Classical Greek Reincarnation and Karma

In another post I described the animistic reincarnation beliefs characteristic of tribal societies around the world and some of the ways they differ from other reincarnation beliefs. The feature that received the most attention in comments was the absence of juridical karma in animism. Animism is not alone in not including karma, though, and in this post I want to describe another belief system in which juridical karma doesn’t appear: the ancient Greek and Roman.

It is sometimes assumed that Greek reincarnation beliefs were borrowed from the Indian, but the absence of juridical karma in their system makes me doubt this. There are other differences from Hindu (and Buddhist) ideas also. Although reincarnation is associated with Greeks before Pythagoras, it was a major teaching of the school he founded. Pythagoras believed he remembered his last life as a Trojan warrior and claimed to have recognized his shield when he saw it in a temple, the earliest examples of the reincarnation signs we study today known from Western cultural sources. Pythagoras’s follower Empedocles believed that he had previously been had been a boy and a girl, a laurel bush, a bird, and a fish, but that as a philosopher, he was no longer subject to the reincarnation cycle, and could return to earth in human form if he wished.

These ideas later influenced Plato, who took up reincarnation in the middle of his career. Plato never systematically stated a theory of reincarnation, but his characters in several dialogues talk about it. In the Phaedrus, one says that souls that are close to God have wings, but if they lose their wings, they fall into a reincarnation cycle on earth. It takes 10,000 years for them to regain their wings, ten lives with 1,000 years between them, during which time they do penance for their earthly sins. This idea that sins are worked off during the period between lives appears in Plato’s later dialogues as well, as in the famous Myth of Er in The Republic, where we are told that after their penances were done, souls are allowed to select their next lives from an array of possibilities presented to them.

The idea that penance is paid in the afterlife (or interlife) may be the reason why the Greeks never adopted the idea of juridical karma, although they would have been acquainted with Indian ideas at least from the point that Alexander the Great reached India and set up a colony there in the 300s BCE, effectively opening a branch of the Silk Road from India to the Mediterranean. The later Neoplatonists, like Plotinus, held to similar views, even as late as the 300s CE. Thus, although we tend to associate reincarnation with juridical karma today, there is no logical necessity of this connection, and many people have believed in reincarnation without believing in this type of karma.

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