v 6.20.00
20 Mar 2021
updated 20 Mar 2021

The Soul Truth

Another fundamental tenet of the Pythagoreans (they had quite a few, as you'd expect) was that of metempsychosis, probably a result of Pythagoras' own beliefs acquired during his youthful travels in Egypt and India.

This doctrine held that upon the death of any living creature, its soul would be (in some appropriate way) reanimated in some other living being, nascent but not necessarily human, and so ad infinitum, being thereby transitively immortal (assuming, of course, that there would always be a new host available, rather like a virus).

In English usage, I'd say that 'transmigration' implies full-on metempsychosis, whereas 'reincarnation' has an implication of just involving humans – especially in contexts denying that animals possess souls. But I may be inconsistent in what follows.



Atman means 'eternal self'. The atman refers to the real self beyond ego or false self. It is often referred to as 'spirit' or 'soul' and indicates our true self or essence which underlies our existence.

There are many interesting perspectives on the self in Hinduism ranging from the self as eternal servant of God to the self as being identified with God. The understanding of the self as eternal supports the idea of reincarnation in that the same eternal being can inhabit temporary bodies.

The idea of atman entails the idea of the self as a spiritual rather than material being and thus there is a strong dimension of Hinduism which emphasises detachment from the material world and promotes practices such as asceticism. Thus it could be said that in this world, a spiritual being, the atman, has a human experience rather than a human being having a spiritual experience.

Of course, like the stock-market, the soul could move up or down the Ladder of Being at each new rung, and for that reason the Pythagoreans were strictly vegetarian, lest they inadvertently consumed a recently transmigrated colleague – though indeed he might have moved on to become a Jerusalem artichoke.

From the evolutionary point of view, upwards, that is, one is reminded of the wonderful poem by Langdon Smith, of twin souls who move upwards together through the geological ages. And individually downwards, perhaps, of Mehitabel (an alley-cat), a reincarnation of Queen Cleopatra, and her chronicler Archy (a cockroach), a reincarnation of a vers libre poet, as immortally narrated by Don Marquis.

But what, we may justifiably enquire, was this 'soul', and in what respect could it be transferred? If emanating from a conscious creature such as ourselves, it could in principle comprise all the qualities itemised in the leading paragraph of the Wikipedia article quoted below, but not (pace Peter Medawar) from a moribund radish, for example.

At the very least, the sense of 'me-ness', as discussed above, is vital if the concept is to have any relevance whatsoever. And one might also think that memory of our past life should be part of the deal, if the concept is to be personally meaningful. 'Déjà vu' experiences are often cited as examples of this, but are nowadays prosaically dismissed as asynchronicities of our left and right brains.


The soul, in many religious, philosophical, and mythological traditions, is the incorporeal essence of a living being. Soul or psyche (Ancient Greek: ψυχή~psykhḗ, of ψύχειν~psýkhein, "to breathe") comprises the mental abilities of a living being: reason, character, feeling, consciousness, memory, perception, thinking, etc. Depending on the philosophical system, a soul can either be mortal or immortal. Greek philosophers, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, understood that the soul ... must have a logical faculty, the exercise of which was the most divine of human actions. ...

In Judeo-Christianity, only human beings have immortal souls (although immortality is disputed within Judaism and the concept of immortality may have been influenced by Plato). For example, the Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas attributed "soul" (anima) to all organisms but argued that only human souls are immortal.

Other religions (most notably Hinduism and Jainism) hold that all living things from the smallest bacterium to the largest of mammals are the souls themselves (atman) and have their physical representative (the body) in the world. The actual self is the soul, while the body is only a mechanism to experience the karma of that life.

Thus if we see a tiger then there is a self-conscious identity residing in it (the soul), and a physical representative (the whole body of the tiger, which is observable) in the world. Some teach that even non-biological entities (such as rivers and mountains) possess souls. This belief is called animism.

But on the other hand, our waking recollection of night-time dreams as adults are only fleeting, try as we might to recall them for more than a few seconds. However, as Wordsworth so vividly put it, perhaps we as children come 'trailing clouds of glory', recalling experiences from some earlier phase of existence. I can certainly remember a seeming few ...

John Masefield, in my view the most pulse-quickeningly emotive poet of the twentieth century (just try Spanish Waters) put the matter best.

The theological importance of the human soul is tied-in with the (generally-speaking) Abrahamic tradition of its immortality, our personal survival after death, and the anticipation of renewing contact with those that have predeceased us. Wishful thinking? Of course, but the universe is what it is and such things may come to pass, if the New Testament can trusted. On the whole, I do very much hope it can be.

I also feel fidgety about the non-human levels of creation – dogs and cats in particular – as Mark Twain said, he wouldn't want a heaven that didn't allow dogs. Although there would be scant chance of rejoining all our various beloved family companions, such as Sally our Parson Russell terrier in particular, or Ebony our wonderful black cat, I'd like to think that somebody else would benefit equally.

Oh, I almost forgot! Please click here to see an account of one of the most universally admired and beloved Americans of all time, and his very affirmative view on his metempsychotic possibilies!

Whether or not transmigration is anything more than a metaphysical conceit, it ultimately has to terminate at the 'end of all things', when the universal clockwork finally stops. And at this point, even if not earlier, the concept of heaven (whatever that may be) has to be faced.

