Pythagoras and His School
Hermes, November 1977
Pythagoras was revered in India as Pitar Guru, Father and Teacher, and as Yavanacharya, the Ionian philosopher. He was known by other names in ancient Egypt where he spent twenty years in preparation before, at the age of fifty-six, he founded the School at Crotona in Magna Graecia, with great deliberation and in accord with the wisdom and the vision of the mighty Brotherhood he represented. He taught an entire emerging community, seeking four hundred pure souls who might constitute a small brotherhood for the sake of making that polis a city of souls in search of wisdom in harmony with the larger fellowship of man. His School was based upon the most stringent rules for admission, including a probation lasting five years and a requirement of total silence in the presence of those in the assembly who had been longer in the school. He initiated those who had passed all the preliminary trials, making themselves channels for the divine fount of omniscience, towards which he always pointed and upon which he enjoined an absolute, reverential silence.
For Pythagoras, philosophy was a purgation of the mind and emotions so that the pure light of the immortal soul may freely shine through the limited vestures common to all men. The purification must begin by preparatory reverence—becoming truly worthy of relationship through silent worship of the immortal Gods with the transcendental order which holds everything in the universe in a divine harmony. This order could be seen in the heavens and be studied with the help of geometry and mathematics of the most archetypal form. Through the honouring of heroes and peers, profound reverence may emerge for the whole of life when seen in the context of a vast universe. Pythagoras was the first to use the word ‘cosmos’. The universe is a cosmos, not a chaos. It represents the majesty of a vast intelligible ordering of immense magnitudes through the application of an over-brooding architectonic principle in a rounded but boundless perspective. It is bounded in time and space but unbounded in its peripheral transition to the realm of the potential. Apprehending this, a person begins to deepen his or her feeling for the mystery of life and all the multitudinous forms of matter, and thereby comes to have a true and rectified respect for those forces that are ceaselessly at work, even in the simplest acts such as the handling of objects. The person who is thus prepared would naturally honour the noble heroes, the forerunners of every race and every civilization who, though they are imperfect individuals, are yet capable of elevating the moral tone of human culture. Throughout history their name is legion. Anyone who has thought about these matters fosters a view of human nature that is enormously expansive, and comes to see human beings in terms of opportunities, not limitations, in terms of powers and possibilities rather than handicaps. Then, according to the Pythagorean teaching in the Golden Verses, any person can come to show fearlessness in relation to fate, having already acquired a mature self-respect that is rooted in an understanding and a reverence for all of life.
Self-respect means here very much more than in current usage and in our ordinary languages. It is the key to what is said in the Golden Verses about proper self-examination, which is an activity very different from offering a confessional before a priest, or going to a psychiatrist and having oneself analysed, or engaging in one or another form of tedious, furtive and repressive discussion of the shadow. In the Pythagorean teaching, the shadow cannot understand itself. The shadow is void of the very possibility of self-knowledge. Real understanding can come solely through the light of self-awareness which is inherent in every human being. The light of understanding can dispel the shadow of the personality only when, in lunar consciousness, a fruitful connection is made—metaphorically withdrawing to Metapontum where Pythagoras passed away, some say around the age of a hundred. Having built a bridge in personal consciousness towards the latent potential self, one sees that in this larger selfhood there are no differences between oneself and every other human being and also the inner light and essence of anything and everything. The same luminous essence is to be found in a piece of paper, a table, a stone, in each single atom in space, in every animal form, in each vegetable and mineral, and the same is also to be found in every constituent of that vast and complex universe that we call the human body. The same is also to be found in each thought-form entering into and leaving the human mind through its affinity with appropriate centres of excitation in the brain, or when self-consciously drawn from an abundant cosmic storehouse.
All who want to come closer to the spirit of the Golden Verses must prepare and purge themselves as Pythagoras taught, thereby coming to be known as a trainer of souls. When human beings seek to learn, in the privacy and solitude of their own solemn undertaking, the serious business of truly elevating a human life, they must begin to ask questions about themselves: “Who am I?” “What am I?” “Why did I do this then?” “Do I always say what I intend?” “Did I think before I acted this morning, and what do I now think I am supposed to do tomorrow, next week, next year?” It is significant that the only phrase occurring twice in the Golden Verses is: Think before you act. It is precisely because human beings with the best intentions in the world, with access to the profoundest ideas and sharing the noblest of feelings, are not able to deliver themselves in public life with the dignity of divine monads, that they need to give themselves a chance, by making time within the space of every day for looking back in review. By continually reflecting the standpoint of the immortal Self, they will surely come to understand others and increase their real confidence through recognizing what is good in themselves; this in turn gives the courage to notice what in themselves is left-handed and must be discarded.
