Neoplatonism





The great philosophic body that formed a bridge, as it were, between

the Old World and the New was the famous School of Alexandria, founded

about the second century of our era by Ammonius Saccas and closed in

the year 429 A.D. through the intolerance of Justinian. Theosophical

in its origin, this school had received from Plato the esoteric

teaching of Egypt and the East, and the dogma of Rebirth was secretly

taught in its entirety, though its meaning may have been travestied by

the ignorance of the masses to whom only the grosser aspects of the

teaching were given.



"It is a dogma recognised throughout antiquity," says Plotinus,[177]

"that the soul expiates its sins in the darkness of the infernal

regions, and that afterwards it passes into new bodies, there to

undergo new trials."



"When we have gone astray in multiplicity,[178] we are first punished

by our wandering away from the path, and afterwards by less favourable

conditions, when we take on new bodies."[179]



"The gods are ever looking down upon us in this world, no reproach we

bring against them can be justifiable, for their providence is

never-ending; they allot to each individual his appropriate destiny,

one that is in harmony with his past conduct, in conformity with his

successive existences."[180]



The following is a quotation from the same philosopher, dealing with

metempsychosis, and which, when compared with the foregoing sentences,

appears strangely absurd. We make no comment here, as this obscure

question will be dealt with a few pages farther on.



"Those who have exercised human faculties are reborn as men; those who

have lived only the life of the senses pass into animals' bodies,

especially into the bodies of wild beasts if they have given way to

excesses of anger ... those who have sought only to satisfy their lust

and gluttony, pass into the bodies of lascivious and gluttonous

animals ... those who have allowed their senses to become atrophied,

are sent to vegetate in trees ... those who have reigned tyranically

become eagles, if they have no other vice."[181]



Porphyry says:



"The souls that are not destined for the tortures of hell

(Tartarus), and those that have passed through this expiation, are

born again, and divine Justice gives them a new body, in accordance

with their merits and demerits."[182]



The following remarkable lines are from Iamblichus:



"What appears to us to be an accurate definition of justice does not

also appear to be so to the Gods. For we, looking at that which is

most brief, direct our attention to things present, and to this

momentary life, and the manner in which it subsists. But the powers

that are superior to us know the whole life of the Soul, and all its

former lives; and, in consequence of this, if they inflict a certain

punishment in obedience to the entreaties of those that invoke them,

they do not inflict it without justice, but looking at the offences

committed by souls in former lives: which men, not perceiving, think

that they unjustly fall into the calamities which they suffer."[183]



Proclus gave out the same teaching; he affirmed that he had been

incarnated in Nichomachus, the Pythagorean.



In his commentary on the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, Hierocles

expresses himself thus:



"The ways of the Lord can be justified only by metempsychosis."[184]



Damascius and Hermias, as also their masters, proclaimed their belief

in Rebirth.



Here a short explanation must be given of what has been said regarding

transmigration or metempsychosis, in order that all misunderstanding

may be removed.



Neither Pythagoras nor Plotinus nor any of the great Teachers of the

past believed in metempsychosis, as it has been described; all their

disciples have affirmed if, and these affirmations, set over against a

line of teaching which seems to contradict them, because it is

incomplete and intended for the less intelligent portion of society at

that time, ought to have reminded its opponents that there might be

hidden reasons capable of explaining the paradox.



We must first remember that a veil of strictest secrecy was flung over

the noblest and most sublime spiritual teachings of the day. According

to Bossuet, the teaching of the immortality of the soul seems not to

have been deemed suitable for the Hebrew race, and, indeed, it is easy

to understand that no double-edged truth should be taught except under

conditions that would safeguard it. Ptolemy Philadelphus exiled

Hegesias,[185] whose eloquent fanaticism had caused some of his

disciples to commit suicide, at Cyrene, after a lesson on immortality.

Ptolemy ordered those schools of philosophy to be closed which

continued teaching this doctrine, for in the case of a people

insufficiently developed, the instinct which binds to physical life,

and the dread of the torture that awaits guilty souls in the

Hereafter, are preferable to doctrines of immortality deprived of the

safeguards with which they should be surrounded.



The doctrine of Rebirths called for even stricter secrecy than that of

immortality, and this secrecy was accorded it in ancient times; after

the coming of the Christ, it grew less rigorous, and the

Neoplatonists, though obliged to keep the esoteric teaching to

themselves, were permitted to throw light on certain points.



