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Did Plato Believe in Reincarnation?
Here arguments for and against a Platonic belief in reincarnation are presented. It is commonly said that Plato had a 'doctrine' of reincarnation. This is repeated so often that many people simply take it as a given. The evidence, however, is far from conclusive. A good case can be made that Plato's references to reincarnation are allegorical.
As the original article presenting this material proved to be quite long, I shall here present only the main points. The more condensed format assumes the reader is already familiar with Plato's works. Those who are not may wish to orient themselves by reading Plato's chariot myth and the Myth of Er.
After writing this, I discovered that Marsilio Ficino, in his work, Platonic Theology, also disputed that Plato believed in reincarnation. Ficino, in fact, used several of the same arguments given below.
Some readers may wish to go directly to the short list of main conclusions.
1. Initial Observations
1. Concerning whether Plato believed in reincarnation modern opinions are divided.
2. The subject is very relevant to our philosophical understanding of the mind and theories of Plato, and how his works were correctly or incorrectly understood by later thinkers.
3. If a belief in reincarnation is falsely attributed to Plato, then knowing this (after 2400 years!) may help Platonism be better received or examined by Catholics, other Christians, Jews, and Muslims, who believe in resurrection.
4. As modern proponents of reincarnation often cite Plato as an authoritative believer, we are further motivated to understand Plato's true teachings and to correct this perception if it is mistaken.
5. Definitions: we shall here use the words reincarnation and transmigration as synonomous, though one might make certain distinctions between them.
6. Surprisingly few modern articles or books specifically address this issue. An exception is Ehnmark (1957). Several books discuss Platonic myths in general (e.g., Stewart, 1905; Frutiger, 1930; Brisson, 1998 & 2004); these are only of partial relevance here since not all of Plato's comments about reincarnation are presented in myths.
2. Historical Considerations
1. Plato mentions reincarnation and related ideas several times in his works. The main instances occur (a) in his so-called eschatological myths:
2. In these examples, Plato never specifically presents reincarnation as his doctrine. Usually the character of Socrates speaks in a dialogue, calling what he is about to describe a "tale", "myth", or "tradition", and attributing it to others. (We might also note that our other direct sources of information about Socrates, namely Xenophon and Aristophanes, never associate Socrates with reincarnation.)
3. It is often suggested that Plato adopted the doctrine of reincarnation from Egyptians, Pythagoreans, or others.
4. It does not appear that reincarnation was a standard Egyptian religious belief. Ritual embalming and numerous inscriptions and texts -- Pyramid texts, coffin texts, the Book of the Dead (Book of Coming Forth by Day), the Umduat, Book of Gates, etc. -- imply otherwise.
5. Concerning Pythagoras, while it is commonly said that he taught transmigration, this is by no means certain. Specific statements about reincarnation attributed to him are questionable; some clearly invite a non- literal, ironic, or even humorous interpretation (e.g., Xenophanes' remark that Pythagoras recognized the soul of a friend in a puppy). The attribution of a belief in reincarnation to Pythagoras may have derived from a misinterpretation of Pythagorean vegetarianism.
6. Fragments used to show that Empedocles taught reincarnation invite allegorical interpretation. The b est-known example, fragment 117, "For I have been ere now a boy and a girl, a bush and a bird and a dumb fish in the sea" does not necessarily refer to reincarnation. Considering the larger context of Empedocles' philosophy, it could be understood as pantheistic, or else referring to common soul material of all living things.
7. Concerning Orphics we have little definite knowledge. With justification, one might again suppose their myths were not intended to be taken literally.
8. Though Aristotle opposed the idea of reincarnation in De Anima (1.3 407b), he does not ascribe the belief to Plato. Had Plato believed in reincarnation, Aristotle, his student, would have likely known and thought it worthy of comment.
