Wandering Souls: The Doctrine of Transmigration in Pythagorean Philosophy


Introduction: The Topos of Transmigration

Chapter One: Sources of the Doctrine of Transmigration

Chapter Two: Beyond Mysticism and Science: Symbolism and Philosophical Magic

Chapter Three: The Emergence of Mystic Cults and the Immortal Soul

Chapter Four: Philolaus and the Character of Pythagorean Harmony

Chapter Five: The Alleged Critique of Pythagoras by Parmenides

Chapter Six: Between the Earth and the Sky, On the Pythagorean Divine

Chapter Seven: The Pythagorean Bios and the Doctrine of Transmigration

The Path of the Event

The Path of Remembrance, or Return

Chapter Eight: The Platonic Rupture: Writing and Difference

Chapter Nine: Plotinus: The Ascent of the Soul toward the One

Chapter Ten: Plotinus as Neoplatonic Mystic: Letter to Flaccus

Epilogue: The Pythagorean Doctrine of Transmigration

Introduction: The Poetic Topos of Transmigration

I made up rhymes in dark and scary places,

And like a lyre I plucked the tired laces

Of my worn-out shoes, one foot beneath my heart.

(Rimbaud, ‘Wandering,’ Stanza 4)

Remind yourself that all men assert wisdom is the greatest good,

but that there are few, who, strenuously endeavor to obtain

this greatest good.

(attributed to Pythagoras by Stobaeus)

The mythical narrative of transmigration tells the story of myriad wandering souls, each migrating from body to body along a path of recurrence amid the becoming of the All. Yet, for the Pythagoreans, this story does not describe the passive revolution of a circle, but a pathway for an active exploration of the All and return to the divine. This endeavor is strenuous as it occurs amidst a suspension within the double bind of nativity and fatality, again and again to be born and to die, and to be reborn as still another being.[1] The thread of the narrative, of reminiscence, is always severed with each demise amid the labyrinth of mortal existence. Yet, as the narrative is a rope of many threads, the persistent re-articulation of the narrative instigates a mnemopoiesis of remembrance that transcends the individual mortal life amid the broader travels of the soul.

The Pythagoreans, along with others, cultivated an ethos of an immortal soul, one thought to be capable of communion with the divine. For Homer, such a desire would have been hubris, even if it was not in the end articulated outside of his mythological ontology. Pythagoras, against the background of Homer’s portrayal of the thirsting soul, maintained the requirement of a body, of a ‘substance’, for its life and its expansion (but only during life, as the soul had its own integrity beyond body). Pythagoras articulated a philosophy of return of the soul to its divine source through yet another – though forbidden – possibility in the Homeric constellation. He turned the necessity of body into a virtuous topos of return of finitude to the infinite. Indeed, despite this ‘mingling of essences,’ Pythagoras remained true to the Homeric valorization of the life of the body, of this self that is remembered by the passive soul. Yet, as the shade can return to another body, and as the divine is the cosmos, the body becomes the site from which the pursuit of the All commences, finds its way, and it is the variety of bodies which are the successive abodes of the soul amid its transmigration through each of the circuits of the All.

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