Divine Harmony

The Life and Teachings of Pythagoras

By John Strohmeier
&
Peter Westbrook

ISBN 0-9653774-5-8 $27.95 Hardback

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Introduction To Divine Harmony

Of all the founders of the Western tradition, Pythagoras is, perhaps, the least well known. This is unfortunate, for understanding Pythagoras and the role his thought plays in our lives is of much more than purely historical interest. Appreciating the influence of this first scientist and philosopher is essential if we are to get beyond a superficial understanding of our intellectual origins.

Pythagoras stands at the fountainhead of our culture. The ideas he set in motion were, according to Daniel Boorstin, “among the most potent in modern history,” resulting directly in many of the pillars upon which the modern world is built. In particular, the very existence of science becomes possible only when it is realized that inner, purely subjective, mathematical forms have a resonance with the form and behavior of the external world—a Pythagorean perception. And a world at peace—that is to say, in a nuclear age, the survival of our planet—is predicated upon ideas of universal brotherhood to which Pythagoras, while not the sole author, made an enormous contribution. Even the seeming remoteness of Pythagorean teaching helps one to realize that the current world view, while it seems destined to dominate the planet, is fleeting and temporary and, like others before it, will pass.

A typical tendency of contemporary readers is to regard Pythagoras, at best, as a mere historical oddity whose ideas have little practical relevance; at worst, as William Irwin Thompson puts it, as “a shamanistic madman from the cults of the Near East.” Recent scholarship by such figures as Erich Neumann and Ken Wilber, however, propose an evolutionary shape for the history of ideas following the underlying unfoldment of internal archetypes of consciousness. Such a context suggests that Pythagoras’ teachings have enormous relevance in understanding both the sources of our culture and, perhaps more importantly, where it may be heading or may need to head. But to appreciate this we have to understand him in modern terms.

There is no suggestion that upon reading this book one should seek out a secret society, eschew meat and beans and take up the study of geometry and the practice of indigenous mysteries. Preferably, the response might be to understand the importance of Pythagoras’ teachings for his own age, and then to seek out the knowledge that can have a similarly profound effect upon our own.

At the dawn of our century, scientists were proclaiming that our understanding of the world was almost complete. Only one or two small problems in physics remained to be solved. One of these problems had to do with black body radiation and was solved by Max Planck. His solution, however, formed the foundation for quantum mechanics which was to sweep aside almost the whole edifice of fundamental assumptions in physics, and with it our understanding of the world.

A hundred years later we are faced with a similar situation. The mechanistic viewpoint that began to dominate our world view in the seventeenth century has almost completed its hegemony. This paradigm, as historian Hugh Kearney points out, stems from only one of three main systems of thought that flowed from Greek thought into the modern world, each of which has dominated our world view at different points in our history. The medieval world adopted the Aristotelian or organic approach to learning while the Renaissance saw a revival of the magical world view which stems from Neoplatonism, thus from Plato and, ultimately, from Pythagoras. In spite of the dominance of mechanistic thought in the contemporary world, a perplexing residue of the magical tradition still survives in the form of several issues, solutions to which do not appear possible within the context of a purely mechanical view of the world. We still do not understand what Eugene Wigner calls "the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the physical sciences.” Similarly, as Victor Zuckerkandl has explained, while “we consume music in greater quantities than any previous generation. ... we no longer know how to read what stands written. We have forgotten the meaning of the characters.” The prime component of music, mathematics, and, indeed, of all other, phenomena, is consciousness. And we have recently discovered that we do not know what consciousness is.

Such problems appear obscure and erudite, but there is evidence that resolving them is of great practical value. In a study in 1968, a group called the Club of Rome set forth what they termed the “world problematique”—the complex of social, economic, and environmental problems that threaten to destroy our planet. In another landmark study in 1972, a group of futurists at Stanford Research Institute arrived at a similar view, that while the current world view and the technologies it supports have created enormous benefits on one level, it has become obsolete and is now responsible for generating the world megaproblem. But the authors of this study held out a slim but tangible hope for a solution. Their recommendation had nothing to do with economics, technology or politics. Rather, it hinged upon the regaining of what Aldous Huxley termed the “perennial philosophy,” an understanding of the relationship between ourselves and the world that lies at the root of every major religious or philosophical movement in our history.

