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His Life and Teachings
By Thomas Stanley, James Wasserman
NICOLAS-HAYS, INC.Copyright © 2010 James Wasserman
All rights reserved.
The Country, Parents, and Time of Pythagoras
The Italic Sect was distinct from the Ionic, in respect of the author, place, discipline, and doctrine. It was denominated from that part of Italy which, from the frequency of Greek colonies, was called Magna Graecia. Yet was not the author, Pythagoras, an Italian, for though some think his father was of Metapontum; some, a Tyrrhene of Etruria in Italy; yet Diogenes and others report him a Tyrrhene of the race of those who inhabited Lemnus, Imbrus, and Scyrus. And that coming upon traffic to Samos, he settled there and was made free. With these concurs Aristoxenus (to whom Clement of Alexandria joins Aristarchus and Theopompus), who says in his life of Pythagoras, that he was born in one of those islands which the Athenians won and expelled thence the Tyrrhenians. Whence Suidas says that Pythagoras was a Samian, but by birth a Tyrrhenian, brought over young by his father from Tyrrhenia to Samos. And indeed, his country seems inscrutable to Lycus; and to Josephus no less difficult to find out than that of Homer.
Nor is it strange that the country of his father should be questioned, since it is not agreed concerning his name and quality. Justin calls him Demaratus (and Johannes Sarisburiensis, from Justine, Maratus), others, Mamercus. But the greatest part of writers agree, that he was called Mnesarchus. His profession, according to Hermippus and others, a graver of rings; according to others, a merchant.
Some there are who affirm he was a Phliasian. Pausanias reports that he was son of Euphron, grandson of Hippasus, who upon the taking of Phlius by the Dorians, fled to Samos. Others, that he was the son of Hippasus. Hippasus was son of Euthyphron of Cleonymus, who was banished out of Phlius; and that Mamercus (or rather Mnesarchus) lived in Samos, whence Pythagoras was said to be a Samian. Cleanthes relates he was a Syrian, of the city Tyrus in Syria (or rather in Phoenicia), whence making a voyage to Samos for traffic, at such time as the Samiams were much oppressed with famine, he furnished them with corn; in requital whereof, they made him free of their country. Hippobotus says that Pythagoras was a Samian.
Indeed, the most general and approved opinion is that Mnesarchus was a Samian, descended from Ancaeus, who first brought a colony into Samos. And that Pythagoras, his son, was born at Sidon in Phoenicia; but by education, as well as extraction, a Samian also. This is ratified by the authority of Iamblichus, who begins his life with the following fabulous narration.
It is reported that Ancaeus, who lived at Same in Cephalenia, was descended from Jupiter (others say from Neptune and Astypalaea), an opinion occasioned by his virtues or some particular greatness of soul. In prudence and magnanimity he excelled all other Cephalenians. This Ancaeus was commanded by the Pythian Oracle to gather together a colony out of Cephalenia, Arcadia, and Thessaly, augmenting it from Athens, Epidaurus, and Chalcis. And that having got them together under his command, he should people an island, named from the richness of the soil Melamphyllos (black-leaf), and call the city which they built Samos, from Same in Cephalenia. The Oracle was thus:
Instead of Same, Samos thou (an isle) Shalt plant Aneaeus, which men Phyllas style.
That this colony was drawn from those several places appears not only from their religious rites and sacrifices (which are derived from the countries out of which those people came), but also from the affinities and mutual conventions made by the Samians. Mnesarchus and Pythais, the parents of Pythagoras, are said to be descended from the family of the same Ancaeus who planted this colony there. (Of Pythais it is confirmed by Apollonius.) Which nobleness of their extraction, being much celebrated amongst their countrymen, a Samian poet declared him to be the son of Apollo in these words:
Pythais of all Samians the most fair, Jove-loved Pythagoras to Phoebus bare.
Which report was raised thus. This Mnesarchus the Samian, being upon occasion of traffic at Delphi with his wife, who was at that time newly with child and not known to be so; he enquired of the Oracle concerning his voyage to Syria. The Prophetess told him that his journey should be, according to his mind, very advantageous. That his wife was already with child, and should bring forth a son that should exceed all men that ever were in Beauty and Wisdom, and through the whole course of his life bring much benefit to mankind. Mnesarchus considering that the Oracle would not have spoken of his son, seeing that he demanded nothing concerning him, if there were not something extraordinary to be expected from him, immediately hereupon changed the name of his wife, which was Parthenis, to Pythais, from the Prophetess.
