The Life and Work of Pythagoras

Painting of Pythagoras by J. Augustus Knapp, originally produced for the book “The Secret Teachings of All Ages” by Manly P. Hall.

Pythagoras (Gr.). The most famous of mystic philosophers, born at Samos, about 586 B.C. He seems to have travelled all over the world, and to have culled his philosophy from the various systems to which he had access. Thus, he studied the esoteric sciences with the Brachmanes of India, and astronomy and astrology in Chaldea and Egypt. He is known to this day in the former country under the name of Yavanâchârya (“Ionian teacher”). After returning he settled in Crotona, in Magna Grecia, where he established a college to which very soon resorted all the best intellects of the civilised centres. His father was one Mnesarchus of Samos, and was a man of noble birth and learning. It was Pythagoras who was the first to teach the heliocentric system, and who was the greatest proficient in geometry of his century. It was he also who created the word “philosopher”, composed of two words meaning a “lover of wisdom” – philo-sophos. As the greatest mathematician, geometer and astronomer of historical antiquity, and also the highest of the metaphysicians and scholars, Pythagoras has won imperishable fame. He taught reincarnation as it is professed in India and much else of the Secret Wisdom.” (H. P. Blavatsky, “The Theosophical Glossary” p. 266)

It is unfortunate that nowadays most people’s only knowledge of Pythagoras is that he was a mathematician with a particular interest in triangles and geometry. Many are surprised and some even incredulous to learn that his greatest fame and importance was as a philosopher and not just an intellectually oriented theoretical philosopher of vague complexities but a true mystic and esotericist and one of the greatest Sages (wise men) in recorded history. Pythagoras’s focus on the triangle was not with the intent of frustrating schoolchildren for millennia to come; rather, the triangle – specifically in its form as the Tetraktys, the triangle composed of ten dots or points arranged in four rows – was considered by him the most sacred of all symbols imaginable. That seemingly simple Tetraktys contains within itself the summation of all possible knowledge and the truth about the Universe, man, and the whole of life . . . at least for one who knows how to correctly and fully “read” it. Such deep subjects as these formed a large part of the focus of his school at Krotona, also written Crotona, Croton, and Crotone in what is the modern day southern Italian peninsula of Calabria. The Pythagorean Oath was as follows: “I solemnly swear by Him who has breathed into our souls the Sacred Tetraktys, the source of Nature, whose motion is eternal.”

As Thomas Taylor (1758-1835, a famed English translator and lover of Greek philosophy) wrote, most people study mathematics “without having even a dreaming perception of its first and most essential use, that of enabling its votary, like a bridge, to pass over the obscurity of a material nature, as over some dark sea, to the luminous regions of perfect reality.”

But Pythagoras did not invent any of this or dream it up out of his imagination. Instead he was passing on some of the occult (i.e. hidden, secret, esoteric) knowledge that had been transmitted to him and into which he had been initiated, in such places as India and Egypt. H. P. Blavatsky, the main founder of the modern Theosophical Movement elaborates further:

“From the very beginning of Aeons – in time and space in our Round and Globe – the Mysteries of Nature (at any rate, those which it is lawful for our races to know) were recorded by the pupils of those same now invisible “heavenly men,” in geometrical figures and symbols. The keys thereto passed from one generation of “wise men” to the other. Some of the symbols, thus passed from the east to the west, were brought therefrom by Pythagoras, who was not the inventor of his famous “Triangle.” The latter figure, along with the plane cube and circle, are more eloquent and scientific descriptions of the order of the evolution of the Universe, spiritual and psychic, as well as physical, than volumes of descriptive Cosmogonies and revealed “Geneses.” The ten points inscribed within that “Pythagorean triangle” are worth all the theogonies and angelologies ever emanated from the theological brain. For he who interprets them – on their very face, and in the order given – will find in these seventeen points (the seven Mathematical Points hidden) the uninterrupted series of the genealogies from the first Heavenly to terrestrial man. And, as they give the order of Beings, so they reveal the order in which were evolved the Kosmos, our earth, and the primordial elements by which the latter was generated. Begotten in the invisible Depths, and in the womb of the same “Mother” as its fellow-globes – he who will master the mysteries of our Earth, will have mastered those of all others. . . .