In this context, it is important to recognize that the materialist, scientific paradigm that dominates the late twentieth century world and provides the basis for its dominant institutions, has its basis in the life and work of Pythagoras, one of the most significant representatives of the perennial philosophy and a founder of the magical tradition. This spirit, which gave rise to our world view, is a spirit that must be recaptured if our civilization is to flourish. The choice is a clear one to many, and was summed up in a book title by the late Pythagorean and futurist Buckminster Fuller, Utopia or Oblivion. It is in light of this situation that the authors have produced this volume.


P
thagoras’ life and teachings are not better known, in part, because of the difficulties inherent in reconstructing them. Pythagoras represents a link in a chain of teachings stretching far back into antiquity, extending forward through Plato and Aristotle to the modern world, and back through Orpheus and Dionysus, even, as Alain Daniélou suggests, to the god Siva and the dawn of the human story. He lived at a pivotal moment in this tradition, at a point where it crosses the threshold between history and mythology, and between oral and written transmission. Thus, he is both history and myth. As E. M. Cornford puts it he is, like his contemporary, the Buddha, “one of those divine men of whom history knows least because their lives were at once transfigured into legend.”

Nevertheless, a number of early writers have left us biographical information about Pythagoras, among them the Neoplatonist philosophers Porphyry (ca. 233-305), a student of Plotinus; his own student Iamblichus (ca. 250-325); and the Roman writer Diogenes Laertius, who also flourished during the third century of the common era. A number of Plato’s dialogues directly reflect Pythagorean thought. Aristotle wrote specifically about it. And other early fragments of Pythagorean teaching still survive.

The narrative of Pythagoras' life and philosophy as presented in Divine Harmony is based on these sources, which are the earliest available and are themselves based on written works dating back at least to Aristoxenus, in the fourth century b.c.e. Iamblichus' On the Pythagorean Life has been most useful, and readers familiar with that work, the most extensive surviving account of Pythagoras' life, will see that much of Divine Harmony has been adapted from it in the same way that it was adapted from previous works. We have resisted the lure of later writings, not only in an effort to arrive at a picture of Pythagoras which is as close to the source as possible, but also in order to hold at bay a Hydra-like tradition that sprouts tentacles of speculation at every turn. The end result is, as Plato strives for in the Timaeus, a “likely tale” of this fundamental influence on our culture.

 


Chapter Five
Egypt and Babylon

Pythagoras' plan to learn from the priests of Egypt was difficult to accomplish. Before him no Greek but Thales had been admitted to their schools, and even he had not been initiated into their mysteries. Pythagoras went first to the court of Amasis in Heliopolis, in the northern part of the Nile valley, where he presented the letter of introduction he had secured in Samos. He was warmly received by the Pharaoh, who, in addition to being indebted to Polycrates, was an admirer of Greek culture. Amasis had made lavish gifts to a number of Hellenic sanctuaries, including the temple of Apollo at Delphi, which he helped to rebuild after its destruction by fire. Impressed by the speech and bearing of the young scholar, the Pharaoh provided him with the documents necessary to be admitted to the priestly schools.

At this time, the scientific and religious knowledge of Egypt was preserved at four centers—Heliopolis, Memphis, Hermopolis and Thebes—each with its own distinctive traditions. Following the recommendation of Amasis, Pythagoras called first upon the priests of Heliopolis. Sworn to protect their ancestral teachings, the priests there sent him southward to Memphis, on the pretense that the temple schools there were more ancient and authoritative. Using the same explanation, the priests at Memphis directed him further up the Nile valley to Thebes.

