One of the most interesting topics discussed by early philosophers is mortality and what happens to the human soul after death. Of the pre-Socratic philosophers, Pythagoras and Heraclitus are the two noteworthy philosophic thinkers on this subject. This paper will discuss the views of both Pythagoras and Heraclitus in regards to death and the soul and how their thoughts are similar and differ. For instance, I will explain how each would respond to the following questions. What happens to the human soul after death of the body?
Is the soul reincarnated into other bodies, and if so what kind of bodies? Does this process of reincarnation ever cease, and if so, how does man interrupt it? These are some of the fundamental questions that both philosophers answer in their philosophy and it is the job of this paper to illustrate their main points. This is our next order of business. So then, what becomes of us at death? We begin with Pythagoras. Known for his religious ideas, Pythagoras was fascinated with the human soul and questioned what happened to it when man died.
He believed that after death the soul would be incarnated into another body. He did not think the human soul was limited to incarnating itself into another human body. Instead, he held that a persons soul could transmigrate into animal bodies showing a belief that humans and animals share a close relationship. Pythagoras furthered this thought by forbidding the eating of animal flesh. But he not only believed in the transmigration of the soul, he also thought that the soul was immortal.
This is very significant because it makes his idea of soul much more important in relation to the body, which until Pythagoras, the soul was not looked at as being as important. So for Pythagoras, when death came, the soul lived on and would incarnate another body not necessarily limited to humans. This is more or less the base of Pythagoras thought about death and the soul. Before I explain more of his philosophy, I will set forth Heraclitus ideas concerning death and the soul. Heraclitus was a free thinker but his writings and ideas are sometimes hard to interpret.
Because of the nature of Heraclitus writing style (mainly because he wrote in aphorisms, which are often times ambiguous and confusing), the true meaning of his philosophy is open to interpretation. The view herein is intended to be a fair representation of his true meaning, but one must realize that it is not the only way of interpreting his philosophy. In response to what happens to the soul upon death, Heraclitus thinks the soul does undergo a material transformation. But this transformation does not entail transmigration of the soul into another body as Pythagoras thought.
Instead, it is more like the soul being recycled into different stuff or entities. For Heraclitus, death is just another phase in the cycle, and what makes up our soul is the same stuff that previously made up other stuff. Unlike Pythagoras, he does not think the human soul incarnates into other bodies. Although the soul is recycled into other stuff, it still does exist, albeit as a different entity. But even if it does constantly get recycled, the personal identity of the soul is undoubtedly lost.
Hence, it would be misleading to say that Heraclitus thought the soul was immortal as Pythagoras did. Now that we understand the core ideas of both philosophers in regards to what happens to the soul after death, it is time to further the discussion. Pythagoras idea that the soul is immortal suggests reincarnations were to go on forever. But he also believed there was a way of breaking this cycle of reincarnations. In order to understand how this is done, you must be aware that Pythagoras saw continuing incarnations as a form of punishment for doing wrong.
To stop the cycle of continued reincarnation, man must clear himself of wrong doing through purification. But how is this done? Pythagoras believed this is accomplished through intellectual activity and the study of mathematics. The role of intellectual activity in achieving purity is important because in doing this we discover the order in things which helps to produce a kind of order in our soul. Through intellectual activity we can eventually copy the order of the world into our psyches, making us godlike.
This assimilation of human to god is important because it puts us at one with the world and breaks free the cycle of incarnations. The end of the otherwise endless cycle of soul transformation from body to body signifies purity, and an end to the punishment. Heraclitus holds a far different view in terms of what ultimately happens to the soul after death. His ideas take into consideration how the souls life was lived. For example, Heraclitus held that the souls of those people who live excellently will not suffer death by becoming moist but will continue to exist as psyche-stuff. Ring, p79) The souls of those people who do not live excellently will be part of the system of recycling or material transformation.
Here we see an important point. What man does while living does have some impact on what ultimately happens to the soul. That we as humans have some control over what happens to our soul. This view is similar to many modern day religious ideas such as the Christianity, who believe in receiving a spot in heaven based upon how your life is lived on earth. In a way, it is also similar to Pythagoras view of purification.
They have in common a kind of reward for living life a certain way. But, if what we do in life plays on what happens to our soul, this could suggest a sort of personal identity moving on with the soul after death. However, it is unlikely that Heraclitus thought personal identity of the soul survived death and the material transformation. Heraclitus goes on to expand the possible outcomes of living excellently and the impact this has on the soul. As mentioned earlier, those living well will continue to exist as psyche-stuff.
He classifies this in two different ways. An uncorrupted psyche would either rise to become part of the fiery upper air; overseeing the processes of transformation occurring below. They rise and become the watchful guardians of life and death (Heraclitus, Fragment 63). Or, those psyches that lived well would remain psyche-stuff. Acting as the rationality in everything. Not exactly the same idea as Pythagoras purity by means of intellectual activity and the assimilation to being godlike. However, both do have some views in common as I will now show you.
Heraclitus and Pythagoras philosophy of death and soul may not be in pure harmony with one another, but not agreeing doesnt necessarily mean they disagree. Heraclitus may not think that the soul is immortal, or that it transmigrates from body to body as a sort of punishment. But he does think the existence of the soul extends beyond the life of the body. Pythagoras certainly would not agree the soul could become part of the fiery upper air looking down on further transformations, but he does believe in the possibility of breaking out of the recurring cycle of reincarnation.
So, in so much as they disagree, they agree. The details of their philosophy may be different, but the overwhelming idea that something does indeed happen to the soul upon death is held by both. In a time where mythology and mysticism was prevalent, Pythagoras and Heraclitus ventured out of the norm and discovered ideas for themselves. Their ideas may differ, but the fact that both did this at a time when no one else had gives them something in common. As a result, both are known for their groundbreaking and unique thought including but not limited to death and the soul.