“Space is the real world, while our world is an artificial one. It is the One Unity throughout its infinitude: in its bottomless depths as on its illusive surface; a surface studded with countless phenomenal Universes, systems and mirage-like worlds. Nevertheless, to the Eastern Occultist, who is an objective Idealist at the bottom, in the real world, which is a Unity of Forces, there is “a connection of all matter in the plenum,” as Leibnitz would say. This is symbolized in the Pythagorean Triangle.

“It consists of ten points inscribed pyramid-like (from one to the last four) within its three lines, and it symbolizes the Universe in the famous Pythagorean Decad. The upper single dot is a Monad, and represents a Unit-Point, which is the Unity from whence all proceeds, and all is of the same essence with it. While the ten dots within the triangle represent the phenomenal world, the three sides of the equilateral triangle which enclose the pyramid of dots are the barriers of noumenal Matter, or Substance, that separate it from the world of Thought.” . . .

“There are such things as metamathematics and metageometry. Even mathematics pure and simple proceed from the Universal to the particular, from the mathematical, hence indivisible Point, to solid figures. The teaching originated in India, and was taught in Europe by Pythagoras, who, throwing a veil over the Circle and the Point – which no living man can define except as incomprehensible abstractions – laid the origin of the differentiated Cosmic matter in the basic or horizontal line of the Triangle. Thus the latter became the earliest of geometrical figures.” (“The Secret Doctrine” Vol. 1, p. 612-613, 615-616)

One might assume that “the Brachmanes of India” with whom Pythagoras “studied the esoteric sciences” were the Brahmins, i.e. the Hindu priests, in light of the similarity of the name. Most historians think otherwise, however, and none have definitively identified who the Brachmanes actually were. HPB once wrote that it would appear the “Brachmane priests, were simply Buddhists.” (“Isis Unveiled” Vol. 1, p. xl) But if they were, they were not ordinary Buddhists but were seemingly esoteric Buddhist Adepts and practitioners of true, divine Magic.

As mentioned above, in India, Pythagoras is sometimes referred to as Yavanacharya, by which is meant “Ionian Teacher” or “Greek Teacher.” But in ancient as well as modern times, Indians also called him Pitar Guru, sometimes written as Pitar-Guru or Pitaguru. In Sanskrit this literally means “Father Teacher” and could historically be a title for any spiritual Guru. Some therefore suspect that his name of Pythagoras was actually a derivation from his having been addressed as “Pitar Guru” whilst in India. The more commonly accepted view is that he was given his name of Pythagoras from birth, by his parents, and that as it appears to be derived from the words “Pythios” (a name of Apollo) and “Agora” (assembly, square, or marketplace) it literally means “the one who persuades the assembly.” As we’ll read shortly, Pythagoras’s parents “went to Delphi to consult the Oracle, who told Parthenis [i.e. his mother] that she would bear a son who would surpass all men in wisdom and virtue.” The famed Delphic Oracle (with whom is said to originate the famous ancient aphorism “Man, know thyself!”) was named Pythia and resided at the Temple of Apollo. So if Pythagoras’s birth was foretold by the Pythia (or Pythoness, as old historians and translators often rendered it) it would not be unreasonable for his parents to name him partly after her.

