Monday, February 4, 2019


Almut-Barbara Renger, Alessandro Stavru (ed.), Pythagorean Knowledge from the Ancient to the Modern World: Askesis, Religion, Science. Episteme in Bewegung: Beiträge zu einer transdisziplinären Wissensgeschichte, 4. Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz Verlag, 2016. Pp. ix, 579. ISBN 9783447105941. €89.00.

Reviewed by Y. Tzvi Langermann, Bar Ilan University (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

"Pythagoras can be presented in many ways: as a mathematician, a mystic, a cult leader, a proto-scientist, a proto-hippie, or a proto-Christian" (Ada Palmer, p. 211). "Perhaps the most striking feature of Pythagoreanism is the sheer variety of individuals associated with the tradition" (Samuel Galson, p. 395). The collective effort of the contributors to this excellent volume demonstrates how the Pythagorean tag manifests itself a across a huge spectrum of historical settings. I will present an extensive sampling of the images and doctrines that have been associated with Pythagoras and/or Pythagoreanism. Clearly, I will not be able to draw upon all thirty-two essays.

Porphyry provides a list of characteristics of Pythagoreanism, all of which concern the soul: its immortality, its transmigration, and, as a consequence of the latter, the universal kinship of humans; not a word about celestial harmony or numbers (Gabriele Cornelli, p. 93). This "proto-Pythagorean" theory of the soul, closely related to Orphism, informed Plato's psychology. In the popular philosophy of early scholasticism, "asceticism, moderation in all things, and emotional control" were the "signature features"; by contrast, in academic theology Pythagoras was identified with one doctrine alone, the transmigration of souls (Bernd Roling, p. 103). Augustine viewed Pythagoras as a necromancer (p. 105).

We have also to deal with "Pythagoreanizing" ascetics, known from the Athenian theatre. Maurizio Giangiulio opines that a social reality may well lurk behind the theatrical construct. Moreover, attention must be called to the important role of women, "a novelty and specific characteristic of the Pythagorean paideia" (Claudia Montepaone and Marcello Catarzi, p. 136). There was a distinct female askesis recorded in the so-called "Letters of Theano". According to Proclus, studying the Timaeus with a qualified teacher transforms the soul and is thus "a distinctly Pythagorean-Socratic askesis" (Dirk Baltzly, p. 199). Such a guided reading would reveal the astronomy of the Timaeus to be a symbolic discourse teaching us, for example, about relations among higher causes, and, in so doing, purifying our souls.

Much more complex are the connections between Pythagorean and early Christian ascetism. The Sentences of Sextus present a Christianized version of ancient ascetic trends among which the Pythagorean variety is the most prominent but certainly not the only one. Ilaria Ramelli emphasizes the continuity between ""pagan' ascetic-philosophical traditions" and the beginnings of Christian ascetism and monasticism, demonstrating just how important the Sentences are for the earliest history of the Christian variety. Immediately following upon Ramelli, Irini Viltanioti argues that Porphyry's "echoes" of Pythagorean maxims in his Letter to Marcella are intended as a response to "the Christian appropriation of pagan, especially Pythagorean, moral wisdom" (p. 164). The two papers fit very well together; but Ramelli's insistence on using quotation marks when using the word "pagan", which Viltanioti does not, bespeaks a fundamental disagreement about the nature of Pythagoreanism. Perhaps Pythagoreanism ought to be dubbed non-Abrahamic monotheism?

Alberto Bernabé disentangles Pythagorean notions of the afterlife from Orphic views; Pythagorean metempsychosis functioned not as eschatology but as a mechanism of the world order. Like Bernabé, Luc Brisson begins by dividing Pythagorean teachings into science and religion, even going so far as to state that this question "is essential for determining the Pythagorean way of life". This distinction is needed to appreciate the contribution of Iamblichus, who transformed "the philosophy of Plato into a theology, by seeking the agreement of this theology with that of Orpheus, by way of Pythagoras" (p. 47). Even if Pythagoreanism did not involve rites, Plato's regard for cults, which he took as a model for teaching, may be an imitation of Pythagoras' interest in rituals (Sylvana Chrysakopoulou, p. 83). I am uncomfortable with the severe bifurcation of science and religion that I find in some of the essays, as well as with the conflation of regimen with religion. Praxis, as manifested in ethical behavior (including dietary restrictions), need not be religious, in the sense of being a technique for coming close to a deity.

