Aristotle and the Pythagorean Myths of Metempsychosis

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  • 1 Universidade de Brasília, Brazil

This paper aims to analyze the tradition of the theory of the immortality of the soul and its metempsychosis, with the intention, on the one hand, of determining whether it can be traced back to the practice and doctrine of proto-Pythagoreanism, and on the other hand, of understanding to what extent it has contributed to the definition of the category of Pythagoreanism throughout history. The oldest testimonies attributing that doctrine to Pythagoras suggest two different hermeneutic routes. First, although old, the theory of the immortality of the soul, apocalyptic by its very nature, does not imply the existence of a dogmatic system of beliefs. That is to say that throughout the various strata of the Pythagorean tradition, the concept of this immortality significantly differed. Second, as a result of the first route, it turned out to be necessary to verify how the reception of the theory by later sources contributed to the construction, through it, of the category of Pythagoreanism. The testimonies of Xenophanes, Heraclitus, Ion and Empedocles suggest that metempsychosis is quite an old theory, corresponding to the proto-Pythagorean stratum. One finds in the most explicit testimony of the existence of a proto-Pythagorean theory of metempsychosis: the use of the term mýthoi to refer to the Pythagorean doctrines of the soul suggests that considered them sufficiently old, and therefore in all probability proto-Pythagorean. The Aristotelian lexicon ultimately will reveal proto-Pythagoreanism as the source of the doctrines of the immortality of the soul and its transmigration.

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  • 3

    Burkert 1972: 122–123, despite resistance from Wehrli, who does not accept chapter 19 of Porphyry in his volume devoted to Dicearchus (Wehrli 1944), supports this traditional attribution, along with Rohde 1871: 566, Burnet 1908: 92, Lévy 1926: 50, and Mondolfo and Zeller 1938: 314. He adds clearly convincing arguments, grounded in the passage’s skeptical tone, which certainly cannot be attributed to Porphyry, a believer: it would more plausibly be a creation of Dicearchus, Aristotle’s skeptical student, who in other fragments reveals the same skepticism and irony: he stated, for example, that the soul is simply a word (fr. 7 Wehrli) and that Pythagoras was, in the past, a beautiful courtesan (fr. 36 Wehrli). For a new edition of Dicearchus’ texts see Mirhady 2001.

  • 5

    Casadio 1991: 122–123, orig.: "si è formato a partire dalo verbo empsychóō, ‘animare’ (che a sua volta è collegato, attraverso émpsychos and psyché̅ al verbo psýcho, ‘soffiare’), cui è stato aggiunto il preverbio meta (lat. trans) denotante non solo il cambiamento ma anche la successione o ripetizione e il suffissale -sis denotante l’azione astratta". See for the ancient, especially Olympiodorus (In Phaed: 135 Westerink). For the contemporary Kerényi 1950: 24 and Von Fritz 1957: 89 n1.

  • 7

    Cherniss 1935: xii. See also Cherniss 1935: 349–50, 356–357. Burnet 1908: 56 had already begun to distrust Aristotle’s editorial choices, speaking of this habit of his of "putting things in his own way, regardless of historical considerations".

  • 12

    Zeller and Mondolfo 1938: 562, orig.: "La teoria dell’anima che entra nel neonato dall’atmosfera circostante con il primo respiro, a caso e come càpiti (katá toûs Pythagorikoûs mýthous, dice Aristotele nel luogo sopra citato) viene probabilmente a mostrare in pieno il suo difetto nella sua connessione con la dottrina della trasmigrazione; dove la reincarnazione deve pur rappresentare (com’è detto nel mito di Er) una conseguenza della vita anteriore, ed esige quindi una corrispondenza fra il temperamento (krâsis) dell’anima e quello del corpo in cui entra".

  • 14

    Rathmann 1933: 17ff. agrees with Zeller as much as Maddalena 1954: 340 and Casertano 1987: 19f.

  • 18

     See in this sense Alesse 2000: 408.

  • 20

     See Delatte 1992: 175 for the quotes of this doctrine within ancient literature.

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