Conventional Christianity doesn't accept the idea of reincarnation, let alone metempsychosis, but is pretty evasive as to whether the soul goes to heaven at the time of death, or has to hang around until the Day of Judgment at which time it has a reasonable chance of promotion. At the Crucifixion, Christ is said to have promised the repentant thief, "Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise", which seems to suggest the fast-track possibility. No mention is made of the prospect faced by the unrepentant thief, however; does this imply that his soul is immediately destined for Somewhere Else?

Interestingly, some theologists have drawn a distinction between paradise and heaven, whereby the souls of the just are accommodated in paradise until the Dies Irae (at which time they would presumably be reassessed and ushered upwards). But where would the souls of the unjust be secured meanwhile? And who would be responsible for this pre-assessment process?

I don't think the Old Testament has much to say about heaven and hell, but the New Testament certainly does, not so much in the Four Gospels as in the subsequent Books, which are strongly influenced by ideas originating from Greek mythology and philosophy.

In Graeco-Roman mythology, Cronus (= Saturn, god of time) is eventually overthrown by his three sons: Zeus (= Jupiter, who becomes god of earth and sky), Poseidon (= Neptune, who becomes god of the sea) and Hades (= Pluto, or Dis, who becomes god of the eponymous Underworld)

Zeus and a host of other lesser gods and goddesses dwell atop Mount Olympus, but this is not to be identified with heaven, more closely resembling an episode of East Enders. But Hades is strictly reserved for deceased humans however good or bad. There are in fact five regions or sub-regions of Hades, Tartarus being the place reserved for the wicked to receive appropriate punishment, closely resembling the Christian concept of Hell. Of the other regions, Asphodel was reserved for the ordinary or undistinguished, and Elysium for heroes and the especially virtuous or accomplished, and in combination these two destinations do somewhat correspond to the Christian concept of Heaven – but with no spiritual connotation.

Modern Anglicanism and Protestantism seem largely to have dropped the ideas of heaven and hell, leaving the soul with nowhere to go. Rather like modern Christianity itself, in fact, apart from the Evangelicals who make up in fervour what they lack in subtlety.

But Roman Catholicism defines several regions, or dimensions, of Hell not entirely dissimilar to the categories in Greek mythology as outlined above. The major difference, however, is the concept of Original Sin that arrived in the first chapter of Genesis. If one accepts the theory of evolution, it's not surprising that humans are all born with a chromosomal echo of our savage non-humane (sic) ancestry, and I don't feel that it has to be elevated to a theological principle.

There are also Venial Sin and Mortal Sin, that you commit knowingly.

Rather like the song You'll Never Get to Heaven that starts

Oh you'll never get to Heaven
In an old Ford car
'Cos an old Ford car won't get that far

the basic idea is that only by baptism as an infant and later adolescent confirmation of your belief in (the teachings of) Jesus of Nazareth, and the various doctrines subsequently invented by Catholic theologians, will you (ie your soul) have even the minutest chance of getting into Heaven. The alternative of course is Hell, and there are four options as very briskly itemised below – please consult Wikipedia for much more thorough accounts,

The Hell of the Damned (aka the Infernum): reserved for mortal sinners
Purgatory: reserved for venial sinners, or the unbaptised
Limbo of the Fathers et al: reserved for those who died unaware of the Gospel
Limbo of the Infants: reserved for children who die before baptism

Oddly enough, Jesus of Nazareth wasn't remotely bothered by venial sin – saying, as we all know, when the locals were all set to stone to death a woman of weak morals, "Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone at her." At which point everybody suddenly remembered something more important to do.

And I cannot believe that he would have cared a flying fig for the idea of Limbo.

In satirical vein, Dante Alighieri's (Divine) Comedy, comprising three sections (Hell, Purgatory and Heaven), presents Hell as having nine concentric circles, some comprising several rings, all funnelling downwards in a cone, towards the ninth and lowest circle, in the fourth and lowest ring of which Lucifer / Satan himself is perpetually encased in ice.

From first to worst, so to speak, the circles imprison the souls of

  1. Virtuous pagans (as per Limbo)
  2. Those guilty of lust
  3. Ditto gluttony
  4. Ditto avarice
  5. Ditto anger
  6. Ditto heresy
  7. Ditto violence
  8. Ditto fraud
  9. Ditto treachery (including Lucifer)

There is an old story that puritanical Scottish preachers used to tell their congregations about sinners cast into the fires of hell.

The condemned individuals call out to the Almighty for mercy, who replies "Did I not tell ye to abandon yeer lives of drinking, fornicating and singing?"

"Yes, Lord," they answer, "but we didnae ken the consequences".

"Och weel", comes the implacable response from God, glancing briefly down over the parapet, "Ye ken the noo".

In reading all these very dramatic accounts and vivid illustrations of the fate in store for those guilty of mortal sin(s), we must remember that it's supposedly the sinners' souls that are subjected to the torments rather than the sinners themselves, and so the tortures are symbolic rather than real.

The most realistic and compassionate alternative to eternal torment would be for the souls of mortal sinners to suffer a never-ending Sunday afternoon with nothing to do.