The one thing for which Pythagoras is most ridiculed – both then and now – is his alleged fervent prohibition against the consumption, and possibly even the handling or observing, of beans, more specifically fava beans, i.e. broad beans. Some modern day critics have mocked this as “the madness of Pythagoras” and many contradictory theories have circulated as to why he was apparently so opposed to the humble bean, the main one being that he supposedly claimed that broad beans contain “the souls of the dead.” But as no direct writings of Pythagoras are extant today and the most authentic and original account of his teachings – known as the Golden Verses of Pythagoras – makes no mention of beans, critics are mostly indulging in wild speculation. In HPB’s article “The Eighth Wonder” she describes “the Pythagorean beans” as “symbolical” yet curiously, at the same time, she does acknowledge there is some validity to abstaining from beans, writing, “Certain meats, like beef, and [certain] vegetables, like beans, have always been interdicted to students of occultism, not because either of them were more or less holy than others, but because while perhaps highly nutritious and supporting to the body, their magnetism was deadening and obstructive to the “psychic man.” (“The Rationale of Fasts” article) To avoid potential misunderstandings, we ought to point out that HPB never forbade any Theosophists, not even those who aspired to become chelas or disciples of her Adept-Teachers, from consuming either beans or red meat.

At the end of this present article we have provided the full text of the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, using the rendition “The Golden Verses of Pythagoras with the Commentary of Hierocles” published in 1983 by Concord Grove Press on behalf of the United Lodge of Theosophists in Santa Barbara, California, USA. We have not included the Commentary of Hierocles, as that is 70 pages long. In that book, the Golden Verses and the commentary are adapted from the translation made a few centuries ago by N. Rowe.

But first, here are two informative and inspiring articles titled “Pythagoras” and “The Pythagorean Science of Numbers” from the “Ancient Landmarks” series in “Theosophy” magazine, published by the Los Angeles Lodge of the United Lodge of Theosophists.

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“Theosophy” Magazine, April 1939

Twenty-five centuries ago the island of Samos was one of the garden spots of Ionia. Colonized hundreds of years before by a group of Arcadians under the leadership of the “great soul” Ancæus, it had now become the “voluptuous isle” where the Tyrant Polycrates spent his days and nights listening to the languishing odes of the poet Anacreon.

Down in the city beneath the Tyrant’s palace there lived a wealthy merchant named Mnesarchus. In the first quarter of the sixth century B.C. he and his wife Parthenis went to Delphi to consult the Oracle, who told Parthenis that she would bear a son who would surpass all men in wisdom and virtue. When Mnesarchus and Parthenis reached Sidon in Phoenicia on their way back to Samos, their son Pythagoras was born.

From Iamblichus we learn that even in childhood Pythagoras astonished all who knew him by the profundity of his wisdom. By the time he had reached the age of eighteen, he had already exhausted the cultural possibilities of his island home. Having heard of Thales and Anaximander, he set sail for the mainland on the first lap of a journey which lasted for almost forty years and took him into every country in the then known world. As soon as Thales conversed with Pythagoras he recognized the superior quality of his mind and advised him to go to Egypt to study with the wise men who had been his own instructors. Leaving Miletus, Pythagoras went first to Sidon, where he was initiated into the Mysteries of Tyre and Byblos. Then he proceeded to Egypt, making the journey with some Egyptian sailors who believed that a god had taken passage on their ship. On his arrival in Egypt Pythagoras at once put himself under the instruction of the teachers of Thales. He spent the next twenty-two years perfecting himself in mathematics, astronomy and music, and was finally initiated into the Egyptian Mysteries.

When Cambyses invaded Egypt, he made Pythagoras his prisoner and sent him to Babylon. Pythagoras utilized this seeming misfortune as an opportunity for growth, and for the next twelve years he studied with the Magi and was initiated into the Chaldean Mysteries. Leaving Babylon, he made his way through Persia into India, where he continued his education under the Brachmanes and imbibed the wisdom of the East at its original source.

At that time India was still feeling the effects of the great spiritual revival brought about by Gautama the Buddha. Although Pythagoras arrived in India too late to come into personal contact with the Buddha, he was greatly influenced by his teachings. Indeed, there is such a close and intimate relationship between the Buddhistic and the Pythagorean systems that the one cannot be fully understood without an acquaintance with the other. Although Pythagoras went to India as a student, he left it as a Teacher. Even to this day he is known in that country as Yavanâchârya, the “Ionian Teacher.”

