Philosophy and the School of Pythagoras

A Renaissance drawing of Pythagoras and his colleagues

The fundamental difference between the school of Pythagoras and other scholarly institutions of the time was that Pythagoras undertook the education of not only his followers, but of the population of Croton in general. It was in the public gymnasium that he first began speaking; at first to everyone, and later to groups of men, youths, and women separately. Croton wasn't the obvious choice of location, for although it was a fairly large population center, it wasn't the largest in South Italy. However, it had recently suffered a disheartening military defeat, and was perhaps more open to spiritual leadership than it would have been in better times.

Students at the school of Pythagoras didn't live together, but gathered there to learn during the day. They were divided into two groups. First, one became a Hearer, who listened to lectures for three years and wasn't allowed to speak in the presence of those who had been longer in the school than they. Eventually, they attained the rank of Student, or Pythagorean. Even then, they spent their first five years under their new title in silence and contemplation.

Pythagoras preached that what comes first is more honored: dawn before evening, the planners of a city before its builders, gods before demons, and -- most importantly -- those who cause birth. In this way, he taught youths to honor their parents as their parents should honor their ancestors, and to submit to their wishes. Women were allowed by their parents to shift this loyalty to their husbands, whom they should likewise honor. Pythagoras stressed the importance of fidelity, and urged women and men alike to give up luxury for sobriety. Many of his followers were inspired to give up their rich belongings, and the women in particular were reported by Iamblichus to have discarded their ornamental clothing en masse, which Pythagoras dedicated to the temple of Hera, declaring that chastity is the true ornament of womanhood.

To Pythagoras, the universe was not chaotic, but contained a deep underlying order which pervaded the visible world and the minds of men. The main thrust of Pythagoreanism is that men are already divine; we achieve immortality not by becoming divine, but by realizing that which is already within us. He believed that this was done through philosophy and by examining the order of the universe as seen in the motions of the heavens, mathematics, music, and science.

He once said that man was a microcosm of the universe as a whole. For the universe contains Gods, the four elements, animals and plants, and man also is made up of these things: he has the divine power of reason from the Gods, the nature of the four elements, and the same powers of growing and reproduction as do the animals. In this way do the universal principles extend to man, and Pythagoras believed that philosophy was the path to the discovery of this divine nature.

The principle way in which the soul must be cared for, he argued, is to balance its three parts: the rational, spirited, and desirous -- which drive curious, ambitious, and covetous people, respectively. It should be noted that to say these divisions should be balanced is not to say they should be equal; indeed, Pythagoras preached against covetous behavior constantly, condemning luxury and profit in favor of a simpler life.

The philosopher was greatly influenced by Orphism early in his life, and he carried with him from that religion a reverence for the Muses and a belief in reincarnation. Pythagoras claimed to remember his own past lives, and one of the reasons he felt he was a good teacher was that he was able to remind others of their previous lives as well. Unlike Orphism, though -- and other doctrines of the time -- he believed that the cycle of reincarnation would be broken, and immortality achieved, not through religious rites, but through philosophy and erudition.

Iambalchus says that Pythagoras preached the importance of erudition over all else, and listed some of the reasons knowledge is better than material things or "lesser" virtues. First, it can be exercised by oneself, without the presence of others. Also, even when you impart knowledge to someone else, it remains with you, undiminished. Next, knowledge can be imparted to all, whereas some things can belong only to certain people, in certain amounts, there being a limited supply. Finally, a knowledgeable man will take part in the running of his country, and contribute to his society.

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