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Topic #A5 –
Pythagoras and Pythagorean philosophers


19 September, 2001
Scribes: Ian McElcheran and Aris Demosthenous

these minutes were spoken on 21 September; to view the other minutes, go to the other set of minutes or to another set of minutes


Wednesday the 19th of September’s lecture began with a backwards chronological comparison of Heraclitus (who came after Pythagoras in reality but before in our lectures) to the Pythagorean philosophers. Professor Hutchinson stated that he considered both Heraclitus and Xenophanes to have different voices than that of Pythagoras though before he explained why, he painted a historical picture of the span of ancient Greece, so that the reasons for these differences were made more apparent. He explained that Greece was divided into a western side (called MagnaGreecia or Greater Greece) and an eastern side (called Ionia and which encompassed southern present-day Italy and Sicily). The eastern side was fashioned after the western side with its political systems and communities, and this east-west divide was what caused or at least lead to the Greco war. Pythagoras, who was born in Samos of Greater Greece, moved to Sicily and set up his first community there which flourished not only in the east but also in the west. To get back to his earlier endeavor, Professor Hutchinson explained that both Pythagoras and Heraclitus (along with Xenophanes) shared an interest in astronomy, though other topics such as perception, man’s nature, and the like where not really present in Ionian (or eastern Greek) philosophical thought (which belonged mostly to Pythagoras) as they were present in the west with Heraclitus and Xenophanes. Other differences between the two sides included the fact that Xenophanes was a reputed traveler while Pythagoras decided instead to settle down and teach. Furthermore, and more importantly, their styles of philosophical endeavors differed greatly. Whereas Heraclitus and Xenophanes chose more traditional mediums in poetry and the written word, Pythagoras wrote nothing down himself and taught by preaching almost religiously as though he was divinely inspired (or had some sort of special access to divine knowledge).

Next we discussed the influence Pythagoras had on later philosophers, specifically on the Epicureans who later also developed communities in the same fashion. The main difference between the Pythagorean sect and the Epicurean sect was that while Pythagoras required you to give up all your possessions to the cult, there was no communal property in the Epicurean cult. But, at the same time they were similar in at least the fact that both had charismatic leaders.

Professor Hutchinson turned next to the point of Pythagoras who allegedly traveled the world and cited T3 where he is stated to be in Thrace, and furthermore interwoven with the myth of the Thracian deity Salmoxis. He also cited T6 exclaiming that traveling to Egypt might be a direct indication of where Pythagoras got his ideas of immortality.

Turning his attention now to that aspect of Pythagoras’ legacy (that he believed in the immortality of the soul) the professor pointed out T8 where it is claimed that Pythagoras’ soul can be traced back to being the son of Hermes (one of the gods). This was apparently not uncommon at the time, but what is particularly interesting in this case is the fact that it is taken to be proof of the immortal soul of Pythagoras. This is inconsistent with the idea of the transmigration of the soul in T6 where the soul becomes each other living creature before returning to human form (a three thousand year endeavor). Next was mentioned that both Plato and Aristotle took T8 to be literally true, and that Plato himself was in some ways a Pythagorean (more on this in a moment). The first fragment was used to show that Pythagoras thought reincarnation was a form of punishment and that the better or worse you were in one life dictated whether you would be incarnated as a higher or lower creature in the next life. The Egyptians on the other hand, felt that the soul’s transmigration was a natural succession and not a punishment at all. Plato, to get back to the earlier point was somewhere in between these two views.

A student then asked whether it is possible that the Pythagoreans thought that the tomb analogy in F1 was also thought to be a natural succession? The professor’s response is that it is unclear as to whether they were combined. The fragment did not come from Pythagoras himself and the sects of Pythagoreanism all had slightly differing doctrines (in other words, it was not completely a unified school of thought). But that this might lead to the reason why animal sacrifice was not allowed in the cult. It was at this point that a student made a comment “Stop kicking that dog; I recognize it’s voice as my uncles”, which gave professor Hutchinson a chuckle and he repeated it to the class more loudly. So, the doctrines of reincarnation and merit were shown to be linked. For, the merit of your soul dictates what you are to become in the next life.

The next topic of the lecture was the akousmata which are translated as ‘things heard’, or ‘the objects of hearing’ but held a much more secretive connotation like ‘signs’, or even perhaps ‘passwords’. These were explained as a set of rules of conduct used by the Pythagoreans. A few examples as given by Aristotle’s testimonies (T10 & T11) like “abstain from beans as being due either to the fact that they resemble the genitals in shape, or because they resemble the gates of Hades” (p. 97). Also noted in this passage was “not to touch a white cock” and “not to touch any sacred fish” probably due to the earlier discussion on sacrifice. Some of the akousmata from the hand out were then read aloud, specifically numbers 30, 31, 26, 32, and 38 in that order, and said to have been primitive superstitions in the history of philosophy. Professor Hutchinson, on the other hand, thinks them to be more than that however, due to the fact that all the communities of Pythagoras followed these akousmata. He thinks rather that they should be thought of a religious doctrine or even rules for hygiene. He then went on to cite numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, and 15 on the handout as proof of his point of view. He explained that the first three could be looked at as rules of a religious nature. For example, treat the temple as a temple (1) and play an active role in worship, don’t do it passively in a haphazard manner (2). Number four he thought could be looked at as a dietary restriction, which is another discipline in some religions. And number 15 is simply a matter of realizing that the sun was god-like at the time and you do not piss at a god. This relates to something Heraclitus once said: when someone apologized for disturbing him, he replied ‘don’t worry, I’m in the presence of the gods anyway’ which signifies the ever-presence of the immortals. Here professor Hutchinson reiterated the fact that the akousmata were rules of discipline, hygiene, and spirituality. It was the rigor of these doctrines that allowed the Pythagorean communities to prosper in wealth, number, and political power. To finish his discuss of the akousmata, the professor alluded to T19 on page 100 of the text, which explains the first disaster that happened to the Pythagorean communities. The amount of control the akousmata posited on such a growing number of individuals in the end made autonomy take a back seat, which inevitably lead to its fall.

The second Pythagorean interest fell instead with numbers. This was due to the belief that we could increase the merit of the soul through the activity of the mind. Numerology was the creation of this interest, some of which was useful and some of which was not. As an example of the not so useful, Professor Hutchinson elucidated the fact that the Pythagoreans decided on the number five to describe marriage as the union of the first even number (the man) to the first odd number (the woman). He then gave the Pythagorean theorem as an example of the useful. Some other useful examples are that they found that the reason why an octave sounded the way it did was because the physical proportions of the instrument were at 2:1, 3:2 for a fifth, and 4:3 for a forth. These discoveries lead to the belief that the ‘tetraktys’ was the root of knowledge. This mathematical knowledge held in astronomy as well, for the heavenly bodies portrayed similar ratios. This lead to the thought that there must be a heavenly harmony/sound that simply can not be heard because it is always there as background noise and therefore habituated out of the mind.

To wrap up the lecture Professor Hutchinson told us to keep these doctrines in mind because some other philosophers we are going to cover in the course like Plato for example would recycle them. He also reiterated the fact that until now there have not been too many surviving texts and yet we can still see three approaches to explanation form. The first type used by the Milesians was explanation in terms of materials. The second type used by Heraclitus was that the reality of materials is process and change. And the third type used by Pythagoras is that these both can be explained by math. A progression in thought that science to this day still utilizes and which explains why these where fruitful endeavors.