His interest to us in this article is Pythagoras' claim to fame as the founder of a religious movement called Pythagoreanism.
No writings attributed to Pythagoras about his religious doctrine have survived. What we know comes from the writings of Diogenes Laërtius, Parmenides, Empedocles, Philolaus and Plato, some of whom who were either Pythagoreans or were influenced by Pythagoras. While these authors provide differing accounts of Pythagorean beliefs, it is nevertheless said that he was the first man to call himself philosophos (a philosopher), a lover of wisdom, rather than sophos or wise person [cf. Cicero in Tusculan Disputations 5.3.8–9; Heraclides Ponticus and Diogenes Laërtius 1.12, 8.8].
These Classical Greek writers [Diogenes Laertius at viii. 2; Porphyry at Vita Pythagorica 11, 12; Iamblichus at De Vita Pythagorica 14] also inform us that Pythagoras undertook extensive travels visiting Egypt, Phoenicia, Arabia, Judaea, Babylon (then part of the Persian Empire) and India. The Egyptians taught him geometry, the Phoenicians arithmetic, the Chaldeans astronomy, and the Magians, that is Zoroastrians, taught him the principles of religion and practical maxims for the conduct of life (also see the Golden Verses of Pythagoras). Pythagorean (as well as Neo-Platonic) "scriptures" are said to have included the Chaldean Oracles of Zoroaster. Indeed, the claim is that he learnt Zoroastrian teachings from Zoroaster himself, though we know that would not be possible for Zoroaster lived many hundred years before Pythagoras.
|Pythagoreans celebrate the sunrise by Fyodor Bronnikov 1827-1902. Image credit: Wikipedia|
Pythagorean beliefs are based on the Oracles of Zoroaster and are very close to Neo-Platonic beliefs.
The Primordial Unity
According to Pythagorean beliefs, the Primordial Unity is called called Aion (Eternity). This indescribable and unimaginable deity is beyond the limits of time and transcends all dualities including that of being and not-being.
The First Polarity and Duality
The self-fertilizing Aion gives birth to (or divides into) two gods Kronos and Rhea. They are the First Polarity, the First Duality. This First polarity governs the primary dualities such as the male-female, father-mother, unity-multiplicity and light-darkness dualities. Among these dualities. Kronos and Rhea by their cyclic alternation create existential time that humans perceive. Kronos is abiding while Rhea is proceeding (cf. our page on yin-yang duality - rest and activity), who by her power to change causes Kronos to become Khronos (Time).
Bythos, the Abyss
Kronos and Rhea are called Bythos, the deep yet high abyss. They are impenetrably deep and inaccessibly high. In them, the greatest height unites with the greatest depth. Proclus calls Them "dissimilarly alike": Kronos is the supreme simplicity of the One Mind; Rhea is the supreme simplicity of Primordial Matter which is in turn the universal foundation of all existence.
Monad, Unity. Dyad, Duality. Henads, Plurality
When Kronos and Rhea unite in marriage, their's is a union of the opposites, and in doing so they become the father and mother of the gods. Since Kronos embodies the Monad (the principle of unity) and since Rhea embodies the indefinite dyad (the principle of plurality), the union of the two engenders a plurality of divine unities (Henads) otherwise known as the Olympian gods of the Empyrean Realm.
First created are the Regents of the Second Rank of gods, Zeus and Hera who create the Aetherial Realm in which dwell the immortal celestial beings, the stars and planets as well as the Material Realm.
The Uniting of Ideas with Matter
Zeus thinks the world-defining ideas, which he throws like lightening bolts into the womb of Hera, who nourishes them with her substance, giving birth to this world. Thus Hera becomes the life-conferring World Soul (he tou Pantos Psyche, "the Soul of The All"), who unites ideas with matter.
Law of Mean. Harmonia
The Law of Mean Terms is based on the concept if that opposites cannot meet, there can be no Harmonia, or Union, of the opposites. Therefore, there needs to be a Mean Term which in turn has something in common with each of the extremes. The While the Mean Term both connects the extremes, it also keeps them separate by occupying the intervening gap. As a result, mediating powers such as the mean are also separating powers.
Together with the extremes, the mean from a triad and Pythagoreans identified many triads in the structure of reality. For instance, the World Soul mediates between unformed matter and the immaterial forms in the mind of the creator of the material world. Similarly, in the human microcosm there is a soul which mediates between and ultimately unites mind and matter.
Principle of Continuity and the Continuum
In order to avoid the paradox of the need for an unending series of means between a mean and the extremes, Pythagoras developed the Principle of Continuity which recognizes that the need for a continuum or spectrum from one extreme to the other with each point of the continuum a mediator between the two neighbouring points. For instance, between North and West lies the mediator mean term, the North-West. However, the establishment of that mean point creates the need for addition mean points between, West and North-West (North-West-West) and between North-West and North (North-North-West) and so on. There, there is a continuum of directions between North and West.
