Saturday, August 28, 2021


Pythagorean Catechism

Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras 82-85 (tr. Gillian Clark):
(82) The Hearers’ study of philosophy consists of maxims without demonstration or argument: “do this”, and the other pronouncements of Pythagoras. They try to preserve these as divine teachings; they make no claim to speak for themselves, nor do they think it right to speak, but they hold those who have acquired the most axioms to be the best equipped for wisdom.

These maxims are of three kinds, the “what is?”, the “what is the most?” and the “what is to be done or not done?”.

The “what is?” are like this: “What is ‘the islands of the blest’? The sun and moon.” “What is the oracle at Delphi? The tetract; it is also the harmony in which the Sirens sang.”

The “what is the most?” are like this: “What is the most just? Sacrifice.” “What is the wisest? Number, and the next is that which gives things their names.” “What is wisest among human skills? Medicine.” “What is finest? Harmony.” “What is strongest? Judgement.” “What is best? Happiness.” “What is truest? That people are wicked.”

They say that Pythagoras praised the poet Hippodamas of Salamis for his lines:
Whence do you come, O gods, how came you to be as you are?
Whence do you come, O people, how came you to be so wicked?
(83) These, then, are examples of that kind of maxim; each is a “what is the most?” This is the same as what is called the wisdom of the seven sages, for they did not ask “What is the good?” but “What is the most good?”, not “What is the difficult?” but “What is the most difficult?” (the answer is “to know yourself”), not “What is the easy?” but “What is the easiest?” (the answer is “to follow habit”). So these maxims are probably derived from that kind of wisdom, since the seven sages lived before Pythagoras.

Maxims about “what is to be done or not done?” are like this: “One must have children” (so as to leave successors to worship the gods). “One must put the right shoe on first.” “One must not walk on public roads, take holy water or use the baths” (because it is not certain, in all these circumstances, that those sharing with us are pure).

(84) Other examples are “Do not help to unload a burden” (because it is wrong to encourage lack of effort) “but help to load it up”. “Do not seek to have children by a rich woman.” “Do not speak without a light.” “Pour a libation to the gods over the handle of the cup, as an omen, and so that no-one drinks from the same place.” “Do not wear a seal-ring with the image of a god, lest it be defiled: it is a cult-image, which should be set up in the house.” “A man must not persecute his wife, for she is a suppliant: that is also why we lead the bride from the hearth, taking her by the right hand.” “Do not sacrifice a white cock, for he is a suppliant, sacred to Men: that is also why he tells the time.”

(85) “Never give advice which is not in the best interest of the one who seeks it: advice is holy.” “Work is good, pleasure of all kinds is bad: we come looking for punishment and must have it.” “One should make sacrifice, and go to holy places, barefoot.” “One should not leave one’s path to go to a temple, for we must not make the god an incidental task.” “It is good to die, if you stand your ground with wounds in front: if not, not.” “The souls of humans may enter any living creature except those it is lawful to sacrifice. So we must eat only sacrificial animals, those that are fit to eat, not any other living creature.”

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