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Topic #A5 –
Pythagoras and Pythagorean philosophers


19 September, 2001
Scribe: Paula Viola

these minutes were not spoken; to view the other minutes, go to the spoken minutes or to the other set of minutes


Professor Hutchinson began Wednesday morning’s lecture with a friendly reminder that second hand copies of The First Philosophers are not available because the only existing copies of the book happen to be first edition. Coincidentally, the Complete Works of Plato is completely out of stock.

Wednesday’s lecture focused on the seventh chapter of The First Philosophers, which addresses Pythagoras and Fifth Century Pythagoreanism. The lecture included three major topics. First was the history of Pythagoreanism. Second was a history of Pythagoras himself. Lastly, some traditional Pythagorean beliefs are listed and explored in the context of how they contrasted to the beliefs of outside communities and philosophers, who mimed and exploited them. The following is a documentation of topics in the order of which they were addressed in class.

The lecture began with some interesting comparisons between Pythagoras and the Milesians. First we discussed Hericlitis, who made many references to Pythagoras in his writings. Hericlitis was a native of Ionia, or Eastern Greece, an area along the Mediterranean coast, west of modern day Greece. Driven by their own hunger and the need for a land rich in resources, Pythagoreans branched away from the aforementioned Greek mother cities and formed daughter communities in present day Sicily and Southern Italy.

Pythagoras was born across the coast from the Milesians. Although both Milesians and Pythagoreans were fascinated by astronomy, Pythagoreans never produced documentation concerning the origins of the universe, as this was a strictly Eastern tradition.

Despite his establishment of a religious sect, Pythagoras will forever remain an enigma, as it is highly possible that in reality he never penned a single word. Moreover, a common practice in Greek tradition involved the labelling of all philosophical attributes to a single charismatic individual. To this end, it can be concluded that Pythagoras’ role in Greek history was that of a religious leader.

Pythagoras’ beliefs and lifestyle contrasted those of Hericlitis and Xenophanes. Hericlitis was characterized by solitary thinking and introspection, and Xenophanes by his love of travel and performance. In contrast to this, Pythagoras studied in both Egypt and Thrace and eventually settled and built a community where he preached his doctrine to a loyal group of followers. Thus, closed Pythagorean communities were defined by their philosophy.

Epicurians modeled their communities after the Pythagoreans. They welcomed all into their communities. The sense of communal belonging was accompanied by an immense feeling of loyalty and in many situations individuals were forced to abandon their private interests, and donated their property for the betterment of the community. Despite the reprieve granted by the Epicurians in the form of a less strict regime, the Pythagoreans, nevertheless, remained stringent and “cult like” in their beliefs.

Section T8 (p.96-97) describes Pythagoras divine genealogy as a succession of male hosts from the god Hermes. As cited in T8, “Pythagoras used to say about himself that he had once been born as Aethalides and was regarded as a son of Hermes”. The tendency for prominent figures to invent genealogies tracing them to a divine origin was not uncommon practise in ancient Greek culture.

Section T6 (p.96) outlines the Egyptian doctrine concerning the transmigration of the immortal soul through all animal species. Egyptians believed that, “when the soul has made the round of every creature on land, in the sea, and in the air, it once more clothes itself in the body of a human being just as it is being born, and that a complete cycle takes three thousand years”. This cycle is dramatically dissimilar to the reincarnation process undertaken by Pythagoras who, in Section T8, is reborn as a man, “…when Hermotimus died, he became Pyrrhus…and again remembered everything, how he had formerly been Aethalides, then Euphorbus, then Hermotimus, and then Pyrrhus. And when Pyrrhus died, he became Pythagorus and remembered everything that has just been mentioned”.

Another Pythagorean doctrine concerning reincarnation came from ancient theologians who asserted, “the soul has been yoked to the body as a punishment…and that it has been buried in the body as in a tomb” (F1, p.97). The previous quote, if understood in a literal sense, suggests that one’s ultimate punishment is reincarnation.

According to Plato, who combined both Egyptian and Pythagorean doctrine in his philosophy, the result of leading a shameless life is reincarnation into a lesser being. For example, a thievish soul would return in the form of a cunning fox.

