First Published: 4 November 2014
Revised (substantive): 8 January 2017
An introductory note for the In Brief topic which follows:
I give below an HTML transcription of the article on Pythagoras and Pythagoreans written by England’s foremost encyclopedist, Ephraim Chambers (1680?–1740), for the first edition of his Cyclopædia, or, an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (2 volumes, 1728).
Pythagorean doctrine had enduring influence on developments in 17th-century philosophicoreligious thought, impacting Fellows of the Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge, such as the scientist and engineer Robert Hooke; mystics and Behemists, such as the health-care crusader Thomas Tryon; radical puritan movements, such as the Anabaptists and Quakers; and even public-policy debates over wise government and growth of the Anglo-American colonies.
Pythagorean teachings permeated the early-modern respublica literaria despite the fact that, as Chambers comments in his encyclopedia article, “Pythagoras never committed any thing to Writing.” This left 17th-century popularizers such as Thomas Tryon (1634–1703) free to refashion Pythagorean teachings for the early-modern age of globalization as he saw fit. Accordingly, Tryon made Pythagoreanism the framework for a program of zealous social reform, and promoted the heroic stature of Pythagoras of Samos (b. c. 570 BCE–d. c. 480 BCE).
Mankind with one consent agree that [Pythagoras] was a Person endued with Antient Morals, and Sincere Fidelity, affecting neither the Applause nor Estimation of the Vulgar, having only a particular regard to the Welfare of Mankind, not stuffing his Writings with Rhetorical Flights to captivate the Understanding of the Ignorant, always commending many wholesom Rules, and useful Notions, to the Service of the World. So that it seems he was altogether bent to promote the Health and Welfare both of Body and Mind. What need is there to say more, so many Excellent Things have been Written by him, and with so many Praises have all the Learned in former Ages extolled him, that it would be highly unreasonable to suspect the Reputation of so great a Man.
(T. Tryon, Averroeana: Being a Transcript of Several Letters from Averroes ... to Metrodorus ... Also Several Letters from Pythagoras to the King of India ..., 1695, A5v–A6r)
The 17th-century fascination with Pythagorean science and the Pythagorean lifestyle, however mythically reconstrued by popularizers like Tryon, continues to influence us.
And that makes Chambers’ early-18th-century summation of what was then thought about the still-mysterious ancient sect of Pythagoreans worth reading today.
a She-philosopher.com In Brief topic
PYTHAGOREANS, a Sect of antient Philosophers, who retain’d to the Doctrines of Pythagoras. See PHILOSOPHER.
“ The Founder of this Sect was of Samos, the Son of a Lapidary, and Pupil of Pherycides; who flourish’d about the seventh Olympiad, i.e. about 500 Years before Christ.
“ This Sect was also call’d the Italic Sect, or Italic School, because Pythagoras, after travelling into Egypt, Chaldea, and even into the Indies, to inform his Understanding; returning home to his own Country, and there unable to bear the Tyranny of Polycrates, or Solison, retir’d into the Eastern Part of Italy, then call’d the Greater Greece, and there taught and form’d his Sect. See IONIC.
“ He is held to have excell’d in every part of Science: Laertius says, among the Chaldees and Hebrews he learnt Divination, and the Interpreting of Dreams; in Egypt he learnt all the Mysteries of the Priests, and the whole System of Symbolical Knowledge, with all their Theology———Porphyry adds, that he learnt the Mathematical Sciences in his Travels; Geometry from the Egyptians, the Doctrine of Numbers and Proportions from the Phoenicians, and Astronomy from the Chaldeans; Morality, and Theology he learnt chiefly from the Magi.
“ He was the first who assum’d the Title Philosopher; the Sages till his time having bore the arrogant Title . See PHILOSOPHER.
“ Jamblicus observes, that in Phoenicia he conversed with the Prophets and Philosophers, the Successors of Mochus the Physiologist; which Mochus, Selden and some others will have to be Moses.
“ His School in Italy was at Crotona; where he is said to have been attended by no less than 600 Scholars—His House was call’d the Temple of Ceres, and the Street where it stood the Musaeum. See MUSAEUM.
“ Out of his School proceeded the greatest Philosophers and Legislators, Zaleucus, Charonidas, Archytas———Porphyry says, as soon as he arriv’d in Italy he had an Auditory of two thousand People; to whom he explain’d the Laws of Nature, Reason, and Justice.
“ He endeavour’d to assuage the Passions of the Mind with Verses, and Numbers; and made a Practice of composing his Mind every Morning by his Harp; frequently singing the Paeans of Thales. See MUSIC.
“ Exercises of the Body made a considerable part of his Discipline. See GYMNASTIC Exercise.
