THE HARMONY OF THE WORLD: THE PYTHAGOREANS
Let me start off with an introduction to this chapter. Philosophy is a life endeavor of understanding the world. And I believe that it is crucial to understand the underlying reality and history behind today’s world in order to comprehend today’s philosophical situation. Because of this I have chosen to understand the origins of philosophy in this case: Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism.
It also must be noted that this article is basically just a recollection or summary of Anthony Gottlieb’s very helpful book, The Dream of Reason.
RUSSELL AND HIS FASCINATION WITH PYTHAGORAS
Pythagoreans are the followers of Pythagoras. One of his big time fans was a man that I have already mentioned in past blogs: Bertrand Russell. “According to [Bertrand Russell], philosophy is worth studying ‘above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good’ ” (30).
As Russell pointed out himself, he was also a passionate Pythagorean in some respects. He said that intellectually Pythagoras was perhaps “one of the most important men that ever lived” (23). Russell argued on this issue elaborating on his statement that Pythagoras was the most influential thinker. He said it “rests on the idea that Pythagoras alone was responsible for the impact of mathematics on other areas of thought” (40).
Pythagoras you may ask is a distinct personality and different from what this blog is meant to be about: discussing the validity of religions and philosophy. Russell would however argue the contrary. Consider this statement: “Without Pythagoras, wrote Russell, ‘theologians would not have sought logical proofs of God and immortality’ ” (41). This statement alone would be enough to give this chapter a reason to be discussed on this blog. It remains a question of why Russell believes this, I will provide a brief contemplation on this in my summary at the end of this article.
PYTHAGORAS AND HIS FOLLOWERS, PYTHAGOREANS
The interesting part about Pythagoras is that we know very little about him. Nothing that Pythagoras has ever said or written has survived, or as Gottlieb says, “at least, not with his name on it” (23). There have been sixth-century poems ascribed to the mythical singer Orpheus that may in actuality be by him (23).
Interestingly enough, Pythagoras had one of the most discussed diets in antiquity. This had much to do with his point of view on the world. He made a point of ”abstaining from beans” and wouldn’t let him beat his dog because he thought that the howls of the dog was the “voice of a departed friend” (25).
He was born around 570 BC and died 70 years later, which made him a contemporary of Anaximenes. Pythagoras was banished. With this there came a purge of his followers. Pythagoreans however flourished again and spread through Italy, mainly the southern part. By the start of the fifth century BC there was another, worse, purge of Pythagoreans. Many of them are reported to have scattered and departed Italy for Greece. Actually, interestingly enough, by the fourth century BC practically all of the Pythagorean societies had left Italy (their native land) and died out everywhere else.
Their ideas continued to grow, however, mainly because of Plato who was close friends with a Pythagorean, Archytas of Tarentum (25–6). It is reported that he was likely to have been one of the inspirations for Plato’s ‘philosopher-kings’ idea. Aristotle wrote that Plato’s philosophy ‘in most respects followed the Pythagoreans’ (26).
Pythagoras also believed in reincarnation and he was interested in numbers, but everything else is most likely just speculation (26).
So we question with regard to philosophy. What is it that Pythagoras established? Pythagoras ‘practised inquiry beyond all other men’ (Heraclitus, c.540-c.480 BC). This comprised mathematics, the study of numbers, geometry, astronomy and most interestingly, music. As Gottlieb remarked, “each revealed some aspect of the principles of order in the universe”; furthermore, the Pythagoreans thought that nature should be studied just for the “sake of disinterested knowledge and not for any practical reward” (28).
For the Pythagoreans an understanding of the universe and it’s beauty was thought to bring with it a participation with that beauty, “In short, some of the grandeur of the universe rubbed off on the man who studied it” (29).
So we question with Gottlieb, what would it be that the philosopher would want to fix his attention on? This is where it gets mystical. For Pythagoreans it was the “heavenly bodies” (30). As they “wheel[ed] in their orderly and harmonious paths through the sky” (30). Furthermore, studying nature in this manner would “purify [the] soul” (37). They put particular care into studying astronomy, mathematics, and music — as was already mentioned.
PYTHAGOREANS AND MUSIC, ASTRONOMY, AND THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE
This will be my last point, Pythagoreans have not only contributed to philosophy, mathematics, and astrology. He also contributed to our concept of music, or strictly speaking harmonics (37). They revealed a connection between ration and the pleasant-sounding harmonic intervals, as was noted by Gottlieb (37).
We can also assume that the Pythagoreans started the theory that the earth is displaced from the centre of things: “Copernicus says that it was the consideration of just this ancient system which gave him the courage to explore the then-unorthodox hypothesis that the earth moves around the sun rather than sitting in the centre of the universe (which is what everyone believed in the Middle Ages)” (39).
Pythagoreans saw a connection between nature and reason. Because there was order in the universe there must be order in morality. Because of this we can also see the connection that Russell was making with God and immortality. Pythagoras was one of the first intellectuals that ever began to seek a connection between the outside world with the inner spiritual side of the soul. As is now the common practice with most Christian denominations, apologetics is a major part of most discourse in intellectual circles. We owe this to the growing sense that God is not outside of nature (as in Deism) but a continuation of nature, or a participator in nature — a creator.
We should come back to the Pythagorean philosophy that trumps all else that nature and reason should be studied just for the “sake of disinterested knowledge and not for any practical reward” (28). Our pursuit should not be money or fame or luxuries, but just a capability to comprehend the state of the world — this in and of itself is a pleasure.
All of this was quoted from Anthony Gottlieb’s wonderful book: The Dream of Reason.