Timaeus of Locris, one of the masters of Plotinus, hinted at the

existence of a more profound doctrine in the following words:



"Just as by the threat of punishment imperfectly evolved souls are

prevented from sinning, so the transmigration of the souls of

murderers into the bodies of wild beasts, and of the souls of unchaste

persons into the bodies of swine, was taught; and the previous

punishment of these souls in the infernal regions was entrusted to

Nemesis (Karma)."



Certain modern commentators--though imperfectly instructed in the

teachings of palingenesis--have also seen that the masters of

philosophy in the past could not possibly have made a mistake which

less far-seeing minds would have avoided. Dacier[186] says:



"A sure token that Pythagoras never held the opinion attributed to him

lies in the fact that there is not the faintest trace of it in the

symbols we have left of him, or in the precepts his disciple, Lysis,

collected together and handed down as a summary of the master's

teachings."



Jules Simon also speaks as follows regarding Plotinus:[187]



"Here we have the doctrine of metempsychosis which Plotinus found all

around, among the Egyptians, the Jews, the Neoplatonists, his

predecessors, and finally in Plato himself. Does Plato take

metempsychosis seriously, as one would be tempted to believe after

reading the Republic? Did he mention it only to ridicule the

superstitions of his contemporaries, as seems evident from the

Timaeus?[188]



"However important Plato may have considered metempsychosis, it can

scarcely be imagined that Plotinus took it seriously.... Even granting

that this doctrine were literally accepted by Plotinus, the question

would still have to be asked whether the human soul really does dwell

in the body of an animal, or simply enters a human body, which, in its

passions and vices, recalls the nature of that particular animal."



The reasons mentioned by Dacier and Jules Simon form only a trifling

portion of the whole explanation, but if they are added to the

constant protests raised by the disciples of the Masters of the

Pythagorean and Platonic traditions, against those who said that their

instructors taught metempsychosis in all its crudeness, they assume

considerable importance, and show that, although the restrictions of

esoteric teaching travestied by the ignorance of the masses may have

caused it to be believed that the contrary was the case, none the less

the Initiates, from the very beginning, denied that human

transmigration into the bodies of animals ever took place.



On this question many of them have frequently said that it is the soul

which, in such cases, changes its nature, and assumes the passions of

animals into which, as is said exoterically, it transmigrates, though

it does not enter into their bodies.



"He who believes that he transmigrates, after death, into the body of

a beast or a plant," says Hierocles,[189] "is grossly mistaken; he is

ignorant of the fact that the essential form of the soul cannot

change, that it is and it remains human, and only, metaphorically

speaking, does virtue make of it a god, and vice an animal."



"A human soul," adds Hermes, "cannot go back into the body of an

animal; it is preserved from such pollution, for all time, by the will

of the gods."[190]



Mrs. Besant says as follows in a letter dealing with Theosophy and

Reincarnation (The Theosophist, April, 1906):



"Even with the wealth of detail given in the Hindu Shastras, thousands

of facts of the invisible world are omitted, because their statement

would hopelessly bewilder the public mind.



"If all the details are given, ere the main principles are grasped,

hopeless confusion is caused to the beginner.



"When an Ego, a human soul, by vicious appetite or otherwise, forms a

very strong link of attachment to any type of animal, the astral body

(Kamarupa) of such a person shows the corresponding animal

characteristics, and in the astral world, where thoughts and passions

are visible as forms, may take the animal shapes; thus, after death,

in Pretaloka, the soul would be embodied in an animal vesture,

resembling or approximating to the animal whose qualities had been

encouraged during earth-life. Either at this stage, or when the soul

is returning towards reincarnation, and is again in the astral world,

it may, in extreme cases, be linked by magnetic affinity to the astral

body of the animal it has approached in character, and will then,

through the animal's astral body, be chained as a prisoner to that

animal's physical body. Thus chained, it cannot go onwards to

Svarga, if the tie be set up while it is a Preta; nor go onwards

to human birth, if it be descending towards physical life. It is truly

undergoing penal servitude, chained to an animal; it is conscious in

the astral world, has its human faculties, but it cannot control the

brute body with which it is connected, nor express itself through

that body on the physical plane. The animal organisation does not

possess the mechanism needed by the human Ego for self-expression; it

can serve as a jailor, not as a vehicle. Further, the "animal soul" is

not ejected, but is the proper tenant and controller of its own body.

