Monday, October 13, 2014


Gabriele Cornelli, In Search of Pythagoreanism: Pythagoreanism as an Historiographical Category. Studia praesocratica, Bd 4. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2013. Pp. xiv, 228. ISBN 9783110306279. $126.00.

Reviewed by David Hernández de la Fuente, UNED, Madrid (

Version at BMCR home site

Some of the main difficulties in defining ancient Pythagoreanism arise not only from the diverse nature of the doctrines attributed to the leader of the school and the reliability of the late sources that have transmitted information regarding them, but also from scholarly debate on the apparently incompatible aspects of a philosophical-scientific Pythagoras and a philosophical-shamanistic one. For some decades, the academic discussion of whether Pythagoreanism was a philosophical school or a religious sect (despite some proposals for their integration) seemed in fact to be at an impasse. A new methodology was indeed much needed to bring some fresh air to the subject, and this intelligent book by Gabriele Cornelli, an English translation of a previous essay in Portuguese, provides that new starting-point for scholarship. Professor of Ancient Philosophy at Brasilia University, Cornelli is one of the most reputed scholars in the field of Platonic and Presocratic Studies. He holds the only UNESCO chair devoted to Ancient Philosophy (under the denomination "Archai: The Plural Origins of Western Thought"), is the President of the Brazilian Plato Society and of the Archai Research Group, and Editor of Revista Archai and Archai Series. He has devoted a series of studies to Pythagoreanism, and has organized several colloquies on this issue (the last one, the conference "On Pythagoreanism", held in Brasilia in 2011, was recently published in a collective volume edited by G. Cornelli, R. McKirahan and D. Macris, On Pythagoreanism, de Gruyter, Berlin 2013).

The present book, structured in four chapters, provides at the same time a discussion of sources and methods and a review of the evidence for the two basic tendencies in Pythagorean scholarship mentioned above. The first two chapters present, as a methodological framework, a brief history of the Pythagoras-Forschung from Eduard Zeller to Peter Kingsley, and a study of Pythagoreanism as an historiographical category. Cornelli first addresses here, as a cornerstone of his research, the methodological problems regarding the study of Pythagoreanism, but it is the combination of scholarly methodology and historiography with a discussion of the ancient sources that is this book's very original contribution. In fact, Cornelli defines his attempt at interpretation as a mixture between the traditional diachronic approach to Pythagoreanism and a "synchronic" approach that he justifies by arguing that Pythagoreanism is a continuous phenomenon through the ages, composed of diverse layers or strata of tradition: one could include not only Hellenistic, Roman or Late Antique approaches, but also Renaissance and Modern Neo-Pythagoreanisms. The elusive character of this movement—which emerges as complex and multifaceted tradition—has led to the failure of traditional diachronic analysis employing the usual categories in Ancient Philosophy (such as "school", "science" or "religion"). Pythagoreanism cannot be correctly understood without taking into account how every phase of its tradition reworks it.

In Chapters 3 and 4, Cornelli deals with the basic doctrines attributed to the ancient Pythagoreans through reference to two main aspects: first the Pythagorean bios, for the most ancient and reputed sources underline the characteristically secluded way of life of this community, or "charismatic society", as Max Weber would put it. The second aspect is the problematization of the dichotomy regarding the teachings of Pythagoras: the already Classical division between the Seelenlehre (implying both the immortality of the soul and its transmigration) and the Zahlenlehre. The central debate in the scholarship of the last 150 years has been this duality (see the works of the current capiscuola for each of the two Lehren, Walter Burkert and Leonid Zhmud, the latter recently reviewed at BMCR 2014.08.30). Pythagoreanism is indeed marked by a series of categories structured in apparently irreconcilable pairs, already in the biographical tradition of the founder of the school (not only Iamblichus and Porphyry, who undoubtedly have their own philosophical agendas, but also the doxography of Diogenes Laertius, who divides his history of Greek philosophy into a Ionian and an Italic school). Ever since, we find a scholarly passion for dichotomies regarding Pythagoreanism: acousmatics and mathematics, science and mysticism, theory and practice, theoretical doctrines and the ascetic way of life, insiders and outsiders, true and false Pythagorean, genuine and fake documents, etc.

Leaving aside the compartmentalization and opposition of categories, Cornelli deals here not only with the main themes in the history of Pythagoreanism, but also with the history of the histories of Pythagoreanism, as collected and presented by modern scholars. In addition to putting forward a new interpretation of Pythagoreanism, he intends to provide an interpretation of interpretations in order to gain a new starting point for the scholarly debate. This book reminds us that we are heirs and sometimes continuators of a historiographical bias stemming from certain artificial taxonomies: it seems needless to say, but the so-called 'Presocratics' did not develop distinct compartments for science, philosophy, religion or even wonder-working power. It is rather the later philosopher, anthropologist, philologist or historian who hermeneutically separates every area according to his or her interests and ideology, in the cultural context of his or her time. The metaphor of the "palimpsest" that Cornelli uses to redefine 'Pythagoreanism' as a theoretical reconstruction seems especially attractive, and allows the reader to grasp his purpose. It seems fundamental to understand the reception of the school as a sort of "recreation" of itself in order to reorganize what we know and what we do not know of Pythagoreanism. In this regard, one could also rethink the value of the Pythagorean pseudepigrapha as an important element of this (re)construction.

For a better understanding of what Pythagoreanism means, as the book concludes, scholars must realize that the very notion of Pythagoreanism should be studied as a historiographical category, taking into account the continuous process of superscription in the reception of this school. The reception of Pythagoreanism was filtered not only through Hellenistic and Late Antique sources, but also by the constant redefinitions and re-appropriations through the ages, from Zeller's interpretation up to the current situation. We should be able to realise that a critical review of each of the different superimposed historiographical layers is the only way to gain new valuable views into this ancient phenomenon —a better term than 'school' or 'sect'—that we call Pythagoreanism. The almost archaeological task to which Cornelli's contribution invites us sets out what the next steps for Pythagorean scholarship should be. In spite of the tendency towards hyper-specialization in modern scholarship and universities, only a broad-minded, interdisciplinary, synchronic-cum-diachronic approach, combining philology, history, philosophy and even sociology and anthropology, will enable us to face such an heterogeneous pile of materials and interpretations. This brief but from now on fundamental book opens a new path for research in the search for Pythagoreanism.

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