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The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library
An Anthology of Ancient Writings Which Relate to Pythagoras and Pythagorean Philosophy
By Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie
Phanes PressCopyright © 1988 Phanes Press
All rights reserved.
Iamblichus: The Life of Pythagoras or On the Pythagorean Life
IAMBLICHUS (c. 250 - c. 325 C.E.) was an important Neoplatonic philosopher and a student of Porphyry, whose Life of Pythagoras also appears in this volume. Iamblichus was very interested in the philosophical dimension of then current religious practices which he interpreted in light of Neoplatonism. He was also quite an original thinker and highly influenced later Neoplatonism with his triadic metaphysics. In addition to being a Platonist, Iamblichus thought of himself as a Pythagorean philosopher.
Iamblichus attempted to write a ten volume 'encyclopedia' of Pythagorean thought, the first volume of which is his Life of Pythagoras. The second volume of this work was entitled Concerning Pythagorean Explanations, Including an Exhortation to Philosophy, often called simply the Exhortation to Philosophy. The Exhortation, in addition to outlining the benefits of the philosophic life, contains a detailed commentary on the 39 Pythagorean Symbols. Other volumes in Iamblichus' Pythagorean corpus of works include On the Common Mathematical Science, On the Introduction to the Arithmetic of Nichomachus, and The Theology of Numbers.
Iamblichus saw Pythagoras as the Father of Philosophy who revealed to his disciples the principles of the philosophic life as well as all those studies which lead to the purification of the intellect. While Iamblichus has a tendency to personally interpret Pythagoras through the eyes of Neoplatonism, many of the sources on which he draws, which are often quoted verbatim, are quite ancient. Actually, Neoplatonism was in many ways heavily influenced by Pythagorean and Neopythagorean thought.
For a complete biography of Iamblichus and a listing of his various writings see the introduction to the Exhortation to Philosophy, Phanes Press, 1988.
THE LIFE OF PYTHAGORAS
1. The Importance of the Subject
SINCE WISE PEOPLE are in the habit of invoking the divinities at the beginning of any philosophic consideration, this is all the more necessary on studying that one which is justly named after the divine Pythagoras. Inasmuch as it emanated from the divinities it cannot be apprehended without their inspiration and assistance. Besides, its beauty and majesty so surpasses human capacity that it cannot be comprehended all in one glance. Only gradually can some details of it be mastered when, under divine guidance, we approach the subject with a quiet mind. Having therefore invoked the divine guidance, and adapted ourselves and our style to the divine circumstances, we shall acquiesce in all the suggestions that come to us. Therefore we shall not begin with any excuses for the long neglect of this sect, or with any explanations about its having been concealed by foreign disciplines, or by mystic symbols, nor insist that it has been obscured by false and spurious writings, nor make apologies for any special hindrances to it progress. For us it is sufficient that this is the will of the Gods, which will enable us to undertake tasks even more arduous than these. Having thus acknowledged our primary submission to the divinities, our secondary devotion shall be to the prince and father of this philosophy as a leader. We shall, however, have to begin by a study of his descent and nationality.
2. Youth, Education, Travels
IT IS REPORTED that Ancaeus, who dwelt in Samos in Cephallenia, was descended from Zeus, the fame of which honorable descent might have been derived from his virtue, or from a certain magnanimity. In any case, he surpassed the remainder of the Cephallenians in wisdom and renown. This Ancaeus was, by the Pythian oracle, bidden to form a colony from Arcadia and Thessaly; and besides leading with him some inhabitants of Athens, Epidaurus, and Chalcis, he was to render habitable an island which, from the virtue of the soil and vegetation was to be called Black-leaved (Melamphyllos), while the city was to be called Samos, after Same, in Cephallenia. The oracle ran thus: "I bid you, Ancaeus, to colonize the maritime island of Same, and to call it Phyllas." That the colony originated from these places is proved first from the divinities, and their sacrifices, which were imported by the inhabitants, second by the relationships of the families, and by their Samian gatherings.
From the family and alliance of this Ancaeus, founder of the colony, were therefore descended Pythagoras' parents Mnesarchus and Pythais. That Pythagoras was the son of Apollo is a legend due to a certain Samian poet, who thus described the popular recognition of his noble birth. Sang he,
Pythais, the fairest of the Samian race
From the embraces of the God Apollo
Bore Pythagoras, the friend of Zeus.
