Plato and the Theory of Evolution

07 Jul
Plato's Phaedrus from his "Dialogues"  from Google Images

Plato’s Phaedrus from his “Dialogues”
from Google Images

Plato is one of the most important figures in our understanding of what would be a Western worldview. In his Dialogues of Plato we are told that Socrates at times discussed the mystical side of life, including reincarnation and religious teachings. Plato was his pupil, but Plato was also influenced by others, including Heraclitus and Pythagoras. Notice what he claims in one of his works:

“And at the end of the first thousand years the good souls and also the evil souls both come to draw lots and choose their second life, and they may take any which they please. The soul of a man may pass into the life of a beast, or from the beast return again into the man. But the soul which has never seen the truth will not pass into the human form.” [Plato’s Phaedrus 249b] (emphasis mine)

The above is not the Darwinian theory of natural selection nor is it his theory of environmental pressure (adaptation) both of which seem to have been proved by science today. No! Plato believed in reincarnation or in transformations from one species into another. In other words the species are not ‘fixed’, but rather are influenced, as the Brahmans believed, by something internal, a consciousness if you will, which caused the change. Notice how one 18th century scholar saw it:

“I have not yet examined the philosophy of the Brahmans, but I have seen enough of it to be convinced, that the doctrines of the Vidanti school are Platonic.” (Sir William Jones to Lord Monboddo)

This understanding didn’t change even into the 20th century:

“…I affirm very confidently that if anyone will make himself familiar with the old Indian wisdom – Religion of the Vedas and Upanishads, (he) will shake himself free from the academic attitude and limiting western conception of philosophy, and will then read Plato’s dialogues, he will hardly fail to realize that both are occupied with the self-same search, inspired by the same faith, drawn upwards by the same vision (Professor E.J. Urwick, University of London).

Allusions to the philosophical concept of reincarnation can also be found in Plato’s Timaeus and in The Republic in Plato’s ‘Myth of Er’ and in several other works of his. The point is: Darwin’s understanding of his theory of evolution is not an original thought guided by his experiences and studies of life around the world. His judgments concerning the things he saw were guided by what he was familiar with in the ancient philosophies he studied. It is not a great leap, once one is familiar with reincarnation, to postulate that life evolves from one kind to another—that the species are not fixed, contrary to what the Bible concludes, but can be transmigrated from the sea to land and back to the sea once more.

Darwin’s conclusions about how life gradually evolved from one species to another, and taking great ages to do so, can be traced to our own ancient western philosophers. This is something Darwin even admits to in the 6th printing of his The Origin of Species. It is also true that Western thought about reincarnation and spontaneous regeneration could be traced to Eastern philosophies, especially Hinduism. This is also the conclusion of many of the scholars from the 18th century to today who have studied the ancients.

Some scholars today, however, would argue against Plato believing in reincarnation, saying those places where it appears he does should be seen as allegories for something else, but this argument has no place here. It makes no difference what scholars believe today about Plato. What matters is what the 18th and 19th century scholars believed and what some into the 20th century believed. These scholars were the people who formulated the arguments for evolution and pressured schools and universities to teach it. What they believed about Plato and other ancient philosophers have a contextual point for the acceptance of the Theory of Evolution in modern society.

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Posted by on July 7, 2013 in Greek Philosophers, theory of evolution


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