Parmenides is said to have been the disciple of Xenophanes, the first known critic of Pythagorean metempsychosis, and by this route Pythagorean influence may be detected in Plato's debate with Parmenides. Thus, when Plato describes non-being as unspeakable (arrhētos: Sophist 238c), he "challenges the very core of non-being … by giving it the status of a Pythagorean taboo, which he seeks to abolish" (Chrysakopoulou, p. 81). Other Greek sources, eagerly accepted by some Christian writers, assert that Pythagoras depended upon Hebrew wisdom. This idea is part of a wider recognition of monotheistic strains in ancient Greek writings which derive from the biblical Moses (Luca Arcari, p. 186). The possible Jewish origin of pseudo-Pythagorean monotheistic proclamations continues to be debated (p. 189).

For some, the "way of life" was the mark of the Pythagorean. Some features of the tropos tou biou are controversial. An impressive list of authorities mention abstention from beans, but Aristoxenus reports that Pythagoras delighted in consuming beans (Giangiulio, p. 127). In the early-modern classical revival, the image of the monastic Pythagoras held sway. For the Protestant intellectual Neander, "the non-saint Pythagoras served … as an alternative non-Catholic origin myth for pilgrimage and the monastic life", at a time when non-relics such as books served as centers for processions, non-icons decorated altars in place of saints, and so forth (Palmer, p. 222).

Then there is Pythagorean medicine. Stavros Kouloumentas argues that the early Pythagoreans evince no interest in scientific topics, such as the etiology and treatment of disease. Instead, their doctrines concerning diet and other issues related to medicine come out of "core ideas concerning purification, proportion, social organization and numbers" (p. 260) adapted to (what appears to us as) a medical context. Andrew Barker shows that Pythagorean views on seven-month and ninth-month pregnancies drew upon the description of the world soul in the Timaeus, along with the idea that genesis arises from opposites which are harmoniously integrated. The harmony they speak of is arithmetical and musical, and, as Proclus and other show in detail, the numbers work out. Hynek Bartoš makes a well-reasoned case for identifying the Hippocratic On Regimen as the (indirect) source for Iamblichus' account of Pythagorean dietetics. This makes sense when we see that On Regimen itself looks like a post-Platonic Pythagorean text, complete with a musical theory; it contains hints of the transmigration of souls and other Pythagorean features. Even so, Iamblichus already knew enough to ascribe the dietetics to "the Pythagoreans" rather than to Pythagoras.

If the body could be kept healthy by dietetics, then the soul could be healed by music. Maintaining the soul in balance was important for both the individual and the social order (Antonietta Provenza). Leonid Zhmud insists on the precise definition of arithmology: "a specific genre of non-mathematical writings on the first ten numbers" (p. 322) which functions as an organized system; arithmology is sharply distinguished from number symbolism, which studies individual significant numbers. Arithmology further sees numbers as constituting a different level of reality and, therefore, it could have emerged as a genre only after Plato had established his theory of two worlds, the visible and the intelligible. Zhmud traces the conception of "the alleged doctrines of the ancient Pythagoreans" to the first century before the common era and the harmonization of Plato and Aristotle that characterizes the philosophy of that period. The "concern with numbers" is just one of the distinctive features of the "newly created Pythagoras"; other features are the connection between Pythagoras and Plato and the notion of two opposing principles (pp. 328-9). In the end, "Pythagorean arithmology stands or falls with Aristotle's account" (p. 338), since Aristotle, citing unnamed Pythagoreans, is our only classical source for key notions of arithmology, especially the significance of the decad.

Eugene Afonasin's "Pythagorean Numerology and Diophantus' Arithmetica" does justice to Diophantus, whom he calls "one of the greatest mathematicians of all times" (p. 350). But why, does the article that immediately follows Zhmud's painstaking study of "arithmology", revert without comment to "numerology"? Might one of the editors not have called Afonasin out on this?

