Up@dawn 2.0

Saturday, December 3, 2016

(H3) Final Report pt 2- Pythagoras

Here is a link to part one of my final report that focused Pythagoras’ scientific and mathematic contributions, which I encourage everyone to read through first.

Pythagoras is simultaneously known as a philosopher of great wisdom and as one of the weirdest philosophers to date. For every scientific contribution to mathematics, he had an equally bizarre idea on religion and mysticism. Bertrand Russell’s only remark on Pythagoras was in his third chapter of History of Western Philosophy. It is very short but still very important to include, “Pythagoras is one of the most interesting and puzzling men in history. Not only are the traditions concerning him an almost inextricable mixture of truth and falsehood, but even in their barest and least disputable form they present us with a very curious psychology. He may be described, briefly, as a combination of Einstein and Mrs. Eddy. He founded a religion, of which the main tenets were the transmigration of souls and the sinfulness of eating beans. His religion was embodied in a religious order, which, here and there, acquired control of the State and established a rule of the saints.” 1 Pythagoras could easily be described as an agent of accidental chaos. Despite being a humble, soft spoken (or rather silent) man, he created one of the largest schools of thought at its time, and had one of the largest influences on modern philosophy. Part one of this report focused on his fact-based (despite being not factual anymore), scientific beliefs, and now we will cover the group he created and his ideals on mysticism. It is important to note that Pythagoreanism eventually developed into two different schools of thought: the mathēmatikoi, the teachers, and the akousmatikoi, or the listeners. The Mathematikoi are modernly acknowledged as Pythagoreans because it is said the Akousmatikoi derived their instructions from Pythagoras but from another philosopher named Hippasus. Hippasus, while starting out as a Pythagorean philosopher over a century after Pythagoras had passed, was put to death by the Pythagoreans after he was credited with the shocking discovery of irrational numbers. There is a lot of division and controversy about Pythagoreanism after the life of Pythagoras, as none of his teachings are still intact, so we will try to only talk about his direct contributions within this report
The life and religious beliefs of Pythagoras are easily comparable, and directly influenced by, the prophet Orpheus. Pythagoras was born on the Greek isle of Samos and blessed at birth by the Pythian Apollo, the name for the Oracle of Delphi. With this he was raised into great renown as a follower of Apollo. He spent his youth like this until he sought further wisdom and went to travel the known world (which at this time refers to the Mediterranean, northern Africa, and Central Asia).2  Throughout his travels he was encountered numbers of people who were astounded by his mysterious, almost god-like, allure so much that he quickly became an influential figure known around around the world. This is much like Orpheus, who was also blessed by the Greek gods, specifically Apollo, and sent to spread his wisdom to others. Like Orpheus, Pythagoras’ words were said to be so powerful that even animals and irrational beasts adhered to his word. According to the philosopher Iambachus, Pythagoras saw an ox at Tarentum feeding on green beans, which were considered to be sacred to Pythagoras (which we will discuss later in this essay). He informed the herdsman that his ox should abstain from this food and was immediately mocked by the herdsman. Pythagoras then went to inform the ox himself and after speaking to it softly for a very long time, the ox not only stopped feeding on the beans, but never touched them again. Being directly influenced by Orphism, Pythagoras began to lead an ascetic lifestyle, or one without worldly pleasures usually for the purpose of pursuing spirituality. Pythagoras found his wisdom from various social experiments and year-long vows of silence. Pythagoras’ authority followed him throughout his travels, and when he returned to his home in Samos he set up his first school.
(His followers celebrating the sunrise)

