An Argument for Pre-Existence

In the previous post we touched on the death of immortals and took a look at one reason to think we survive the death of our bodies, a reason that can serve as a philosophical foundation not only for the belief that there is an after-life of some sort or other, but also for speculation about what an after-life might be like.

The idea was that individuals qua individuals are not made up of any parts, and so the death of something which is made up of parts — such as a body — is not the death of an individual.

The argument was inspired by Proclus, who in proposition 15 of The Elements of Theology argued that anything capable of self-reversion is immaterial and without parts. Because my concern was only with whether or not we survive the death of our bodies and I wanted the argument to be pithy, I did not include many of Proclus’ other thoughts and arguments on the matter. For example, Proclus doesn’t just argue that we are without parts, but also that we do not inhere within any substrate. This allows him to argue not only that we cannot die by the separation of parts, but that we cannot die by being severed from any substrate.

His case is elegant, thorough and systematically rigorous; covering a great many of the bases that we’re passing over for the sake of simplicity. I am not sure that anything can take the place of just reading his work. But, the idea here is to engage other thinkers critically and creatively in order to determine what genuinely seems to be the case, not to perfunctorily repeat their arguments or even simply to repackage them in more digestible ways.

Concluding that we survive the death of our bodies was the purpose of the previous post. Having done so, we are now prepared to look further into propositions that are relevant to a Pagan philosophical anthropology; the first of which will be the historically Pagan thesis of pre-existence. Pre-existence is the idea that we (or some part of us) existed prior to our embodiment. Once again, we will look to Proclus for inspiration.

In proposition 43 of The Elements of Theology, Proclus argues that anything capable of self-reversion is self-constituted (or the source of one’s own being), and in proposition 45 that anything that is self-constituted is without temporal origin. It follows from these two propositions that anything capable of self-reversion is without temporal origin. Since our human bodies do have temporal origins and we are capable of self-reversion, this conclusion would secure the belief in pre-existence.

However, so stated, this argument involves a step that we do not need to make here: instead of arguing that anything capable of self-reversion is self-constituted, we can just argue that we are self-constituted. Simplifying the argument by eliminating this step yields the following: we are self-constituted; whatever is self-constituted is without temporal origin; therefore, we are without temporal origin.

So, why should we think either premise is true? Let’s take each in turn.

Premise (1): We are self-constituted

The manner in which a thing reverts is determined by what it reverts to. For example, if what one reverts to is a form of being, then one reverts formally or by her form; if what one reverts to is herself, then one reverts ‘ipseically’ or by her individuality. If, in turn, what one reverts to is the source of her being, then one reverts existentially or by her nature. As such, to revert by nature just is to revert to one’s source of being. (Cf. prop. 34 for a more expanded argument to this end)

But, we revert by nature upon ourselves; for as we have seen, our individuality is sustained across time by an inherent self-reversive tendency. (If we had to consciously or deliberately revert upon ourselves in order to sustain our individuality across time, we’d cease to exist as individuals the moment we stopped!) It follows that we are the source of our own being.

So, we have the following argument: what one reverts to, if one reverts to it by nature, is the source of one’s being. We revert by nature to ourselves. Therefore, we are the source of our own being.

Some may have the impression that (1) is unacceptable because all things are caused by the Gods. But, such a worry is based on too narrow an understanding of divine causation; for to cause all things is for the Gods to cause each thing as it is. Thus, the Gods cause necessary things to be necessary things just as they cause our free choices to be our free choices: all things derive in every way from the Gods, and so the Gods are not parts of reality but the very foundations upon which all of it rests. For this reason, (1) is not incompatible with divine causality: the Gods cause the self-constituted to be self-constituted. We’ll have to settle with such bare assertions for now, but we’ll return to them in future posts.

Having argued that we are self-constituted, all that remains is to argue that whatever is self-constituted is without temporal origin.

Premise (2): Whatever is self-constituted is without temporal origin

Suppose that one is self-constituted and has a temporal origin. By virtue of being self-constituted, such a one is the source of her own being: she is responsible for the fact of her own existence. But, by virtue of having a temporal origin, such a one is not responsible for the fact of her existence, since she is not “around” until the fact of her existence has already been established. Indeed, this is all it is for one to originate: it is for the fact of one’s existence to be outside of her control. (Cf. prop. 45 for Proclus’ own argument to this end) As such, it follows from our initial supposition that one is and is not responsible for the fact of her existence, which is a contradiction.

As this brief reductio ad absurdum illustrates, the idea of being the source of one’s own being is inherently opposed to the idea of originating at some point in time, such that the conjunction of the two results in a contradiction.


We have presented a very simple Proclean argument for pre-existence:

  1. We are self-constituted.
  2. Whatever is self-constituted is without temporal origin.
  3. Therefore, we are without temporal origin. (From 2, 1)

As in the previous post, the sense in which “we” are being referred to is in that of our individuality or ‘who-ness’. By relying on our pre-philosophical grasp of its conceptual contours instead of proposing an analysis of individuality, we are avoiding controversies not immediately relevant to establishing our conclusion.

Pre-existence can be an exciting idea and it raises the question of why we take on bodies in the first place. We’ll look into that in later posts, and draw the conclusion that we undergo a sort of cycle whereby we descend into bodies and return to our initial state over and over again.

We’ll get into some more apologetic material in the upcoming posts however including a tip for talking with monotheists about religion and some responses to objections to polytheism, so be sure to check back in!