Fearing the anger of Amasis, the priests at Thebes accepted Pythagoras. Before initiating him, however, they imposed upon him extremely harsh disciplines, expecting that this would persuade him to abandon his purpose. He was assigned a strict program of study, service to the temple, fasting, and other ascetic hardships—a program that far exceeded the demands placed upon other applicants to the priesthood. These tasks he performed so readily and exactly that he at last succeeded in winning their respect. He was initiated, and invited to live among them, sacrifice to their gods and study their sciences. No foreigner had ever been granted such extensive privileges.

After mastering the teachings of the school of Thebes, Pythagoras proceeded to all the temples and schools of Egypt. As he traveled, he earned by his hard work and natural talents the respect of each of the priests and scholars he encountered. He sought out the heirs of every oral teaching and absorbed every detail of their knowledge. The first Greek to develop fluency in the Egyptian spoken language and written characters, he mastered mathematics, medicine, herbalism, and was instructed in the stages of the soul's life. He was introduced to the Egyptian sciences of architecture and music, and admitted into the most secret mystery rituals.

In the twenty-third year of his stay, Egypt was overwhelmed by the Persian armies of Cambyses. The Pharaoh Psammetichus, son of Amasis, was executed, and members of the Egyptian priesthood, including Pythagoras, were captured and brought to Babylon. Here, Pythagoras' prodigious learning and receptivity to new ideas were recognized by the Magi, the stewards of Persian religion and science.

It was a momentous time in the history of Persian thought. Only a century before, the reform movement inspired by Zoroaster had emerged, challenging the multiple gods and rigid social hierarchy of Babylonian religion. Fighting for the preeminence of their institutions, the Magi struggled to accommodate the rituals, ethical teachings, and monotheism of Zoroastrianism in their traditional practices. At the same time, the Persian Empire was expanding westward, first into Babylonia and Asia Minor, then Egypt, and ultimately to Athens. The religious hierarchy struggled to assimilate to varying degrees the new gods and foreign practices of subject nations.

Pythagoras found himself at the center of this convergence of old and new sources of knowledge. Sharing his learning and experience with his captors, he was in turn instructed by them, participating in such rituals as the consumption of hallucinogenic haoma-juice, and elaborate purification ceremonies before the sacred fire of Ahura Mazda. He perfected his knowledge of number, harmony, rhythm and the other mathematical sciences. He also mastered astronomy and the interpretation of the heavens, surpassing Thales himself in his ability to predict the future.

After twelve years in Babylon, Pythagoras was allowed to return home to Samos, which was now established as part of the Persian Empire. He was fifty-six years old.


Chapter Sixteen
Magic and Miracles

We must expect all things, since nothing is beyond expectation. All things are easy for God to fulfill, and nothing is impossible of fulfillment. (Dillon p. 158-9)

Ancient sources are nearly unanimous in recording that Pythagoras performed miracles. In evaluating the truth of these sources we are perhaps best advised to follow the practice of Pythagoras himself, who taught his followers to receive with an open mind reports of supernatural events, to be receptive to unorthodox scientific and sacred theories, and to accept as true many stories considered by others as mythological. To the Pythagoreans all such things seemed credible, and worthy of study and experimentation.

They were fascinated by extraordinary occurrences of all kinds, and refused to reject anything that might be explained by the actions of divinity. In all such matters they considered that the stupidity lay with the skeptics, rather than with themselves, for they knew that with the gods all things are possible. As one example, the story is told of a shepherd who reported that he had heard the sound of chanting coming from the tomb of a Pythagorean teacher. A student of the deceased, without hesitation, asked what the song was, not questioning at all the possibility that the dead might sing.

If we are to credit, then, in a similar manner, what serious writers related in the generations following Pythagoras, we should accept that he exerted a powerful influence over animals. He once approached a bear who had caused havoc in the region of Daunia, destroying property and severely injuring a number of people. After approaching it and stroking it gently, feeding it from his hands on maize and acorns, he compelled it by an oath to leave all living beings alone and sent it away. The bear retreated to the mountains and forest, and was never again known to injure any person or animal.