Pythagorean theory on transmigration of the soul remains unclear. Pythagorean communities practiced a general adherence from animal sacrifice, however, it is not clear whether or not they fully supported the belief of transmigration of souls into animal species. Many believe that Pythagoras warned others that killing an animal could equal the murder of a past relative. A student provided an additional example in which Pythagoras scolded a group of men for kicking a dog because he claimed to recognise the dog’s yelp as that of a former friend. It is certain, however, that Pythagoreans believed in some version of the “Doctrine of Merit”, which stated that the fate of one’s soul is dependant upon its merit and purity. Those who lead ordered, disciplined and pure lifestyles can expect a brighter future than those who chose otherwise.

Section T10, T11 and the handout given in class, outline the Pythagorean ‘Set of Rules for Community’, as well as some akousmata (Pythagorean wisdom). From the ancient world and onward, most of these rules including “to abstain from beans” and “not to touch sacred fish”, have been regarded as primitive superstitions. However, given the evidence which itself attributes fundamental advancements in mathematics to these communities, one could not possibly characterize Pythagoreans as primitive beings.

Professor Hutchinson offers an interesting explanation of the phenomenon mentioned above. He asserted that Pythagoreans are a radically religious group of people who have severed family ties and sacrificed their own personal interests in order to eat, pray and live together. They adhered to practises of extreme self-discipline and secrecy because such conduct was necessary for everyday life within the community.

The first rule, on the handout entitled “Some Akousmata”, exemplifies the purity that defines Pythagoreanism. Rule number one states: “When entering a temple to worship say or do in the meantime nothing else, nothing of an everyday sort”. One interpretation of this rule is that temples are the holiest of grounds as they are filled with the presence of the Gods. However, Hericlitis rejected this claim on the basis that no one place could ever possible be more sacred than another, and that the gods were omnipresent.

Other beliefs maintained by Pythagoreans included the assertion that the sun was a sacred manifestation of a god. They also felt that “one should worship in bare feet”, a tradition that resembles Muslim culture.

Due to a strong sense of loyalty, Pythagorean communities separated and prospered. As a result of this decentralization, many communities became wealthy and the locus of political power. Amazed by their ability to amass wealth and power, the state passed political control to the Pythagoreans. This decision enraged many of the nearby non-Pythagorean communities. Section T19 describes the Pythegorean’s first encounter with disaster at the hands of Cylon, which ultimately led to their political demise. As illustrated in T19, Cylon, upon being rejected by Pythagoras himself, set fire to a building resulting in the premature deaths of all but the two youngest and strongest men. This event single-handedly resulted in Pythagoreans abandoning their political involvement, and the eventual scattering of communities throughout Southern Italy.

Pythagoreans may be credited for the advancement of mathematics. Their crowning achievement is undoubtedly the Pythagorean Theorem, which states that the square of the hypotenuse of a right angled triangle is equal the sum of the square of both sides. Additionally, their fascination with number systems led to their assignment of numerical values to virtues. For example, the number five symbolized Marriage because five is the first union of an even number (2, a feminine number) with an odd number (3, a masculine number).

Pythagoreans described many fundamental aspects of musical harmony. For example, an octive can be expressed as a simple 2:1 ratio. It is no mistake that this ratio produces regularity among sounds. According to Pythagoreans, mathematics also hold true in astronomy. This is evident as it was believed that heavenly bodies were held together by mathematical regularities in ratios of 2:1 and 4:3. It was also agreed that a divine chord was responsible for the connection of the heavenly bodies to one another. The reason that humans do not hear this chord is because it has always been in existence, and therefore our ears do not notice its presence.

The philosophies of Pythagoras have been both mimed and exploited by other great thinkers such as Parmenides, Plato and Aristotle.

In conclusion, we can derive the following facts regarding the Presocratics. First, the Milesians relied mostly on material explanations of the universe. Second, Hereclitis was sceptical of theses materialistic views, stating that materiality results from constant change. Lastly Pythagoras used formal mathematical models, which rely on systems and seek regularity. Thus, despite the primitive nature of their views, the ancient philosophers nevertheless contributed many ideas that constituted the building blocks of our present day knowledge.