Pythagorean Practice

Pythagorean Practice

Pythagoras on the Purpose of Philosophy

In this essay, I’d like to turn from investigating Pythagorean doctrine to examining Pythagorean practice. For Pythagoras identified philosophy not with a set of abstract doctrines to be grasped by the understanding alone, but with a way of life that purified and strengthened the soul. Porphyry, for instance, describes Pythagoras’s account of philosophy as follows:

 “He cultivated philosophy, the scope of which is to free the mind implanted within us from the impediments and fetters within which it is confined, without whose freedom none can learn anything sound or true, or perceive the unsoundness in the operation of sense. Pythagoras thought that mind alone sees and hears, while all the rest are blind and deaf. The purified mind should be applied to the discovery of beneficial things, which can be effected by certain arts, which by degrees induce it to the contemplation of eternal and incorporeal things which never vary. This orderliness of perception should begin from consideration of the most minute things, lest by change the mind should be jarred and withdraw itself, through the failure of continuousness in its subject-matter” (Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras §46 trans. Gutherie).

And a similar account is given by Iamblichus when he claims that:

“[Pythagoras] was the cause to his disciples of the most appropriate converse with the Gods, both when they were awake and when they were asleep; a thing which never takes place in a soul disturbed by anger, or pain, or pleasure, or, by Jupiter, by any other base desire, or defiled by ignorance, which is more unholy and nauseous than all these. By all these inventions, therefore, he divinely healed and purified the soul, resuscitated and saved its divine part, and conducted to the intelligible its divine eye, which, as Plato says, is better worth saving than ten thousand corporeal eyes; for by looking through this alone, when it is strengthened and clarified by appropriate aids, the truth pertaining to all beings is perceived. Referring therefore to this, Pythagoras purified the dianoetic power of the soul. Such also was the form with him of erudition, and these were the things to which he directed his view.” (Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras XVI, trans. Taylor).

Such a view can sound quaint today, in an age that both reduces mind to body and dissolves that very body in a virtual world. What does Pythagoras mean when he says “the mind alone sees and hears, while all the rest are blind and deaf”? Isn’t the mind seeing or hearing something synonymous with a “switch being flipped” in the brain to activate a particular neural “circuit”?[1] I’ve discussed the issue in more depth elsewhere, but for now let’s consider an example that can help us understand Pythagoras’s perspective. Suppose you are going on stage to give an important speech, and you trip and fall. You catch yourself, so your hands bear the brunt of the force, but the impact still hurts. You feel the solidity of the floor as your forearms strike it, then a sharp, warm, numb feeling, followed by a slow creeping pain, and then embarrassment as you realize what has happened. An internal monologue then begins, “you are a failure”, “no one will listen to you now”, “you always screw everything up! Why do you even bother trying!”. Notice first that none of this is straightforwardly synonymous with saying that a particular brain circuit has been activated. In fact, you most likely don’t know what particular brain state you are in at the moment, but this doesn’t stop you from talking about your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. If an extraterrestrial craft were to land, and an alien were to walk out on stage, scan your brain, and show you exactly what neural circuits were activated, you would most likely be surprised. Yet you would not have been surprised if the alien had informed you that pain hurt or that pain was an unpleasant sensation. Prima facie then, our everyday concepts of thought, feeling, and sensation are not synonymous with the concepts of brain states.

Let’s return to our example of tripping on stage and feeling embarrassed.  What might it mean when Pythagoras claims that “the mind alone sees and hears, while all the rest are blind and deaf.” At its most general level, the Pythagorean point is that consciousness is the sole locus of all our experience. When I say I have a pain in my hand, it means I am aware of a pain as located in my hand. My hand, considered abstractly as a mere material object devoid of consciousness (i.e. as a particular set of representational contents), doesn’t, strictly speaking, feel anything. But more particularly, Pythagoras’s point is to call attention to the stable unchanging character of the observing mind, what later philosophers would call transcendental subjectivity, in contrast to the changing world of experience that confronts it. Suppose our embarrassed speaker were to take a few minutes to examine his experience. He would note how the initial warm tingling sensation in his hand slowly transformed into a dull sense of pain, he could feel the initial disorientation and shock slowly change into embarrassment and shame, and he could hear the shift from stunned silence to the progressing chatter of an internal monologue calling him a screw up and a failure. The experiences constantly change, but, beneath them, the subject who is aware of these experiences remains constant. And it is in this realm of constancy that the truth may perhaps reside.