9. According to Ficino (Platonic Theology, 1482) in neither the Old Academy (385 BC - c. 260 BC) nor the more skeptical New Academy (c. 260 BC - c. 83 BC) were Plato's references to reincarnation taken literally.
10. Neoplatonists generally accepted that Plato taught reincarnation, and they believed the doctrine themselves. However they were divided on the issue of human-to-animal transmigration (see Sorabji, pp. 211-216).
11. Plotinus (fl. 260 AD), the first Neoplatonist, seems to have accepted both human-to-human and human-to-animal reincarnation (Enneads 1.1.11, 3.4.2, 4.3.8-9, 4.3.12, 5.2.2, 6.7.6-7). Some of his comments about human-to-animal reincarnation might be metaphorical.
12. According to St. Augustine (City of God, 10.30), Porphyry (fl. 285 AD), who was Plotinus' student, accepted human-to-human reincarnation, but denied human-to-animal reincarnation. St. Augustine also testifies that Porphyry, contrary to references of Plato to eternal cycles, believed that a soul, once purged from evil, could rejoin the Father and never again reincarnate (City of God 12.21, 13.19, and 22.12).
13. The position of Iamblichus (fl. 310 AD), who was Porphyry's student, is clear: Nemesius (Nature of Man 2, 35, 7-17 Morani) informs us that Iamblichus wrote a treatise with the admirably specific title, That transmigrations do not occur from men into brute animals nor from brute animals into men but from animals to animals and men to men.
14. Proclus (fl. 470 AD); In Remp. 2.309 - 2.310) and other later Neoplatonists, trying to reconcile Plato and Aristotle, developed idiosyncratic theories of partial transmigration, in which human souls animate animals indirectly. Ficino (Platonic Theology 17.4) presents Proclus and Syrianus (In Remp. 2.101 - 2.132) and Hermeias (In Phaedr. 170.16-19) as believing that punished human souls "hover over beasts' souls" without entering their bodies (see also Sorabji, pp. 213 ff.).
15. Church Fathers, though in general positively disposed towards Plato, took his comments about reincarnation as literal. Examples include these:
16. St. Augustine (City of God, 10.30) states that it is most certain (certissimus est) that Plato wrote that human souls may transmigrate to animal bodies (City of God 10.30; cf. 13.19).
17. In Contra Celsum, it is unclear whether Origen himself associates the doctrine with Plato, or if he is just referring to Celsus as having made the association. Therefore Origen's own views are uncertain.
18. St. Clement of Alexandria gives mixed evidence . He devotes several chapters of the Stromateis (Strom 5.4 - 5.10) to explain the use of allegory by Greek and other 'heathen writers' (often mentioning Plato) to veil religious doctrine. In Strom 5.9 he states:
Here he specifically refers to Platonic myths that describe reincarnation as allegorical. However he never explicitly defends Plato against the charge of teaching reincarnation; if he had thought that Plato didn't believe in reincarnation, it would seem logical for him to have explicitly refuted this commonly held assumption.
19. We might suppose that like Christians, Islamic philosophers, who greatly admired Plato and knew his writings, had difficulty with the doctrine of reincarnation.
20. Moving ahead to the Italian Renaissance, when Plato's works arrived in Europe, Bl. Giovanni Dominici (Lucula noctis, 1405) criticized Plato for believing in transmigration (Hankins, 2005, p. 38), whereas Bessarion (fl. 1460) later argued for allegorical interpretation (ibid., p.259). Plato's great champion, of course, was Marsilio Ficino. Hankins (ibid, p. 358) notes that Ficino denies a Platonic belief in reincarnation "several dozen times". Ficino devoted a large section of Chapter 17 of Platonic Theology to the subject (Hankins, 2005).
21. Many modern writers allow that Plato may have meant his references to reincarnation allegorically (e.g., Halliwell, 2007), but more seem to disagree. A surprising number are willing to dismiss the issue with a sweeping, unqualified statement like "Plato had a doctrine of reincarnation." This goes with a general patronizing attitude towards Plato's spirituality that many scholars have taken over the last 100 years or so.