“ His School became so popular, that Cities and People committed their Republics to the Government of his Scholars———At length, Porphyry adds, Envy stirring up Sedition against ’em, they were oppress’d; and in time, their Learning, which they ever kept secret, was lost; except some difficult things learnt by Rote by the Crowd of Hearers. For Pythagoras never committed any thing to Writing.
“ Beside his public School, Pythagoras had a College in his own House, which he call’d , Coenobium: In this were two Orders or Classes of Scholars, , Exoterici, call’d also Auscultantes; and , Intrinseci.———The former were Novices and Probationers, who were kept under a long Examen, and even imposed a Quinquennial Silence, to teach them Modesty and Attention, according to Apuleius; or, according to Clemens Alexandrinus, to teach them to abstract their Minds from sensible Objects, and enure them to the pure Contemplation of the Deity.
“ The latter were call’d Genuini, Perfecti, Mathematici, and Pythagoreans, by way of Eminence———These alone were let into the Arcana and Depths of the real Pythagoric Discipline.
“ Clemens observes, that these Orders corresponded very exactly to those among the Hebrews: For in the Schools of the Prophets were two Orders, viz. the Sons of the Prophets, who were the Scholars; and the Doctors or Masters, who were also call’d Perfecti. And among the Levites, the Novices or Tyro’s, who had their Quinquennial Exercises, by way of Preparation. Lastly, even among the Proselytes there were two Orders; Exoterici, or Proselytes of the Gate; and Intrinseci or Perfecti, or Proselytes of the Covenant. He adds, ’tis highly probable that Pythagoras himself had been a Proselyte of the Gate, if not of the Covenant. See PROPHECY.
“ Gale endeavours to prove, that Pythagoras borrow’d his Philosophy from that of the Jews; to this end producing the Authorities of many of the Fathers, and antient Authors; and even pointing out the Tracks and Footsteps of Moses in several parts of Pythagoras’s Doctrine.
“ Pythagoras taught, 1. That God is one; that he is a most simple, incorruptible, and invisible Being; and therefore only to be worshipped with a pure Mind, with the simplest Rites, and those prescribed by himself.
“ Laertius observes, that he made Unity the Principle of all things; hence arose Duality, &c. See UNITY, &c.
“ In his Conversation with the Egyptians, he learnt abundance of Secrets about Numbers; to which he attributed so much, that he even attempted to explain all things in Nature by Numbers———In effect, it was a common Opinion of the antient Philosophers, that the Species of Things have to each other the Nature and Relation of Numbers; and that the Universe, and all Things therein, were produced according to certain Numbers, inherent in the Creator’s Mind. See CREATOR.
“ Hence Porphyry observes, the Pythagoreans studied the Doctrine of Numbers with great Attention: Since the incorporeal Forms, and first Principles of Things, i.e. the Divine Ideas, could not be deliver’d in Words, they had recourse to Demonstration by Numbers; and thus call’d the common Reason and Cause of Unity, Identity, and Equality, by the Name One.
“ 2. Pythagoras further taught, that there is a Relation or Kin-ship between the Gods and Man; and therefore the Gods take care of Man———Which, Clemens Alexandrinus says, is apparently borrow’d from the Christian Doctrine of Providence. See PROVIDENCE.
“ Pythagoras also asserted a Metempsychosis, or Transmigration of Souls; and therefore the immortality of the Soul. See METEMPSYCHOSIS.
“ 3. He taught, that Virtue is Harmony, Health, and every good thing; and that God, and therefore every thing, consists of Harmony. See HARMONY.
“ PYTHAGOREAN, or PYTHAGORIC System, among the Antients, was the same with the Copernican System among the Moderns. See SYSTEM.
“ It was thus call’d, as having been maintained and cultivated by Pythagoras, and his Followers; not that it was invented by him, for it was much older. See COPERNICAN System.
“ PYTHAGORIC Theorem, or Proposition, is the 47th of the first Book of Euclid. See TRIANGLE and HYPOTHENUSE.
“ PYTHAGORIC Tetractys. See TETRACTYS.
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SOURCE: Ephraim Chambers, “Pythagoreans.” In Cyclopædia, or, an universal dictionary of arts and sciences. Containing the definitions of the terms, and accounts of the things signify’d thereby, in the several arts, both liberal and mechanical, and the several sciences, human and divine: the figures, kinds, properties, productions, preparations, and uses, of things natural and artificial: the rise, progress, and state of things ecclesiastical, civil, military, and commercial: with the several systems, sects, opinions, &c. among philosophers, divines, mathematicians, physicians, antiquaries, criticks, &c: the whole intended as a course of antient and modern learning. Compiled from the best authors, dictionaries, journals, memoirs, transactions, ephemerides, &c. in several languages, by E. Chambers. 2 vols. London: Printed for J. and J. Knapton [and 18 others], 1728. 2.921.