It is well known, though little understood, that in the Pythagorean School the psychological disciplines were joined to the study of mathematics. If one really wanted to understand this, one would be well advised to meditate deeply upon the Pythagorean Triad and the Tetrad. When one truly does so, one will find that the mystery deepens further, because what is esoteric and what is exoteric are relative. What is hidden to one is not unknown to another. What is hidden at one time is not inaccessible at another time. Unfortunately, many people are victims of an Aristotelian-Baconian view of knowledge where thoughts are seen as bits of information transmitted from the outside and impressed upon the brain, itself misconstrued as a kind of tabula rasa. In contemporary culture many people erroneously believe that true knowledge has got to do with the information revolution, and hence all that is needed is to find proper ways of giving access to information to each and all. In the School of Pythagoras, if people sought to know the Mysteries, they were fairly and squarely told what were the rules that must be respected. These time-honoured rules have always been observed. Great Teachers make fresh applications of these enduring rules according to the exigencies of the age in strict obedience to the Fraternity on behalf of which they act, and of which they are faithful members.
In teaching the divine wisdom relevant to his time, Pythagoras, the great Master, followed very strict rules. In one mythic version the story is told of how this was done. If individuals sought admission into the School, having already found inspiration in daily life from the ethical teaching of the Golden Verses, then they were invited to put themselves through a preliminary set of freely chosen and strictly administered tests. One of these required that the candidate be conducted to some secluded place and left with bread and water. He was requested to remain there for a night and to think intently upon a single symbol such as the triangle. Having prepared properly and taken whatever steps were needed to gain calmness, the candidate then set down ideas on the subject in relation to the whole of life. The following morning, the candidate was invited to the assembly of those who had already passed through these stages and asked by Pythagoras, who presided, to convey his observations to the entire group. A common practice during those days was that various members of the assembly were instructed to make it difficult for the candidate to state what he had to say by ridiculing his ideas. Naturally, a new candidate was liable to be nervous though the assembly was really on his side, yet nonetheless no concessions were made to his limitations, ambiguities and mixtures of motive. This was for his own good. Unless one could maintain one’s composure under these circumstances, it was clear that life in the School would prove too much for a candidate who was unduly sensitive to criticism. Something of this ancient tradition still persists, for example in Holland and Germany at the time of the defense of dissertations, although without the compassionate purport of the trial the ceremony becomes censorious and even absurd.
What was crucial for Pythagoras was the authenticity of self-knowledge in relation to the application for the sake of other men of the holy and sacred teaching in relation to the divine Triad. The Triad itself could not be comprehended except in relation to the Point. The Point could not be grasped except as a One in relation to the Duad. The Monad and the Duad could not be understood completely unless they were also seen in terms of the Triad. And so the number series proceeds. Underlying it is the difficult problem which has to do with form, the meaning of the Pythagorean Square. If all of these are to be put together, something is involved which is rather like squaring the circle, securing the elixir of life, the key to the Mysteries of life and death. Pythagoras taught that unless the Mysteries are found within oneself, they cannot speak to one. All must make their own experiments with truth. They must make their own exercises in the calming of the passions, the controlling of the mind, the concentration of the thinking principle, and above all, the purgation and purification of their motives, intentions, feelings, likes and dislikes. This must be done for the sake of fusing the whole of one’s being into an overriding thought-feeling, one keynote vibration which becomes a sacred verbum, moving and animating the entire manifested self. All human beings have a unique and privileged access to the verbum within the sanctuary of their own consciousness in deep sleep, in daily meditation, in waking life, in golden moments, but, above all, when they begin to enter into a current of continuous thought and meditation upon the holiest of all subjects, which has to do with the fons et origo of all living things and beings. When they do this, then they will begin to understand the Tetraktys or sacred Quaternion, the Number of numbers.