The practices of the Pythagoreans were thus designed to strengthen this stable self and to liberate the soul from the delusions of the material world of becoming. Indeed, one could be considered a Pythagorean simply by adhering to these practices. Diogenes Laertius even claims that Pythagoras considered as friends any who adopted his precepts, observing: “Pythagoras was famous for his power of attracting friendships; and among other things, if he ever heard that any one had adopted his symbolic precepts, he at once made him a companion and a friend” (Diogenes Laertius, Life of Pythagoras § 16 trans. Gutherie).  Pythagoreans thus fell into two classes, the akousmatikoi or the Hearers, who followed the Pythagorean way of life without understanding the underlying reasons upon which it was grounded, and the mathematikoi or the Students, who understood those underlying reasons (Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras § 37 trans. Gutherie).

Symbols and Maxims.

Many of these practices were handed down as symbols and maxims. These may have been grounded in existing rituals popular in Pythagoras’s time and into which he infused a new philosophical meaning, or they may have been invented by him to illustrate his teaching. They initially appear rather cryptic: do not go beyond the balance, tear not to pieces the crown, eat not the heart, do not poke fire with a sword, do not go by the public way, help a man to take up a burden, but not to lay it down, wear not the image of god in your ring, etc.. While these precepts do indeed seem perplexing when examined superficially, Pythagoreans assigned them a moral meaning that renders them intelligible. For example, “do not go beyond the balance” is an injunction to be just, to be fair in one’s dealings with others, and to cultivate balance in one’s own soul. “Tear not to pieces the crown” means that we should not be killjoys for ourselves or others. We should celebrate successes rather than criticizing or minimizing them. “Eat not the heart” means that we should not give ourselves over to excessive grief. While there is an essential connection between grief and wisdom (as evinced in texts such as Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Iliad), it is nonetheless possible to grieve to excess. These are the instances where we feed upon our own grief. Rather than letting it flow, we constrain it and feast upon it so that we can derive a certain kind of pleasure in our melancholy. [2] It is this kind of constrained grief that Pythagoras warns us to avoid. “Do not poke fire with a sword” means that we should avoid needlessly provoking anger in ourselves or others. “Do not go by the public way” means that we should avoid the mob and the popular forms of life endorsed by it. Maximinus expresses this sentiment as follows:

“The Pythagoric Letter two ways spread,/ Shows the two paths in which Man’s life is lead./ The right hand track to sacred Virtue tends,/ Though steep and rough at first, in rest it ends;/ The other broad and smooth, but from its Crown/ On rocks the Traveler is tumbled down./ He who to Virtue by harsh toils aspires,/ Subduing pains, worth and renown acquires:/ But who seeks slothful luxury, and flies,/ The labor of great acts, dishonor’d dies.” (Maximinus, cited in The Pythagorean Sourcebook, 158).

Similarly, the injunction to help people pick up burdens but not lay them down instructs us to help people in their quest to become virtuous, and never to aid them in abandoning those aspirations. And finally, the injunction to not wear the image of god in your ring is an injunction to not use the divine for our own devices. Signet rings were used to seal documents and communicate personal authority, so using the image of a god in this way would have been tantamount to using them for our own finite agendas. The point here is thus similar to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic injunction against graven images and taking the name of God in vain. It is also akin to the Daoist idea of living in accordance with nature. Consider, for example, the story of Cook Ding. Though the story would conflict with the Pythagorean commitment to vegetarianism, it nonetheless shares the overarching point about not using the divine for our own purposes.

“Cook Ding was cutting up an ox for Lord Wenhui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee–Zip! Zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Jingshou music.  ‘Ah, this is marvelous!’ said Lord Wenhui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”

            Cook Ding laid down his knife and replied, ‘What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now–now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop, and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

            ‘A good cook changes his knife once a year–because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month–because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room–more than enough for the blade to play about in. That’s why after nineteen years, the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.

            However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until flop! The whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.’

            ‘Excellent’ said Lord Wenhui. ‘I have heard the words of Cook Ding and learned how to care for life!” (Zhuangzi, 19-20 trans. Watson).

We can thus see that these terse symbols and reflections encode a powerful form of life. Indeed, I would even suggest that they would prove to be more fruitful than the rules for life offered by the contemporary self help industry.

Evening Reflections

I’ll conclude this essay by describing another Pythagorean practice that you might want to experiment with for yourself. This exercise is contained in the Golden Verses and is described as follows:

“Never let slumber approach your wearied eyelids, ere thrice you review what this day you did: Wherein have I erred? What did I? What duty is neglected? All, from the first to the last, review; and if you have erred grieve in your spirit, rejoicing for all that was good. With zeal and industry, this, then, repeat; and learn to repeat it with joy. Thus wilt thou tread on the paths of heavenly virtue.” (The Golden Verses, trans. Rowe).