It might be worthwhile to relate the circumstances of this prevalent report. Mnesarchus had gone to Delphi on a business trip, leaving his wife without any signs of pregnancy. He enquired of the oracle about the event of his return voyage to Syria, and he was informed that his trip would be lucrative, and most conformable to his wishes, but that his wife was new with child, and would present him with a son who would surpass all others who had ever lived in beauty and wisdom, and that he would be of the greatest benefit to the human race in everything pertaining to human achievements. But when Mnesarchus realized that the God, without waiting for any question about a son, had by an oracle informed him that he would possess an illustrious prerogative, and a truly divine gift, he immediately changed his wife's former name Parthenis to one reminiscent of the Delphic prophet and her son, naming her Pythais, and the infant, who was soon after born at Sidon in Phoenicia, Pythagoras, by this name commemorating that such an offspring had been promised him by the Pythian Apollo. The assertions of Epimenides, Eudoxus and Xenocrates, that Apollo having at that time already had actual connection with Parthenis, causing her pregnancy, had regularized that fact by predicting the birth of Pythagoras, are by no means to be admitted. However, no one will deny that the soul of Pythagoras was sent to mankind from Apollo's domain, having either been one of his attendants, or more intimate associates, which may be inferred both from his birth and his versatile wisdom.
After Mnesarchus had returned from Syria to Samos, with great wealth derived from a favorable sea voyage, he built a temple to Apollo, inscribed to Pythius. He took care that his son should enjoy the best possible education, studying under Creophilus, then under Pherecydes the Syrian, and then under almost all who presided over sacred concerns, to whom he especially recommended his son, that he might be as expert as possible in divinity. Thus by education and good fortune he became the most beautiful and godlike of all those who have been celebrated in the annals of history. After his father's death, though he was still but a youth, his aspect was so venerable, and his habits so temperate that he was honored and even reverenced by elderly men, attracting the attention of all who saw and heard him speak, creating the most profound impression. That is the reason that many plausibly asserted that he was a child of the divinity. Enjoying the privilege of such a renown, of an education so thorough from infancy, and of so impressive a natural appearance, he showed that he deserved all these advantages, by the adornment of piety and discipline, by exquisite habits, by firmness of soul, and by a body duly subjected to the mandates of reason. An inimitable quiet and serenity marked all his words and actions, soaring above all laughter, emulation, contention, or any other irregularity or eccentricity; his influence, at Samos, was that of some beneficent divinity. His great renown, while yet a youth, reached not only men as illustrious for their wisdom as Thales, at Miletus, and Bias at Priene, but also extended to the neighboring cities. He was celebrated everywhere as the "long-haired Samian," and by the multitude was given credit for being under divine inspiration.
When he had attained his eighteenth year, there arose the tyranny of Polycrates; and Pythagoras foresaw that under such a government his studies might be impeded, as they engrossed the whole of his attention. So by night he privately departed with one Hermodamas—who was surnamed Creophilus, and was the grandson of the host, friend and general preceptor of the poet Homer—going to Pherecydes, to Anaximander the natural philosopher, and to Thales at Miletus. He successively associated with each of these philosophers in a manner such that they all loved him, admired his natural endowments, and admitted him to the best of their doctrines. Thales, especially, on gladly admitting him to the intimacies of his confidence, admired the great difference between him and other young men, who were in every accomplishment surpassed by Pythagoras. After increasing the reputation Pythagoras had already acquired, by communicating to him the utmost he was able to impart to him, Thales, laying stress on his advanced age and the infirmities of his body, advised him to go to Egypt, to get in touch with the priests of Memphis and Zeus. Thales, confessed that the instruction of these priests was the source of his own reputation for wisdom, while neither his own endowments nor achievements equalled those which were so evident in Pythagoras. Thales, insisted that, in view of all this, if Pythagoras should study with those priests, he was certain of becoming the wisest and most divine of men.