Intuitive individuals will come to see that all these numbers point towards five, the Pythagorean pentagon, and six, which was used later in the Kabbalah but for Pythagoras was a six-pointed star where there was an eagle at the top and a bull and a lion below the face of a man. They will also begin to sense something about the significance of seven as the basic principle of division of not only colours and sounds, but of all manifestation. The seven in turn cannot be understood without the eight and Pythagoras taught how harmony may be produced when tuning the high and the low notes in the octave, thereby laying the basis for many of the theories and teachings that have come down through musical traditions. What he illustrated in music could also be applied to medicine, which means we cannot leave out the number nine. Nine has great meaning as three sets of three, but it also spells the ending of all things—incompletion. The wise take this into account in advance, thereby preserving the inviolable image of what since Pythagoras has come to be called the perfect number—ten—without seeking for its exact visual replica on earth. What is hidden in the Triad has been glimpsed by great architects, sculptors and craftsmen. The Chinese, when creating vases, abstained from making them perfectly symmetrical. Contemporary architects like Jacobsen after conceiving a fine building do not care to come to the opening ceremony as they are absorbed in the designing of the next. Truly creative minds have known that there is a joy in creativity which is constricted and cancelled by attachment to results. The criteria of the world which accommodate the concerns of the mediocre also act as a brake upon the ascent to those levels of excellence which are relevant to all cultures. In the Pythagorean tradition, a proper answer to any question about the Mysteries must throw one back upon oneself so that each will do his own meditation and reflection upon the Tetrad as well as the Tetraktys.
The vital essence of the Pythagorean teaching was to encourage the emergence of whole men and women. They cannot be manufactured, but must truly create themselves. Great Teachers assist in the self-production of whole human beings by making a holistic teaching come alive. Pythagoras was an originator of true science, religion and philosophy in the Near Eastern cycle which he initiated. The teaching of Pythagoras was also that of the Buddha and later on of Shankara. Two thousand five hundred years ago the Buddha taught his disciples first to become shravakas, listeners. When they had spent a sufficient time in listening and learning, as in the earlier Hindu tradition with its emphasis upon brahmacharya, a period of probation, then they could become sramanas, men of action. We find this also in the Pythagorean tradition, where neophytes are acousticoi, those who listen. This has reference not to something mechanical or rigid and therefore false, but to a balanced training in the art of perfecting through wisdom the conservation of energy. The purification of thought, the calming and harmonizing of feelings, was undertaken for the sake of the appropriate manifestation of the Inner Self through proper speech and fitting conduct.
Pythagoras taught a threefold division of humankind and a threefold division of desire. All men may be compared to people who attend a festival. There are those who are motivated by the love of gain and who go to buy and sell. There are those motivated by the love of honour and they go to compete with and emulate each other in attaining standards of excellence. Then there are those who are concerned with neither gain nor glory because they have either worn out these toys or thought through these illusions, or they are born with a natural indifference to them. Such are wholly concerned with the love of wisdom. Lovers of wisdom may be compared to those who at festivals are like spectators, not participating but at the same time not making external judgements, not buying and selling, not comparing and contrasting, but merely learning what is common to all men, learning something about the noble art of living. They do not do what is unnecessary. They try to find out what is intimated behind the forms in the vaster human drama in which all the world is a stage and men and women merely players. The play is the thing. Quiet attention is the beginning of the way to wisdom in the Pythagorean tradition.
Reincarnation, the philosophy of palingenesis, is also fundamental. Every human being has been involved as a spectator in a variety of spectacles, has played a multiple diversity of roles. In this perspective, all learning is recollection, and much of what is seen is the restoration of Soul-memory. What people think is new is mostly a recollection from where and whence they know naught, but which nonetheless acts as a divine prompting within them and sometimes saves them, in times of trouble and of trial, from making mistakes which would propel them further back than when they made them before, because by now they should have learnt something. The School which Pythagoras founded was one in which every kind of learning could be pursued, not for the purpose of integrating the isms and the sects of the time, but rather for coming down, from above below, so as to be able to see the synthesizing principles, in theoria and praxis, contemplation and conduct.
After the passing of Pythagoras, the pupils of his School separated out. Schisms ensued between the so-called scientific people, who spent their time making claims, arguing and attacking each other, and those who initially espoused simple enthusiasms and were mocked by the others. The latter were left solely with their disarming trust, faith and devotion, which helped to continue the transmission of the tradition. All of this was known in advance by that wise Promethean called Pythagoras. He wanted separation and self-selection to take place not only among the many who were influenced, but equally among the few who were experiencing the rigours of training, those who had the moral fibre to endure the extremely difficult ascent to wisdom. The claim that the path is easy is the facile excuse of those who do not truly intend to make the ascent, because they have failed many times before and are inwardly so terrified of failure before they start that they would rather not risk even the first test.