3. Arguments For
1. Argument 1: Plato does describe reincarnation several times in his works.
Reply: Plato intended such passages allegorically or symbolically. (See Reasons Against).
2. Argument 2: Plato adopted the idea of reincarnation from Pythagorean contacts, or Egyptians, or Orphics.
Reply 1: Reincarnation is hardly an original, difficult, metaphysically sophisticated, or esoteric doctrine. The idea occurs in primitive cultures, and even to children.
Reply 2: Plato would not likely have adopted this or any similar doctrine merely on the testimony of Pythogoreans or others. A genuine basis for faith in the doctrine, especially for the epistemologically sophisticated Plato, would be a direct, experiential revelation. Plato gives no evidence of such personal revelation.
3. Argument 3. Later Platonic philosophers and Patristic writers supposed Plato meant literal reincarnation.
Reply 1. This doesn't seem to be the case with the earliest Platonists.
Reply 2. The Neoplatonist commentators wrote as much as 800-900 years after Plato; this, along with their dogmatic, religious attitude towards Plato and tendency to scholasticism, raises questions about the accuracy and objectivity of their testimony.
Reply 3. These same commentators were very inclined to view other Platonic myths and passages as allegory. Their reluctance to do so with Plato's reincarnation statements again suggests lack of objectivity. Why did this never occur to them, when they were so meticulous in other matters to consider all possible views? One might conjecture that in order to compete with the increasingly dominant Christian religion, they needed a systematic doctrine of the afterlife, and this was provided by reincarnation.
Reply 4. Patristic authors may have had unconscious motives to under-value or denigrate pagan philosophy, including Plato. The Apologists wrote in a milieu of attack and defense, in which exaggeration was common. Persecution and apostasy to pagansim were serious concerns. Further, associating Plato with reincarnation helped discredit Platonically-influenced heresies like Gnosticism.
Reply 5. As today, the idea of reincarnation may have appealed to a broad base of relatively unsophisticated people. These may have promoted the idea that Plato believed in reincarnation. Eventually this may have become taken as 'common knowledge'.
Thus a situation may have existed in which several factions, for different reasons, all contributed to a false belief that Plato's references to reincarnation were meant literally.
4. Argument 4. Reincarnation is a necessary implication of the doctrine of reminiscence (anamnesis). That is, Plato believed that people have latent knowledge of the Forms, which can be remembered. This implies they have seen the Forms previous to this lifetime.
Reply 1. Other explanations, which Plato could easily have thought of, are possible: (a) souls could, hypothetically, have knowledge revealed in an instant between being created and being placed in bodies; (b) divine knowledge could radiate from God and illumine the memory, but only be recognizable by a purified or disencumbered soul (cf. St. Augustine); (c) divine knowledge could reside in the Plotinian undescended soul (Higher Self), but not be accessible to the descended soul (i.e., the discursive intellect or 'ego').
4. Arguments Against
1. Argument 1. We have, in general, good reason to suppose Plato's discussions of reincarnation were intended allegorically.
Arg. 1.1. By Plato's time, allegory, myth, and poetry were common, if not routine, means of presenting philosophical ideas. By the sixth century BC, Pherecydes of Syros and Theagenes of Rhegium took Homer allegorically; they were not likely the first.
Further, psychological symbolism in the Odyssey, such as that of the Sirens, Circe, and the Lotus Eaters -- which portray general issues of human nature -- seems fairly transparent. This suggests that Homer himself may have, to a degree, consciously used allegory and symbolism.
Heraclitus, Parmenides, and Empedocles expressed themselves in oracular aphorisms and verses with veiled meanings. So, too, psychological ideas are expressed by the tragedians. Recall that Plato initially tried writing poetry and tragedy (Diogenes Laertius, 3.6, 3.8).
