Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, with Burnet's notes
44. Akousmata 46. Arithmetic

From Chapter II., Science and Religion

45. Pythagoras as a Man of Science
Now, were this all, we should be tempted to delete the name of Pythagoras from the history of philosophy, and relegate him to the class of "medicine-men" (γόητες) along with Epimenides and Onomakritos. That, however, would be quite wrong. The Pythagorean Society became the chief scientific school of Greece, and it is certain that Pythagorean science goes back to the early years of the fifth century, and therefore to the founder. Herakleitos, who is not partial to him, says that Pythagoras had pursued scientific investigation further than other men.64 Herodotos called Pythagoras "by no means the weakest sophist of the Hellenes," a title which at this date does not imply the slightest disparagement, but does imply scientific studies.65 Aristotle said that Pythagoras at first busied himself with mathematics and numbers, though he adds that later he did not renounce the miracle-mongering of Pherekydes.66 Can we trace any connexion between these two sides of his activity?

We have seen that the aim of the Orphic and other Orgia was to obtain release from the "wheel of birth" by means of "purifications" of a primitive type. The new thing in the society founded by Pythagoras seems to have been that, while it admitted all these old practices, it at the same time suggested a deeper idea of what "purification" really is. Aristoxenos said that the Pythagoreans employed music to purge the soul as they used medicine to purge the body.67 Such methods of purifying the soul were familiar in the Orgia of the Korybantes,68 and will serve to explain the Pythagorean interest in Harmonics. But there is more than this. If we can trust Herakleides, it was Pythagoras who first distinguished the "three lives," the Theoretic, the Practical, and the Apolaustic, which Aristotle made use of in the Ethics. The doctrine is to this effect. We are strangers in this world, and the body is the tomb of the soul, and yet we must not seek to escape by self-murder; for we are the chattels of God who is our herdsman, and without his command we have no right to make our escape.69 In this life there are three kinds of men, just as there are three sorts of people who come to the Olympic Games. The lowest class is made up of those who come to buy and sell, and next above them are those who come to compete. Best of all, however, are those who come to look on (θεωρεῖν). The greatest purification of all is, therefore, science, and it is the man who devotes himself to that, the true philosopher, who has most effectually released himself from the "wheel of birth." It would be rash to say that Pythagoras expressed himself exactly in this manner; but all these ideas are genuinely Pythagorean, and it is only in some such way that we can bridge the gulf which separates Pythagoras the man of science from Pythagoras the religious teacher.70 It is easy to understand that most of his followers would rest content with the humbler kinds of purification, and this will account for the sect of the Akousmatics. A few would rise to the higher doctrine, and we have now to ask how much of the later Pythagorean science may be ascribed to Pythagoras himself.

Burnet's Notes


64. Herakl. fr. 17 (R. P. 31 a). The word ἱστορίη is in itself quite general. What it chiefly means here we see from a valuable notice preserved by Iamblichos, V. Pyth. 89, ἐκαλεῖτο δὲ ἡ γεωμετρία πρὸς Πυθαγόρου ἱστορία.

65. Herod. iv. 95.

66. Arist. Περὶ τῶν Πυθαγορείων, fr. 186, 1510 a 39, Πυθαγόρας Μνησάρχου υἱὸς τὸ μὲν πρῶτον διεπονεῖτο περὶ τὰ μαθήματα καὶ τοὺς ἀριθμούς, ὕστερον δέ ποτε καὶ τῆς Φερεκύδου τερατοποιΐας οὐκ ἀπέστη.

67. See Cramer, An. Par. i. 172, ὅτι οἱ Πυθαγορικοί, ὡς ἔφη Ἀριστόξενος, καθάρσει ἐχρῶντο τοῦ μὲν σόματος διὰ τῆς ἰατρικῆς, τῆς δὲ ψυχῆς διὰ τῆς μουσικῆς.

68. These are mentioned in Plato, Laws, 790 d, a passage which is the origin of Aristotle's doctrine of κάθαρσις. For a full account see Rohde, Psyche, ii. 48, n. 1.

69. Plato gives this as the Pythagorean view in Phaed. 62 b. The passage distinctly implies that it was not merely the theory of Philolaos, but something older.

70. See Döring in Arch. v. pp. 505 sqq. There seems to be a reference to the theory of the "three lives" in Herakleitos, fr. 111. It was apparently taught in the Pythagorean Society of Phleious; for Herakleides made Pythagoras expound it in a conversation with the tyrant of Phleious (Cic. Tusc. v. 3; Diog. pr. 12, viii. 8), and Plato makes Sokrates argue from it in the Phaedo (see my note on 68 c 2).

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