Then there is Pythagorean architecture. The humanist Alberti applied not only notions of harmony and proportion, but also Pythagorean moral values, especially frugality, to both domestic and religious architecture. However, it is not clear to me that either Pythagoras or the Pythagoreans ever called the circle "the purest of all forms" (Christiane Joost-Gaugier, p. 377).

For Reuchlin (discussed here by Wilhelm Schmidt-Biggemann), Pythagoras was a kabbalist, a funnel through which the original, Adamite wisdom passed from the Hebrews; Reuchlin takes credit for renewing Pythagoreanism in the sixteenth century. Reuchlin viewed the immortal soul as a "shaper" which can be used more than once, each time giving a particular body its own unique shape.

Leibniz held that "There is nothing which does not suffer number … Men were persuaded by Pythagoras that the greatest mysteries were hidden in numbers" (Galson, p. 399). He turned to Pythagoreanism in search of a mathematics which would allow one to reason in morals and metaphysics "in much the same way as one does in geometry and analysis" (p. 396), but he seems to have despaired of the idea. Al-Ghazālī surveys the various alternatives to Sufism, the path that he chose in his spiritual quest. Among the other "seekers" he lists the Bāṭiniyya or esotericists, trashing their "knowledge" as "some trifling details of the philosophy of Pythagoras" whose "philosophical system is the weakest of all" (Beate La Sala, p. 429). Addressing both the Parmenides and the Timaeus, Marsilio Ficino avers that Plato "is mostly a Pythagorean, arguing under a Pythagorean persona (or mask)" (Denis Robichaud, p. 439), adding that Plato learned from the Pythagoreans that the highest objects of the intellect are ineffable (p. 446). Robichaud, who is editing Ficino's commentary on Iamblichus' De secta pythagorica, has uncovered exciting evidence for the circulation of now lost Pythagorean works among Renaissance humanists.

The French Jesuit Michel Mourgues (1642-1713) was the first early-modern writer to use the term "Pythagoreanism". In the eyes of one eighteenth-century reviewer, Mourgues held Pythagoreanism to be "the primitive and original theology and philosophy". In Mourgues' own words, "Pythagoreanism and Platonism are the same thing" (Hanns-Peter Neumann, p. 455). But Pythagoras was thought also to be mediating to the West the oriental wisdom of Brahmins, Chaldeans, and especially the Hebrews. Moreover, having advocated some primitive form of heliocentrism, Pythagoreans enjoyed the prestige of being "Copernicans avant la lettre" (p. 458).

Three texts on the "Pythagorean Way of Life" are translated and studied in an appendix. The first and longest contribution is by Emily Cottrell, who looks at Arabic materials from several sources, the most important of which is Mubashshir ibn Fātik, who was associated with the Fatimid court at Cairo in the first half of the eleventh century. Ibn Fātik was a "serious bibliophile" (p. 475) in a city blessed with prodigious libraries, notably rich in Hellenistic philosophy, especially Neoplatonism, which was at the heart of the Shia ideology of the rulers. The material is difficult and there are a few rough edges to Cottrell's translations. For example, shanā'a does not mean "calumny" but rather "an outrage", "a despicable act". Hence (p. 496) the people of Locris are telling Pythagoras that outrages are contemptible, but Pythagoras is not legally liable for it (we are not informed just what the outrage was); hence they will offer him hospitality.

In the second and third texts, Ada Palmer presents Latin and English humanist Lives of Pythagoras. The two originate from scholarly worlds that are poles apart, yet the two biographies are quite similar; the first is by Raffaele Maffei, from pre-Reformation Italy, the second by Michael Neander, from post-Reformation Germany.

This is a mammoth collection of essays, well researched and well written, with most presenting and defending a coherent point of view. Hardly a typo mars this tome. However, Bernd Roling's outstanding essay is marred by some screaming transcription errors (e.g. "Abu-l-Wata al-Mubassir", p. 106). The breathtaking scope of the volume notwithstanding, the topic is far from exhausted, and there is cause to widen the cultural scope even further. For example, this reviewer would be pleased if a future collection included essays on "proto- Pythagorean" discussions of music and numbers from Babylonian civilization.

