Guide Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism

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Here at last we see through the mists of fiction to something that approximates historical fact. Now, however many readers of this essay believe that their soul will survive death, rather few, I imagine, believe that it also pre-existed their birth. The religions that have shaped Western culture are so inhospitable to the idea of pre-existence that you probably reject the thought out of hand, for no good reason. Be patient.

Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism

There are more exotica to come:. Abstain from beans. Eat only the flesh of animals that may be sacrificed. Do not step over the beam of a balance.

Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism — Walter Burkert | Harvard University Press

On rising, straighten the bedclothes and smooth out the place where you lay. Spit on your hair clippings and nail parings. Destroy the marks of a pot in the ashes. Do not piss towards the sun. Do not use a pine-torch to wipe a chair clean. Do not look in a mirror by lamplight. On a journey do not turn around at the border, for the Furies are following you.


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Do not make a detour on your way to the temple, for the god should not come second. Do not help a person to unload, only to load up. Do not dip your hand into holy water. Do not kill a louse in the temple. Do not stir the fire with a knife. One should not have children by a woman who wears gold jewellery. One should put on the right shoe first, but when washing do the left foot first.

One should not pass by where an ass is lying. The list could be continued, on and on. Item two puts paid to the widespread idea that the Pythagoreans were always strict vegetarians. A number of the prescriptions have parallels in ancient cult practice.

But the important thing to my mind is the sheer quantity of the rules that constrain a Pythagorean life, and the minute scrupulosity they enforce. What are the isles of the blest? Sun and Moon. Pythagoras is the Hyperborean Apollo. An earthquake is a mass meeting of the dead. The purpose of thunder is to threaten those in Tartarus, so that they will be afraid.

The sea is the tears of Cronus. The ring of bronze when it is struck is the voice of a daemon trapped within it. Add these indicatives to those imperatives and one realises that the world the followers of Pythagoras inhabit is a world full of taboos and threatening forces. All the more reason to try to escape the cycle of reincarnation, with the aid of the Hyperborean Apollo, and reach the isles of the blest. The more arbitrary the discipline, the more it works to reinforce belief in the cause. For only the truth of the belief and the righteousness of the cause could justify the hardship of submission.

It is no accident that organisations like the Church of Scientology often insist that newly recruited acolytes cut themselves off from all contact with their families. All those years ago, when as an undergraduate I was studying the Cambridge interpretation of Pythagoreanism with John Raven, there came a knock on my door.

Three young men of about my age came in to speak about the work of the Plymouth Brethren.

Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism. Edwin L. Minar, Walter Burkert

In the course of our conversation, one of them said, in his quiet-spoken way, that his favourite pastime was bird-watching, but he had been persuaded to sell his binoculars to help finance the work of the Brethren. He was telling me how much the cause meant to him. I heard only the cruelty of a sect out to bind him by making him give up his most precious possession. For the more he sacrificed, the more he would need, psychologically, to believe in the cause.

I do not mean that the Plymouth Brethren are insincere, or that Pythagoras did not believe in his cause as whole-heartedly as his followers were disciplined to do. Let it be the case that Pythagoras sincerely believed, and got his followers to believe, that he was the Hyperborean Apollo and that, as Euphorbus, he had fought Menelaus during the Trojan War. That only makes it all the more clear that he belongs to the history of politically intrusive religious movements, not to the history of philosophy or science. Even less does he deserve his traditional place in the history of mathematics.

Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism

Burnyeat sets out to show that the notion that Pythagoras was the original architect of mathematical demonstration, or even a practitioner, is without basis or warrant LRB , 22 February. Nowhere, though, does Burnyeat directly address, still less refute, what many students of pre-Socratic philosophy attribute to Pythagoras, and regard as his primary importance in the history of philosophy, namely his introduction of the idea of abstract entities and some type of psycho-physical dualism.

Obviously enough, people before Pythagoras believed in numbers and in the transmigration of souls; but Pythagoras seems to have been the first to make such ideas matter in philosophy. Published by Harvard , Cambridge, Mass. About this Item: Harvard , Cambridge, Mass. More information about this seller Contact this seller 5. Published by Harvard University Press About this Item: Harvard University Press, More information about this seller Contact this seller 6.

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