The Theosophical Forum – July 1949

ON PYTHAGORAS — Irene Croiset van Uchelen

Pythagoras was born about 528 B.C., and his parents, Mnesarchus and Pythais were citizens of Samos and descendants of Ancaeus, who, it is said by Iamblichus, was directed by the Pythian oracle to colonize the marine island of Samos. His mother, Pythais. it is told, received intimation of his birth by divine revelation, for Pythagoras is one of the seers of antiquity for whom an immaculate conception has been claimed, and his birth is surrounded by many legends.

Pythagoras stated that he was not sophos, wise, but philosophos, a "lover of wisdom," Pythagoras himself originating the term "Philosopher." In a discourse with Leo, Prince of the Phliasians, we find this interesting passage:

Human Life seemed to resemble that public convention which is celebrated with the pomp and games of all Greece, for as some by bodily exercises aim at the glory and nobility of a crown, others are led away by gain in buying and selling. But there are certain persons, and those of better quality, who seek neither applause nor gain, but come to behold and curiously observe what is done and how. So we, coming out of another life and nature into this life, as out of some city into the full throng of a public meeting, some serve glory, others riches; only a few there are, who, despising all things else, studiously enquire into the nature of things. These he called enquirers after wisdom; these are philosophers. Thus, whereas learning before was called Sophia, wisdom, and the professors thereof sophoi, Pythagoras more modestly called it philosophy, love of wisdom — conceiving the attribute of "wise" not to belong to men, but to God only.

Perhaps Pythagoras had come to give the teachings of the esoteric wisdom to the people of Greece as Orpheus, "the Initiate of the Dawn of Greece," had given them to her priests, and as Plato had kept them alive in the setting sun of the Greek flowering. He was a torchbearer in the long chain of those who have so consecrated their lives, and brought a philosophy which was to influence the artistic and intellectual splendor of Grecian and other civilizations and to lay the foundations for the future scientific thought of the new world.

Pythagoras taught reincarnation and karma, and it is said in Mead's Orpheus that he had given some details of his former births to his disciples. In the life in which he became known as Pythagoras, his father died while he was quite young. He was much respected and honored even as a child, and was trained by the most learned thinkers of his time. Accounts of historians differ, but it is known that he sat at the feet of many masters. It is told that at the age of eighteen he secretly left Samos, the island being somewhat disturbed by political tyranny, and went to Sidon, where he sought the great Phoenician hierophants and was initiated into the mysteries of Byblus and Tyre. Here he lived in the seclusion of the temple. Later he went to Egypt to study. Although he was known to the Egyptian priests, they did all they could to discourage him, administering severe tests, but the young Pythagoras was not disheartened, submitting to them with an unflagging courage and determination. After he was accepted he was taught the epistolic, hieroglyphic and symbolic writing in order that he might understand the sacred lore. He lived for 22 years among the priests in the temples and was initiated into the mysteries. In Babylon he learned of the highest in music and mathematics; also of the motions of the stars, their power and properties, and their various effects upon men in health and disease. He was also initiated into the Babylonian and Chaldean Mysteries. He visited many other countries, making perhaps his greatest travel through Media and Persia into Hindusthan where it is said he remained some years as a pupil and initiate of the learned Brahmans.

Historians tell us that during his travel among the Jews he was instructed in the secret knowledge of Moses, the lawgiver of Israel, upon which the school of the Essene Mysteries, also attended by Jesus, was founded. Upon his return to Samos at the age of 56, he established a school which is still known as the semi-circle of Pythagoras. However, he was not very successful in teaching his own countrymen for the times were not fertile for the sowing of the seeds of philosophic truths, and so he moved to Crotona, Italy, where he established his now world-famous school. He discoursed to the people, and became much honored. Gradually he gathered around him a group of followers, and out of these came a small nucleus whom he instructed in the secret wisdom, and also in the fundamentals of occult mathematics, music and astronomy, which Pythagoras held to be the triangular foundation of all the arts and sciences. His temple, amidst flowering gardens, was a circular colonnade which rose above the two wings of the main building. The men, in white robes, worshiped in the Temple of Apollo, and the women in colored robes in the Temple of Ceres, over the gate of which was a stone image of Hermes and the inscription Eschatoi Bebeloi (no entrance to the profane). It was dedicated to the nine muses of ancient mythology, who presided over their various fields of astronomy, divination, science of life and death, etc., with Hestia, divine science, making ten, the sacred decad.

