seek it in the influence of Indian
thought if it were not for the difficulty of finding
concrete evidence for such a connection. Moreover,
there is a basic difference between the Hindu version
of the doctrine and that of Pythagoras. While the latter
considers successive reincarnations as the opportunity
for the purification and perfection of the soul, for the
Hindus, Brahmanists and Buddhists alike, reincarnation
represents merely a continuous repetition of the
suffering and misery of earthly existence. It is tied in
with the doctrine of cosmic eternal recurrence and the
periodic disappearance and reappearance of humanity


during which the soul transmigrates without end. And
while, for the Hindu, salvation consists in an escape
from the wheel of rebirths, in the Greek version the
soul is ultimately united with God.

In the Western world, the doctrine of reincarnation
has never achieved popularity. The Pythagorean
brotherhoods were secret societies, and subsequently
only sectarian and heretical movements like the Jewish
Cabalists, the Christian Gnostics, and the Cathars
embraced it. It fared somewhat better among philoso-
phers. Aside from Pythagoras, one has to mention
Empedocles and, in particular, Plato who gave a more
or less systematic account of the doctrine of the trans-
migration of the soul in several of his dialogues (Gorgias
525C-526B; Phaedrus 248A-B; Phaedo 82A, 113E,
114A-B; Republic X, 614C-625A; Theaetetus 117A;
Timaeus 91D, 92A-B). Plotinus incorporated this doc-
trine into his philosophical system. Soon thereafter it
was completely displaced by the Christian doctrine of
resurrection. It reappears again in the Renaissance
among the Italian Platonists of the fifteenth century,
in the Cambridge Neo-Platonists in the seventeenth
century, and is sympathetically considered by Giordano
Bruno, and later on by Leibniz. Even the skeptical
Hume felt that if there were immortality, “metem-
psychosis is the only system of this kind that philosophy
can hearken to” (“Of the Immortality of the Soul,”
op. cit.). In the twentieth century, McTaggart argued
in its favor, and C. J. Ducasse considers it the most
plausible hypothesis.

Apart from metaphysical considerations, what are
the most important arguments for reincarnation? Here
again we have to distinguish between the Hindu and
Western proponents of this doctrine. In the West it
is but one of several answers to the question of man's
post-mortem destiny, and unless it is accepted un-
critically, it adds the burden of proving multiple incar-
nations of the soul to the already sufficiently taxing
task of proving its immortality. In Hindu thought, for
which (with the exception of a few materialist philoso-
phers) the immortality of the soul is axiomatic, its
reincarnation is most often equally so. And if one
should, nevertheless, want proofs, these are usually
based on the soul's “obvious” immortality. Thus the
leading contemporary philosopher (and ex-president)
of India, S. Radhakrishnan, advances the following
argument: since souls are eternal, and since their nor-
mal condition is to be associated with a body which
is perishable, it is plausible to assume that in order
for the soul to remain in its normal condition, it must
inhabit an unending succession of bodies.

But the Western mind is not impressed and prefers
empirical proofs. Among these, one of the favorite
arguments is the undeniable fact that some children
exhibit certain instinctive capacities, and a few are
even geniuses at a very early age. This is supposed
to prove that there must be reincarnation, since other-
wise the possession of such extraordinary gifts remains
totally uncomprehensible.

Another argument is the occurrence of the phenom-
enon known as déjà vu. But the most popular and
supposedly clinching argument is that some people
apparently remember their previous existences, some-
times without extraneous help, though usually under

The obvious counterarguments, as far as genius in
children and the déjà vu phenomena are concerned,
is that although they are difficult to explain, the re-
course to such an extreme as the preexistence and
reincarnation of the soul seems unjustified. And re-
garding people who claim to remember their previous
lives, not only can the information elicited not be
reliably verified, but such people are exceedingly few
and far between.

It remains to mention the reply of the adherents of
the reincarnation doctrine to the last counterargument.
They contend that death is a traumatic experience of
such a force that it seriously affects or obliterates
memory. But this argument tacitly assumes the immor-
tality of the soul, since only in such a case can one
speak of the consequences of the traumatic experience
of death. And while dying may well be traumatic for
many, on all available evidence it appears to be the
last experience of a person.

Substitute Immortalities. Some of those who bring
forth arguments against immortality of the soul (or
resurrection of the body) propose other kinds of
“immortality,” thus giving this term a broader and
often misleading meaning. There is, first of all, what
may be called the doctrine of impersonal immortality:
the spirit, or mind of man, is not destroyed at death
but returns to and merges with the universal or divine
Soul, or mind. This is the possible meaning of Aris-
totle's hint about the eternity of the active intellect.
The main representatives of this view are Averroës,
Bruno, Spinoza, and the German and English romantic
poets and philosophers of the late eighteenth and early
nineteenth centuries. Of this kind of immortality, Ma-
dame de Staël remarked somewhat sarcastically that
“if the individual inner qualities we possess return to
the great Whole, this has a frightening similarity to

Another kind of “immortality” which is intended to
console, as well as to justify death, is “biological”
immortality of our germ plasm (genes). The prospect
to live on in one's children has, however, lost much
of its comforting power since the realization that man-
kind itself will some day disappear, and particularly


now that the atomic and hydrogen bombs have made
such an outcome not infinitely remote but a very real
and even immediate possibility. It might not neces-
sarily affect Santayana's “ideal” immortality which is
reminiscent of Goethe's view that the “traces on one's
earthly days cannot be erased in Aeons.” Nor would
it affect what is known as “cosmological” immortality,
according to which our energy-matter does not cease
to exist but is only transformed and dispersed. But to
both of these “immortalities,” Madame de Staël's criti-
cism equally applies. Of course, many people would
be satisfied with mere “social” or “historical” immor-
tality—to have left traces of one's passage on earth
in the form of an artistic achievement, scientific dis-
covery, or other remarkable accomplishments. “How
can he be dead, who lives immortal in the hearts of
men?” asks Longfellow in speaking of Michelangelo.
This was the meaning of immortality for the great men
of Ancient Rome. In modern times, this kind of
“immortality” was first suggested by M. J. de Con-
dorcet in his Outline of the Progress of the Human
and, with particular force, by Ludwig
Feuerbach. The least ambitious immortality would be
to live on for a short time in the memory of one's family
and friends. Very probably this is the only kind of
“immortality” that the overwhelming majority of peo-
ple will ever have. But for many people, this is not
a completely satisfactory thought.