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Pythagoras: More than A Mathematician

By Lee Slonimsky

Not all modern readers may be aware of the significant role "Pythagoreanism" played as a mystical belief and way of life in Iusta's and Phineas's time.  Today Pythagoras is famous mostly for his theorem which states that the squares of the sides of a right triangle are equal to the square of its hypotenuse, a theorem which he may not have had anything to do with discovering.  The historical Pythagoras actually was much more of a philosopher and moral leader than a mathematician.  He was the first known vegetarian and a proponent of the humane treatment of animals, as well as the emancipation of women and slaves.  He was also the originator of a numerically based concept of the universe profound and original enough to have an influence on as great a scientist as Johannes Kepler (discoverer of the laws of planetary motion) more than two thousand years after he lived.

Though his beliefs were altered and added to for several centuries by his followers, most of the cults which bore his name retained a commitment to vegetarianism and a belief in metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls, which could include human reincarnation as animals.  (Pythagoras famously once rebuked a man whipping his dog with the reprimand that he could be beating his own relative!)  In THE NIGHT VILLA, both the ancient cult with Pythagorean elements in it that Calatoria belongs to and the cult that Ely joins have been perverted to evil ends, but for an enlightened soul like Iusta, true Pythagoreanism and Christianity would have had a fundamental benevolence and affirmation of life in common.  Pythagoreanism, although it was not directly in the Judeo-Christian tradition, had forward looking and enlightened social beliefs that were distinctive among many other competing cults of antiquity.

A clear understanding of the exalted stature of Pythagoras in 79 A. D. makes it easier to understand the excitement and economic value Phineas (and others) would have attached to a scroll actually written by Pythagoras.  The historical Pythagoras is said to have written nothing, but it is quite possible that whatever writing he may have done was lost or destroyed, perhaps in one destructive incident.  Pythagoreanism was the prevailing political movement in the late 500s B. C. in the portion of Magna Graecia (the Greek colony in Italy) centered around Croton on Italy's eastern shore.  After a time, the party was violently overthrown, with leaders and followers massacred and many buildings burned to the ground.  This riot, believed by historians to have been a reaction against the ascetic lifestyle preached by Pythagoras, could have eradicated works he had personally written.  Whatever the reality of him writing or not, discovery several hundred years later of original work by such a renowned figure would have caused a stir comparable to one today surrounding the discovery of a diary or manuscript by a major religious or historical figure, say St. Francis of Assisi or Queen Elizabeth I.

The fact that Pythagoras was in a way a rival figure to Jesus in the first century A. D. has something to do with his importance having been so long overlooked afterward.  Pythagoreans during this period began to circulate tales of miracles associated with him that could compete with the supernatural events of the Gospels, in the futile hope of keeping their followers in the fold and attracting new ones.  This competition was a factor in the early Church helping to exclude his moral and spiritual significance from Western tradition, which kept alive only the famous theorem and the musical system associated with his name.  But he long remained a fascinating figure, as Johannes Kepler's personal and intellectual identification with him in the early seventeenth century showed.  Kepler combined mathematics and philosophy in his deep admiration for Pythagoras and his ideas. He once whimsically remarked that he might need to ask the ghost of Pythagoras for assistance with his profound work HARMONICE MUNDI, in which he draws on Euclidean geometry and Pythagorean musical and celestial harmonics to try to come to terms with the universe.

In researching Pythagoras's life for my book of sonnets PYTHAGORAS IN LOVE, I have read carefully the work of recent scholars like Charles Kahn and Christiane Joost-Gaugier, who have done a wonderful job of reviving knowledge about Pythagoras that has been so long neglected.  Such a revival is of course not Carol Goodman's primary intention in THE NIGHT VILLA, but she has also advanced the cause of historical truth by taking into account that, for the ancient world, Pythagoras was much more than a mathematician.  In PYTHAGORAS IN LOVE (the title was Carol Goodman's), the poem "Another's Eyes" tries to communicate the message that was compelling in Pythagoras's time: since life is a cycle in which individual souls take varying forms, all living creatures need to be treated with the respect that one would afford to a friend, a relative, a fellow human being.  And one need not have a literal belief in reincarnation to understand the moral value of such a belief:

Pythagoras recalls how, as a tree,
he learned that math predicts both sun and shade,
perceived the numbers that the gods had made
to count the twigs and branches draped with leaves.
Such longing he felt then, to know how free
the birds were in their flight, light in the glade,
while stillness was the god that he obeyed,
and silent green of leaves his destiny.

He walks now, as a man, in just the woods
he lived in as an oak a hundred years,
no longer with that lust to move, speak, cry,
but thinking that he'd welcome, if he could,
another life now, as a fox or deer,
the revolution of another's eyes.

(originally published in the Spring 2004 issue of IAMBS & TROCHEES)

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