And as soon as she was delivered at Sidon in Phoenicia, they called the child Pythagoras. For Epimenides, Eudoxus, Xenocrates (and others mentioned by Apollonius) are to be rejected who affirm Apollo at that time lay with Pythais, and got her with child (she not being so before) and thereupon foretold it by the Prophetess. This is not to be admitted. But that the soul of Pythagoras, being of the regimen of Apollo (whether as a follower, or some other way more near to him), was sent to men none can doubt—since it may be evinced by these circumstances of his birth, and the universal wisdom of his mind. This much (says Iamblichus) concerning his generation. Whence we see the Greeks did so much admire his wit that they thought it could be nothing less than divine, and thereupon fabled Apollo to be his father.
Pythagoras was the youngest of three sons: the eldest Cleanthes calls Eunostus; Laertius and Suidas called him Eunomus; the second was called Tyrrhenus. He had likewise an uncle Zoilus, mentioned by Laertius.
The reasons for establishing the times concerning Pythagoras's life will hereafter be set forth upon the occasion of his going into Italy. In the meantime, I shall desire it may be admitted, that he was born about the third year of the fifty-third Olympiad [ca. 562 B.C., see Glossary—Ed.]. That being eighteen years old, he heard Thales and others. Then he went to Phoenicia, thence into Egypt, where he stayed twenty-two years; afterwards at Babylon twelve years; then returned to Samos, being fifty-six years old; and from thence went into Italy. The particulars whereof shall in their several places be more fully discoursed.
His First Education and Masters
Mnesarchus (says Iamblichus) returning from Syria to Samos with much wealth and abundance of merchandise, built a Temple which he dedicated to Apollo the Pythian, and brought up his son in several excellent disciplines. He committed him sometimes to Creophilus, sometimes to Pherecydes of Syria, and to almost all the Prefects of the Temple, as being blessed with the fairest and most divine son that ever man had.
Some there are who affirm that Pythagoras was a wrestler; and that when Pherecydes first discoursed among the Greeks concerning the immortality of the soul, Pythagoras the Samian, moved at the novelty of the discourse, changed from being a wrestler to a philosopher. But these relations seem to have been occasioned by confounding Pythagoras the philosopher with a wrestler of that name, his contemporary, of whom more hereafter.
Cleanthes and Suidas relate that Pythagoras first heard Pherecydes the Syrian at Samos; and in the second place Hermodomas, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] "the Creophylian," at the same Samos, then very old. Hermodamas was his name, but he was surnamed Creophylus, wherefore perhaps instead of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] should be read, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Or else he was termed a Creophylian, as well as surnamed Creophylus, because he was reported to be descended from Creophylus, a Samian, who in times past entertained Homer as his guest, and was, as some say, his master and his rival in poetry. But when Apuleius says Hermodamas (or Leodamas, as he calls him) was disciple to that Creophilus, he makes an error no less in chronology than when he says Pythagoras was disciple of Plato, unless the whole text be corrupted.
Pythagoras, his father dying, grew up in prudence and temperance, being while he was yet very young generally much respected and honored even by the most aged. His presence and discourse attracted all persons. To everyone on whom he looked, he appeared worthy of admiration, insomuch that many averred he was the son of a deity. He, being thus confirmed by the great opinions that were had of him, by the education of his infancy, and by his natural excellence, made himself daily more worthy of these advantages. He adorned himself with devotions, with sciences, with excellent conversation, with constancy of mind, with grave deportment, and with a sweet inimitable serenity; never transported with anger, laughter, emulation, contention, or any other disorder; living like some good genius come to converse in Samos. Hereupon, though young, a great report was spread of him to Thales at Miletus, to Bias at Priene—two of the sages—and to all the cities thereabout. Many in all those parts commending the young man made him famous, calling him by a proverb:
The Samian Comer or, The fair-hair'd Samian.
About this time began the tyranny of Polycrates. Pythagoras, now eighteen years old, foreseeing the event, and how obstructive it would prove to his designs and to the pursuit of learning, which he intended above all things, being young and desirous of knowledge, he left his country to go to travel. He stole away privately by night, taking with him Hermodamas (surnamed Creophylus, and descended, as was reported, from that Creophylus who was host to Homer). They made a voyage to Pherecydes at Lisbus (to whom, Laertius says, he was recommended by his Uncle Zoilus); and to Anaximander, the natural philosopher; and to Thales at Miletus.
