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View all copies of this ISBN edition:. Synopsis About this title Onians' remarkable work of scholarship sought to deal with the very roots of European civilization and thought: the fundamental beliefs about life, mind, body, soul, and human destiny that are embodied in the myths and legends of the ancients. Book Description : A rich collection of ideas and explanations of cultures as diverse as the Greeks and the Norse, the Celts and the Jews, and the Chinese and the Romans.

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Onians, R. Moreover, while Orphism presents a heavily moralized version of metempsychosis in accordance with which we are born again for punishment in this life so that our body is the prison of the soul while it undergoes punishment, it is not clear that the same was true in Pythagoreanism. It may be that rebirths in a series of animals and people were seen as a natural cycle of the soul Zhmud a, — One would expect that the Pythagorean way of life was connected to metempsychosis, which would in turn suggest that a certain reincarnation is a reward or punishment for following or not following the principles set out in that way of life.

However, there is no unambiguous evidence connecting the Pythagorean way of life with metempsychosis.

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It is crucial to recognize that most Greeks followed Homer in believing that the soul was an insubstantial shade, which lived a shadowy existence in the underworld after death, an existence so bleak that Achilles famously asserts that he would rather be the lowest mortal on earth than king of the dead Homer, Odyssey XI. The doctrine of transmigration thus seems to have been extended to include the idea that we and indeed the whole world will be reborn into lives that are exactly the same as those we are living and have already lived.

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Kingsley argues that the visit of Abaris is the key to understanding the identity and significance of Pythagoras. Abaris was a shaman from Mongolia part of what the Greeks called Hyperborea , who recognized Pythagoras as an incarnation of Apollo. The stillness of ecstacy practiced by Abaris and handed on to Pythagoras is the foundation of all civilization.

Whether or not one accepts this account of Pythagoras and his relation to Abaris, there is a clear parallel for some of the remarkable abilities of Pythagoras in the later figure of Empedocles, who promises to teach his pupils to control the winds and bring the dead back to life Fr. There are recognizable traces of this tradition about Pythagoras even in the pre-Aristotelian evidence, and his wonder-working clearly evoked diametrically opposed reactions. Similarly Pythagoras may have claimed authority for his teachings concerning the fate of our soul on the basis of his remarkable abilities and experiences, and there is some evidence that he too claimed to have journeyed to the underworld and that this journey may have been transferred from Pythagoras to Zalmoxis Burkert a, ff.


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The testimony of both Plato R. It is plausible to assume that many features of this way of life were designed to insure the best possible future reincarnations, but it is important to remember that nothing in the early evidence connects the way of life to reincarnation in any specific fashion. One of the clearest strands in the early evidence for Pythagoras is his expertise in religious ritual. Herodotus gives an example: the Pythagoreans agree with the Egyptians in not allowing the dead to be buried in wool II. It is not surprising that Pythagoras, as an expert on the fate of the soul after death.

A significant part of the Pythagorean way of life thus consisted in the proper observance of religious ritual.

The Origins of European Thought: About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time and Fate

The earliest source to quote acusmata is Aristotle, in the fragments of his now lost treatise on the Pythagoreans. It is not always possible to be certain which of the acusmata quoted in the later tradition go back to Aristotle and which of the ones that do go back to Pythagoras.

Thus the acusmata advise Pythagoreans to pour libations to the gods from the ear i. A number of these practices can be paralleled in Greek mystery religions of the day Burkert a, Indeed, it is important to emphasize that Pythagoreanism was not a religion and there were no specific Pythagorean rites Burkert , Pythagoras rather taught a way of life that emphasized certain aspects of traditional Greek religion.

A second characteristic of the Pythagorean way of life was the emphasis on dietary restrictions. There is no direct evidence for these restrictions in the pre-Aristotelian evidence, but both Aristotle and Aristoxenus discuss them extensively.

Unfortunately the evidence is contradictory and it is difficult to establish any points with certainty. One might assume that Pythagoras advocated vegetarianism on the basis of his belief in metempsychosis, as did Empedocles after him Fr. This makes it sound as if Pythagoras forbade the eating of just certain parts of animals and certain species of animals rather than all animals; such specific prohibitions are easy to parallel elsewhere in Greek ritual Burkert a, Some have tried to argue that Aristoxenus is refashioning Pythagoreanism in order to make it more rational e.

Certainly animal sacrifice was the central act of Greek religious worship and to abolish it completely would be a radical step. The later tradition proposes a number of ways to reconcile metempsychosis with the eating of some meat. Pythagoras may have adopted one of these positions, but no certainty is possible. For example, he may have argued that it was legitimate to kill and eat sacrificial animals, on the grounds that the souls of men do not enter into these animals Iamblichus, VP Perhaps the most famous of the Pythagorean dietary restrictions is the prohibition on eating beans, which is first attested by Aristotle and assigned to Pythagoras himself Diogenes Laertius VIII.

Aristotle suggests a number of explanations including one that connects beans with Hades, hence suggesting a possible connection with the doctrine of metempsychosis. A number of later sources suggest that it was believed that souls returned to earth to be reincarnated through beans Burkert a, There is also a physiological explanation.


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  7. Beans, which are difficult to digest, disturb our abilities to concentrate. Moreover, the beans involved are a European vetch Vicia faba rather than the beans commonly eaten today. Certain people with an inherited blood abnormality develop a serious disorder called favism, if they eat these beans or even inhale their pollen. The discrepancies between the various fourth-century accounts of the Pythagorean way of life suggest that there were disputes among fourth-century Pythagoreans as to the proper way of life and as to the teachings of Pythagoras himself.