S'ri Shankaracharya hints very clearly at the difference between this

penal imprisonment and becoming a stone, a tree, or an animal. Such an

imprisonment is not "reincarnation," ... the human Ego "cannot

reincarnate as an animal," cannot "become an animal."



"In cases where the Ego is not degraded enough for absolute

imprisonment, but in which the astral body has become very animal, it

may pass on normally to human re-birth, but the animal characteristic

will be largely reproduced in the physical body--as witness the

"monsters" who in face are sometimes repulsively animal, pig-faced,

dog-faced, &c. Men, by yielding to the most bestial vices, entail on

themselves penalties more terrible than they, for the most part,

realise; for Nature's laws work on unbrokenly and bring to every man

the harvest of the seed he sows. The suffering entailed on the

conscious human entity, thus cut off from progress and from

self-expression, is very great, and is, of course, reformatory in its

action; it is somewhat similar to that endured by other Egos, who are

linked to bodies human in form, but without normal brains--those we

call idiots, lunatics, &c. Idiocy and lunacy are the results of vices

different in kind from those that bring about the animal servitude

above explained, but the Ego in these cases also is attached to a form

through which he cannot express himself."



"True reason," says Proclus,[191] "affirms that the human soul may at

times find lodgment in brutes, but that it is possible for it to live

its own life and rise above the lower nature whilst bound to it by the

similarity of its tendencies and desires. We have never meant anything

else, as has often been proved by the reasoning in our commentaries on

Phaedrus."



There is a note in the Vahan[192] on a passage from Phaedrus which

sheds all the light that can be shed on the question of

metempsychosis; in the space of a few lines everything is said that

may be publicly revealed, without trespassing on forbidden ground.



After stating that, on returning from the internal regions, the soul

passes into the "life" of a beast, and that if it were human

previously, it afterwards goes into another human body, the note

continues:



"We must not understand by this that the soul of a man becomes the

soul of a brute, but that by way of punishment it is bound to the soul

of a brute, or carried in it, just as daemons used to reside in our

souls. Hence all the energies of the rational soul are absolutely

impeded, and its intellectual eye beholds nothing but the dark and

tumultuous phantasms of a brutal life."[193]



This passage contains the explanation of what might be called the

metempsychosis of certain human souls at the present time; we once

heard a great Teacher fully reveal this mystery to a chosen group of

Hindus, but it must for some time to come remain a mystery to the

western world. All that can be said on the matter is that it has

nothing to do with the incarnation of a human soul in the body of an

animal, but rather with a certain temporary karmic bond, in the life

Hereafter, between a human soul and an animal one, a bond intended to

teach many a hard lesson to the one who has brought upon himself so

unpleasant an experience.



Metempsychosis included many other facts in human evolution, facts

that were plainly taught to the disciples in the "inner circles" of

the ancient Schools and passed out to the confused medley of public

teaching.



The astral body, for instance, of a man of an exceedingly passionate

nature, when the soul leaves the physical body, sometimes assumes

forms resembling those of the animals which represent these passions

on the physical plane, and so the disincarnate soul of an assassin has

been said to pass into the body of a wild beast.



Metempsychosis, properly so-called, that is to say, the passing of a

human soul into the body of a brute, did however exist during the

infancy of the human race, when highly developed animal souls were

becoming fit to enter the human kingdom. The bodies of these

newly-born human souls were coarse and rudimentary in their nature,

showing scarcely any difference in form and organic function from the

bodies of the higher animals of that period, for these instruments

were very similar to one another. The improvements subsequently

effected by human bodies did not then exist; the difference, or

distinction, which has now widened into a gulf, was scarcely

perceptible, and in the early incarnations of these rudimentary human

souls back-slidings and falls were so frequent that some of them, thus

enfeebled, might find it to their advantage[194] to become incarnate,

at times, in highly-developed animal bodies. But that was always an

exception, and the exception has long ago become an impossibility.



We think these explanations, along with those given in other portions

of this work, will throw as much light as is permitted publicly on the

subject of metempsychosis--a subject frequently discussed and one that

has hitherto been so obscure. Such illumination as is here given is

due to the teachings of theosophy.





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