The eschatological myths are very reminiscent of shamanic or oracular visions, both known to Greeks (see Dodds, 1957), and both commonly subjected to symbolic interpretation.
Arg. 1.2. Plato acknowledged the importance of combining different expository styles suited to the different natures of persons or parts of the soul (Phaedr 277B/C) -- thus as much as announcing that he does this himself. Myth is a form of exposition intended for the non-rational parts of the soul -- i.e., not to be taken literally.
Arg. 1.3. For other Platonic myths allegorical meaning is routinely assumed. The well-known androgyne myth of Symposium 189C ff., for example, is scarcely to be taken literally. The cicada myth of Phaed 259, in which singers are supposedly changed into cicadas, is plainly allegorical. Consider then this chain of reasoning:
Arg. 1.5. In Phaedo 79C ff., Socrates contrasts a description of the soul as dragged into a region where it wanders confused with a superior state of communion with the unchanging, calling the latter state Wisdom. Here it is clear he refers different mental states, i.e., the difference between ordinary experience and a higher state of consciousness, using metaphors of physical travel or migration. Only slightly later, in Phaedo 81, Socrates seems to begin restating the same idea, but his comments gradually shift to the mention of physical reincarnation. If nothing else, it is not clear where metaphor ends and doctrine begins. But this also suggests that the entire passage is meant metaphorically.
Arg. 1.6. In Phaedo 114, Socrates admits not being confident of the exact truth of his story and suggests only that 'something of the kind is true.'
2. Argument 2. Plato's reincarnation statements can be plausibly interpreted as expressing existential and psychological truths. The more meaning they carry as existential allegories, the less the need to view them literally.
The Phaedrus chariot myth is readily interpretable as an allegory for contemplative ascent (see Uebersax, 2006a). For comparison, consider Plotinus' famous description of his own contemplative experiences:
~Plotinus, Enneads 4.8.1 (Mackenna & Page, trs).
We would expect that Plato, a contemplative himself, would have had similar experiences. If so, he would be acutely aware of the problem of involuntary descent following such ascent. The chariot myth can be understood as describing the ascent of the soul by purification of the passions, followed by an involuntary descent to graded levels of 'embodiment'. Thus, one may fall from contemplation only slightly, to the mentality of a philosopher or lover of beauty, or further to the mentality of a trader (one who makes simple compromises with passions), or further still to that of a tyrant (one completely dominated by passions; Phaedr. 248D/E).
This interpretation fits well with the context of Phaedrus, and the erotically-related passages interleaved with the myth. An interpretation of literal reincarnation, however, would make little sense given the context.
Similarly, the Myth of Er seems out of context if understood literally. The entire preceding ten books of the Republic explore the nature of the soul and its governance. An existential interpretation of reincarnation, such as that described above, would make much more sense here.
If the chariot and Er myths are existential allegories, other references of Plato to reincarnation, which are outwardly very similar to these, are also probably also allegories.
It seems very evident that Plato's overarching agenda was one of promoting psychological transformation (cf. Romans 12:2), making stronger the case for existential and psychological interpretation of Platonic myths.
Finally, we should note the view of modern psychologists -- for example, Carl Jung, Edward Edinger, Erich Neumann, and Joseph Campbell -- that eschatological myth always carries deep psychological meaning. LÚvi-Strauss' works similarly emphasize that myth expresses the structure of the human mind.
Plato's modus operandi
3. Argument 3. The suggestion that Plato had, taught, and wrote down a literal doctrine of reincarnation is contrary to his modus operandi.
In Phaedrus 275C-278B Plato reveals his attitude about the writing of important matters. His main points are these:
Similarly the Seventh Letter (341C/E) and Second Letter (314) claim that serious doctrines could not and should not be written. Important truths come as sudden insights after prolonged labor. And even could they be written, to do so would invite mistaken contempt by some and empty pride in others.
