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Pythagoras

Some background Information

Pythagoras (ca. 580-550 BC) founded a school of philosophy in Croton. He formulated principles that influenced both Plato and Aristotle, and he contributed to the development of mathematics in the West.

Few schools of thought have professed such reverence for its founder's authority as the Pythagoreans. "The Master said so" was their watchword. However,

it is difficult to distinguish Pythagoras' teachings from those of his disciples. None of his writings has survived, and Pythagoreans invariably supported their doctrines by indiscriminately citing their master's authority. [EB, "Pythagoras"]

The surviving picture of the teachings is far from complete, but among the basic tenets of the Pythagoreans are the beliefs that (1) reality at its deepest level is mathematical [too]; (2) philosophy can be used for spiritual purification; (3) the soul can rise to union with the divine; and (4) certain symbols have a mystical significance.

Below is a selection of axioms that have been attributed to Pythagoras. They have been taken from the book The Golden Verses of Pythagoras and Other Pythagorean Fragments (1904), where the sayings are selected and arranged by Florence M. Firth. The numbers in brackets refer to her arrangement.

Reflecting deeply on these misty sayings was often resorted to in antiquity, at the very least. Those marked with an asterix (*) have been modified by me. The language has been updated here too.

His Teachings (Hopefully)

Honour the Terrestrial Daemons [1] by rendering them the worship lawfully due to them. And honour likewise your parents, and those most nearly related to you.* (3-4)

1. It is said that in their essence all beings are of one nature with the Father, and that they carry out His will and design insofar as they are alerted to that. The Terrestrial Daemons seem to have been ranked below immortal Gods and "Heroes".

Make him your friend who distinguishes himself by his virtue, and take example from his virtuous and useful actions.* (5, 6)

Power is a near neighbour to necessity. (8)

Accustom yourself to overcome and vanquish the passion of gross sensuality.* (9, 10)

Do nothing evil, neither in the presence of others, nor privately. (11)

Above all things respect yourself and observe justice in your actions and in your words. (12, 13)

Don't accustom yourself to behave in anything without rule and reason.* (14)

Reflect that all men shall die.* (15)

Reflect that the goods of fortune are uncertain.* (16)

All the calamities men suffer by divine fortune - (17.)

Endeavour what you can to remedy your lot in life.* (19)

There are among men many sorts of reasonings, good and bad; Admire them not too easily, nor reject them. (21, 22)

Let no man either by his words or by his deeds, ever seduce you. (25)

Let no man entice you to say or to do what is not profitable for yourself. (26)

Consult and deliberate before you act, that you may not commit foolish actions. (27)

It can be the part of a miserable man to speak and to act without reflection.* (28)

Do that which will not afflict you afterwards, nor oblige you to repentance. (29)

Never do anything which you do not understand. (30)

Learn all you ought to know, and by that means you will lead a very pleasant life. (31)

In no way neglect the health of your body. But give it drink and meat in due measure, and also the exercise of which it has need. By measure I mean what will not incommode you. (32-34*)

Accustom yourself to a way of living that is neat and decent without luxury. (35)

Avoid all things that will occasion envy. (36)

Don't be prodigal out of season, like one who knows not what is decent and honourable. (37)

Neither be covetous nor niggardly; a due measure is excellent in these things. (38)

Do only the things that cannot hurt you, and deliberate before you do them. (39)

Never suffer sleep to close your eyelids, after your going to bed, till you have examined by your reason all your actions of the day. "In what and where have I done amiss? What have I done? What have I omitted that I ought to have done?" If in this examination you find that you have done amiss, reprimand yourself severely for it; and if you have done any good, rejoice. Practise thoroughly all these things; meditate on them well; you ought to love them with all your heart. It is they that will put you in the way of divine virtue. (40-46)

Never begin to set your hand to any work, till you have first prayed to accomplish what you are going to begin.* (48)

According to Law, the nature of this universe is in all things alike, 52)

Do not hope what you ought not to hope. (53)

Men draw upon themselves some of their own misfortunes, often of their own free and deep choice.* (54)

Men of misfortune are an unhappy lot. (Some neither see nor understand what or where their good can be.* (55)

Few know how to deliver themselves out of their misfortunes. (56)

Such is the fate that blinds mankind, and takes away his senses. (57)

Fatal strife [2] mutilates men everywhere. Avoid it.* (59-60.)