Pythagoras was fifty-six years old when he finally returned to his native land. Thirty-eight of those years he had spent in foreign lands, fitting himself by study and discipline for his future work. When he arrived in Samos he found the island crushed and ruined, its temples and schools closed, its wise men fleeing from the tyranny and persecution of the great Persian conqueror.

Instead of being welcomed by his countrymen, Pythagoras found them indifferent to the wisdom he was so eager to impart. Despite his best efforts, he was unable to procure a single pupil. One day he saw a poorly dressed young man playing ball in the Gymnasium. Entering into conversation with him, Pythagoras offered to support him if he would consent to receive instruction in geometry. The youth accepted the offer, began his study, and received three oboli from Pythagoras for every problem solved. At last the young man became so interested in mathematics that he offered to study without financial remuneration. Taking the name of Pythagoras for his own, this student became his teacher’s most devoted disciple.

By this time Pythagoras had realized that the island of Samos offered him no opportunity for the development of his educational scheme. Accompanied by his one disciple, he went to southern Italy, settling in Crotona, a town situated on the Gulf of Tarentum. He chose this town because of the freedom of its constitution and the liberal-mindedness of its inhabitants, and also because Pythagoras hoped that his residence in Italy would enable him to spread his teachings throughout the whole of Greece.

Shortly after his arrival in Crotona, Pythagoras visited the Gymnasium, where he was soon surrounded by a group of young men. He reminded them of the solidarity which should exist between students, warned them of the self-control which must be cultivated during the years of adolescence, and urged them to acquire the philosophical knowledge necessary to good citizenship.

The young men listened respectfully to Pythagoras’ words, and when they returned home that evening they repeated his conversation to their parents. A few days later Pythagoras was invited to speak before the Senate of Crotona. On this occasion he advised the Senators to build a Temple to the Muses, whose harmony and interdependence should be a constant reminder of the primary virtues necessary to good government. He also spoke to them of the sanctity of marriage and of those simple family duties which, if faithfully performed, would give them experience for the larger duties of state. He reminded them also of the solidarity which must exist among those who are at the head of the government, stressed the necessity of being able to both give and receive advice and instruction, and gave them a standard of action which, if applied, would bring happiness into their personal lives and success to the country they served.

The Senators of Crotona were so impressed with the wisdom of Pythagoras that they decided to build him an Institute which would serve the several purposes of a school of philosophy and moral training, an academy of science, and a small model city. The School was situated on the top of a high hill overlooking the town, with a glimpse of the Gulf beyond. Although it was understood that it would be patterned after the Mystery Schools, there was nothing about the place suggesting secrecy save a statue of Hermes at the door of the inner school with the words on the pedestal: Let no profane enter here.

Students entered the Pythagorean School first as probationers, and for three years they were closely watched by Pythagoras without being aware of the fact. While they exercised in the Gymnasium Pythagoras would walk among them, carefully observing their natural movements, their facial expressions, and especially their laughter. For, as Pythagoras said, “Laughter is an infallible index to character, and no amount of dissimulation can render agreeable the laugh of an ill-disposed man.” (There are no known writings of Pythagoras. All statements attributed to him are from later accounts of his ideas.) The students exercised with quoits, javelins, and by racing. Pythagoras was opposed to wrestling, saying that men who intended to practice the virtues of friendship should not begin by throwing one another on the sand and rolling about like wild beasts. Such actions, he said, tend to develop hatred, which makes a man inferior to any opponent.

The moral nature of the student was then tested. Sometimes he would be highly praised, to see if pride arose. At other times he would be humiliated before his fellow-students, and his reactions carefully noted. During those early years every thread of the disciple’s moral fibre was tested and strengthened, for Pythagoras taught that true knowledge cannot be acquired until the lower nature is under control. He spoke disparagingly of those teachers who “infuse theorems and divine doctrines into confused and turbid natures, just as if some one should pour pure and clear water into a deep well filled with mud.” The probationary period in Pythagoras’ School, therefore, was closely patterned after the discipline of purification in the Lesser Mysteries.