With each of these he conversed severally in such manner that they all loved him, admired his parts, and communicated their learning to him. Under Anaximander, the Milesian, he is said to have studied the knowledge of natural things. Thales entertained him kindly; and wondering at his excellence above other youths which much surpassed the report he had received, assisted him as far as he was able in sciences. Withal, accusing his own age and infirmity, he advised Pythagoras to make a voyage to Egypt there to get acquaintance with the priests of Memphis and Diospolis. He said that of them he had learned those things for which he was by many esteemed wise, though he were not of such forwardness, neither by nature or education, as he saw Pythagoras to be. Whence he presaged that if he conversed with those priests, he should become the most divine and wisest of men.
This Pherecydes fell sick at Delos. That he outlived not the fifty-seventh Olympiad [ca. 548–544 B.C.] is manifest from a letter which he wrote the day before his death to Thales, who died the first year of the Olympiad following. And though the greater part of authors write that at the same time when the Cylonians in Crotona conspired against the Pythagoreans (which was not long before Pythagoras died), Pythagoras was gone from Italy to Delos to visit and bury Pherecydes—yet Dicaearchus and other more accurate authors (says Porphyry) aver that Pythagoras was present when that conspiracy broke forth; and that Pherecydes died before Pythagoras departed from Samos. The former relation has imposed, among others, upon the learned Salmasius, who to reconcile this with other circumstances concerning Pherecydes, is constrained to imagine another person of the same name. It was therefore before Pythagoras left Samos that Pherecydes, being desperately seized by a Phthiriasis, he went to visit him and attended him in his sickness until he died. And then performed the rites of funeral as to his master. For Laertius and Porphyry add that after the death and burial of Pherecydes, Pythagoras returned to Samos out of a desire to enjoy the society of Hermodamus.
Phavorinus, in the seventh book of his various History, and Porphyry, relate that after he had lived awhile with Hermodamas, he first taught wrestlers—and of them Eurimenes—to diet with flesh (whereas other wrestlers used to eat dried figs, cheese-curds, and whey) whereby Eurimenes became victor at the Olympic Games. But Laertius and Iamblichus observe that this is falsely ascribed to Pythagoras the Samian (for he allowed not the eating of flesh), but was indeed the invention of Pythagoras, son of Eratocles, of whom more hereafter.
How He Traveled to Phoenicia
He learned of Thales above all things to husband his time. And forbearing wine and flesh, and having before refrained from eating much, he accustomed himself to such meats as were light and easy of digestion. By such means he procured a habit of watchfulness, clearness of mind, and an exact constant health of body.
He made a voyage to Sidon, as well out of a natural desire to the place itself, esteeming it his country, as conceiving that he might more easily pass from thence into Egypt. Here he conferred with the prophets, successors of Mecus the physiologist, and with others, and with the Phoenician priests, and was initiated into all the mysteries of Byblus, and Tyre, and several of the principal sacred institutions in diverse other parts of Syria. He underwent these things not out of superstition, as may be imagined, but out of love to knowledge, and a fear lest anything worthy to be known, which was preserved amongst them in the miracles or mysteries of the gods, might escape him. Withal not being ignorant that the rites of those places were deduced from the Egyptian ceremonies, by means whereof he hoped to participate of the more sublime and divine mysteries in Egypt, which he pursued with admiration as his master Thales had advised him.
How He Traveled to Egypt
Some Egyptian mariners passing accidentally along that coast which lies under Carmel (a Phoenician mountain where he spent much of his time in private retirement at the Temple), willingly received him into their ship. But observing during the voyage how temperately he lived, keeping his usual diet, they began to have a greater esteem for him. And perceiving some things in the excellence of his demeanor, more than human, they reflected within themselves how that he appeared to them as soon as they landed, coming down from the top of the mountain Carmel (which they knew to be more sacred than other hills, and not trode upon by the vulgar), easily and directly, neither stones nor precipices obstructing his passage. And how that coming to the side of the ship, he asked, whether they were bound for Egypt; and they, answering that they were, he went into the vessel, and silently sitting down in a place where he might least disturb the mariners in case they should be in any stress.
He continued in the same posture two nights and three days—without meat, drink, or sleep (except when none perceived he slumbered a little, sitting in the same unmovable posture, and this constantly to the end). They noted how that the voyage proceeded direct, beyond their expectation, as if assisted by the presence of some god. Laying all these things together, they concluded and persuaded themselves that some Divine Genius did indeed come along with them from Syria to Egypt. The rest of the voyage they performed prosperously, observing a greater respect then formerly in their words and actions, as well to one another as towards him, until they at last arrived upon the coast of Egypt by a most fortunate passage without any storm.
Excerpted from Pythagoras by Thomas Stanley, James Wasserman. Copyright © 2010 James Wasserman. Excerpted by permission of NICOLAS-HAYS, INC..
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