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The “Dress” Of The Soul (Reincarnation)

  • 71 While Casadio 1991 is quite right to note that often one lifetime seemed insufficient for theodicy, (...)

35.The image of the body as the garment of the soul is thus fairly widespread, appearing first in Empedokles, continuing through the whole Platonic tradition, and turning up in funerary inscriptions and even in Epictetus. Only in certain sources is this garment thought of as one of a succession of garments which the soul may put on as it passes through the cycle of reincarnations ; more often, even in authors who talk about reincarnation in other passages, only a single wearing of the garment is envisaged. The image of the body as a protective covering also provides an explanation of the incarnation of the soul (and its exit), but nothing in the theory as it is explained, e.g., in the Timaeus, necessitates a cycle of reincarnations, endless or terminal. The same is true of the body as a prison and place of punishment for the soul.71 The image of the body as the tomb of the soul primarily serves to flip the expectations of life and death - life is death and therefore death may be (an even better) life. The focus on the contrast between the two terms makes the σῶμα-σῆμα image less likely to be associated with a series of reincarnations than the idea of the body as a prison.


  • 72 I use the Latinate word ‘reincarnation’, rather than ‘metempsychosis’, because of the objections of (...)
  • 73 Often the notion is attributed to a foreign source. Herodotus claims that the idea of reincarnation (...)
  • 74 Plato Phaedo 70c = OF428i. Cp. Olympiodorus in Plat. Phaed. 10.6 = OF428ii and Damascius in Plat.
  • 75 Plato Meno 81 = OF424, quoting Pindar fr. 133 = OF 443.
  1. 36. Modern scholars have often debated whether the idea of reincarnation should be classified as Orphic, Pythagorean, or in some other way, but the ancient evidence shows that, while the idea was certainly attributed to Orpheus in some evidence, as well as to the Pythagoreans, it is not characteristic of all evidence connected with Orpheus. Reincarnation is thus Orphic in the sense that it is the sort of marginal idea that could be attributed to Orpheus, not in the sense that all evidence for Orphic ideas of the soul must incorporate an idea of reincarnation. Just as certain images of the soul’s relation to the body are marked as extraordinary in some way, associated either with the wise and mysterious ancients or certain crazy crackpots, the notion of reincarnation is always marked as exceptional and is often attributed to figures like Orpheus or Pythagoras.72 The cycle of reincarnations is thus Orphic in the sense I have defined it here, in that it is applied to phenomena that bear the stamp of strangeness.73 Plato himself refers reincarnation in the Phaedo to some ancient story (παλαιὸς τις λόγος) with the idea, although the Neoplatonic commentators Damascius and Olympiodorus identify the story as Orphic and Pythagorean.74 In the Meno, Plato refers to wise priests and poets who put forth the idea, quoting a poet who is surely Pindar for the idea that Persephone sends mortals back into life, rewarding the good with the lot of kings.75
  • 76 Cp. Obeyesekere 2002 on ethicization of the afterlife as a process of rationalizing and universaliz (...)
  • 77 Cp. Plut. fr. 200.48-59 and de Sera Num. 565de for Plutarchan adaptations of these Platonic ideas.
  • 78 Empedokles fr. 117 = Hippolytus Ref. Omn. Haer. = Diogenes Laertius 8.77. For in the past (...)
  • 79 Aristotle de anima 407b20 ; Xenophanes fr.7 = Diogenes Laertius 8.36.

37.In post-Platonic evidence, the idea of reincarnation is often introduced in the context of a moral argument, where the next life becomes a recompense for the deeds of the previous one, either for good or for ill. Such an argument can explain the apparent injustice of bad things happening to good people as well as serve as an exhortation to good behavior, even if divine justice does not seem immediately forthcoming.76 In the myths of Plutarch, for instance visions of judgement and recompense in the underworld for the previous life are combined with an assignment of a new incarnation that serves as further recompense (for good or ill) of the prior life.77 In the earlier evidence, however, the idea of reincarnation as recompense, familiar to modern scholars in the Indian system of karma, does not always seem to underlie the movement of the soul from one body to the next. Empedokles’ list of incarnations – male, female, bird, plant, fish – baffles any attempt to find the reasons behind his change of lives.78 Aristotle likewise complains that the Pythagoreans imagine transmigration of any soul to any body, regardless of the suitability of the soul for the body, and the earliest testimony to Pythagoras’ belief in reincarnation comes from the mockery of Xenophanes, who portrays him as recognizing an old friend’s voice in the howling of a puppy.79 Such notions of reincarnation seem grounded in the idea of the mutability of physical elements that transform into different combinations, and the new incarnation may be taken as random instead of dependent on past behavior.