The disciples of Pythagoras lived as a brotherhood in the temple, but joined in ordinary life, each candidate being admitted to the different grades of initiation according to his inherent ability, his intelligence, and earnestness in study. Thus, each belonged where he was according to the just measure of his own merit, the whole being under the supervision of the Head. Those who lived within the temple shared everything, possessing nothing individually, while those who lived outside forming a community around the temple, retained their possessions. The philosophy of the outer court was exoteric, while that of the inner temple was more rigid and the studies more advanced. It is related that Pythagoras was very strict in admitting candidates, saying that "not every wood is fit for the making of a Mercury." The aspirant was put through various trials. First he had to spend a night in a lonely, and perhaps haunted, cavern, and if his courage was not equal to this he was rejected. After this, he found himself in a gloomy cell where he was asked to solve the meaning of a Pythagorean symbol, such as "Why is a dodecahedron confined in a sphere, the symbol of the universe?" After working this out through many solitary hours, he was taken before an assembly, and if he could prove the symbol, he was honored; but if he had not succeeded, he was ridiculed, while the Master stood near, observing. If he failed in self-respect, or respect to the school, by expressing chagrin or giving way to temper, he was asked quietly to leave. Some to whom this happened afterwards became enemies of the school, and among these was one named Cylon who later stirred insurrection against Pythagoras, with the ultimate result that the group was disintegrated.

Pythagoras believed the study of geometry, music and astronomy to be essential to a rational understanding of the universe, and his pupils were required to study these sciences.

He believed and taught the One that is everything. He described that One as the Supreme Mind which causes and is the power of all things, whose motion is circular, whose body is of the substance of light and whose essential nature is truth.

He discovered the therapeutic power of music and color, and of certain plants, and he was against surgery which he said was a sacrilege against the dwelling place of the Gods. His doctrine of friendship as the truest and most perfect of relationships is very beautiful because he extended it not only to humans, but to the kinship of the soul for the body, of Gods to men, of all to all, in fact the underlying unity of all things. This doctrine is said to be the foundation of the order of the Knights of Pythias. Pythagoras defined knowledge as mental accumulation through observation, and wisdom as the understanding of the underlying cause of all. And this could be reached by raising the intellect to where it could intuitively become aware of the invisible form of things manifested, and so become attuned with the ultimate spirit of things. His monad is that which the Pythagoreans called the mysterious permanent atom.

He also believed that the stars and planets were the visible bodies of great spirits just as our bodies are merely the reflection of our inner selves, and that behind or overshadowing these sacred planets were great deities, forgotten by humanity today, but worshiped and adored by the ancients.

The Pythagorean Y signifies our innate freewill and choice. On the path of life we may walk to the right or left; no matter what the circumstances, that power is man's. It is quite probable that Pythagoras derived this from the Egyptians, for this symbol is still preserved in the Tarot cards. It is called the forking of the ways and is symbolic also of a ritual used in initiations where the candidate had to choose between the hall of learning and the way of pleasure and gratification of the senses.

Pythagoras said: "All things consist of three . . . establish the triangle and the problem is two-thirds solved." Therefore he divided the universe into three states: the supreme or absolute state the archetypal world and the home of the demi-urgos; secondly, the devas who supervise nature; and thirdly, the world of mankind.

No doubt everyone has heard of the Pythagorean numbers, supposedly the basis for various numerological systems used today; but because these were highly esoteric, it is safe to assume that the real key to their meaning and significance is lost. Pythagoras taught that the dot symbolized the power of the number One, the line the power of the number Two, the surface the power of the number Three, and the solid the power of the number Four. The numbers one and two are not considered by the Pythagoreans because they belonged to the unmanifested spheres. Therefore, their numbers begin with three, the triangle, and four, the square, and these added to the one and the two produce the number ten, the archetypal or sacred number. The origin of the true significance of these numbers is lost in the mists of time, the ancient writers linking them with the sacred planets, or intelligences overshadowing these planets. Plutarch says in Isis and Osiris:

For as the power of the triangle is expressive of the nature of Pluto, Bacchus and Mars; and the properties of the square of Rhea, Venus, Ceres, Vesta, and Juno; and of the Dodecahedron of Jupiter; so we are informed by Eudoxus, is the figure of fifty-six expressive of the nature of Typhon.