There is much protection in the time-tested moral codes of every true community of seekers. This is suggested in the proverbs and the folklore of all societies. Pythagoras taught that there must be an inward quiescence of the soul, a stilling of the mind in which the true receptivity of the heart can enable real learning to take place. A person concentrating while learning carpentry, or while training for athletics, is quiet. Individuals who concentrate while preparing and studying for anything are quiet. Could any less be required of a person who would study and persevere while seeking the divine science of the dialectic, as Hierocles called the Pythagorean teaching? The art of free ascent of the soul towards the upper realms, indicated in the concluding words of the Golden Verses, is portrayed as the unveiling of latent perceptions of realities that are hidden. Anyone who is in earnest must give Nature time to speak. It is only upon the serene surface of the unruffled mind that the visions gathered from the invisible may find true and proper representation.
In ancient India, classical Greece and in early America it was well understood that without veneration for forefathers, nothing worthwhile can happen to a human being, a group or a society. This tradition was partly preserved under the influence of the Theosophical Movement in the nineteenth century and the subsequent short-lived Platonic renaissance in a variety of fraternities and movements. Some are still doing well, but most other fraternities, which took Pythagorean rules and adapted them for the purpose of self-discipline, true friendship and self-respect, are not in the same position. While many have closed down, there are others that have held on though they lost the original impulse. There are also those few which have remained, and unknown to the many, have tried to be true to the original impulse. In some cases the impulse goes back not merely to the time of Benjamin Franklin or to the original societies of Philadelphia started at the time of the signing of the Declaration, but even earlier. As Burke suggested, any generation which fails to show respect to its ancestors will deserve nothing of posterity. Those who show little respect to those who have gone before them—their parents, grandparents, teachers and their teachers’ teachers—will be repudiated in turn by their children. The law of Karma does not discriminate between persons, societies and generations.
The question came up among the early Pythagoreans, regarding the injunction to honour one’s parents: What is one to do if one’s parents are unworthy? The answer given at the time by wise Pythagoreans was: First ask yourself whether you really have paid sufficient homage to the immortal gods, to the heroes of all time, and to the earth’s good geniuses. If you have done all of these, then you are entitled to ask whether you should show honour to your parents. But you will find, if you have observed all that is prior, that you will always find some reason to honour your parents while at the same time you do not have to blindly follow their ways. That is because, as the later Golden Verses stress, all people must think for themselves. Each must make up his own mind and choose his own way. This does not require any recommendation or advertisement in our time. It is part of our very constitution. It was also the deathbed utterance of the Buddha. This is the oldest teaching, and it is common sense. There is hardly a human being who does not know it.
Human beings forget. All selfishness is rooted, Pythagoras felt, in thoughtlessness. It is hardly ever the case, even in the age of inversion, that people deliberately intend consistent and systematic inversion of reverence to the immortal gods, even though they may not know what that means, or to the heroes even though they may have demythologized them. They do not deliberately intend to flout the law taught by an Initiate a long time ago: “God is not mocked; as ye sow, so shall ye also reap.” Every man knows all of these things. Why then did Schweitzer put so much emphasis upon reverence for life? He knew that if something is worth doing, it is worth emphasizing, because men think they know it, but act as though they never did. Men forget and therefore in the Pythagorean doctrine of anamnesis, as in the Platonic teaching, everything has to do with remembering and forgetting. All human souls, when they have drunk of Lethe’s waters, have become identified with forms and come under the influence of the lower languages transmitted to them by the world through their relatives and those near to them. They forget, and as they forget, the babies that stare and smile and greet the world in mystic wonder, in a very short time, in the process of learning how to toddle, to stand straight and to move, become confused in noticing the scorn and the scepticism, the cynicism and the distrust, the self-hatred that is all around. And by the time children are ready for the precious time of puberty, they have received no inspiration or help in learning to handle the sheer joy of using eros under the control of a calm and cool head. They are completely at war with others and with themselves.
We live in the age of Zeus, wherein it is difficult to understand the greatness, let alone the inner meaning, of the Pythagorean invocation of Brihaspati, Jupiter or Zeus—he who knows and can show the genius of every living being. Honour and reverence involve something more than the ordinary understanding of these words. They require what Pythagoras teaches in the closing stanzas of the Golden Verses, which collectively were called Heiros Logos, the Sacred Discourse. Pythagoras taught that discrimination and discernment are needed. One must learn not just to make distinctions but to show discrimination, to recognize nuances, sub-tones, sub-colours, shades of meaning, to recognize the immense diversity of forms of life but also to see the ordering and the structure under which they could be understood. It is necessary to recognize similars, notice opposites, identify counterfeits, cherish intimations, but above all, to see the continuity and the connection between all of these. Then it will be possible, when hearing opinions, to discriminate among them and to go for the good and the gold in all, even in the most foolish observations. One can learn and note down what is of value in anything and everything that one comes across. But if one comes across a lot that is not worth entering into a notebook, one can let it go and remain calm in the presence of its utterance. All of this points to a conception of manhood, a magnitude of self-possession which combines with compassion and love, magnanimity as well as prudence, and which is truly rare in any age, but wholly admirable in our epoch.