The student next was tested along intellectual lines. Every mental capacity was carefully noted — the rapidity of his thought, the accuracy of his memory, his power of concentration, and particularly his intuition.

After three years of this probationary discipline, the students who had passed these preliminary tests were admitted into the first degree of the School, becoming known as “listeners.” The purpose of this degree, according to Iamblichus, was that they “should exercise themselves in hearing, in order that they might be able to speak.” For five years, therefore, the students observed silence. Pythagoras knew the power of sound. He taught that the Universe evolves from Sound, and that man creates a universe of his own through the mighty power of his own words. In this degree the students learned to subjugate their tongues, “that being the most difficult of all victories, as those have unfolded to us who instituted the Mysteries.”

The students in this degree were not permitted to ask questions. Questions were propounded by the teachers, but were not answered, every student being obliged to seek the answer within himself. These questions were usually on some abstract subject, such as: What is Harmony? What is the most powerful thing in the world? What is the most difficult thing in the world? Happy the student whose intuition told him that the most difficult thing in the world is for a man to know himself.

These five years of silence accomplished two things. First, they trained the student’s powers of self-reliance and intuition. Second, they gave him training in the secrecy obligatory for the higher degrees, wherein some of the secrets of the Mysteries were disclosed. Upon initiation every student was warned that “it is not lawful to extend to the casual person things which were obtained with such great labors and such diligent assiduity, nor to divulge the Mysteries of Eleusinia to the profane.”

Although the “listeners” were not allowed to discuss their instructions with their teachers or their fellow-students, they were encouraged to associate with one another, especially with older students. In this degree the Unity of all things was stressed: the fundamental Unity lying behind all the diversity of nature; the underlying unity of all religions; the unity and friendship which should exist among all men.

He unfolded the friendship of all things toward all. Indeed he delivered such an admirable friendship to his associates that even now [300 A.D.] those who are benevolent in the extreme towards each other are said to belong to the Pythagoreans. (Iamblichus.)

The story is told of a certain member of the School who fell ill at a wayside inn, and died without being able to pay his bill. Before his death, he asked the inn-keeper to place a certain symbol on the road outside the inn. Months later another Pythagorean passed that way, saw the symbol and discharged the debt of his unknown friend. So did the Pythagoreans understand friendship, not as a matter of personal affection, but as that invisible bond which unites all who study the occult sciences and practice the disciplines of the ancient school.

The daily life of a student at Crotona followed a definite schedule. Rising with the sun, his first thoughts were given to meditation. After pronouncing a mantram on a certain tone, he carefully reviewed all his actions of the previous day and planned the coming day in full detail. After breakfast he took a solitary walk, as Pythagoras did not think it proper to converse with others until one had “rendered his soul sedate, and harmonized his reasoning powers.” The student then repaired to the Gymnasium for his daily exercise, for he had learned that the body is the temple of the soul, and should always be kept in a condition worthy of its divine occupant. The rest of the morning was spent in study. At noon the students dined together in small groups, their meal consisting mainly of bread and honey. Pythagoras himself was a strict vegetarian and the members of his esoteric school were not allowed to eat meat. He was not so strict, however, with the probationers who had not yet commenced their study of practical Occultism. These were permitted to eat the flesh of certain animals, excluding, however, the brain and heart.

The moral discipline of the Pythagorean student steadily increased in intensity, and the line of discrimination between right and wrong became finer with every passing year. Disciples were warned not to be surprised by anything that might happen and trained to meet the greatest shocks with an equal mind. Anger was considered as one of the deadly sins and every student was cautioned not to make a decision or rebuke a servant while under the influence of this passion. The Pythagorean idea of duty might well have been taken from The Bhagavad Gita. Iamblichus gives it thus:

We should never do anything with a view to pleasure as an end.
We should perform what is right, because it is right to do so.