The number One is the monad, the mysterious permanent atom, because it is both the all including One, and the sum of any combination of numbers; the One and the many, the tree and its branches, the seed and its continuous flowering. Therefore it remains separate from the many. "I create myself and remain separate," says Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita. It is the void and the fullness. It is the odd and the even, the beginning and end of itself, the center and circumference. Therefore, the Pythagoreans called it the evenly-odd. From it are produced the even or feminine numbers, because these can reproduce themselves, and the odd which are masculine, not to be divided equally. It is the androgynous number because it contains both the odd and the even. As the monad it has been called the germinal reason, because it is the origin of all the thoughts in the Universe. It is the seed of past and present, and therefore the Eternal Now. In the monad, time and space, or number and form, exist, but the monad does not exist in time.

The Pythagoreans had a proverb that all things were assimilated to number.

That the eternal essence of number is the most providential principle of the universe, of heaven and earth and the intermediate nature; and further still, that it is the root of the permanency of divine natures, of gods and daemons. . .. Number is the ruler of forms and ideas; to the most ancient and artificially ruling deity, number is the canon, the artificial reason, the intellect also, and the most undeviating balance of the composition and the generation of all things.
      — Pythagoras in The Sacred Discourse.

From numbers we come to the Pythagorean geometrical solid. That is from number, which engenders time, we come to form which is derived from time and space. First there is 1-0 the sphere, the most perfect of forms, and the five symmetrical solids of the Pythagoreans which are the tetrahedron, the cube, the octahedron, the icosahedron, and the dodecahedron. Some of the old writings associate each of the sacred planets with one of the geometrical solids, such as the cube to Saturn, and the icosahedron to Venus, etc. This is attributed to Plato, but to us can only be speculative. Moreover, Plato did not consider the stars and planets in their manifestations of form, but as focal points of Intelligences. His astronomy was concerned only with the excellences of things beyond form.

On the Pythagorean theories of music and color much could be said, but his grandest conception was of the music of the spheres. Exoterically, this meant that each planet, moving in its course with a certain velocity, gives forth a certain note corresponding with the seven notes of the scale, the zodiac or inerratic sphere forming the eighth or octave. Inwardly we know that every single atom in the spaces of space, giving forth its sound, swells the music of the spheres. At the heart of our solar system is a fire, and around this revolve the planets, including the sun. The intervals or spaces between the planets are given thus in Stanley's History of Philosophy, London, 1687:

Earth to Moon — 1 tone. Sun to Mars — 1 tone.
Moon to Mercury — ½ tone. Mars to Jupiter — ½ tone.
Mercury to Venus — ½ tone. Jupiter to Saturn — ½ tone.
Venus to Sun — 1½ tones. Saturn to Zodiac — 1½ tones.

These intervals added together make the seven tones, or "the Diapason harmony." Much could be said of the interval. Its presence permits the dance of the cosmic circle and governs light, color, sound, and the crystallization of the manifested worlds. By means of the interval, perhaps, life may live in form. But what did Pythagoras mean by the harmony of the spheres? Not that the planetary notes as we know these notes would produce harmony when united, for this does not work out. Surely it must have been that divine symphony, heard with the inward ear, which Plato also knew, and which relates to no manifested form or sound, but has its being in the celestial heavens. As Shakespeare says in the Merchant of Venice:

Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-ey'd cherubims;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

No great Teacher neglects the ethical side of philosophy, and neither did Pythagoras. But ethics founded on great cosmic significance and workings, on rightness which stands of itself, are immeasurably greater than a mere morality based on emotion and custom. The most well-known of writings ascribed to Pythagoras are The Golden Verses, in which he describes a way of life and urges men to consider their acts; the necessity for self-control and transmutation of the lower nature so that man may win his immortality and converse once more with the Gods. "Having departed from your house, turn not back; for the furies will be your attendants," says Pythagoras in some precepts gathered by Iamblichus, thus warning that he who enters the Path can never turn back.


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