^ The Pythagoreans. Detail No. 1 from Raphael’s celebrated The School of Athens — a fresco, dating from c.1509–11, on the wall of the Stanza della Segnatura (Vatican Palace, Rome).
Scholars continue to debate which figure in Raphael’s School of Athens depicts Pythagoras. Traditionally, he has been thought to be represented here as the man who discovered the harmonic scale (figure on the left, dressed in pink and white, shown writing in a book, while a youth holds a slate before him inscribed with his theory of harmony).
But Edgar Wind makes a compelling argument that Raphael chose to feature a different aspect of the mystic philosopher: “the silent Pythagoras,” here represented as the bearded man in the center foreground of the fresco, shown leaning against a block of marble, brooding alone, and “generally misnamed Heraclitus” (E. Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, 54n4).
According to Wind, Raphael uses the figure of Pythagoras to symbolize “the sacred blindness produced by the immediate presence of the deity,” and quotes Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) in Eroici furori to this effect: “wherefore the most profound and divine theologians say that God is better honoured and loved by silence than by words, and better seen by closing the eyes to images than by opening them: and therefore the negative theology of Pythagoras and Dionysius is so celebrated and placed above the demonstrative theology of Aristotle and the Scholastics.” (G. Bruno, qtd. in E. Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, 53)
Wind explains: “The inclusion of Pythagoras among the ‘negative theologians’ is explained by his fame as ‘master of silence’ .... Originally conceived as a preliminary discipline ... Pythagorean silence became for the Neoplatonists the final consummation of wisdom ... ultimate truth being ineffable.... A more elaborate poem by Raphael’s friend Andrea Navagero, De Pythagorae simulacro ... was inspired, I think, by the silent Pythagoras in The School of Athens (generally misnamed ‘Heraclitus’): ‘... Dignum aliquid certe volvit: sic fronte severa est: / sic in se magno pectore totus abit. / Posset et ille altos animi depromere sensus: / sed, veteri obstrictis religione, silet.’” (E. Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, 53–4n4)
< Pythagoras (or an unidentified student/disciple of Pythagoras, possibly Philolaus). Detail No. 2 from The School of Athens (c.1509–11), Stanza della Segnatura fresco (Vatican Palace, Rome). By Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483–1520).
As noted above (see caption for Detail No. 1), Pythagoras is the conventional identification for this figure, repeated in authoritative art-history texts such as Helen Gardner’s Renaissance and Modern Art: “Pythagoras writes as a servant holds up the harmonic scale.” (H. Gardner, Gardner’s Art through the Ages, 2 vols., 9th edn., 1991, 2.646)
However, it should be noted that this figure — shown writing in a large book — is a curious representation of Pythagoras, whom Chambers reminds us “never committed any thing to Writing.”
Such an ahistorical view of Pythagoras is especially jarring from Raphael, long regarded as an exceptionally learned man, a good historian, “and generally skill’d in the best Antiquities” (J. Evelyn, Translator’s Preface, An Idea of the Perfection of Painting ... Written in French by Roland Freart, Sieur de Cambray, and Rendred English by J. E. Esquire, Fellow of the Royal Society, 1668, b6v).
Indeed, during the 17th century, Raphael was widely celebrated for his genius at symbolism which delivered truths “to the eye of the mind” as well as “the eyes of the body.” (R. Fréart, An Idea of the Perfection of Painting ..., trans. by J. Evelyn, 1668, 87) Hence, in Raphael’s work, “even the least things to appearance are esteem’d great and considerable, by the mysterious intention of the Painter, apply’d to the Circumstances of his Subject, and minister as much to the contemplations of the Learned, as the most principal Figures of an History ....” (R. Fréart, An Idea of the Perfection of Painting ..., trans. by J. Evelyn, 1668, 84)
Given the visual emphasis here on the written word, I would suggest that this figure is better understood as a representation of Philolaus (b. c. 480 BCE) — an eminent mystic and philosopher of the Pythagorean school, and possibly the first to publish Pythagorean views for the general public. During the age of scientific revolution, Philolaus was known as the first European “who Asserted the Sun to be the Center of the Universe; and that all the Planets, and the Earth among the rest, which must therefore be esteemed one of them, moved round about it, that remaining fixt.” (R. Hooke, Posthumous Works, ed. Richard Waller, 1705, 105) When Raphael’s contemporary, Nicolas Copernicus (1473–1543), similarly posited two thousand years after Philolaus that the earth and planets moved about the sun, the Copernican theory of the universe was denounced as a Pythagorean heresy.