After a frugal lunch, the students received their relatives and friends in the gardens of the School. This was followed by another walk, this time in the company of others. At the close of the day they supped together and read aloud. Before retiring each student again engaged in meditation, following the instructions of Pythagoras found in the Golden Verses:

Never suffer sleep to close thy eyelids, after thy going to bed, till thou hast examined by thy reason all thy actions for the day. Wherein have I done amiss? What have I omitted that I ought to have done? If in this examination thou findest that thou hast done amiss, reprimand thyself severely for it. And if thou hast done any good, rejoice.

After this review, the student chanted his evening mantram, and in the peace and quiet of the soft Italian night he fell asleep.

During the first eight years of probationary discipline the student received no instruction from Pythagoras himself, nor was he permitted to mention the Teacher by name. Those who were unable to stand the discipline left the school and went out again into the world. Even in the higher degrees some occasionally failed by breaking their pledge of secrecy or some other rule which bound them. These were expelled from the School, and a tomb bearing their name was erected in the garden. If a loyal Pythagorean met one of these failures on the street, he did not greet him nor in any way indicate that he had once known him, for Pythagoras taught that such a man is dead. “His body appears among men,” he said, “but his soul is dead. Let us weep for it!”

The great and compassionate heart of Pythagoras ached with helpless pity for those weak souls who had strayed from the Path. But he rejoiced for those who were strengthened by the discipline, who trod the thorny path of discipleship without faltering. These were admitted to the higher section of the School, which corresponded to the Greater Mysteries. During the first eight years of probation, the students were known as Exoterics. Those who entered the higher sections were known as Esoterics.

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“Theosophy” Magazine, May 1939

It was an auspicious day for the student at Crotona when Pythagoras received him into his own dwelling and welcomed him as a disciple. The candidate could now look back upon his eight years of probationary discipline with gratitude, for he knew that they had prepared him for the study of Nature’s hidden secrets and placed him on the Path leading to Adeptship.

Pythagoras began his instructions by establishing certain universal principles, proceeding from them into particulars. The key to the whole Pythagorean system, irrespective of the particular science to which it is applied, is the general formula of unity in multiplicity, the idea of the One evolving and pervading the many. This is commonly known as the Doctrine of Emanations. Pythagoras called it the Science of Numbers.

Pythagoras taught that this science – the chief of all in occultism – was revealed to men by “celestial deities,” those godlike men who were the Divine Instructors of the Third Race. It was first taught to the Greeks by Orpheus, and for centuries made known only to the “chosen few” in the Mysteries. Just before the Mysteries began to degenerate, Pythagoras instituted this teaching in his School, thus preserving under the name of “philosophy” the ancient science which, as Plato truly says, is “the greatest good that was ever imparted to men.” In his Life of Pythagoras, Iamblichus repeats the statement of Plato that the study of the science of Numbers tends to awaken that organ in the brain which the ancients described as the “eye of wisdom” – the organ now known to physiology as the pineal gland. Speaking of the mathematical disciplines, Plato says in the Republic (Book VII), “the soul through these disciplines has an organ purified and enlightened, an organ better worth saving than ten thousand corporeal eyes, since truth becomes visible through this alone.”

The present mode of teaching mathematics does little to arouse the higher mind. Even geometry, although based on the Elements of Euclid, is studied only for the purpose of acquiring a knowledge of the other parts of mathematics dependent upon it,

. . . without having even a dreaming perception of its first and most essential use, that of enabling its votary, like a bridge, to pass over the obscurity of a material nature, as over some dark sea, to the luminous regions of perfect reality. (Thomas Taylor: Theoretic Arithmetic of the Pythagoreans.)

In the seventh book of the Republic Plato indicates the possibilities lying behind the knowledge of numbers. He would make it compulsory for those who manage the affairs of state to study mathematics, “not in a common way, but till by intelligence itself they arrive at the survey of the nature of numbers.” This science, he assures us, should not be used merely for buying and selling, but “for facility in the energies of the soul itself.”

