Monday, December 20, 2010

Notes on Pythagoras

Painting Pythagoras' Hymn to the Sun

The following story is told concerning Pythagoras the ancient Greek thinker.
It is related that while observing the stars one night he encountered a young man befuddled with strong drink and mad with jealousy who was piling faggots about his mistress' door with the intention of burning the house. The frenzy of the youth was accentuated by a flutist a short distance away who was playing a tune in the stirring Phrygian mode. Pythagoras induced the musician to change his air to the slow, and rhythmic Spondaic mode, whereupon the intoxicated youth immediately became composed and, gathering up his bundles of wood, returned quietly to his own home.1
The Greeks and Romans told lots of stories about Pythagoras most of them folkloric and amusing. The great majority were to indicate that Pythagoras was a strange wise man.

This story is a particular example of Greek and Roman beliefs about Pythagoras and how brilliant but strange he was. The point of the story is to indicate that Pythagoras was so brilliant and strange that he doesn't do the obvious thing and physically stop the man but instead adopts a solution based on his brilliance and strangeness.

It is unlikely that the real Pythagoras did anything like this. We know very little about the real Pythagoras. The sum total of anything like reliable information about him and his beliefs could be printed on less than 10 pages. All sorts of discoveries were attributed to him after his death along with a large corpus of folkloric stories that tend to grow around wise men.

It appears that Pythagoras wrote nothing and that he was the founder of religious cult that was obsessed with numerology, in southern Italy.

Pythagoras was later in antiquity credited with visiting Egypt and later still being educated into Egyptian secret knowledge. At least one account has him then going to Mesopotamia and getting educated there. The problem with this is that not only are the sources for this much later than Pythagoras' time but also that what we now about Pythagoras' actual beliefs do not show much influence from Egypt or for that that matter Mesopotamia, certainly nothing that indicates a comprehensive education in either of those places. Since Pythagoras was from Samos and Samos traded with Egypt it is possible he visited Egypt. But it is only a possibility. Herodotus for example discusses Pythagoras and also devotes an entire book to discussing Egypt. Even though Herodotus was big on detecting Egyptian influence on Greece he does not mention Pythagoras visiting Egypt. Herodotus does in fact think that the Pythagoreans got the idea of the transmigration of souls from Egypt. The problem with that is that it appears that the Egyptians did not apparently believe in the transmigration of souls or reincarnation. It appears rather unlikely that Herodotus would have failed to mention Pythagoras visiting, or being educated, in Egypt if Herodotus had known that Pythagoras had done so.

The first mention of Pythagoras being in Egypt is from one of the orations, Busiris, written by the Athenian Isocrates in c. 370 B.C.E. In that oration Isocrates is trying to drum up support for Athenian / Greek support for an Egyptian king against the Persians. Its historical validity is dubious. Isocrates speech the Busiris is like all of his speeches a rhetorical exercise. Isocrates reputation as a source of historically accurate information is not good. In this case he is referring to figures who lived more than a century and a half before his time.

Later it became a real cottage industry to have all sorts of revered figures from Greco-Roman antiquity visit Egypt. From King Numa of Rome, to Thales and even such figures as Plato who were all said to have visited Egypt and learned ancient wisdom. In one tale Pythagoras was supposed to have met the Persian Prophet Zarathustra. It is all dubious and more interesting as folklore than history.

The ancient Greeks and Romans claimed that Thales, Pythagoras, Eudoxus, Anaximander, Anaxagoras, Democritis, Plato, visited Egypt along with many others to learn wisdom. In all the above cases it is dubious. For example did Democritis get his idea of atoms from Egypt? Almost certainly not.

The fact is both Thales and Pythagoras became shortly after their deaths the center of all sorts of tales concerning their lives, Pythagoras in fact became almost a supernatural figure of whom all sorts of miracle tales were attributed. As for Egyptian influence on their thought many later Greeks attributed the Pythagorean belief in reincarnation to alleged Egyptian influence. (Apparently starting with Herodotus, although he doesn't mention Pythagoras directly.) The problem is the Egyptians apparently didn't believe in reincarnation. Opps!

One story was that Pythagoras was in Egypt in 525 B.C.E., when Heliopolis was sacked, though it appears Pythagoras moved from Samos to southern Italy in c. 540 B.C.E.

During the life time of Pythagoras history writing was nonexistent and in fact writing of any kind was new to the Greeks. Even during the life of Herodotus the writing of "History" was a very new phenomena, written sources were few and far between for someone to use and it appears that neither Pythagoras or Thales wrote anything, certainly nothing as survived. This situation was ready made for people to fill in the gaps with "plausible" events that never happened.

The fact is Herodotus who is the earliest source for many of the Ionian philosophers did not report any such contact with Egypt by either Thales or Pythagoras or them meeting each other, which was another later story. The fact is both of these philosophers became associated with a large body of mythological / legendary material. The facts about either are frankly elusive. The later legends written about both by the Greeks are very poor guides to what they said and did.

Regarding Pythagoras the story of him going to Egypt apparently originated from his doctrine of reincarnation which Herodotus stated that the Egyptians had. Herodotus is apparently wrong and there is apparently not much of a indication of Egyptian influence in Pythagoras thought, in so far has we can make out what he taught from that of his successors.