Of note, in heraldry, “Pythagoras is drawn with his Wheel in one hand, and a Quadrant in the other, with a Mantle cast carelessly over his Vestment or Coat.” (R. Holme, The Academy of Armory, or, a Storehouse of Armory and Blazon, 3 pts., 1688, 3.3.143)
< “Il pensieroso” (The Thoughtful One; alternately identified as Heraclitus, Pythagoras, and Epicurus). Detail No. 3 from The School of Athens (c.1509–11), Stanza della Segnatura fresco (Vatican Palace, Rome). By Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483–1520).
As noted above (see caption for Detail No. 1), Heraclitus is the conventional identification for this figure, repeated in authoritative art-history texts such as Helen Gardner’s Renaissance and Modern Art: “In the foreground, Heraclitus (probably a portrait of Michelangelo) broods alone.” (H. Gardner, Gardner’s Art through the Ages, 2 vols., 9th edn., 1991, 2.646)
It was customary for Renaissance and Baroque artists (e.g., Rubens) to represent Heraclitus of Ephesus (aka “the weeping philosopher”) as a melancholy, “weeping bearded man.” In heraldry, Heraclitus was drawn “with his eyes shut and weeping, wringing of his hands. He was the crying Philosopher, always weeping to se[e] mens Follyes, and the miserys of the world.” (R. Holme, The Academy of Armory, or, a Storehouse of Armory and Blazon, 3 pts., 1688, 3.3.143)
But Raphael’s bearded man, leaning against a block of marble, is not weeping, and is more thoughtful than melancholy. I, too, do not believe that this is Heraclitus.
Edgar Wind’s identification of Raphael’s “Il pensieroso” as Pythagoras is discussed above (see caption for Detail No. 1). The alternate identification of this pensive figure as Epicurus dates from the 17th century, having been suggested by the early-modern art critic and connoisseur Roland Fréart (1606–1676), sieur de Chambray, in his Idée de la Perfection de la Peinture (Le Mans, 1662).
Fréart’s commentary, as Englished by John Evelyn, reads: “... One might farther believe, and that with greater probability, (with respect to the Synchronisme) that this Figure situated in the middle of the piece, and just before the Plan, in so pensive and melancholy a posture, leaning his head upon his arme, and reposing his elbow on the corner of a Table, [were] the Philosopher Epicurus, who wrote his Testament in a Letter which he addres’d to Idomenaeus his intimate friend, as Diogenes Laertius reports; because it was the very last of his Actions, and, indeed, the most stupendious; since being then attacq’d with a Paroxysme of that most inconceivable torment of the Stone (of which he soon after dyed) he remitted nothing of his accustom’d Tranquillity of Spirit, but reason’d, and discours’d to the last minute, in the same manner as he was wont to do, when he enjoy’d the greatest health; which abundantly testifies, that the Sentiments, and Precepts of this great man, were not such as the vulgar reported, or that the Pleasure which he styl’d the Soveraign-Good, consisted in that shameful and voluptuous satisfaction which some have described.” (J. Evelyn, An Idea of the Perfection of Painting ... Written in French by Roland Freart, Sieur de Cambray, and Rendred English by J. E. Esquire, Fellow of the Royal Society, 1668, 116–7).
I myself lean towards Fréart’s identification of “Il pensieroso” as the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BCE), here serving as an exemplary model of “dying well.”
Epicurus “held that the highest pleasure consisted of living moderately and behaving kindly and in removing the fear of the gods and of death. His later followers were more self-indulgent in their definition of pleasure and Epicureanism is nowadays unjustly used as a synonym for hedonism.” (I. Asimov, Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science & Technology, 2nd rev. edn., 1982, 23) The classical values of Epicureanism — especially as regards death and dying, “the Happinesse of Man’s life, and the right meanes of attaining it, Wisdome” — were shared by many learned individuals of the 16th–18th centuries, when a “Similitude of Opinions” meant that Epicurus was portrayed as “a sublime Witt, a profound Judgement, and a great Master of Temperance, Sobriety, Continence, Fortitude and all other Vertues,” and greatly admired for his “patience, and invincible magnanimity, [enduring] the tortures of the Stone in the Bladder, and other most excruciating Diseases, for many years together, and [instead of opting for suicide] awaited, till extream old age gently put out the Taper of his life.” (W. Charleton, Epicurus’s Morals, 1656, A3r–v and d3v)
It is not difficult to believe Raphael shared this perspective, and is here exploring Epicurus’s celebrated resolve to embrace, rather than fear, death.
