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Bulfinch's Age of Fable

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PYTHAGORAS


The teachings of Anchises to Aeneas, respecting the nature of the human soul, were in conformity with the doctrines of the Pythagoreans. Pythagoras (born five hundred and forty years B.C.) was a native of the island of Samos, but passed the chief portion of his life at Crotona in Italy. He is therefore sometimes called "the Samian," and sometimes "the philosopher of Crotona." When young he travelled extensively, and it is said visited Egypt, where he was instructed by the priests in all their learning, and afterwards journeyed to the East, and visited the Persian and Chaldean Magi, and the Brahmins of India.

At Crotona, where he finally established himself, his extraordinary qualities collected round him a great number of disciples. The inhabitants were notorious for luxury and licentiousness, but the good effects of his influence were soon visible. Sobriety and temperance succeeded. Six hundred of the inhabitants became his disciples and enrolled themselves in a society to aid each other in the pursuit of wisdom, uniting their property in one common stock for the benefit of the whole. They were required to practise the greatest purity and simplicity of manners. The first lesson they learned was SILENCE; for a time they were required to be only hearers. "He [Pythagoras] said so" (Ipse dixit), was to be held by them as sufficient, without any proof. It was only the advanced pupils, after years of patient submission, who were allowed to ask questions and to state objections.

Pythagoras considered NUMBERS as the essence and principle of all things, and attributed to them a real and distinct existence; so that, in his view, they were the elements out of which the universe was constructed. How he conceived this process has never been satisfactorily explained. He traced the various forms and phenomena of the world to numbers as their basis and essence. The "Monad" or unit he regarded as the source of all numbers. The number Two was imperfect, and the cause of increase and division. Three was called the number of the whole because it had a beginning, middle, and end. Four, representing the square, is in the highest degree perfect; and Ten, as it contains the sum of the four prime numbers, comprehends all musical and arithmetical proportions, and denotes the system of the world.

As the numbers proceed from the monad, so he regarded the pure and simple essence of the Deity as the source of all the forms of nature. Gods, demons, and heroes are emanations of the Supreme, and there is a fourth emanation, the human soul. This is immortal, and when freed from the fetters of the body passes to the habitation of the dead, where it remains till it returns to the world, to dwell in some other human or animal body, and at last, when sufficiently purified, it returns to the source from which it proceeded. This doctrine of the transmigration of souls (metempsychosis), which was originally Egyptian and connected with the doctrine of reward and punishment of human actions, was the chief cause why the Pythagoreans killed no animals. Ovid represents Pythagoras addressing his disciples in these words: "Souls never die, but always on quitting one abode pass to another. I myself can remember that in the time of the Trojan war I was Euphorbus, the son of Panthus, and fell by the spear of Menelaus. Lately being in the temple of Juno, at Argos, I recognized my shield hung up there among the trophies. All things change, nothing perishes. The soul passes hither and thither, occupying now this body, now that, passing from the body of a beast into that of a man, and thence to a beast's again. As wax is stamped with certain figures, then melted, then stamped anew with others, yet is always the same wax, so the soul, being always the same, yet wears, at different times, different forms. Therefore, if the love of kindred is not extinct in your bosoms, forbear, I entreat you, to violate the life of those who may haply be your own relatives."

Shakspeare, in the "Merchant of Venice," makes Gratiano allude to the metempsychosis, where he says to Shylock:

"Thou almost mak'st me waver in my faith,

To hold opinion with Pythagoras, That souls of animals infuse themselves Into the trunks of men; thy currish spirit Governed a wolf; who hanged for human slaughter Infused his soul in thee; for thy desires Are wolfish, bloody, starved and ravenous."

The relation of the notes of the musical scale to numbers, whereby harmony results from vibrations in equal times, and discord from the reverse, led Pythagoras to apply the word "harmony" to the visible creation, meaning by it the just adaptation of parts to each other. This is the idea which Dryden expresses in the beginning of his "Song for St. Cecilia's Day":

"From harmony, from heavenly harmony

This everlasting frame began; From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran, The Diapason closing full in Man."

In the centre of the universe (he taught) there was a central fire, the principle of life. The central fire was surrounded by the earth, the moon, the sun, and the five planets. The distances of the various heavenly bodies from one another were conceived to correspond to the proportions of the musical scale. The heavenly bodies, with the gods who inhabited them, were supposed to perform a choral dance round the central fire, "not without song." It is this doctrine which Shakspeare alludes to when he makes Lorenzo teach astronomy to Jessica in this fashion:

"Look, Jessica, see how the floor of heaven

Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold! There's not the smallest orb that thou behold'st But in his motion like an angel sings, Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubim; Such harmony is in immortal souls! But whilst this muddy vesture of decay Doth grossly close it in we cannot hear it."

--Merchant of Venice.

The spheres were conceived to be crystalline or glassy fabrics arranged over one another like a nest of bowls reversed. In the substance of each sphere one or more of the heavenly bodies was supposed to be fixed, so as to move with it. As the spheres are transparent we look through them and see the heavenly bodies which they contain and carry round with them. But as these spheres cannot move on one another without friction, a sound is thereby produced which is of exquisite harmony, too fine for mortal ears to recognize. Milton, in his "Hymn on the Nativity," thus alludes to the music of the spheres:

"Ring out, ye crystal spheres!

Once bless our human ears
(If ye have power to charm our senses so); And let your silver chime
Move in melodious time,
And let the base of Heaven's deep organ blow; And with your ninefold harmony Make up full concert with the angelic symphony."

Pythagoras is said to have invented the lyre. Our own poet Longfellow, in "Verses to a Child," thus relates the story:

"As great Pythagoras of yore,

Standing beside the blacksmith's door, And hearing the hammers as they smote The anvils with a different note, Stole from the varying tones that hung Vibrant on every iron tongue, The secret of the sounding wire, And formed the seven-chorded lyre."

See also the same poet's "Occupation of Orion"--

"The Samian's great Aeolian lyre."


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