2. The fatal strife is caused by "madly to run counter to God's laws" - it should be avoided . . .

Jupiter, show men what daemon they themselves make use of. (61-62)

Take courage; the race of man is divine. (63)

Let sacred nature reveal to you the most hidden mysteries.* (64-65)

Let what is ordained be easily performed.* (65)

And by the healing of your soul, you will deliver it from all evils, from all afflictions. (66)

Abstain from eating certain meats while purifying and delivering the soul. Make a just distinction of them, and examine all things well.* (67-68)

Examine all things well, and leave yourself always to be guided and directed by the understanding that comes from above, and that ought to hold the reins. (68-69)

A Few More Highlights

Pythagoras argued that there are three kinds of men, just as there are three classes of strangers who come to the Olympic Games. The lowest consists of those who come to buy and sell, and next above them are those who come to compete. Best of all are those who simply come to look on.

Xenophanes made fun of him for pretending to recognize the voice of a departed friend in the howls of a beaten dog.

Contents


Pythagoras sayings as attr., Pythagorean sayings, Literature  

d'Olivet, Fabre. The Golden Verses of Pythagoras: Explained and Translated into French and Preceded by a Discourse upon the Essence and Form of Poetry among the Principal Peoples of the Earth. Done into English by N. L. Redfield. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1917. ⍽▢⍽ The verses are related to other matter. A valuable work.

Fairbanks, Arthur, ed. and trans. Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans, Fragments and Commentary. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1898.

Firth, Florence, M., ed. The Golden Verses of Pythagoras and Other Pythagorean Fragments. Krotona, CA: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1904.

Stanley, Thomas. Pythagoras: His Life and Teachings: A Compendium of Classical Sources. Preface by Manly P. Hall, Introduction by Henry L. Drake; Ed. James Wasserman; With a Study of Greek and Latin Sources by J. Daniel Gunther. Lake Worth, FL: Ibis Press, 2010 (1687). ⍽▢⍽ The main text of the book was written by Thomas Stanley and first published in 1687 in The History of Philosophy. This is a modernised and expanded edition.

Taylor, Thomas, tr. Iamblichus' Life of Pythagoras, or Pythagoric life: Accompanied by Fragments of the Ethical Writings of Certain Pythagoreans in the Doric Dialect; and a Collection of Pythagoric Sentences From Stobleus and Others, which Are Omitted by Gale in His Opuscula Mythologica, and Have not Been Noticed by Any Editor. London: J. M. Watkins, 1818.

Uzdavinys, Algis, ed. The Golden Chain: An Anthology of Pythagorean and Platonic Philosophy. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2004. ⍽▢⍽ The book contains excerpts from four traditional accounts of the life and teachings of Pythagoras, and from testimonies of Pythagorean and Neopythagoran tradition. These two parts of the book cover about 65 pages. As it is said above, "We do not know much about Pythagoras . . . It is . . . very difficult to separate truth from fiction, Pythagoras' doctrine from later additions." (p. vii). The book lists the Golden Verses attributed to Pythagoras, and then similar sayings in his tradition, like "The greatest honor which can be paid to God is to know and imitate him. (p. 38). There are many other great sayings by Sextus the Pythagorean too, such as "Such as you wish your neighbour to be to you, such also be to your neighbours." (p. 39). Hopefully you don't want your neighbours to be rude and mean fellows? And there are many other sayings to disagree with from the ranks of the Pythagoreans.

Learning with markers

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