  • 80 Aristotle de anima 410b27 = OF 421i. Neither Aristotle nor his commentators explicitly refer this (...)
  • 81 ψυχὴ δ’ ἀνθρώποισιν ἀπ’ αἰθέρος ἐρρίζωται … ἀέρα δ’ ἕλκοντες ψυχὴν θείαν δρεπόμεσθα. Vettius Valens (...)
  • 82 Proclus (in Remp. II.339.20-26 = OF 339) quotes a later Orphic poem that has made the systematic di (...)
  1. 38. Although Aristotle does not explicitly connect the two, he also mentions the idea, which appears in the so-called verses of Orpheus (ὁ ἐν τοῖς Ὀρφικοῖς ἔπεσι καλουμένοις λόγος), that bodies breathe in the soul as it is carried about by the winds. Aristotle’s commentators add little that could not be derived from this notice, but Iamblichus attributes the idea to a specific work, the Physika.80 Iamblichus suggests that the individual souls are parcelled out from the One soul in these individual acts of breathing, and the idea that the soul is breathed in is also attributed to Orpheus by Vettius Valens, who quotes several verses that link the soul with air : “for humans, the soul derives its roots from the aither” and “it is by drawing in the air that we acquire a divine soul”.81 The blowing of the winds could produce the random incarnations implied by the Pythagorean theory, and the image of the soul borne upon the winds until breathed in may well be an image from an early Orphic poem, perhaps one composed by a Pythagorean.82
  • 83 See my treatment of the Phaedo myth in Edmonds 2004, ch. 4. The myths in the Phaedrus and Republic (...)
  • 84 Phaedo 81b5-82b9.
  • 85 Republic 620ac.

39.Rather than having souls randomly blowing in the wind, Plato depicts a systematic process where the nature of the soul in one life determines the incarnation in the next. The most elaborate descriptions of the process of reincarnations come in the myths, where a vision of the cycle of life and afterlife is manipulated for philosophical purposes.83 The complicated details of the process of reincarnation differ among the Phaedo, Republic, and Phaedrus, and these differences meticulously correspond to the details of the arguments in the respective dialogues. In the Phaedo, the soul that is too attached to the body will slip into another body, one that most closely resembles its nature. Those who indulged their appetites for food and sex become donkeys, while those who unjustly and tyrannically preyed upon others become wolves or other predators. Those who led decent but mindless lives end up as bees or ants or perhaps even humans again ; the next life represents a continuation of the previous, the animal forms vividly illustrating its nature just as the afterlife fates in traditional myths reflect and continue the lives of the deceased.84 The same sort of mirroring appears in the Republic, where some souls choose incarnations that suit the character of their previous lives, like Thersites as an ape or Orpheus as a swan. However, Plato here introduces the element of choice, so that some souls choose to compensate for the defects of their previous lives ; the choices can be rational and philosophic, like Odysseus, or thoughtless and greedy, like the first soul that chooses tyranny.85 The element of choice is further modified in the Phaedrus, where the hierarchy of incarnations (philosopher, king, doctor, etc. down to tyrant) correlates to how much of true reality the soul has seen on its latest rotation through the heavens.

  • 86 Phaedrus 249bc. ἔνθα καὶ εἰς θηρίου βίον ἀνθρωπίνη ψυχὴ ἀφικνεῖται, καὶ ἐκ θηρίου ὅς ποτε ἄνθρωπος (...)

A human soul enters into the life of a beast, and, from a beast, someone who was once human back into a human. But a soul that never saw the truth will never come to this human form, for it is necessary for a human to understand speech according to the general form, going from many perceptions to a single one, collecting them together by reasoning. This is recollection of those things which once upon a time our soul saw as it was traveling together with the god, disregarding the things which we now say are real and lifting up its head to the truly real.86

40.In the Phaedrus, the process of reasoning from particular perceptions to a unity (synhairesis) that is crucial to proper rhetoric and which guides proper eros becomes the fundamental principle of the system of reincarnations, making the right choice of new life dependent on a kind of proper philosophical reasoning inaccessible to beasts and exercised by only a few humans.

  • 87 Phaedo 81e-82a. Τὸ μὲν οὖν ταῦτα διισχυρίσασθαι οὕτως ἔχειν ὡς ἐγὼ διελήλυθα, οὐ πρέπει νοῦν ἔχοντι (...)

41.Plato makes use of the extra-ordinary idea of reincarnation, found in some Orphic poems and attributed to certain Pythagoreans, to reinforce some of the central ideas of his dialogues, transforming a random process of movements of a soul into new bodies into systems that mesh with his ideas of a rationally ordered cosmos. The details of the system in each dialogue, however, correspond to the important issues in that dialogue and so are not precisely consistent with one another, suggesting that Plato makes use of these ideas without resting too much weight on their precise details. In each dialogue, Socrates attributes the ideas of the myth to some unspecified but special source, hedging, in characteristically Platonic fashion, the authority of the source. For example, in the Phaedo, Socrates insists on the fundamental truth of the ideas, even while he simultaneously marks their strangeness and opens them up to (philosophical) questioning : “No sensible man would insist that these things are exactly as I have described them, but I think that it is fitting for a man to risk the belief - for the risk is a noble one - that this, or something like this is true about our souls and their dwelling places.”87