3. Journey to Egypt
PYTHAGORAS HAD BENEFITED by the instruction of Thales, in many respects, but his greatest lesson had been to learn the value of saving time, which led him to abstain entirely from wine and animal food, avoiding greediness, confining himself to nutriments of easy preparation and digestion. As a result, his sleep was short, his soul pure and vigilant, and the general health of his body was invariable.
Enjoying such advantages, therefore, he sailed to Sidon, both because it was his native country, and because it was on his way to Egypt. In Phoenicia he conversed with the prophets who were the descendents of Moschus the physiologist,* and with many others, as well as with the local hierophants. He was also initiated into all the mysteries of Byblos and Tyre, and in the sacred function performed in many parts of Syria. He was led to all this not from any hankering after superstition, as might easily by supposed, but rather from a desire and love for contemplation, and from an anxiety to miss nothing of the mysteries of the divinities which deserved to be learned.
After gaining all he could from the Phoenician mysteries, he found that they had originated from the sacred rites of Egypt, forming as it were an Egyptian colony. This led him to hope that in Egypt itself he might find monuments of erudition still more genuine, beautiful and divine. Therefore following the advice of his teacher Thales, he left, as soon as possible, through the agency of some Egyptian sailors, who very opportunely happened to land on the Phoenician coast under Mount Carmel where, in the temple on the peak, Pythagoras for the most part had dwelt in solitude. He was gladly received by the sailors, who intended to make a great profit by selling him into slavery. But they changed their mind in his favor during the voyage, when they perceived the chastened venerability of the mode of life he had undertaken. They began to reflect that there was something supernatural in the youth's modesty, and in the manner in which he had unexpectedly appeared to them on their landing, when, from the summit of Mount Carmel, which they knew to be more sacred than other mountains, and quite inaccessible to the vulgar, he had leisurely descended without looking back, avoiding all delay from precipices or difficult rocks; and that when he came to the boat, he said nothing more than, "Are you bound for Egypt?" What is more, on their answering affirmatively he had gone aboard and had, during the whole trip, sat silent where he would be least likely to inconvenience them at their tasks.
For two nights and three days Pythagoras had remained in the same unmoved position, without food, drink, or sleep, except that, unnoticed by the sailors, he might have dozed while sitting upright. Moreover, the sailors considered that contrary to their expectations, their voyage had proceeded without interruptions, as if some deity had been on board. From all these circumstances they concluded that a veritable divinity had passed over with them from Syria into Egypt. Addressing Pythagoras and each other with a gentleness and propriety that was un-common, they completed the remainder of their voyage through a halcyon sea, and at length happily landed on the Egyptian coast. Reverently the sailors here assisted him to disembark; and after they had seen him safe onto a firm beach, they raised before him a temporary altar, heaped on it the now abundant fruits of trees, as if these were the first fruits of their freight, presented them to him and departed hastily to their destination. Pythagoras, however, whose body had become emaciated through the severity of so long a fast, did not refuse the sailors' help on landing, and as soon as they had left partook as much of the fruits as was requisite to restore his physical vigor. Then he went inland, in entire safety, preserving his usual tranquility and modesty.
4. Studies in Egypt and Babylonia
HERE IN EGYPT he frequented all the temples with the greatest diligence, and most studious research, during which time he won the esteem and admiration of all the priests and prophets with whom he associated. Having most solicitously familiarized himself with every detail, he did not, nevertheless, neglect any contemporary celebrity, whether a sage renowned for wisdom, or a peculiarly performed mystery. He did not fail to visit any place where he thought he might discover something worthwhile. That is how he visted all of the Egyptian priests, acquiring all the wisdom each possessed. He thus passed twenty-two years in the sanctuaries of temples, studying astronomy and geometry, and being initiated in no casual or superficial manner in all the mysteries of the Gods. At length, however, he was taken captive by the soldiers of Cambyses, and carried off to Babylon. Here he was overjoyed to be associated with the Magi, who instructed him in their venerable knowledge, and in the most perfect worship of the Gods. Through their assistance, likewise, he studied and completed arithmetic, music and all the other sciences. After twelve years, about the fifty-sixth year of his age, he returned to Samos.
Excerpted from The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library by Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie. Copyright © 1988 Phanes Press. Excerpted by permission of Phanes Press.
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