Similarly, in the town of Tarentum he observed an ox in a pasture feeding on green beans. He advised the herdsman to tell his ox that it would be better if he ate other kinds of food. The herdsman laughed, remarking he did not know the language of oxen, but if Pythagoras did, he was welcome to tell him so himself. Pythagoras approached the ox and whispered into its ear for a long time. The ox never again ate beans, and lived to a very old age near the temple of Hera in Tarentum, where he was treated as sacred.

One year, when Pythagoras traveled to Olympia for the athletic games, he met with a group of friends and fell into a discussion of prophecies, omens, and divine signs. He took the position that men of piety continually receive messages from the gods if they but attune themselves to their calling. Flying over his head at that moment was an eagle, who, at his signal, turned, descended and perched on Pythagoras arm. After stroking her awhile and continuing his conversation, he released her. Through this and similar occurrences, Pythagoras demonstrated that he and those who adopted his teachings might possess the same dominion over savage animals as Orpheus, who lured and captivated animals by the power of his song.

There is a tradition that, when passing over the river Casus near Metapontum along with a group of his followers, Pythagoras paused on the bridge to pay his respect to the spirit of the river. In a distinct and clear voice, in the hearing of all, the river responded, "Greetings, Pythagoras!"

His biographers report also that during a single day he was present in Metapontum in Italy, and in Tauromenium in Sicily, instructing disciples in both places, although these cities are separated, by land and sea, by some 200 miles. Some say he was able to travel this distance by means of a sacred, golden dart given to him by Abaris the Hyperborean.

Once, during a trip from Sybaris to Kroton, Pythagoras happened to meet a group of fishermen as they drew up onto the shore their nets filled with fish. As an amusement, he told them he knew the exact number of fish they had caught.

The fishermen declared that if he was correct, they would do anything he said. After the fish had been counted, it was found that he had predicted accurately. His request was simply that they return the fish alive to the sea. What is perhaps more extraordinary, while they stood on the shore, not one fish died, although they had remained out of the water for some time. Pythagoras then paid the fishermen the price of their fish, and continued on towards Kroton.

Like his mentor, Thales, Pythagoras accurately predicted earthquakes. He was also able, through his influence with divine and natural forces, to end an epidemic, to suppress violent storms, and to calm rough waters on rivers and seas for the safe passage of his friends. Similar deeds were performed by Empedocles and Epimenides, both of whom learned these arts from Pythagoras. Empedocles, indeed, was called Alexanamos, "Averter of Winds" because of such abilities.

Among the most extraordinary miracles associated with Pythagoras are those involving Abaris the Hyperborean. Skeptics will dismiss these reports, but those who accept the premise that all things are possible with the gods will discern the truth in them.

Abaris at the time of his first encounter with Pythagoras was already an elderly man, a priest among the Hyperboreans. To the Greeks, the Hyperboreans were a people of mysterious origin and significance, occupying a mountainous land far to the north. This was the region of Apollo's birth, to which the god returned each winter. Hyperboreans were the architects of the first temple of Apollo at Delphi, and from prehistoric times brought annual offerings south to the summer festival of the god. The ancestors of Celtic tribes who were to occupy much of Europe in the centuries that followed, they were noteworthy in the classical world for their religious devotion, for their vegetarian diet, and for their special relationship with the gods Apollo and Artemis.

Abaris had traveled to the islands and mainland of Greece, collecting gold to offer to Apollo in his temple among the Hyperboreans. During this journey, he lived among the priests he visited, foretold future events to his hosts by reading the entrails of animals, and reportedly was never seen to eat or drink. The exact location of his homeland is unknown (some have speculated that his home was in the British Isles), but his return route led him westward across the Mediterranean Sea and past Italy, where he disembarked to visit Pythagoras in Kroton. Considering what he had been told prior to his arrival, and observing Pythagoras' godly manner, his care for his students and the power of his teachings, Abaris concluded that he was, in fact, no man, but none other than Apollo himself.