< Also identified as Epicurus. Detail No. 4 from The School of Athens (c.1509–11), Stanza della Segnatura fresco (Vatican Palace, Rome). By Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483–1520).
From Rome and the Vatican by E. Mansione and L. Pazienti: “... on the left Epicurus, with a crown of vine-leaves, props his book against the base of a column, and Pythagoras, dressed in pink and white, writes in a book while a youth holds a slate before him inscribed with his theory of harmony. The bearded man in the centre foreground leaning against a block of marble represents Heraclitus (a portrait of Michelangelo)....” (106)
< Hindu philosopher. Detail No. 5 from The School of Athens (c.1509–11), Stanza della Segnatura fresco (Vatican Palace, Rome). By Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483–1520).
Raphael is here acknowledging the cross-cultural influences within Pythagoreanism.
Pythagoras was reputed to have traveled widely in Egypt (where, according to Thomas Hobbes, Pythagoras was schooled in the natural sciences by the immigrant disciples of Ethiopian astronomers) and the East, including India, whose Pre-Buddhist Period (1400 to 500 B.C.E.) “was the age of Hindu sutras and philosophic systems which later on attracted the illustrious men of Greece, such as Pythagoras, who visited the surmans of India, and took back with them Hindu philosophy and medicine, which they embodied in their schools and writings.” (C. Muthu, “A Short Review of the History of Ancient Hindu Medicine,” 182) For example, “The geometrical theorem of the forty-seventh proposition, Book I, which tradition ascribes to Pythagoras, was solved by the Hindus at least two centuries earlier.” (C. Muthu, 179)
Early-modern Europeans such as Thomas Tryon believed that, while in India, Pythagoras developed a large following: “... this great man travelling for the acquest and diffusion of Knowledge into divers parts, left not our India unvisited, and there planted this wholsom Doctrine [i.e., vegetarianism], which ever since hath not wanted Observers, derived down by a continual Succession to our Times.” (T. Tryon, A Dialogue between an East-Indian Brackmanny or Heathen-Philosopher, and a French Gentleman concerning the Present Affairs of Europe, 1683, 18) Regardless of who taught whom the practise of principled vegetarianism, there is no doubt that both Greek and Hindu cultures cross-pollinated the Pythagorean school of natural philosophy.
These cross-cultural influences extended to early Christianity, as Raphael was no doubt well aware. The oldest “verbal symbols known to the Renaissance scholar were the Pythagorean symbola (later called acusmata), a collection of gnomic precepts whose origins in early cults associated with Pythagoreanism and Orphism had already become remote by the time that Aristotle and later Greeks (often the same writers who collected hieroglyphs) transmitted fragmentary collections of them. The symbola included such sayings as ‘Don’t sit on a peck-measure or choenix,’ ‘Don’t take a sparrow into your house,’ and ‘Refrain from eating beans.’
“Because the humanist position concerning these symbola was molded by Neo-platonists, especially Jamblichos and Porphyry, and by early Christian fathers such as Jerome and Clement, the Pythagorean sayings were considered allegories designed to be intelligible only to the initiated. Not only did Pythagoras remain respected by Christians for his mathematical and musical theories, but his cult with its division of students into the esoteric, or those who had earned the right to take part in discussions led by Pythagoras within a veiled enclosure, and the exoteric, or those neophytes who kept silent and listened from without, was believed to have been a precursor of Christian monasticism.... By the same token, legendary accounts (in Isocrates, Plato, Herodotus, and others) of the journeys of Pythagoras to Egypt, the Middle and Far East, and even Europe in a quest for the teachings of Egyptian and Chaldean priests, Persians, Arabs, Hebrews, Hindus, and Druids only served to increase the respect of the Renaissance syncretists for the Pythagorean symbola.
“The authors of emblem books drew on Pythagorean symbola conveniently collected by, and often explicated by humanists: Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni Nesi, Filippo Beroaldo the Elder, Joannes Reuchlin, Erasmus, J. A. Brassicanus, Lilio Gregorio Giraldi, and others. For the scholarly reader, Giraldi provided the most extensive collection of the first half of the century in his Pythagorica Praecepta Mystica a Plutarcho Interpretata (completed in 1543); Giraldi expanded the definition of symbola to include the sayings of Zoroaster and Solomon. Because Beroaldo’s Symbola Pythagorae Moraliter Explicata (1500) and Erasmus’ Collectanea (1500) and the expanded Adagia (1508) were widely used as school texts in the sixteenth century, some of the symbols became familiar to the more general reader as well.” (E. Watson, Achille Bocchi and the Emblem Book as Symbolic Form, 1993, 103)
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