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Topic #A5 –
Pythagoras and Pythagorean philosophers


19 September, 2001
Scribe: Anthony Hanson

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Pythagoras and his disciples (who represent Western Greater Greece) are a step backwards in time, from Heraclitus (who represented Eastern, Ionian Greece). Pythagoras, and later Parmenidies, settled in the daughter colonies of New Great Greece or Greater Greece. These new colonies were collections of small communities created by established Greek mother cities. These new Greek- speaking communities were scattered across what is today modern Sicily and Southern Italy.

The Milesians and the Pythagoreans were both very interested in astronomy. However, there is no particular evidence of Pythagoras, or his disciples, writing a universal history on the origins of the universe. This is a major distinction between the two schools of thought.

The name “Pythagoras” is shrouded in mysticism. Most likely, Pythagoras willingly wrapped himself in myth because it was useful for him to do so. Pythagoras was not only a philosopher but also the leader of a religious sect, which bore his name. As a result, Pythagoras possessed an amazing degree of influence during his time.

One can draw sharp contrasts by comparing Pythagoras to both Heraclitus and Xenophanes. Self-examination and solitary thinking characterizes Heraclitus. Where as a performing bard and traveling sage characterizes Xenophanes. On the other hand, Pythagoras settled and resettled periodically, but directed his teaching toward a closed community. This was a new development and a defining characteristic of Pythagorean philosophy.

Many parallels exist between Pythagoreans and Epicureans. In fact, Epicureans modeled their communities on those of the Pythagoreans. However, the Epicureans did not demand that all property be held in common as did the Pythagoreans. One was welcomed to join but had to sacrifice and donate all person property to the good of the community. Therefore, Pythagoras’ sect can be considered more religious or “cult-like” than Epicurus’.

Pythagoras was an avid traveler and researcher. Reports exist that claim he traveled the ends of the earth and studied in both Thrace and Egypt. Pythagoras believed that souls inhabited our bodies temporarily. On p.96-97 T8 describes Pythagoras’ divine genealogy as a succession of male hosts from the god Hermes. It was common as well as important for prominent Greek figures to trace their lineage back to a divine origin. Mainly, this served to promote Pythagoras’ god-like image. Conversely, T8 conflicts with the evidence presented in T6 on p.96. T6 explains the Egyptian theory on transmigration of the soul.

According to Egyptian theory, transmigration of the soul included animal hosts and a tour through 3000 different species before one could return to a human host. This is a direct contradiction to Pythagoras’ man-to-man genealogy described in T8. Furthermore, Plato believed in transmigration of the soul into other species, but only as punishment for prior wrong doings. For example, a thievish soul would return as a cunning fox. Plato’s theory is primitively Pythagorean. Therefore, three different flavors of this doctrine exist: the Pythagorean, Egyptian and Platonic.
Pythagorean theory on transmigration of the soul is very murky. Pythagoreans practiced a general adherence from animal sacrifice but it is not clear that they fully believed in transmigration of the soul into animals or other species. Pythagoras is said to have warned that killing an animal could mean killing a past relative. For example, killing a bull could mean killing your diseased uncle. A student also provided an example where Pythagoras scolded a group of men for kicking a dog because he claimed he recognized knew the dog’s yelp to be that of his friend or relative. What is certain is that the Pythagoreans believed in some doctrine of merit. The fate of the soul is determined on its merit and purity. Ordered, disciplined and pure lifestyles receive a brighter future than those who chose otherwise.

Pythagoreans are famous for mathematical developments but also for their adherence to akousmata or secret verbal signs. T10 on p.97 and the Handout “Some Akousmata (Pythagorean sayings)” provide various examples, such as abstain from beans or do not eat the heart. There are numerous interpretations of the former in T10 but the meaning is unclear. There are many other akousmata, such as do not pick up what has fallen, do not touch a white rooster, do not eat sacred fish and do not break a loaf. It is difficult to discern the meaning of these, but most likely, they were basic dietary regulations.

From the ancient world onwards these akousmata have been considered to be primitive superstitions. Nevertheless, one must remember that the Pythagoreans were a radical community. They severed family ties in order to pray, eat, exercise and live together. Therefore, certain rules of conduct were necessary for everyday life within the community. Number one on the handout can be interpreted as simply introducing a new headspace in order to focus on a sacred level in a sacred place. If this is a true interpretation, Heraclitus would not have agreed because he believed the gods were omnipresent.

Number two on the handout, can simply mean approach a temple with a prepared heart and mind. Number three, worship in bare feet, which exists today in Muslim religious tradition. Therefore, akousmata considered in this light, cannot be considered meager superstitions, rather essential guidelines for a moderate, ordered and pure lifestyle.

As Pythagorean doctrines prospered, the community grew larger, wealthier and more powerful. Eventually, the Pythagoreans became the locus of political power due to the membership of influential figures. This challenged the autonomy of those outside the Pythagorean community. T19 on p.100 describes how Cylon of Croton sought vengeance on Pythagoras and his disciples. Upon being rejected by Pythagoras himself, Croton set fire to a building resulting in the premature deaths of all but the two youngest and strongest men. This shattered communities and became the root of the Pythagoreans political demise.

A unique feature of Pythagoreans is that their philosophy is fused to their religion. One can promote the soul through various activities such as intellectual exercises and eating a structured diet.

Pythagoras is credited with discovering that the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angle triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of both sides. However, evidence exists that this type of technology existed in Egypt well before Pythagoras. Possibly, Pythagoras imported this theorem from Egypt following during his study there.

Nonetheless, the Pythagoreans studied several mathematical relationships within the world. They discovered that the fundamental aspects of harmony and music are ratios and proportions that exist within the first four numbers, called the tetraktys (“1,2,3,4” in T23 on p.101-102). For example, in T23 the octave is constituted by the ratio of 2:1. Therefore, two separate strings in the length of 2:1 can produce the musical interval of an octave. As well, the fourth is constituted by 4:3 and the fifth by 3:2. The Pythagoreans also believed that the speed of heavenly bodies moved in simple ratios and that a divine sound or cord existed. One could not hear this divine sound because it is was always present. Furthermore, 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). Therefore, Pythagorean mathematical philosophy is a mixture of brilliant math and crackpot ideas.

Pythagorean philosophy had tremendous influence on Parmenides and Plato because much of their work mimed and exploited Pythagorean philosophy. Conversely, the Milesians explained the universe according to its materiality. Heraclitus, on the other hand, believed in an idea of constant process and change. Yet, the Pythagoreans sought regularities of number and described the universe using formal mathematical models. Philosophy that followed these three schools of thought was so fruitful because it had these three schools to confront and engage and use as building blocks.