Table of Contents

Almut-Barbara Renger & Alessandro Stavru, Introduction 1
I Orphika
Alberto Bernabé, Transfer of Afterlife Knowledge in Pythagorean Eschatology 17
Francesc Casadesús Bordoy, The Appropriation of the Figure of Orpheus and Orphic Doctrines: An Example of Pythagoras' Artful Knavery (kakotechnie)? 31
Luc Brisson, The Making of Pythagoreanism: Orpheus, Aglaophamus, Pythagoras, Plato 45

II Metempsychosis
Richard McKirahan, Philolaus on the Soul 63
Sylvana Chrysakopoulou, Is Parmenides a Pythagorean? Plato on Theoria as a Vision of the Soul 77
Gabriele Cornelli, Aristotle and the Pythagorean Myths of Metempsychosis 93
Bernd Roling, Pythagoras and Christian Eschatology: The Debate on the Transmigration of Souls in Early Scholasticism 103

III Tropos tou biou
Maurizio Giangiulio, Aristoxenus and Timaeus on the Pythagorean Way of Life 121
Claudia Montepaone & Marcello Catarzi, Pythagorean Askesis in Timycha of Sparta and Theano of Croton 135
Ilaria Ramelli, The Sentences of Sextus and the Christian Transformation of Pythagorean Asceticism 151
Irini Fotini Viltanioti, Po r p hy r y 's Letter to Marcella. A Literary Attack on Christian Appropriation of (Neo)Pythagorean Moral Wisdom? 163
Luca Arcari, Reinventing the Pythagorean Tradition in Pseudo-Justin's Cohortatio ad Graecos 185
Dirk Baltzly, Transformations of Pythagorean Wisdom and Psychic ἄσκησις in Proclus' Timaeus Commentary 199
Ada Palmer, The Active and Monastic Life in Humanist Biographies of Pythagoras 211
Jan N. Bremmer, Richard Reitzenstein, Pythagoras and the Life of Antony 227

IV Dietetics & Medicine
Stavros Kouloumentas, The Pythagoreans on Medicine: Religion or Science? 249
Andrew Barker, Pythagoreans and Medical Writers on Periods of Human Gestation 263
Hynek Bartoš, Iamblichus on Pythagorean Dietetics 277

V Music
Antonietta Provenza, The Pythagoreans and the Therapeutic Effects of the Paean between Religion, Paideia, and Politics 293
Emidio Spinelli, "Are Flute-Players Better than Philosophers?" Sextus Empiricus on Music, Against Pythagoras 305

VI Number & Harmony
Leonid Zhmud, Greek Arithmology: Pythagoras or Plato? 321
Eugene Afonasin, Pythagorean Numerology and Diophantus' Arithmetica: A Note on Hippolytus' Elenchos I 2 347
Anna Izdebska, The Pythagorean Metaphysics of Numbers in the Works of the Ikhwān al-Safāʼ and al-Shahrastāni 361
Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier, Pythagoras and the "Perfect" Churches of the Renaissance 375
Wilhelm Schmidt-Biggemann, Kabbalah as a Transfer of Pythagorean Number Theory: The Case of Johannes Reuchlin's De Arte Cabalistica 383
Samuel Galson, Unfolding Pythagoras: Leibniz, Myth, and Mathesis 395

VII Refractions
Tengiz Iremadze, The Pythagorean Doctrine in the Caucasus 411
Beate Ulrike La Sala, Ibn Sīnā's and Al-Ghazālī's Approach to Pythagoreanism 423
Denis Robichaud, Marsilio Ficino and Plato's Divided Line: Iamblichus and Pythagorean Pseudepigrapha in the Renaissance 437
Hanns-Peter Neumann, Pythagoras Refracted: The Formation of Pythagoreanism in the Early Modern Period 453

Appendix: Three Texts on Pythagorean Way of Life
Pythagoras, the Wandering Ascetic: A Reconstruction of the Life of Pythagoras According to al-Mubashshir ibn Fātik and Ibn Abī Usaybiʻa (ed. Emily Cottrell) 467
Two Humanist Lives of Pythagoras (ed. Ada Palmer) 519

Index of Topics 527
Index of Passages 543
Index of Ancient Names 555
Index of Medieval and Modern Names 563
Notes on Authors 575

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.