Pythagoras especially commends prudence, not cunning or what the world calls shrewdness, but the insight of wisdom in relation to the lunar realm, a region in which everything that begins will change and pass away. If one does not remember this, one cannot be prudent. To be imprudent is to be over-attached. Desires are of three kinds. There are those desires which when they first arise are ill-fitting, inauspicious, and will do no good from the very start. Often such desires are longings to do the impossible. If a person, before being able to walk the Sierras, wants to climb Everest next week, it is an ill-timed and inauspicious desire. A wise friend might urge him to go and find out what in fact he needs to know, that such learning could be very unpleasant. The second kind of desire is not inauspicious to start with, but makes sense, like the desire to finish something which one has begun, whatever it be, whether it has got to do with school or job or family. Yet herein lies the danger, of an immense inflation of that desire so that it becomes an obsession. It may become a virulent, over-mastering force, so that the person who has it is a slave and no longer a free human being. This kind of desire is not wholly bad, but it has got to be trimmed. The vehemence has got to be taken out of it until it runs like cool waters, consonant with the ocean of life into which it must eventually empty itself. Thirdly, there are desires which, though not unfitting to start with and though not vehement, become inappropriate in expression. A person might have a legitimate desire and a sense of proportion about it but not know how to express it appropriately, and hence become the frequent victim of bad timing. Bad timing is like bad faith, betokening a lack of total commitment and engagement in one’s own project, to use Sartrean language. One is never quite there when needed but is always just that bit ill-timed. After a point one gathers around oneself elemental forces that become an ill-omened angel of misfortune.
When Pythagoras spoke of prudence and magnanimity, he gave a critical test. One is becoming a man when there is an increase in one’s magnanimity. This teaching was so telling that even after Plato, with the decline of the Academy, Aristotle thought it fit to base his conception of the ideal man upon the quality of magnanimity. Every human being has access to magnanimity, but it cannot be secured instantly if one is mean, niggardly, fearful, selfish or contemptuous. Magnanimity is only released in the mind by large ideas and great visions. In the heart it is released only by a tremendous compassion for the sick and the suffering.
Pythagoras knew what was then to be judiciously chosen as a foundation stone for the culture of the future. At present when modern culture is nearly dying and giving a great howl while doing so—but barely concealing a rather pathetic whimper—and another culture has already begun to come into birth as the invisible dips into the visible, the Pythagorean teaching cannot now mean a mere return to the forms once given in Magna Graecia. It must be seen and meditated upon as the seed of self-regenerating institutions and the culture and etiquette of the soul. When the soul becomes established firmly like a statue motionless in mind, while at the same time entertaining the vast universe of thoughts, the whole is fixed immovably in contemplation, showing beauty of soul, beauty of mind, beauty of heart, beauty in every direction and every dimension. It thereby makes it possible for more and more human beings, with their imperfections, to come out of the multitudes for the sake of all and for the sake of self-transformation and self-actualization, culminating in self-transcendence.
Preparations are crucial for the Pythagorean school of the future. Anyone who studies the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, in any translation or edition, and seeks by reflecting upon them to draw some inspiration, can release a vital energy in inward consciousness which is causal in relation to the external realm of effects. Those who do this could constitute themselves as beings who come closer in spirit, thought and feeling to the inmost, ever-unmanifest Presence. In the days of Pythagoras many people knew that they knew him not. No great teacher ever incarnates or manifests except in proper conditions, and these are always hidden and always involve a few. When necessary he will manifest any relevant part of himself. Pythagoras spent a long time—twenty-two years—studying the Egyptian Mysteries, taking a projection of himself and letting it share all the ailments of the age. When he was ready to begin his work, he allowed people to see veiled appearances and partial expressions. His unmanifest and invisible Self, by its very nature (for those who apprehend the Golden Egg), can never be seen except by the light of the eye when the golden thread which is in every human being has been extended. This requires Buddhi. One who reads the Golden Verses in this reverential spirit can come closer to the Divine Being who was their wise author and gain inspiration which would be invaluable in times of trouble.