"Did it ever occur in true Rome, that a Lucretius was denounced to the consuls for having the system of Epicurus into verse; a Cicero, for having repeatedly written, that there is no pain after death; or that a Pliny or Varr was accused of having peculiar notions of the divinity? The liberty of thinking was unlimited among the Romans. Those of harsh, jealous, and narrow minds, who amongst us have endeavored to crush this liberty -- the parent of our knowledge -- the mainspring of the understanding -- have made chimerical dangers into their pretext; they have forgotten that the Romans, who carried this liberty much further than we do, were nevertheless our conquerors, our lawgivers; and that the disputes of schools have no more to do with government than the tub of Diogenes had with the victories of Alexander."
[Voltaire, from the entry for Soul in his Philosophical Dictionary]
According to Ronald Hutton, "The concept of reincarnation comes from the East, being especially associated with Hindu and Buddhist thought. It reached Europe, like so much else, in the 18th century, and was especially influential in Britain because the British conquest of India, followed by Ceylon and Burma, opened a highway for it. The first person to make it widely known among English and French intellectuals was Sir William Jones ...."
The first edition of Voltaire's Dictionnaire Philosophique was published in 1764, when William Jones was only 18 years of age and still a student at Oxford. Below is an English translation of the entry for Metamorphosis, Metempsychosis:
"Is it not quite natural that all the metamorphoses seen on earth led in the east, where everything has been imagined, to the notion that our souls pass from one body to another? A nearly imperceptible speck becomes a worm; this worm becomes a butterfly. An acorn is transformed into an oak, an egg into a bird. Water becomes cloud and thunder. Wood changes into fire and ashes. In short everything in nature appears to be metamorphosed. What was physically seen in the crudest bodies was soon extended to souls, which were regarded as light forms. The idea of metempsychosis is perhaps the most ancient dogma of the known universe, and it still reigns in a large part of India and China.
"It is also very natural that all the metamorphoses we witness should have produced those ancient fables which Ovid collected in his admirable works. Even the Jews had their metamorphoses. If Niobe was changed to marble, Edith, wife of Loth, was changed into a statue of salt. If Eurydice remained in hell because she looked behind her, it is for the same indiscretion that the wife of Hoth was deprived of human nature. The little town in which lived Baucis and Philemon was changed into a lake; the same thing happened to Sodom. The daughters of Anius changed water to oil; in the scriptures we have almost the same metamorphosis, but true and more sacred. Cadmus was changed into a serpent; Aarod's rod also became a serpent.
"The gods very often changed themselves into men. The Jews never saw the angels in any but human form: the angels ate with Abraham. In his Epistle to the Corinthians Paul says that the angel of Satan slapped him: Angelos Satana me colaphiset."
"I think that the Brachmans, so anterior to the Jews, might well have been divided also; but they were the first who imposed upon themselves the law of not eating any animal. As they believed that souls passed and repassed from human bodies to those of beasts, they would not eat their relations. Perhaps their best reason was the fear of accustoming men to carnage, and inspiring them with ferocious manners.And under Resurrection:
"We know that Pythagoras, who studied geometry and morals among them [that is, the 'Brachmans'], embraced this humane doctrine, and brought it to Italy. His disciples followed it a very long time: the celebrated philosophers, Plotinus, Jamblichus, and Porphyry, recommended and even practiced it;- though it is very rare to practice what is preached. The work of Porphyry on abstinence from meat [De Abstentia], written in the middle of our third century, and very well translated into our language by M. de Burigni, is very much esteemed by the learned; but it has not made more disciples among us than the book of the physician Hequet ... The work of Porphyry is addressed to one of his disciples, named Firmus, who it is said turned christian, to have the liberty of eating meat and drinking wine ... He speaks not of metempsychosis, but he regards animals as our brethren, because they are animated like ourselves; they have the same principles of life; they have, as well as ourselves, ideas, sentiment, memory industry. They want but speech; if they had it, should we dare to kill and eat them; should we dare to commit these fratricides?"
"Many grave schoolmen clearly see purgatory and resurrection in Virgil. As for purgatory, I am obliged to acknowledge that is expressly in the sixth book ... Nor could the kinsfolk of that day obtain from pagan priests an indulgence to abridge their sufferings for ready money. The ancients were much more severe and less simoniacal than we are, notwithstanding that they imputed so many foolish actions to their gods. What would you have? Their theology is made up of contradictions, as the malignant say is the case with our own.
"When their purgation was finished these souls went and drank of the waters of Lethe, and instantly asked that they might enter fresh bodies and again see daylight. But is this resurrection? Not at all: it is taking and entirely new body, not resuming the old one; it is a metempsychosis, without any relation to the manner in which we of the true faith are to rise again.
"The souls of the ancients did, I must acknowledge, make a very bad bargain in coming back to this world for seventy years at most to undergo once more all that we know is undergone in a life of seventy years, and then suffer another thousand years' discipline. In my humble opinion, there is no soul that would not be tired of this everlasting vicissitude of so short a life and so long a penance."
Also, under the entry for Soul, Voltaire states that "Pythagoras had been a cock, his relations swine; but no one found fault with this; his sect was cherished and revered by all, except for the cooks and those who had beans to sell." And then later on in the same section: "The historian Josephus, who was a Pharisee, tells us in book XIII of his Antiquities that the Pharisees believed in metempsychosis." [It should be noted that this interpretation of Josephus is not universally accepted.]
Ronald Hutton & Reincarnation:
- Part One: Dion Fortune, Ronald Hutton, Wicca & Reincarnation
- Part Two: Ronald Hutton, Tertullian, John Italos, Anna Comnena & Reincarnation
- Part Three: Ronald Hutton, Reincarnation & the Renaissance
- Part Four: "Renaissance & Rebirth: Reincarnation in early modern Italian kabbalah"
- Part Five: Ronald Hutton,Vergil, Ovid & GradeSaver.Com
- Part Six: Ronald Hutton, Voltaire, and Metempsychosis
- Part Seven: Erotic Metempsychosis