Reincarnation (1)

July 20, 2021
Rudolf Steiner

A Gallup Institute poll in 1982 revealed an impressive phenomenon in Western thought. One in four Europeans said they subscribed to the theory of reincarnation. The phenomenon had every chance of increasing since, in the same year, 28% of Britons supported this doctrine, compared to only 18% ten years earlier.

These numbers have only gotten worse. They show that this belief is not confined to the banks of the Ganges, but that it exerts a real seductive force on Western mentalities. The proliferation of books, articles, television shows, and films, which are used to imprint it in the mind, invite us to examine it carefully.

General Presentation

Reincarnation, or metempsychosis, is a philosophical doctrine which teaches the transmigration of the soul, considering it sufficiently independent of the body not to be exclusively linked to it.

After death, it unites with another body to start another life. The soul is like a man who must move regularly. On a fixed date, he leaves one house in order to go and live in another.

Metempsychosis is distinguished from reincarnation in that it admits the migration of souls into animals and plants, while the latter restricts it to mankind. A quick historical overview will help us better understand these doctrines.

The animist tribes of Africa have retained the religion of very ancient peoples. At death, the soul misses its body, so it desires to unite either with objects to which it was attached, or with animals or even with human beings. These things or animals become the protectors of the family of descendants. Here, metempsychosis is closer to superstition than to religion.

Although it holds only a secondary place, this belief is found in a somewhat more elaborate form in Egypt at the time of the pyramids. For the Egyptians, the soul, after death, joins with the countless stars (the most ancient version) or merges into the universal soul that inhabits the sun (a later pantheist version). Sometimes, however, the soul of a sinner may be forced to enter the body of a pig to lead a miserable life on earth.

This doctrine first appeared in Greece in the 6th century BC. Unknown until then, it immediately took up an elaborate form through the myth of Orpheus.

Composed of an evil element and a divine element, man must free himself from the evil principle that would like to rule him, to make the divine force triumph. He does this through successive purifications, repeated over a long series of earthly existences, until he hears himself say this liberating phrase: “Blessed and fortunate, you will be a god and no longer mortal.”

Pythagoras endorsed this theory. Even better, he remembered all his past lives starting with Aïthalides, son of Hermes.

Plato is more cautious in his writings: “In these matters certain knowledge is either impossible or very hard to come by in this life.” (Phédon, 85 cd.) But his conception of metempsychosis is no less precise.

Upon death, the soul travels to the abode of the underworld for a time of trial, after which it unites itself with beings who resemble it. If the soul is found pure at the time of death, that is, freed from all defilements of the body, there is nevertheless a test of three thousand years imposed upon him, during which he will have to endure three other earthly lives in the same innocence.

Only then will it be united forever with a divine spirit, immortal and full of wisdom. In contrast, the soul of tyrants and the incorrigibles will live in eternal misfortune, united with corrupt beings who resemble them. As for those whose malice is not invincible, they can reincarnate to purify themselves and advance towards wisdom. However, a thousand years of trial separate two successive incarnations.

Aristotle, on the other hand, views with disdain what he calls the “Pythagorean fables.” He refuses them for very serious philosophical reasons which we need to examine.

The soul is not a stranger in the body. It constitutes with the body a substantial whole, a single concrete reality. A determined soul gives being to and perfects a determined body: “Not every soul can be clothed upon with just any body.”

At the beginning of the 2nd century BC, metempsychosis passed from Greece to Rome through the poet Quintus Ennius (239-169 BC). It seems to receive a fairly good audience there, since Horace, Ovid, and Virgil all mention it.

But it is in India and the Far East that the theory of reincarnation finds its preferred land and enjoys tremendous success. Let us note first of all that the Vedic books, brought by the Aryans in the north of the country (2,000 BC), do not provide any trace of metempsychosis. This only appears with the Upanishads (700 BC).

This morality is underpinned by a first principle: the happiness of souls consists of fusion with the universal soul of the whole. The good act is one that promotes the annihilation of the personality, the appetites, and one’s own activity. And, since the source of all evil is thirst for existence, the evil act is the one that nourishes it.