Abaris honored Pythagoras by offering to him a sacred dart. This dart was a fixture of Abaris' temple of Apollo in the north, and he had taken it with him to Greece to assist him in any difficulties that might befall him in such a long journey to such a distant land. Whenever he encountered otherwise impassable obstacles, such as rivers, lakes, marshes, and mountains, the dart carried him across, and by it he was said to have performed purification rites and expelled diseases and toxic substances from cities. Sparta, for instance, after having been purified by him, was no longer infected with a mysterious disease, which formerly had been widespread, a result of toxic gases arising from the hot ground in the shadow of Mt. Taygetus. Many other similar circumstances were reported of Abaris.

Pythagoras accepted the dart without expressing any surprise or amazement at the powers Abaris ascribed to it, nor did he question why the dart should be presented to him, as if, indeed, he really were Apollo. Then he took Abaris aside and showed him that he possessed a golden thigh—proof that he was not mistaken in recognizing his true identity. As further proof of his divinity, Pythagoras described to him details of his Hyperborean temple, then explained that he had come into the regions of mortality to ease the suffering of living creatures, assuming a human form lest men and women, overcome by the vision of his transcendence, should conclude that the disciplines he advised were beyond human power.

Pythagoras invited Abaris to stay with him to aid him in refining the wisdom and worldliness of his students, and to share the common resources of himself and his associates. So Abaris joined the community of Pythagoreans at Kroton. Because he was already of an advanced age, and unskilled and uninitiated in Greek learning, Pythagoras did not compel Abaris to master introductory theorems, to undertake a period of silence, nor to hear his preparatory lectures, but considered him fit as an immediate listener to his most profound doctrines. Abaris studied physiology and theology, and abandoned the practice of divining by the entrails of beasts. In its place he perfected the art of prognosticating by numbers, recognizing this to be a method purer and more divine, partaking directly of the celestial numbers of the gods.


Selected Fragments

Chapter Nine
Knowledge

Pythagoras was the first to use the word philosophy—the love of wisdom, the science of truth. To illustrate its nature, he used the metaphor of a crowd gathered together for a public event. Here one will find some people driven by the desire to buy and sell, some making a display of their physical strength or appearance, and some busy advancing themselves through self-promotion. Others occupy themselves by observing these people and the landscape that surrounds them, comprehending their patterns, motions and beauty. So it is, he taught, in daily life. Some seek wealth, some power and admiration, and some fame. But the wisest are those who pursue knowledge, and these people he called philosophers.

Central to Pythagoras' concept of knowledge was the distinction he made between appearance and reality. The visible world, he taught, is made of indeterminate forms that arise and decay without ever truly existing. True beings, on the other hand, are immaterial and eternal essences and these alone have power and substance. Philosophy, it follows, is the science of these permanent essences, which are universals from which flow all the particulars of the visible world.

On this basis, Pythagoras formed his curriculum, beginning with the study of numbers, and progressing into music, geometry, logic, divinity, astronomy, medicine and politics. At the basis of these disciplines, he also developed the master sciences of method, common to all of them, such as logic, analysis, and etymology.

Chapter Twelve
Mathematics

For Pythagoras, mathematics served as a bridge between the visible and invisible worlds. He pursued the discipline of mathematics not only as a way of understanding and manipulating nature, but also as a means of turning the mind away from the physical world, which he held to be transitory and unreal, and leading it to the contemplation of eternal and truly existing things that never vary. He taught his students that by focusing on the elements of mathematics, they could calm and purify the mind, and ultimately, through disciplined effort, experience true happiness.