Nowhere does Plato suggest that reincarnation is something his readers may, though prolonged effort, remember. Even if it could be remembered, such knowledge, which involves complex concepts, would be of a different epistemological category than the remembering of Forms, which is something more like perception.
In addition, to promote a doctrine of reincarnation would be contrary to the principle of Socratic ignorance. Diogenes Laertius asserts, "About doubtful matters Plato suspended his judgment" (Lives, 3.23).
Inconsistencies, Absurdities, and Difficulties4. Argument 4. Plato's passages related to reincarnation contain many odd, implausible, and inconsistent details, implying they were not meant literally. Plato also neglects to consider technical difficulties of the theory.
a. Why would Orpheus choose to become a swan or Agamemnon an eagle (Rep 10.620)? This requires a radical suspension of disbelief, a property of fiction. Any reader knows that, realistically, an animal's life is characterized by hunger, cold, filth and disease, and devouring or being devoured. Swans and eagles may have good moments, but nobody given the choice would really elect to become one for more than an hour or day.
b. In Phaedo 82A/B we are told that those who practice social and civic virtues may become not only men again, which is at least logical, but also bees, ants, and wasps. This makes no sense at all -- as though to become a social insect would be a reward. We may here perhaps recall Plato's words in Phaedrus 277E about playful writing.
c. When the Gorgias myth begins, in order to improve judgements, the judged must have their clothes removed. Then it is said that the judge must also be naked (523E) -- but added is this: "that is to say, dead -- he [the judge] with his naked soul shall pierce into the other naked souls." This says plainly that clothing and nakedness are meant allegorically. Should we then not suppose that the further details of the story are also allegorical?
d. In the same myth, it is said (524A) that when the judges Rhadamanthus or Aeacus are uncertain about a case, the third judge, Minos, will decide. What if Minos himself is uncertain or wrong? The potential for incorrect judgments is an unresolved problem. (And are Rhadamanthus, Aeacus, and Minos, once men themselves, immune to reincarnation?)
e. In the Phaedo myth, what is the significance of the various rivers and other specific details of the underworld (Phaed 112 ff.)? Taken literally they seem unlikely, but perhaps they have psychological significance (Cf. Porphyry, Cave of the Nymphs).
f. The descriptions of Er are implausibly detailed. Are parts of the spindle of Necessity actually made of steel (Rep 10.616)? Would there be physical steel in the spiritual realm?
g. The Er myth implies double punishment, first in the underworld and then in an unpropitious new incarnation. If nothing else, this is inefficient: would not underworld punishments alone purge the soul?
h. In the same myth, the use of lots to decide who has first choice of available bodies (Rep 10.617E ff.) introduces an element of chance that seems unfair. Of two equally good souls, one may have to choose a less virtuous next life, thereby incurring greater subsequent punishment after that life.
i. Again in the Er myth, how is it that Er happened to stumble upon the scene at the precise time that so many famous people were choosing their next lives?
j. More generally, there are obvious technical difficulties with reincarnation that Plato never addresses. For example, without preservation of memory does the same soul reincarnate? Is ones identity really preserved? Would punishment be fair unless it is applied to the same 'person' who erred previously?
k. How could merit or demerit be incurred should a rational soul migrate to the body of an irrational animal? How could such a soul earn the right to a new human body?
l. Aristotle's objection to reincarnation -- that soul and body are uniquely fitted -- deserves serious consideration.
m. In Phaed. 40c Plato says only that after death the soul may migrate to 'another place' but
doesn't mention reincarnation. In Seventh Letter 335A-C the writer mentions judgment and an
unhappy underworld journey for the unjust, but not reincarnation. Crito 54 alludes to what seems
like the standard Greek beliefs about the abode of the dead, Hades.
Plato is likely enough to have himself seen such complications, and also to have anticipated the qualms
But his writings, otherwise remarkable for insight and logical complexity, do not mention or address
Overall, however, the arguments appear more favorable to the view that Plato did not teach
reincarnation, and that his statements on the subject are allegorical. The strongest arguments are
Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, (various tr.).
