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Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans, Fragments and Commentary

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Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans,
Fragments and Commentary

Arthur Fairbanks, ed. and trans.
The First Philosophers of Greece
(London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1898), 132-156.

Hanover Historical Texts Project
Scanned and proofread by Aaron Gulyas, May 1998.

Fairbanks's Introduction

Pythagoras, son of Mnesarchos, a native of Samos, left his fatherland to escape the tyranny of Polykrates (533/2 or 529/8 B.C.). He made his home for many years in Kroton in southern Italy, where his political views gained control in the city. At length he and his followers were banished by an opposing party, and he died at Metapontum. Many stories are told of his travels into Egypt and more widely, but there is no evidence on which the stories can be accepted. He was a mystic thinker and religious reformer quite as much as a philosopher, but there is no reason for denying that the doctrines of the school originated with him. Of his disciples, Archytas, in southern Italy, and Philolaos and Lysis, at Thebes, are the best known. It is the doctrine of the school, not the teaching of Pythagoras himself, which is known to us through the writings of Aristotle.

Passages in Plato referring to the Pythagoreans

(133) Phaedo 62 B. The saying that is uttered in secret rites, to the effect that we men are in a sort of prison, and that one ought not to loose himself from it nor yet to run away, seems to me something great and not easy to see through; but this at least I think is well said, that it is the gods who care for us, and we men are one of the possessions of the gods.

Kratyl. 400 B. For some say that it (the body) is the tomb of the soul-I think it was the followers of Orpheus in particular who introduced this word-which has this enclosure like a prison in order that it may be kept safe.

Gorg. 493 A. I once heard one of the wise men say that now we are dead and the body is our tomb, and that that part of the soul where desires are, it so happens, is open to persuasion, and moves upward or downward. And, indeed, a clever man-perhaps some inhabitant of Sicily or Italy-speaking allegorically, and taking the word from credible' and 'persuadable' called this a jar; and he called those without intelligence uninitiated, and that part of the soul of uninitiated persons where the desires are, he called its intemperateness, and said it was not water tight, as a jar might be pierced with holes-using the simile because of its insatiate desires.

Gorg. 507 A. And the wise men say that one community embraces heaven and earth and gods and men and friendship and order and temperance and righteousness, and for that reason they call this whole a universe, (134) my friend, for it is not without order nor yet is there excess. It seems to me that you do not pay attention to these things, though you are wise in regard to them. But it has escaped your notice that geometrical equality prevails widely among both gods and men.

Passages in Aristotle referring to the Pythagoreans

Phys. iii. 4; 203 a 1. For all who think they have worthily applied themselves to such philosophy, have discoursed concerning the infinite, and they all have asserted some first principle of things-some, like the Pythagoreans and Plato, a first principle existing by itself, not connected with anything else, but being itself the infinite in its essence. Only the Pythagoreans found it among things perceived by sense (for they say that number is not an abstraction), and they held that it was the infinite outside the heavens.

iii. 4; 204 a 33. (The Pythagoreans) both hold that the infinite is being, and divide it. iv. 6; 213 b 22. And the Pythagoreans say that there is a void, and that it enters into the heaven itself from the infinite air, as though it (the heaven) were breathing; and this void defines the natures of things, inasmuch as it is a certain separation and definition of things that lie and this is true first in the case of numbers, for the void defines the nature of these.

De coel. i. ; 268 a 10. For as the Pythagoreans say, the all and all things are defined by threes; for end and middle and beginning constitute the number of the all, and also the number of the triad.

ii. 2; 284 b 6. And since there are some who say that there is a right and left of the heavens, as, for instance, (135) those that are called Pythagoreans (for such is their doctrine), we must investigate whether it is as they say.

ii. 2; 285 a 10. Wherefore one of the Pythagoreans might be surprised in that they say that there are only these two first principles, the right and the left, and they pass over four of them as not having the least validity; for there is no less difference up and down, and front and back than there is right and left in all creatures.

ii. 2; 285 b 23. And some are dwelling in the upper hemisphere and to the right, while we dwell below and to the left, which is the opposite to what the Pythagoreans say; for they put us above and to the right, while the others are below and at the left.

ii.9 ; 290 b 15. Some think it necessary that noise should arise when so great bodies are in motion, since sound does arise from bodies among us which are not so large and do not move so swiftly; and from the sun and moon and from the stars in so great number, and of so great size, moving so swiftly, there must necessarily arise a sound inconceivably great. Assuming these things and that the swiftness has the principle of harmony by reason of the intervals, they say that the sound of the stars moving on in a circle becomes musical. And since it seems unreasonable that we also do not hear this sound, they say that the reason for this is that the noise exists in the very nature of things, so as not to be distinguishable from the opposite silence; for the distinction of sound and silence lies in their contrast with each other, so that as blacksmiths think there is no difference between them because they are accustomed to the sound, so the same thing happens to men.

ii. 9; 291 a 7. What occasions the difficulty and makes the Pythagoreans say that there is a harmony of the bodies as they move, is a proof. For whatever things

(136) move themselves make a sound and noise; but whatever things are fastened in what moves or exist in it as the parts in a ship, cannot make a noise, nor yet does the ship if it moves in a river.

ii. 13; 293 a 19. They say that the whole heaven is limited, the opposite to what those of Italy, called the Pythagoreans, say; for these say that fire is at the centre and that the earth is one of the stars, and that moving in a circle about the centre it produces night and day. And they assume yet another earth opposite this which they call the counter-earth, not seeking reasons and causes for phenomena, but stretching phenomena to meet certain assumptions and opinions of theirs and attempting to arrange them in a system. . . . And farther the Pythagoreans say that the most authoritative part of the All stands guard, because it is specially fitting that it should, and this part is the centre; and this place that the fire occupies, they call the guard of Zeus, as it is called simply the centre, that is, the centre of space and the centre of matter and of nature.

iii.1; 300 a 15. The same holds true for those who construct the heaven out of numbers; for some construct nature out of numbers, as do certain of the Pythagoreans.

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