He held that the ultimate substances of all things, material and immaterial, were numbers, which had two distinct and complimentary aspects. On the one hand, they had a spatial and dynamic existence, and, on the other, they were fundamental formulating principles which were purely abstract. Thus, for example, the monad was understood by the Pythagoreans both as the number one, which had physical properties that could be manipulated in nature, and as an idea, which embodied the original unity at the source of all creation. These revolutionary teachings challenged the theory of previous Greek thinkers that the world could be ultimately reduced to a combination of the elements—fire, earth, air, and water. In fact, he taught that these elements themselves, as well as ideas like justice, soul, reason and opportunity, were numbers. By comprehending their operations, he developed skill in predicting the future, and in communing perfectly with men and the gods.

Chapter Thirteen
Music

Pythagoras taught that music should never be approached simply as a form of entertainment. Rather, he recognized that music was an expression of harmonia, the divine principle that brings order to chaos and discord, and holds all things in their proper relationships. As such, music has a dual value. Like mathematics, it enables men and women to see into the fundamental structures of nature. But further, if utilized correctly, it can bring the faculties of the soul into harmony with these structures, composing and purifying the mind and body, and thus restoring and maintaining perfect health.

Chapter Fourteen
Astronomy and Cosmology

For the Pythagoreans, mathematics had four aspects, dealing with all phenomena in their appropriate manner. “Four are the foundations of wisdom,” he stated, “arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy—ordered 1, 2, 3, 4.” Arithmetic studied quantity in general, especially absolute quantity; music apprehended relationships between relative quantities, and geometry dealt with static three-dimensional forms. The last of these disciplines, astronomy, was concerned with bodies when in motion and undergoing orderly change.

It was Pythagoras who first called the universe kosmos, a word whose Greek root implies both order and adornment. For him, the survey of the heavens revealed great beauty through the elegant arrangement of the stars and the order inherent in their revolutions. The heavens embodied for him the pure numbers, perfect figures and motions, and true relationships that exist in the essence of things, and which are perceptible to reason and thought but not visible to the eye. Eternal and unchanging, such essences are the source of beauty and wisdom. Indeed, Pythagoras taught, the quest for knowledge and experience of such forms was the project of philosophy.

Epilogue

Although the Pythagorean school at Kroton disappears from history in the late third century b.c.e., Pythagoras' teachings were not entirely lost with it. The writings of Plato, who went to considerable trouble and expense to obtain a book of Pythagorean doctrine, are deeply influenced by him, particularly the Timaeus. Clothed in neo-Platonic form in the third century, and later merging with aspects of Christian thought, Pythagorean ideas entered into the mainstream of western thought and, gathering other influences, helped shape what has been described as "the great theme" of our culture.

To characterize this theme we need only look to Pythagoras himself. It has been proposed, for example, that there are two sides to Pythagorean thought, one mystical and religious, the other scientific and mathematical. Yet these two aspects are linked by a unifying vision, a vision that is summed up in the word harmonia. Whether seen as the divine harmony inherent in number and music, the element of beauty and order that shapes the cosmos, the attainment of personal attunement that was the final goal of the Pythagorean life, or the exercise of philia in personal and social relationships, we can find harmonia at the core of every aspect of Pythagoras’ teaching and exemplified in every aspect of his life.

The concept of a harmonious universe ordered according to "the Great Chain of Being"—a chain that connects the continuum of matter, body, mind, soul and spirit—stands as one of the most fundamental ideas of western thought. It is at the very core of our culture, represented in countless examples of cosmology, poetry, architecture, theology and iconography, penetrating deeply into scientific and educational institutions and profoundly influencing thinkers from Aquinas to Kepler, and Newton to Einstein. All of this can be traced back to the train of thought set in motion by Pythagoras.

It continues to be a profound influence upon the deepest strata of our thought. And yet a major rift has appeared in the consciousness of our time because the theme of harmonia has not been translated into the realm of human conduct. The challenge of our time may be to revive it, and make divine harmony "the great theme" of the next millennium. Any success we have in accomplishing this will be based, in large part, on the achievements of Pythagoras.