Abiding, Proceeding and Reverting
The Abiding, Proceeding and Reverting triad explains how the Essence can emanate into more substantial forms and still retain its identity. on the one hand, the unchanging nature of a thing, the Essence (or abiding /remaining) is regarded as the male pole. Multiplicity on the other hand is regarded as the female pole. While the male pole has the dynamic power or potential to relate to other things, that is, to move by a continuous flux toward greater participation (a more substantial embodiment) in the direction of the female pole, greater multiplicity, a flowing forth would cause it to lose its definition. therefore, it reverts or turns back toward its origin and in so doing mirrors its essence. The result is a third pole, the activity or actualization of the potential emanating from the essence. In other words, change is the mean between beginning and the end or in terms of character, mixture is the resulting mean between the two extremes or opposites.
The Triadic Principle allows us to determine the order of creation. In the Empyrean Realm all beings are immortal, immaterial and unchanging. in the Material Realm, the Earth, all things are in a state of perpetual change. The mean between the two is the Aetherial Realm, the heavens, occupied by celestial bodies, which are immortal yet material, moving and ever-changing.
In yet another application, the Triadic Principle and the Principle of Continuity determine the order of being. Between the Primordial One and Primordial Matter lie three orders: the Realm of Forms (ideas in the mind of the creator), the World Soul which mediates by bringing the Forms into the ordered Material World.
The Monad begets the dyad which begets the triad which begets the tetrad, the four elements of this world: earth, water, fire and air.
Pythagoras may have been the first to use the term cosmos for the universe implying beauty and order. Plato states that communion, friendship, orderliness, temperance and justice bind together heaven and earth, the divine and humans. Therefore, this universe is called cosmos or order (cf. Asha in Zoroastrianism).
The Basis for Astrology
Put another way, there is a continuum between the One and Matter connecting all things in-between. Thus we have connections with celestial bodies and are influenced by them, an explanation for the workings of astrology: human are connected in the "great chain of being."
Ascent to the One
Ascent to the One is a process by which the practitioner, by contemplative meditation, enters into ecstatic union with the One - a form of mysticism. The mediators can be words or sounds (cf. Zoroastrian manthra) that form the divine chord, the continuum provided by the divine for this purpose.
According to Iamblichus of Chalcis, to get closest to the One, the Monad, each individual must engage in divine work (we also take this to mean God's work). This divine work can be defined as each individual dedicating their lives to bettering the created world, humankind's relationship to the world and to one another. A means to this end is living a righteous life seeking after one's higher calling and meaning in life. This sentiment is entirely Zoroastrian.
Transmigration and Reincarnation
Pythagorean believed in repeated transmigration or the reincarnation of the soul into the bodies of humans, animals, or vegetables until it became immortal. Heraclides Ponticus reports that Pythagoras claimed that he had lived four lives that he could remember in detail,[Diogenes Laërtius at viii. 3–4] and, according to Xenophanes, Pythagoras heard the cry of his dead friend in the bark of a dog [Diogenes Laërtius at viii. 36].
Reference: A Summary of Pythagorean Theology by John Opsopaus
The Pythagorean Society of Croton and their Practices
At some point Pythagoras is said to have moved to Croton, a Greek colony in southern Italy. There, he expounded his beliefs and established a select society of followers. The various accounts (see above) agree that the teachings and work of the society's members were kept a profound secret. Porphyry wrote that this silence was "of no ordinary kind." Candidates had to pass a probationary period in which their powers of maintaining silence (echemythia) as well as their general temper, disposition, and mental capacity were tested. What we read is that Pythagoras urged the people of Croton to abandon their luxurious and corrupt ways and to embrace instead a more pure and righteous way of life. Those who accepted his teachings became part of a close-knit brotherhood or sisterhood (there were male and female members) that pursued Pythagorean practices that included temperance and perhaps even vegetarianism. They met for common meals in groups of ten. Their assembly building had all the trappings of a monastery. Iamblichus [at Vit. Pyth. 96–101 quoting Aristoxenus] gives a long description of the daily routine of the members. Their daily routine included music, gymnastics and daily exercises. In their demeanour, they were encouraged to display discipline, a lofty serenity and self-possession. They were to be devoted to each other - to the exclusion of those who did not belong to their society. They bore secret symbols or mannerisms by which they could recognize one-another even if they had never met before. Even though the society's work was secret, its members were nevertheless openly and actively involved in the politics of Croton, an involvement that eventually led to their downfall and the burning of their building where many of the assembled members perished.
[Also see the Golden Verses of Pythagoras]