Where we seem to lose respect or understanding for Pythagoras is the basis of his Pythagorean order sect that was governed by mysticism. The cult was centered around the Muses and their head Apollo, but also around a number deity usually referred to as God (separated from the Christian God). He set up a number of tenets that were supposed to be a guide for living a harmonic life. While deeply preaching of the beauty and harmony of complex mathematics, he also lived his life by some of these rules:
  1. To abstain from beans.
  2. Not to pick up what has fallen.
  3. Not to touch a white cock.
  4. Not to break bread.
  5. Not to step over a crossbar.
  6. Not to stir the fire with iron.
  7. Not to eat from a whole loaf.
  8. Not to pluck a garland.
  9. Not to sit on a quart measure.
  10. Not to eat the heart.
  11. Not to walk on highways.
  12. Not to let swallows share one's roof.
  13. When the pot is taken off the fire, not to leave the mark of it in the ashes, but to stir them together.
  14. Do not look in a mirror beside a light.
  15. When you rise from the bedclothes, roll them together and smooth out the impress of the body.
His school, despite seeming free-spirited and welcoming, was very conservative and strict. All members of his cult wore only white garments, abstained from eating meat, and rejected any form of luxury. The brotherhood itself was very secretive and required a number of difficult trials to enter. From various sources, Pythagoras himself interviewed the candidates, and if they passed they were to be neglected for three years in hopes to reject glory and silence themselves. Once brought down to the bare minimum of being, they were welcome to begin their new journey into understanding the universe and its harmony. What also distances us from Pythagoras’ views are his obsession with numbers related to the universe. While some of his contributions are still being still used today (The Pythagorean Theorem), a lot of his ideas on numbers were superstitious and unnecessary. Aside from the Numbers of the Cosmic Order (refer to part one), Pythagoreans went to find every possible pattern and paradigm that was considered a key to understanding the universe and all realities. The universe was separated by monads, which were all various sets of numbers and figures that, when used correctly, formed said universal balance.
Before we completely lose faith in Pythagoras, however, it is worth noting his most famous addition to Pythagoreanism: the transmigration of the soul, or essentially reincarnation. He is not credited with its creation but rather popularizing it in Greece. Our souls, according to Pythagoras, are stuck in a cycle of death and reincarnation, only to be freed by obtaining a higher understanding of the universe through introspection and philosophy. Pythagoras claimed to be able to remember all his past lives and the past lives of his friends. In one story Pythagoras heard the cry of his late friend in a dog being beaten in the street. What separates this form of reincarnation from the one found in Orphism is the influence of numbers. The philosopher Philolaus explains, “The soul is introduced and associated with the body by number, and by a harmony simultaneously immortal and incorporeal… the soul cherishes its body, because without it the soul cannot feel; but when death has separated the soul therefrom, the soul lives in an incorporeal existence in the cosmos.”3 Essentially, our souls and body bring balance to one another, and by meditating and studying numbers, we create universal harmony.
Regardless of the extremely advanced (for his time) yet unmistakably bizarre ideas on numbers and rituals, what we know about Pythagoras and his philosophic contributions must be taken with a grain with salt. Most of what we know about Pythagoras today is from his later followers who turned him into one of the most important figures in the Hellenistic religion and pre-Socratic philosophy. Not only becoming a legendary figure, Pythagoras was one of Plato’s greatest influencers, and through him influenced all of western philosophy. Despite having no interest in Pythagoras’ ascetic lifestyle, his preoccupation with mathematical beauty has definitely influenced my personal philosophy and views as a Hellenist. We didn’t get to cover Pythagoras in our class time, so I went as in depth as I could without boring everyone.

(I wrote citations anyway because there are a lot of different sources on Pythagoras and specific figures and facts will vary book from book.)

  1. Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster,
1972. Print.
  1. Guthrie, Kenneth Sylvan, and David R. Fideler. The Pythagorean Sourcebook and
Library: An Anthology of Ancient Writings Which Relate to Pythagoras and
Pythagorean Philosophy. Grand Rapids: Phanes, 1987. Print.
  1. Navon, Robert, Leendert Gerrit. Westerink, Thomas Taylor, and Kenneth Guthrie. The
Pythagorean Writings: Hellenistic Texts from the 1. Cent. B. C.-3. Cent. A. D. ; on Life, Morality, Knowledge, and the World ; Comprising a Selection of the Neo-Pythagorean Fragments, Texts,... Kew Gardens (N. Y.): Selene, 1986. Print.
  1. Wescott, Wynn W. "NUMBERS." Numbers, Their Occult Power and Mystic Virtues: Part
I. Pythagoras, His Tenets and His Followers. Sacred-Texts, n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2016.

1 comment:

  1. Yours is another early 1st installment that slipped by my radar, sorry. I'm glad you're pursuing your passion for Pythagoras, as indeed I've encouraged everyone with an interest in any of the pre-Socratics (or anyone else we didn't get to) to do. He was fascinating, if (like Mary Baker Eddy and Dr. Dolittle) a bit unhinged.

    But, notwithstanding those goofy rules (I'm in big trouble over #11, in particular) he's alleged to have said some good things. For instance,

    “Do not say a little in many words, but a great deal in few!” He'd have tweeted. (There are some faux Pythagori on Twitter but they don't offer much.)

    “The oldest, shortest words— "yes" and "no"— are those which require the most thought.”

    “Educate the children and it won't be necessary to punish the men.”

    “A man is never as big as when he is on his knees to help a child.”