Pythagoras thus invites us to run through the events of the day before sleep and reflect on them. Note how this focuses the attention, expands the memory, and exercises our narrative powers. Rather than simply forgetting everything that happened during the day, we pull it together and transform it into a coherent narrative. We also engage in rational evaluation. We examine our behavior to see where we have acted with integrity and where we have failed to do so. And we respond appropriately to both. Where we have done well, we take the time to celebrate our achievements. And where we have failed, we reprove ourselves appropriately and formulate ways of acting differently in the future. Notice the balanced nature of such an approach. As opposed to the anxious perfectionist who focuses only on his mistakes and wallows in his feelings of shame, the Pythagorean approach allows for reflective action to be taken and also encourages people to also attend to the good they have done throughout the day. And as opposed to the gratitude exercises made popular by positive psychology,[3] Pythagoreans teach us to pay attention to both good and bad, and, of the goods focused on, to give priority to those that flow from action and our moral character. For example, rather than merely recording “beautiful sunrise” in a gratitude journal, the Pythagorean would observe something like, “I took the time to attend to the beauty of the sunrise and commune with it, quietly listening to what it had to tell me.” Rather than chronicling mere events, the Pythagorean celebrates noble actions.  In this manner, the Pythagorean life appears to offer a more balanced approach than those on offer today. And, in addition to being more balanced, it is also aimed towards a different, more lofty, goal. This is highlighted at the conclusion of the Pythagorean verses:

“Never start on your task until you have implored the blessing of the Gods. If this you hold fast, soon will you recognize of Gods and mortal men the true nature of existence, how everything passes and returns. Then will you see what is true, how Nature in all is most equal, so that you hope not for what has no hope, nor that anything should escape you. Men shall you find whose sorrows they themselves have created, wretches who see not the Good that is too near, nothing they hear; few know how to help themselves in misfortune. That is the fate that blinds humanity; in circles, hither and yon they run in endless sorrows; for they are followed by a grim companion, disunion within themselves; unnoticed, ne’er rouse him, and fly from before him! Father Zeus, O free them all from sufferings so great, or show unto each the daimon, who is their guide! Yet, do not fear, for the mortals are divine by race, to whom holy Nature everything will reveal and demonstrate; whereof if you have received, so keep what I teach you; healing your soul, you shall remain insured from manifold evil. Avoid foods forbidden; reflect that this contributes to the cleanliness and redemption of your soul. Consider all things well: Let reason, the gift divine, be thy highest guide. Then should you be separated from the body, and soar in the aether, you will be imperishable, a divinity, a mortal no more. [ἢν δ’ ἀπολείψας σῶμα ἐς αἰθέρ’ ἐλεύθερον ἔλθηις, ἔσσεαι ἀθάνατος, θεός ἄμβροτος, οὐκέτι θνητός].”  (The Golden Verses, trans. Rowe).

Peter Yong, PhD.

[The picture used at the beginning of this essay is by Geoffrey Tory (1529) and is in the public domain. It can be found here: ]

[1] For an example of such confusion, note the fundamental misconstrual of phenomenology in this popular video that takes itself to be teaching philosophy. It’s also worth noting how it uses mercury’s glyph as a fashion accessory while simultaneously denigrating his domain of writing and texts.

[2] St. Augustine makes a similar point in the Confessions when he remarks: “And now, O Lord, these things are passed away, and time has healed my wound. May I learn from You, who art Truth, and apply the ear of my heart unto Your mouth, that You may tell me why weeping should be so sweet to the unhappy. Have You — although present everywhere — cast away far from You our misery? And You abide in Yourself, but we are disquieted with various trials; and yet, unless we wept in Your ears, there would be no hope for us remaining. Whence, then, is it that such sweet fruit is plucked from the bitterness of life, from groans, tears, sighs, and lamentations? Is it the hope that You hear us that sweetens it? This is true of prayer, for therein is a desire to approach unto You. But is it also in grief for a thing lost, and the sorrow with which I was then overwhelmed? For I had neither hope of his coming to life again, nor did I seek this with my tears; but I grieved and wept only, for I was miserable, and had lost my joy. Or is weeping a bitter thing, and for distaste of the things which aforetime we enjoyed before, and even then, when we are loathing them, does it cause us pleasure?” (Confessions, IV.10 trans. Pilkington). Or, for a more contemporary account,


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