Later this was elaborated by later writers to get the following fantasy:
In about 535 BC Pythagoras went to Egypt. This happened a few years after the tyrant Polycrates seized control of the city of Samos. There is some evidence to suggest that Pythagoras and Polycrates were friendly at first and it is claimed that Pythagoras went to Egypt with a letter of introduction written by Polycrates. In fact Polycrates had an alliance with Egypt and there were therefore strong links between Samos and Egypt at this time. The accounts of Pythagoras's time in Egypt suggest that he visited many of the temples and took part in many discussions with the priests. According to Porphyry Pythagoras was refused admission to all the temples except the one at Diospolis where he was accepted into the priesthood after completing the rites necessary for admission.

It is not difficult to relate many of Pythagoras's beliefs, ones he would later impose on the society that he set up in Italy, to the customs that he came across in Egypt. For example the secrecy of the Egyptian priests, their refusal to eat beans, their refusal to wear even cloths made from animal skins, and their striving for purity were all customs that Pythagoras would later adopt. Porphyry says that Pythagoras learnt geometry from the Egyptians but it is likely that he was already acquainted with geometry, certainly after teachings from Thales and Anaximander.

In 525 B.C.E. Cambyses II, the king of Persia, invaded Egypt. Polycrates abandoned his alliance with Egypt and sent 40 ships to join the Persian fleet against the Egyptians. After Cambyses had won the Battle of Pelusium in the Nile Delta and had captured Heliopolis and Memphis, Egyptian resistance collapsed. Pythagoras was taken prisoner and taken to Babylon.2
Both Porphyry and Iamblichus for example not only wrote more than 700 years after the life of Pythagoras but neither are considered to be reliable sources of historical information although they tell us a lot about what people of their time believed to be true. The biographer Diogenes Laertius also wrote more than 700 years after Pythagoras and is basically uncritical and unreliable.

The sources for the Egyptian trips of both of Pythagoras are very late and part of a tradition attributing all sorts of feats to him. The fact is written source material from the fifth is meagre concerning Pythagoras. And the first material alleging the Egyptian visit is from the early 4th century more than a century after their deaths. Although it is of interest that Plato does not mention such a visit. Written source material from the 6th century B.C. was quite minuscule and concerning Pythagoras apparently next to nothing survived. Some Greeks simply assumed Pythagoras, and others, went to Egypt filling in the gaps of their lack of knowledge of his life with "plausible" material.

The consensus of experts on the pre-Socratics is in fact that Pythagoras probably did not visit Egypt however much some may dislike their conclusion. There is no reason to accept late derivative sources over early sources which with the exception of Isocrates do not mention such a trip. Isocrates reputation for accuracy is not very good; he is notorious for sacrificing fact to rhetorical effect and proving some sort of connection between Egypt and Greece fit the rhetorical purpose of that oration.

The fact is evidence for going to Egypt by either is late and nothing in the philosophical material attributed to Pythagoras compels a conclusion that he went to Egypt to say nothing of being taught there. And since Pythagoras is not alleged to have been merchant why would he go? Of course there is the tourist thing and the student thing, both of which are of late development in the traditions and myths concerning Pythagoras.

Herodotus who is our earliest source about either says very little about Pythagoras and does not mention him going to Egypt.

The "extensive body of texts" some rely on are overwhelmingly late sources of dubious value. The fact is modern researchers and experts in this area believe Pythagoras never went to Egypt. There is no evidence in the surviving beliefs attributed to Pythagoras of much direct or frankly indirect Egyptian influence. I see nothing in the philosophy attributed to Pythagoras, (Who apparently wrote nothing.), that necessarily requires Egyptian influence and some that indicates non-Egyptian influences.

The Greeks / Romans became rather found of attributing all sorts of "trips" to the pre-Socratic philosophers, all of which are shall we say dubious.

Since Pythagoras apparently said anything indicating a trip to Egypt and in fact the one thing Pythagoras was supposed to have got from Egypt he did not; there is no need to assume a trip to Egypt for him. Herodotus although he mentions Pythagoras on more than one occasion does not mention him going to Egypt neither does he mention it despite his great interest in Egypt. And in fact he is not adverse to saying the Greeks took things from the Egyptians.

Given that Pythagoras apparently wrote nothing and little was known about him and he very soon after his death, began to acquire a "magical" reputation. It is likely that the Egyptian story was a invention like a lot of the stories about Pythagoras.

Regarding Pythagoras the contemporary consensus is has follows:

1, Pythagoras did not write anything. (The ancient authorities are divided about this but not a single scrap of his writing seems to have survived if he wrote anything, and considering how much the Greeks and Romans wrote about him and his school if he had written anything, that is rather strange.)

2, He was born on the Island of Samos c. 570 B.C.E.

3, About thirty years later, c. 540 B.C.E., he emigrated to the city of Croton in south Italy.

4, Pythogoras founded a school of thought at Croton.

5, Pythogoras became involved in politics in Croton and had to leave for the nearby city of Metapontum were he died.

6, He died c. 500 B.C.E.

That is about it.

After he died all sorts of beliefs, stories, miracles were attributed to him all of similar dubiousness.

1. NWO Library Here

2. Pythagoras of Samos Here.

For a collection of the fragments of the Pythagorans see The First Philosophers, Oxford World Classics, Robin Waterfield, 2000, p. 87-115, and Early Greek Philosophy, Second Revised Edition, Penguin Books, Jonathan Barnes, 2001, p. 28-35, also Kirk, G.S., & Raven, J.E., Schofield, M., The Presocratic Philosophers, Second Edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1983, pp. 214-238.

Herodotus in his Histories, refers to Pythagoras in Book 4, s. 95-96, and indirectly in Book 2, s. 123. Isocrates mentions Pythagoras in his oration Busiris, s. 28-29.

Pierre Cloutier

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