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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Pythagoras

Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who lived ca. 582-507 BCE. Although the neo-Platonists Proclus (ca. 232 – ca. 304) and Porphyry (410?-484) both wrote biographies of him, little is known for certain historically about his life. He was born on the Greek island of Samos, but migrated to Italy (called Magna Graecia in his day) and founded a school at Krotona, which taught an esoteric doctrine to a group of disciples who revered Pythagoras as a demigod. He and his ideas appear frequently in theosophical literature, such as The Secret Doctrine and Isis Unveiled by Helena P. BLAVATSKY, The Masters and the Path by Charles W. LEADBEATER, and The Lives of Alcyone by Leadbeater and Annie BESANT. In the latter two books, he is identified as a previous incarnation of the Mahātma KOOT HOOMI, one of Blavatsky’s teachers.

We know that one of his principal doctrines was metempsychosis or reincarnation and that he required of his disciples strict habits of a meatless diet and moral behavior which he taught was conducive to achieving a more spiritual stature and eventual liberation from the wheel of rebirth. We also know that his followers were required to maintain a discipline of silence for the first six years of their discipleship during which they were called akoustekoi or “hearers.” He also held women to be the equals of men and enjoined his followers to treat slaves humanely and to respect animals. It is obvious, then, that his was not just an intellectual philosophy, but was a spiritual practice, and that “philosophy” meant to his followers a genuine pursuit of wisdom, not merely an acquisition of knowledge.

The most characteristic doctrine of the Pythagorean school was that Nature manifests itself in terms of number or proportion. The 47th proposition in Euclid’s geometry (that the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the adjacent sides) is usually called “the Pythagorean theorem” and was undoubtedly discovered by Pythagoras or his followers. More importantly, he taught that when the Absolute manifests it does so in mathematically describable ways. Ultimate Reality is a unity or monos which emanates the world by means of Sound or Harmony. The first to emanate is the Dyad, but since two is not a stable number (cannot make a solid, i.e., manifest anything), it is followed by the Triad. The other numerical proportions follow from that. The soul, a self-moving entity, is symbolized by the number four, and is midway between a spiritual triad and a psycho-physical triad — in other words, man has a septenary nature, which is the occult teaching as found in modern theosophy. The idea of the Decad or ten is important in Pythagoreanism and it is generally accepted that the Pythagoreans taught the decimal system, including the idea of zero (cf. SD I:361), long before the Arabs brought it to Europe from India. But twelve was their most important number, hence the dodecahedron (12-sided regular solid) was the “perfect” figure, an idea that may be related to the twelve signs of the Zodiac and other dodecads in ancient times (e.g., the twelve tribes of Israel). Pythagoras seems also to have taught that even moral attributes, such as justice, can be expressed by means of number or proportion. This idea probably influenced Plato’s idea of justice as outlined in the Republic.

H. P. Blavatsky states that Pythagoras was an initiate in the Mystery schools (as were Plato and some other early Greek philosophers), which traced their ideas to Egypt, Chaldea, and eventually India (SD I:361). As such, he taught that the earth was a sphere which rotated on its axis and revolved around the sun (ideas known to ancient Egyptians, but rejected by Aristotle). He was aware of the inclination of the earth’s axis and of the precession of the equinox. He also, like some other early Greek philosophers, taught that all natural forces were “Spiritual Entities” (SD I:492), i.e., were intelligent, not blind, forces, a principal idea of occult philosophy.

Pythagoreans made important contributions not only to mathematics and astronomy, but also to medicine. Around the end of the 5th cent. BCE, they were persecuted because of their opposition to traditional customs and the school at Krotona was forced to close. Their ideas strongly influenced Plato and the neo-Platonists as well as Hellenistic Jews.

R.W.B.

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