    The acusmata indicate that the Pythagorean way of life embodied a strict regimen not just regarding religious ritual and diet but also in almost every aspect of life. Some of the restrictions appear to be largely arbitrary taboos, e. On the other hand, some aspects of the Pythagorean life involved a moral discipline that was greatly admired, even by outsiders. Pythagorean silence is an important example.

    The ability to remain silent was seen as important training in self-control, and the later tradition reports that those who wanted to become Pythagoreans had to observe a five-year silence Iamblichus, VP Isocrates is contrasting the marvelous self-control of Pythagorean silence with the emphasis on public speaking in traditional Greek education. In addition to silence as a moral discipline, there is evidence that secrecy was kept about certain of the teachings of Pythagoras.

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    Indeed, one would expect that an exclusive society such as that of the Pythagoreans would have secret doctrines and symbols. That there should be secret teachings about the special nature and authority of the master is not surprising. This does not mean, however, that all Pythagorean philosophy was secret. Aristotle singles out the acusma quoted above Iamblichus, VP 31 as secret, but this statement in itself implies that others were not.

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    For a sceptical evaluation of Pythagorean secrecy see Zhmud a, — There is some controversy as to whether Pythagoras, in fact, taught a way of life governed in great detail by the acusmata as described above. Plato praises the Pythagorean way of life in the Republic b , but it is hard to imagine him admiring the set of taboos found in the acusmata Lloyd , 44; Zhmud a. Although acusmata were collected already by Anaximander of Miletus the younger ca. However, the early evidence suggests that Pythagoras largely constructed the acusmata out of ideas collected from others Thom ; Huffman b: Gemelli Marciano , so it is no surprise that many of them are not uniquely Pythagorean.

    Moreover, Thom suggests a middle ground between Zhmud and Burkert whereby, contra Zhmud, most of the acusmata were followed by the Pythagoreans but contra Burkert, they were subject to interpretation from the beginning and not followed literally, so that it is possible to imagine people living according to them Thom, It is true that there is little if any fifth- and fourth-century evidence for Pythagoreans living according to the acusmata and Zhmud argues that the undeniable political impact of the Pythagoreans would be inexplicable if they lived the heavily ritualized life of the acusmata , which would inevitably isolate them from society Zhmud a, — He suggests that the Pythagorean way of life differed little from standard aristocratic morality Zhmud a, If, however, the Pythagorean way of life was little out of the ordinary, why do Plato and Isocrates specifically comment on how distinctive those who followed it were?

    The silence of fifth-century sources about people practicing acusmata is not terribly surprising given the very meager sources for the Greek cities in southern Italy in the period. We would then have lots of people who followed the acusmata of the name in the catalogue appear nowhere else. Moreover, other scholars argue that archaic Greek society in southern Italy was pervaded by religion and the presence of similar precepts in authors such as Hesiod show that adherence to taboos such as are found in the acusmata would not have caused a scandal and adherence to many of them would have gone unobserved by outsiders Gemelli Marciano , — Once again a problem of source criticism raises its head.

    Zhmud argues that the split between acusmatici who blindly followed the acusmata and the mathematici who learned the reasons for them see the fifth paragraph of section 5 below is a creation of the later tradition, appearing first in Clement of Alexandria and disappearing after Iamblichus Zhmud a, — He also notes that the term acusmata appears first in Iamblichus On the Pythagorean Life 82—86 and suggests that it is also a creation of the later tradition. The Pythagorean maxims did exist earlier, as the testimony of Aristotle shows, but they were known as symbola , were originally very few in number and were mainly a literary phenomena rather than being tied to people who actually practiced them Zhmud a, — Indeed, the description of the split in what is likely to be the original version Iamblichus, On General Mathematical Science So the question of whether Pythagoras taught a way of life tightly governed by the acusmata turns again on whether key passages in Iamblichus On the Pythagorean Life 81—87, On General Mathematical Science If they do, we have very good reason to believe that Pythagoras taught such a life, if they do not the issue is less clear.


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    8. The testimony of fourth-century authors such as Aristoxenus and Dicaearchus indicates that the Pythagoreans also had an important impact on the politics and society of the Greek cities in southern Italy. Dicaearchus reports that, upon his arrival in Croton, Pythagoras gave a speech to the elders and that the leaders of the city then asked him to speak to the young men of the town, the boys and the women Porphyry, VP The acusmata teach men to honor their wives and to beget children in order to insure worship for the gods Iamblichus, VP 84—6.

      Dicaearchus reports that the teaching of Pythagoras was largely unknown, so that Dicaearchus cannot have known of the content of the speech to the women or of any of the other speeches; the speeches presented in Iamblichus VP 37—57 are thus likely to be later forgeries Burkert a, , but there is early evidence that he gave different speeches to different groups Antisthenes V A On the other hand, it is noteworthy that Plato explicitly presents Pythagoras as a private rather than a public figure R.

      It seems most likely that the Pythagorean societies were in essence private associations but that they also could function as political clubs see Zhmud a, — , while not being a political party in the modern sense; their political impact should perhaps be better compared to modern fraternal organizations such as the Masons. Thus, the Pythagoreans did not rule as a group but had political impact through individual members who gained positions of authority in the Greek city-states in southern Italy.

      See further Burkert a, ff.