Pythagoreans celebrate sunrize. Fyodor Bronnikov, (1827—1902)
Pythagoras was born on the Greek island of Samos and lived around the year 500 B.C. He visited Egypt and – it is assumed – Babylon. He founded a school on Samos and after the Persian occupation he settled in Crotone, South-Italy where he also founded the school for Pythagoreans. Pythagoras was a central figure in the transitional period between Antiquity and the Classical Period. In the world of the Antiquity, the gods play a central part in everyday life; there is a strong attachment to the physical world, to birth and decay, life and death. In the Classical world view, the gods (or god) are felt to have a personal, moral involvement with mankind. Divinity can be found within the soul. Natural phenomena are explained through the notion of causality. Our current view of the world is based on this Classical worldview itself a product of the philosophies of Pythagoras and other pre-Socratic thinkers, and still the source of many modern developments. This underlines the importance of reading and interpreting the original sources in their appropriate contexts. These ancient texts should not be read as prose or poetry; they should be read with the Pythagorean world view in mind.
The Pythagorean moral philosophy is related to Orphic mysticism. It is difficult to distinguish which elements can be ascribed to the Orphics and which to the Pythagoreans. Central to this ethical philosophy was the concept of metempsychosis; the transmigration of the soul. Here we find a certain similarity to Hinduism. Belief in metempsychosis also entailed abstinence from animal products. The Pythagorean ethics are set out in the Golden Verses.
The Golden Verses
These verses outline a way of life that leads to deity of the soul, and were probably written by one of Pythagoras’ followers. The Golden Verses were first put into practice in the Pythagorean Brotherhood in the south of Italy and later in the Pythagorean communities.
PYTHAGOREAN GOLDEN VERSES
Translated by Johan Thom
Honor the immortal gods first, in the order appointed by custom,
and revere your oath. Pay reverence next to the noble heroes
and the spirits of the dead by performing the prescribed rites.
Honor your parents as well as their closest relatives.
Among others, choose as your friend him who excels in virtue. 5
Yield to his gentle words and useful actions,
and do not hate your friend for a small fault,
for as long as you are able to do so. For ability lives near necessity.
Know the above then, and accustom yourself to be master of the
first of all, of your stomach, of sleep, of lust, 10
and of anger. Never do anything shameful, neither with somebody else,
nor on your own. Feel shame before yourself most of all.
Furthermore, practice justice both in deed and in word,
and accustom yourself not to be without thought about anything,
but know that death has been destined for all, 15
and that property is wont to be acquired now, tomorrow lost.
But whatever pains mortals suffer through the divine workings of fate,
whatever lot you have, bear it and do not be angry.
It is fitting that it be healed as far as possible, and say to yourself as
Fate does not give very many of these sufferings to the good. 20
Many words assail human beings, bad as well as good.
Do not be dumbfounded by them, nor allow
yourself to be hindered. If in fact something false is said,
withdraw amiably. Let what I shall tell you, however, be accomplished in
Let no one persuade you either by word or even by deed 25
to do or to say whatever is not best for you.
Deliberate before the deed, lest foolish things result from it.
It is typical of a worthless man indeed to do or to say senseless things.
But bring that to completion which will not distress you afterwards.
Do not do even one thing of what you do not understand, but learn 30
what is necessary, and thus you will lead a most enjoyable life.
You should not be careless about your physical health,
but you should practice due measure in drinking, eating, and physical
exercises. By due measure I mean that which will not distress you.
Become accustomed to have a pure way of life, not an enervated one, 35
and guard against doing the kind of thing that incurs envy.
Do not spend money at the wrong time like someone ignorant of what is
nor be tight-fisted. Due measure is in everything the best.
Do that which will not harm you, and take thought before the deed.
Do not welcome sleep upon your soft eyes 40
before you have reviewed each of the day’s deeds three times:
“Where have I transgressed? What have I accomplished? What duty have I
Beginning from the first one go through them in detail, and then,
if you have brought about worthless things, reprimand yourself, but if you
have achieved good things, be glad.
Work hard at this, meditate on this, you should passionately desire this; 45
this will put you in the footsteps of divine Virtue,
yes, by him who imparted to our soul the tetraktys,
fount of ever-flowing nature. But to work!
and pray to the gods to grant the fulfillment.
When you have mastered these things,
you will come to know the essence of immortal gods and mortal men, 50
how it pervades each thing and how each thing is ruled [by it].
You will come to know, as is right, nature, alike in everything,
so that you do not expect what is not to be expected, nor anything escape
You will come to know that the miseries men suffer are self-incurred
the wretched people, who do not see the good even though it is near, 55
nor do they hear it. Few understand the deliverance from their troubles.
Such is the fate that harms their minds: like tumbling stones
they are borne hither and thither, suffering endless miseries.
For a deadly innate companion, Discord, has injured them
unawares. This one must not promote, but withdraw and flee from it. 60
Father Zeus, you would surely deliver all from many evils,
if you would show all what kind of daimon they have.
But take courage, for mortals have a divine origin,
to whom Nature displays and shows each sacred object.
If you have any share in this, you will master what I command you by
means of a thorough cure, 65
and you will save your soul from these sufferings.
But keep away from food that we have mentioned in Purifications
and in Deliverance of the Soul, with discernment, and consider each thing
by putting the excellent faculty of judgment in control as charioteer.
Then, if you leave the body behind and go to the free aither, 70
you will be immortal, an undying god, no longer mortal.
The Pythagoreans led ascetic lives. Respect for life was essential; vegetarianism was the norm and the sacrifice of animals to the gods was abolished. Pythagoras can thus be regarded as the founder of vegetarianism in Europe. Until the second half of the 19th century anyone who abstained from eating meat and animal products was known as a Pythagorean; it was only later that the word vegetarian was introduced. Vegetarianism became more or less synonymous with the Pythagorean way of life, although the former encompassed much more than a meat-free diet.
Astronomy, music and number theory
The Pythagoreans also made great contributions to the field of astronomy. They assumed the earth was spherical, both on the basis of observation as well as the fact that it was – in their view – the ultimate shape, and fitted best in their system. By comparing the distances between the respective planets and whole and half musical notes, Pythagoras developed his theory of the Harmony of the Spheres. The cosmic scale has a distinctive root note, which we never hear although it is always there. It is said that Pythagoras himself could hear it. The Pythagoreans were highly active in the field of music. It was they who discovered the existence of a ratio between pitch and the length of a string on a sounding board. This led to an understanding of quantitative proportions.
The Pythagoreans were so impressed by the significance of numbers and their relative proportions (harmony) that they declared the number to be the base of all existence, the essence of all things. The well-known triangle theorem that was named after Pythagoras was already known well before his time. The Pythagorean Ecphantus discovered that the earth rotates around its own axis. In the years following this discovery, it was still widely assumed that the planets moved around the sun. Aristarchus of Samos (280 B.C.) was the first to place the sun in the centre, with the earth and the planets revolving around it. It took until the 15 / 16th century for Copernicus to pick up where he left off.