At the end of Phaedo, Socrates proves, in his own manner, that the soul is immortal and goes through an endless cycle of metempsychosis and, "if deemed to have lived an extremely pious life are freed and released from the regions of the earth as from a prison".

This final part seems to me like Buddha's idea of Nirvana, especially given that Socrates (Plato) chooses the words "freed from prison". What are some other parallels between Western and Eastern Philosophy? Is it possible that the Greeks were influenced by early Buddhists or if there was some sort of interaction between the two? Any extra resources on this part of Phaedo/those parallels in general?

Also, what is the difference between metempsychosis and reincarnation?

  • 1
    Pyrrhonism, How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism 2008 by Adrian Kuzminski: the author admits he is speculating and a possible contact is after Alexander's conquests. Otherwise one should investigate the common and much older Indo-europeean heritage. – sand1 May 20 '18 at 12:48
  • This might be one reason for the remarkable success of the Greek-Buddhist syncretic civilisation in Gandhara in Adghanistan starting around the 4th century BCE and lasting for close to a millenia. They had more in common than one might first suppose. – Mozibur Ullah May 20 '18 at 13:09
  • 1
    Pythagoras, from whom Plato took metempsychosis, lived c. 570-495 BC, and Buddha only founded his order towards the end of this period. So no, any direct transmission is not possible. However, the doctrine of metempsychosis goes back to much earlier Hinduism, the vedic period (as early as c. 1500 BC), from where Buddha got the idea. It is possible, although there is no evidence of it, that Pythagoras came in contact with it during his alleged travels to the East. – Conifold May 22 '18 at 6:21
  • 'the idea'. equating Buddhist & Hindu ideas of transmigration is misleading, especially given that it is a perennial concept around the world. it cannot be about simple statements of the mechanics of any afterlife, but about what the afterlife /means/ to adherents/believers – CriglCragl May 23 '18 at 11:40


If Buddhism denies the existence of any continuing self or soul, this appears to conflict with Socrates' view of a continuing soul which is freed and released from the regions of the earth as from a prison. The soul continues to exist, Socrates says, but in radically different conditions. For Buddhism there is no soul to continue to exist.


Socrates sees death as the precondition for the soul's new freedom. In Buddhism, however, the correspondingly blessed state can occur before death. The Buddha entered nirvana in his 35th year, long before his death.


Metempsychosis is popularly defined as the belief that at death the soul passes into another body. But one cannot be long engaged in studying the doctrine as it appears in Greece and India before discovering that the popular definition can be rendered more precise by the addition of three restrictions: the place where the soul and its new body dwell must be, at least in part, this world; the new body must be acquired for more than a temporary [? brief] period; and the soul, which passes from one body to another, must be that which creates an individual [? must be the same soul over time]. (Herbert S. Long, 'Plato's Doctrine of Metempsychosis and Its Source', The Classical Weekly, Vol. 41, No. 10 (Feb. 16, 1948), 149-155: 149.

Plato seems to have derived the idea of metempsychosis from Pythagoras but this leaves open how Pythagoras came by the idea. (Long, 151.) Metempsychosis as such does not imply immortality; extinction could intervene at any point. Plato/ Socrates has separate 'proofs' of immortality.


I take this to be the idea that the soul or self survives death through rebirth in another body. This also does not imply immortality; again extinction could intervene at any point. There appears to be no essential difference between metempsychosis and reincarnation but the terms tend to be associated in different traditions of thought with extra ideas. Long's account of metempsychosis, for instances, includes beliefs which are not present in the bare idea of reincarnation or rebirth.


Herbert S. Long, 'Plato's Doctrine of Metempsychosis and Its Source', The Classical Weekly, Vol. 41, No. 10 (Feb. 16, 1948), 149-155.

Steven Collins, 'Nirvāṇa, Time, and Narrative', History of Religions, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Feb., 1992), pp. 215-246.

Dorothea Frede, 'The Final Proof of the Immortality of the Soul in Plato's "Phaedo" 102a-107a', Phronesis, Vol. 23, No. 1 (1978), pp. 27-41.

  • Dodds E. The Greeks and the Irrational. (1951) deserves perhaps a mention here ( and a later ed. is online) – sand1 May 20 '18 at 20:25
  • "how Pythagoras came by the idea" - he actually could do it himself. And how is tough question for philosophy and psychology: how people come by with ideas. – rus9384 May 22 '18 at 11:16
  • 'Came by' can cover how he learnt of the idea or how he worked it out for himself. I think the chances are, given the age and rootedness of the idea, that Pythagoras derived it from an external source. I leave the matter open. Best - GT – Geoffrey Thomas May 23 '18 at 12:04

There are very few parallels between Eastern and Western philosophy, especially from Socrates onward.

Western philosophy, after the pre-Socratics, assumes the reality of "the thing", embodied in the law of self-identity, and represented as a = a.

Eastern philosophy on the other hand, embraces impermanence / flux as a primary feature of what is real,

Secondly Buddhism explicitly repudiates the notion of a soul - this is the significance of the anatta doctrine.

Thirdly, in line with the no-soul doctrine, there would be no Being capable of "deeming", as you put it, whether anyone gets a get out of jail card.


Plato's views diverge strongly from Buddhist ones. For Buddhists there is reBirth, of causes and conditions created by craving and ignorance of the true nature of reality. This is contrasted to reIncarnation in Hinduism, of an immortal soul. This is a core fundamental distinction that anyone who 'gets' Buddhism, read texts or studied with a teacher, would have to know. Buddhism is very much opposed to both idealism and materialism, with a core descriptor of it as the Middle Way between these, through describing dependent origination and contingency.

There are speculative but quite strong lines of circumstancial evidence for the indirect influence of Buddhism on the ancient world though, especially of synchretising with Judaism by Essenes, the branch of Judaism that became Christianity http://www.thezensite.com/non_Zen/Was_Jesus_Buddhist.html

Stoicism has remarkable parallels with Buddhism, and Pyrrho is known to have studied philosophy in India, while travelling with Alexander The Great https://buddhism.stackexchange.com/questions/2801/is-there-evidence-of-a-buddhist-influence-on-greek-stoicism

It is interesting to look elsewhere at how external theological ideas or discourses indirectly caused religions to change. Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, can all to some extent reasonably, be described as reform movements of Sanatam Dharma, or Hindu perennial philosophy. Buddhist thought strongly influenced Shankara in forming Advaita Vedanta, the most philosophically robust interpretation of Hindu thought. Sikhism declares itself a development of Hindu thought, although it is monotheistic, and emphasises martial self-reliance, responding to Islam.

So, influence doesn't have to mean incorporation, or even direct study by key thinkers. Challenger religions or theologies change public debate, asserting their value, or capacity to deal with current problems in different ways. Established religions have to respond to have survived, and provide satisfying counterpoint developments to thrive.

It seems unlikely that detailed awareness of Buddhist theology came to the West, and this is not surprising because it would need to have been related to the theological concerns where it occured, needing a large amount of study, and transfer of religious 'professionals' and scholars to and from India, which we might expect historical evidence for. But it seems very likely core Buddhidt ideas did influence Greek philosophy through Stoicism, and later Western thought through the Essenes.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.