Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, with Burnet's notes
36. Relation of Religion and Philosophy 38. Life of Pythagoras

From Chapter II., Science and Religion


37. Character of the Tradition
It is not easy to give any account of Pythagoras that can claim to be regarded as historical. The earliest reference to him, indeed, is practically a contemporary one. Some verses are quoted from Xenophanes in which we are told that Pythagoras once heard a dog howling and appealed to its master not to beat it, as he recognised the voice of a departed friend .17 From this we know that he taught the doctrine of transmigration. Herakleitos, in the next generation, speaks of his having carried scientific investigation (ἱστορίη) further than any one, though he made use of it for purposes of imposture.18 Later, though still within the century, Herodotos19 speaks of him as "not the weakest scientific man (σοφιστής) among the Hellenes," and he says he had been told by the Greeks of the Hellespont that the legendary Scythian Salmoxis had been a slave of Pythagoras at Samos. He does not believe that; for he knew Salmoxis lived many years before Pythagoras. The story, however, is evidence that Pythagoras was well known in the fifth century, both as a scientific man and as a preacher of immortality. That takes us some way.

Plato was deeply interested in Pythagoreanism, but he is curiously reserved about Pythagoras. He only mentions him once by name in all his writings, and all we are told then is that he won the affections of his followers in an unusual degree (διαφερόντως ἠγαπήθη) by teaching them a "way of life," which was still called Pythagorean.20 Even the Pythagoreans are only once mentioned by name, in the passage where Sokrates is made to say that they regard music and astronomy as sister sciences.21 On the other hand, Plato tells us a good deal about men whom we know from other sources to have been Pythagoreans, but he avoids the name. For all he says, we should only have been able to guess that Echekrates and Philolaos belonged to the school. Usually Pythagorean views are given anonymously, as those of "ingenious persons" (κομψοί τινες) or the like, and we are not even told expressly that Timaios the Lokrian, into whose mouth Plato has placed an unmistakably Pythagorean cosmology, belonged to the society. We are left to infer it from the fact that he comes from Italy. Aristotle imitates his master's reserve in this matter. The name of Pythagoras occurs only twice in the genuine works that have come down, to us. In one place we are told that Alkmaion was a young man in the old age of Pythagoras,22 and the other is a quotation from Alkidamas to the effect that "the men of Italy honoured Pythagoras."23 Aristotle is not so shy of the word "Pythagorean" as Plato, but he uses it in a curious way. He says such things as "the men of Italy who are called Pythagoreans,"24 and he usually refers to particular doctrines as those of "some of the Pythagoreans." It looks as if there was some doubt in the fourth century as to who the genuine Pythagoreans were. We shall see why as we go on.

Aristotle also wrote a special treatise on the Pythagoreans which has not come down to us, but from which quotations are found in later writers. These are of great value, as they have to do with the religious side of Pythagoreanism.

The only other ancient authorities on Pythagoras were Aristoxenos of Taras, Dikaiarchos of Messene, and Timaios of Tauromenion, who all had special opportunities of knowing something about him. The account of the Pythagorean Order in the Life of Pythagoras by Iamblichos is based mainly on Timaios,25 who was no doubt an uncritical historian, but who had access to information about Italy and Sicily which makes his testimony very valuable when it can be recovered. Aristoxenos had been personally acquainted with the last generation of the Pythagorean society at Phleious. It is evident, however, that he wished to represent Pythagoras simply as a man of science, and was anxious to refute the idea that he was a religious teacher. In the same way, Dikaiarchos tried to make out that Pythagoras was simply a statesman and reformer.26

When we come to the Lives of Pythagoras, by Porphyry, Iamblichos, and Diogenes Laertios,27 we find ourselves once more in the region of the miraculous. They are based on authorities of a very suspicious character,28 and the result is a mass of incredible fiction. It would be quite wrong, however, to ignore the miraculous elements in the legend of Pythagoras; for some of the most striking miracles are quoted from Aristotle's work on the Pythagoreans29 and from the Tripod of Andron of Ephesos,30 both of which belong to the fourth century B.C., and cannot have been influenced by Neopythagorean fancies. The fact is that the oldest and the latest accounts agree in representing Pythagoras as a wonder-worker; but, for some reason, an attempt was made in the fourth century to save his memory from that imputation. This helps to account for the cautious references of Plato and Aristotle, but its full significance will only appear later.

Burnet's Notes


17. Xenophanes, fr. 7.

18. Herakleitos, fr. 17. For the meaning given to κακοτεχνίη, see note in loc.

19. Herod. iv. 95.

20. Plato, Rep. x. 600 b.

21. Ibid. vii. 530 d.

22. Arist. Met. A, 5. 986 a 29.

23. Arist. Rhet. B, 23. 1398 b 14.

24. Cf. e.g. Met. A, 5. 985 b 23; De caelo, B, 13. 293 a 20.

25. See Rostagni, "Pitagora e i Pitagorici in Timeo" (Atti della R. Academia delle Scienze di Torino, vol. 49 (1913-14), pp. 373 sqq.

26. See E. Rohde's papers, "Die Quellen des Iamblichos in seiner Biographie des Pythagoras," in Rh. Mus. xxvi. and xxvii.

27. Porphyry's Life of Pythagoras is the only considerable extract from his History of Philosophy that has survived. The Life by Iamblichos has been edited by Nauck (1884).

28. Iamblichos made a compilation from the arithmetician Nikomachos of Gerasa and the romance of Apollonios of Tyana. Porphyry used Nikomachos and Antonius Diogenes, who wrote a work called Marvels from beyond Thule, which is parodied in Lucian's Vera Historia.

29. It is Aristotle who told how Pythagoras killed a deadly snake by biting it, how he was seen at Kroton and Metapontion at the same time, how he exhibited his golden thigh at Olympia, and how he was addressed by a voice from heaven when crossing the river Kasas. It was also Aristotle who preserved the valuable piece of information that the Krotoniates identified Pythagoras with Apollo Hyperboreios, and that the Pythagoreans had a division of the λογικὸν ζῷον into τὸ μὲν . . . θεός, τὸ δὲ ἄνθρωπος, τὸ δὲ οἷον Πυθαγόρας. For these and other statements of the same kind, see Diels, Vors. 4, 7. It looks as if Aristotle took special pains to emphasise this aspect of Pythagoras out of opposition to the later Pythagoreans who tried to ignore it.

30. Andron wrote a work on the Seven Wise Men, and the title refers to the well-known story (p. 44, n. 3).

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