Open main menu

Page:Catholic Encyclopedia, volume 10.djvu/276

This page needs to be proofread.


METEMPSYCHOSIS


230


METEMPSYCHOSIS


previous life, its total value, sti-ipppii of its former iniliviiluation, wliieh is regarded as aceideutal. Ag the koriiiii is grt'ater or less, so will the next transmi- gration he a promotion or a degradation. At. times the degradation may l)e so extreme that karma is cmliodii'd ill an inanimate form, as in the case of (iua- tama's iliseiple wlio, for negligence in his master's service, was reduced after death to the form of a broomstick.

Later Jewish Teaching. — The notion of soul-wander- ing is familiar to the .Jewish Rnhbins. They distin- guish two kinds of transmigrations, (1) CUhjiil Nexhu- mcth. in which the soul was tied down to a life-tenancy of a single body: (2) Ibbur, in which souls nuiy inhabit botlies by temporary po.ssession without passing through birth and death. Josephus tells us that trans- migration was a doctrine of the Pharisees, who taught that the right(-ous should be allowed to return to life, while the wicked were to be doomed to eternal inipris- omnent. It was their gloomy conception of Shcot, like the gloomy Greek conception of Hades, that forced them to this shift for a compensation to virtue. On the other hand some of the Talmudists invoke endless transmigration as a penalty for crime. The descrip- tions of the soul's journeys over land and sea are elaborated with a wealth of imagination, frequently verging on the grotescjue. The retributive purpose was rigorously maintained. " If a man hath com- mitted one sin more than his good works, he is con- demned to transformation into some shape of lower life." Not only so, l)ut if his guilt had been extreme, he might be doomed to an inanimate existence. The following is a sample of what awaits the "guiltiest of the guilty". "The dark tormentors rush after them with goads and whips of fire; their chase is ceaseless; they hunt them from the plain to the mountain, from the mountain to the river, from the river to the ocean, from the ocean round the circle of the earth. Thus the tormented fly in terror, and the tormentors follow in vengeance until the time decreed is done. Then the doomed sink into dust and ashes. Another beginning of existence, the commencement of a second trial, awaits them. They become clay, they take the nature of the stone and the mineral; the}' are water, fire, air; they roll in the thunder; they float in the cloud; they rush in the whirlwind. They change again; they enter into the shapes of the vegetable tribes; they live in the shrub, the flower, the tree. Ages on ages pass. An- other change comes. They enter into the shape of the beast, the bird, the fish, the in.sect. . . . Then at last they are sutTered to enter into the rank of human be- ings once more." After stiU further probations in various grades of human life, the soul will at length come to inhabit a child of Israel. If in this state it should fall .again, it is lost eternally.

How far these and such like descriptions were really believed, how far they were conscious fable, is difficult to determine. That there was a fairly widespread be- lief in the doctrine of pre-existence in some form, seems likely enough.

ChriMian Ages. — St. Jerome tells us that metemp- sychosis was a secret doctrine of certain sectaries in his day, but it was too evidently opposed to the Catholic doctrine of Redemption ever to ol)tain a settled foot- ing. It was held, however, in a Platonic form by the Gnostics, and was so taught by Origen in his great work, lUpl ipx^". Bodily existence, according to Origen, is a penal and unnatural condition, a punish- ment for sin conunitted in a previous state of bliss, the grossne-ss of the sin being the measure of the fall. Another efl'ect of that sin is inequality; all were created equal. He speaks only of ratioyial creatures, viz., men and demons, the two classes of the fallen. He does not seem to have considered it necessary to extend his theory to include lower forms of life. Pun- ishment for sin done in the body is not vindictive or eternal, but temporal and remedial. Indeed, Origen's


theory excludes both eternal punishment and eternal bliss;" for the soul which has been restored at last to union with God will again infallibly decline from its high state through satiety of the good, and be again relegated to inatciial existence; and so on through endless cycles of a|)ostasy, banishment, and return (see Okigen). The Manidueans (q. v.) combine metemp- sychosis with belief in eternal punishment. After death, the sinner is thrust into the place of punish- ment till jiartially cleansed. He is then reclaimed to the light ami given another trial in this world. If after ten such experiments he is still unfit for blisa he is contlenmed forever. The Manicha>an system of metempsjchosis was extremely consistent and thorough-going; St. Augustine in his "De Moribus Manicha>orum" ridicules the absurd observances to which it gave rise. For traces of the doctrine in the Miildle Ages see articles on the Albigensians and the Cathari. The.se sects inherited many of the cardinal doctrines of Manicha;anism, and may be considered, in fact, as Xeo-Manichaeans.

Advocates of metempsychosis have not been want- ing in modern times, but there is none who speaks with much conviction. The greatest name is Lessing, and his critical mind seems to have been chiefly attracted to the doctrine by its illustrious history, the neglect into which it had fallen, and the inconclusiveness of the arguments used against it. It was also maintained by Fourier in France and Soame Jenyns in England. Leibnitz and others have maintained that all souls were created from the beginning of the world; but this does not involve migrations.

Savage Races. — It remains to touch very briefly on the abundant data furnished by modern anthropo- logical research. Belief in transmigration has been found, as stated above, in every part of the globe and at every stage of culture. It must have been almost universal at one time an;ong the tribes of North Amer- ica, and it has been found also in Mexico, Brazil, and other parts of the American continent; likewise among the aborigines of Australia and New- Zealand, in the Sandwich Islands and many parts of Africa. It often takes the form of a belief in the return of long-departed ancestors, and thus provides a simple explanation of the strange facts of heredity. On the birth of a child the parents eagerly examine it for traces of its iden- tity, which, when discovered, will determine the name of the child and its place in their alTections. Some- times the mother is informed beforehand in a dream which ancestor of the house is about to be born of her. The belief in the soul as an independent reality is conunon among savage races. The fleparted soul was thought to hover round the place of burial at least for a time after death. Hence, e. g., among the Algon- quins, if a speedy return was desired, as in the case of little children, the body was buried by the wayside that it might find a mother in some of the passers-by. A curious freak of superstition is the belief of many of the dark races, e. g., in Australia, that their fair- skinned brethren from Europe are re-incarnations of people of their own race. Among the uneducated classes of India, as Sir A. Lyall tells us, the notion that witches and sorcerers, living or dead, have the power of possessing the bodies of animals still prevails. A similar idea prompted the Sandwich Islanders to throw the bodies of their dead to the sharks in the hope of thus rendering them less hostile to mankind.

In the face of a belief at first sight so far-fetched and yet at the same time so widely diffused, we are led to anticipate some great general causes which have worked together to produce it. A few such causes may be mentioned: (1) The practically universal convic- tion that the soul is a real entity distinct from the body and that it survives death; (2) connected with this, there is the imperative moral demand for an ecjuitable future retribution of rewards and punish- ments in accordance with good or ill conduct here.