As long as the sum of bad deeds is not counter balanced by the sum of good deeds, the soul will have to be reborn to earthly life. It will be freed from this fatality when it extinguishes all desire to exist, when it reaches absolute inaction, complete emptiness. This then is absorption into the universal soul (brahma) or nirvana.

Buddhism in China took up the same thought by radicalizing it. Like its predecessor, it pursues the destruction of the personality, but seems to ignore the Supreme Soul and only cares about nirvana itself. It therefore accentuates Hindu nihilism. Very austere ascetic methods are established to achieve this nothingness and allow the remembrance of past lives.

In the East as in the West, metempsychosis appeared as a phenomenon in continuous expansion. Nothing seemed to be able to hinder its progress. Nothing except Christianity.

Indeed, only the formidable growth of the Church in the first two centuries of our era could put a stop to this doctrine. Wherever the gospel has been preached, it is forgotten or must be hidden.

In the West, we see it taking refuge in the Jewish kabbalah of the 2nd century. It teaches that every soul possesses within itself the principle of its own perfection which must lead it to the divine substance where it will enter after one or more earthly lives.

The Gnostics take up the same dynamic conception of reincarnation. This is no longer just a punishment for the faults of past lives, but a step in the soul's ascent to divinity through the implementation of its own interior dynamism.

Conveyed by the kabbalah and gnosis, this thought was taken up in the 16th century by the mathematician Jérôme Cardan (1501-1576) and the philosopher Giordano Bruno (1548-1600).

The 19th century provided several notable followers, but it was especially with theosophy and anthroposophy in the 20th century that the movement really took off.

Such is, for example, the teaching of Rudolf Steiner, founder of anthroposophy. He writes: “when we come to spiritual vision and escape from the illusion of the ordinary ego, then we come to know how the ego has already passed through the spiritual world between death and a new birth; we learn how it comported itself, in conformity with its former earth-life, in this world endowed with moral impulses; and we learn that it is all carried into this earth-life as an inner determination of destiny. We see this expressed in the tendencies of a person, or in the special coloring of the desire which drives a man to one thing or another in the earth-life.” [1]

“But when I look at a plant in this way, it can become clear to me that there is in it a lasting living impulse that will reappear in a new plant when the present plant has long since crumbled to dust.”[2]

In the sixties, with the fascination with India, this expansion took on the appearance of a vast contagion. We were then witnessing a veritable campaign orchestrated using all means of communications. The books were multiplying, the most disturbing testimonies were played on the radio and on the screen.

Soon the “New Age” made it a favorite theme and gave it the effective support of his organization and finances. Propaganda that has led to the tremendous success we see today.

Let us conclude this overview of centuries and civilizations with a general remark. Canon Vernette correctly observes that the theory of reincarnation appears in various religions not at their birth or at their golden age, but rather at their decline. It betrays a certain wear and tear; it marks the end of an era.

“The belief in reincarnation seems to emerge at the time of great crises of meaning: when one seeks a new 'religious' answer to metaphysical questions about the origin and the end of man, about evil and suffering.”[3] Official religion wears off and becomes powerless to respond to human concerns. The latter then takes refuge in metempsychosis.

Thanks to it, first of all, our dead never leave us, but continue to live among us. It also comes to console us for our failures and our inability to do good, letting us believe that another life will make us better. Nothing is definitely over.

Suffering itself takes on new meaning. It is no longer a revolting scandal to non-Christians, but the just punishment for a past life. Finally this doctrine gives us the serenity to endure the evils of the present time. Cataclysms and death are no more than a necessary passage to a new, happier existence. The “earthly paradise” is still possible.

Thus, we better understand the force of seduction that this doctrine exerted on minds at the end of the 20th century. But does metempsychosis fulfill its promises? Does it have any chance of leading man to bliss? Is it even credible? Is it true?

To answer, we must examine this doctrine from a double point of view: that of faith and that of natural reason.

Fr. Jean-Dominique, OP


[1] “What was the Purpose of the Goetheanum. Purpose of the Goetheanum and Anthroposophy,” A single lecture given by Rudolf Steiner at Basel on April 9th 1923.

[2] Rudolf Steiner, The Stages of Higher Knowledge, Anthroposophic Press, Inc., 1967. pp. 14-15.

[3] Jean Vernette, Le Nouvel Age, Édition Téqui, Paris, 1990, p. 120.