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,
Brisson, Luc (Catherine Tihanyi, tr.)
How Philosophers Saved Myth: Allegorical Interpretation and Classical Mythology.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Brisson, Luc (Gerard Naddaf, tr).
Plato the Myth Maker.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949.
Dodds, E. R.
The Greeks and the Irrational.
Berkeley: University of California Press 1951/1973.
Edinger, Edward F.
Eternal Drama: The Inner Meaning of Greek Mythology.
Boston: Shambhala, 2001.
Edinger, Edward F.
Archetype of the Apocalypse.
Chicago: Open Court, 1999.
"Transmigration in Plato".
The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Jan., 1957), pp. 1-20
Ficino, Marsilio. Platonic Theology. Vol. 6.
Michael J. B. Allen (tr.) and James Hankins (ed).
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006.
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Leiden: Brill, 1990.
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Florence, Istituto Nazionale di Studi sul Rinascimento, 15 December 2005.
"The life-and-death journey of the soul: interpreting the myth of Er".
The Cambridge Companion to Plato's Republic (G. R. F. Ferrari, ed.), pp. 445-473.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
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Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954.
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Stewart, J. A.
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Retr. Dec. 29, 2007
Plato is likely enough to have himself seen such complications, and also to have anticipated the qualms of readers. But his writings, otherwise remarkable for insight and logical complexity, do not mention or address such issues.
Overall, however, the arguments appear more favorable to the view that Plato did not teach reincarnation, and that his statements on the subject are allegorical. The strongest arguments are these:
Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, (various tr.). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1921-1925.
Brisson, Luc (Catherine Tihanyi, tr.) How Philosophers Saved Myth: Allegorical Interpretation and Classical Mythology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Brisson, Luc (Gerard Naddaf, tr). Plato the Myth Maker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949.
Dodds, E. R. The Greeks and the Irrational. Berkeley: University of California Press 1951/1973.
Edinger, Edward F. Eternal Drama: The Inner Meaning of Greek Mythology. Boston: Shambhala, 2001.
Edinger, Edward F. Archetype of the Apocalypse. Chicago: Open Court, 1999.
Ehnmark, Erland "Transmigration in Plato". The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Jan., 1957), pp. 1-20
Ficino, Marsilio. Platonic Theology. Vol. 6. Michael J. B. Allen (tr.) and James Hankins (ed). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006.
Firth, Florence M. (ed.) The Golden Verses of Pythagoras and other Pythagorean Fragments. 1904
Frutiger, Perceval. Les Mythes de Platon. Paris: Alcan, 1930.
Hankins, Jame Plato in the Italian Renaissance Leiden: Brill, 1990.
Hankins, James "Ficino On Reminiscentia And The Transmigration Of Souls". Florence, Istituto Nazionale di Studi sul Rinascimento, 15 December 2005.
Halliwell, Stephen "The life-and-death journey of the soul: interpreting the myth of Er". Ch.16 of The Cambridge Companion to Plato's Republic (G. R. F. Ferrari, ed.), pp. 445-473. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Neumann, Erich. The Origins and History of Consciousness. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954.
Sorabji, Richard. The Philosophy of the Commentators 200-600 AD, A Sourcebook Vol. 1: Psychology, Duckworth, 2004.
Stewart, J. A. The Myths Of Plato. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1905.
Tate, J. "On the History of Allegorism". Classical Quarterly 28 (1934): 105-114.
Uebersax, John S. "Commentary on the Phaedrus Chariot Myth", 2006a. http://john-uebersax.com/plato/plato3.htm#psych Retr. Dec. 29, 2007.
Uebersax, John S. "Early Christianity and Reincarnation: Modern Misrepresentation of Quotes by Origen", 2006b. http://john-uebersax.com/plato/origen1.htm Retr. Dec. 29, 2007