The Pythagorean student approached the science of mathematics from the universal point of view. By applying mathematics to both the Macrocosm and the Microcosm he was able to grasp the secrets of evolution in their minutest details. Quoting from the Neo-Pythagorean Moderatus, Porphyry says that the numerals of Pythagoras were “hieroglyphic symbols, by means whereof he explained ideas concerning the nature of things,” or the origin of the universe.

Plato, summarizing the Pythagorean formula, says that “Deity geometrizes.” The universe evolves from within outward. From the “point” a radiation equal in all directions begins, establishing a circumference, or sphere, within which all activities of the “point” are confined. The point, extending horizontally, becomes a diameter dividing the sphere into positive and negative hemispheres – the basis for action and reaction. The vertical extension of the point into a line crossing the horizontal makes the cross within the circle, and so on ad infinitum. The eleventh Chapter of The Bhagavad-Gita is a dissertation on the Pythagorean Science of Numbers, couched in Eastern terminology. There Krishna shows Arjuna the “vital geometry” of his Divine Form, with all the living lines of force therein and the countless lesser forms produced by them, representing the powers and elements that go to make up the universe.

Pythagoras described the indivisible Unity lying behind all manifestation as “No Number,” in this way repeating the statement in the Stanzas of Dzyan that “there is neither first nor last, for all is one: number issued from no number.” The plane above, therefore, can be indicated only by the nought or Circle, which Pythagoras said is the most appropriate symbol of Divinity.

On the plane below, the Monad or first number appears, and from this number the geometry of the universe emerges. Pythagoras called the Monad, or One, the first odd and therefore divine number. It is through the misinterpretation of the Pythagorean Monad that the various “personal Gods” of the different religions arose, most of whom are represented as a Trinity. In the phenomenal world the Monad becomes the apex of the manifested equilateral triangle, or the “Father.” The left line of the triangle becomes the Duad or “Mother.” This represents the origin of all the contrasts in nature, the point at which the roads of good and evil bifurcate. This being the case, the Pythagoreans are said to have “hated” the Binary. Considering the number Two as a representation of the law of polarity, they stressed its positive aspect by entering a temple on the right side and by putting on the right shoe first. The right line of the triangle represents the “Son,” described in every ancient cosmogony as one with the apex or “Father.” The line at the base of the triangle stands for the universal plane of productive nature, in which “Father-Mother-Son” are unified on the phenomenal plane as they were united in the supersensuous world by the apex.

The triangle is the most profound of all geometrical symbols. As a cosmic symbol representing the Higher Trinity of the universe it became the root of the word Deity. The ancient Greeks called the letter D (the triangular delta) “the vehicle of the Unknown Deity.” The Boeotians wrote the word Zeus with a delta, from which came the Latin Deus. The triangle is also a basic form in Nature. When the molecules of salt deposit themselves as a solid, the first shape they assume is that of a triangle. A flame is triangular in shape; hence, the word pyramid from the Greek pyr, or fire. The triangle is also the form assumed by the pine, the most primitive tree after the fern period.

The Pythagoreans called the number Four the “Key-bearer of Nature.” As a cosmic symbol it represents the universe as chaotic matter before being informed by Spirit. The cross made by the intersection of the vertical line of Spirit and the horizontal line of matter represents spiritual man crucified in the flesh, while the four-pointed star is a symbol of the animal kingdom.

The five-pointed star, the pentacle, is the symbol of man, not only of the physical man with his four limbs and head, but also of conscious, thinking man, whose fifth principle is Manas. The Pythagoreans associated the number Five with the fifth element, Ether. They called Five the “beam of the balance,” which suggests the power of choice and perhaps the final “moment of choice” for our humanity in the middle of the Fifth Round.

The number six illustrates the six directions of extension of all solid bodies. The interlaced triangles picture the union of spirit and matter, male and female. The Pythagoreans considered this number as sacred to Venus, since “the union of the two sexes, and the spagyrisation of matter by triads are necessary to develop the generative force . . . which is inherent in all bodies.” (Rayon: Potency of the Pythagorean Triangles.)

Pythagoras called seven a perfect number, making it the basis for “Music of the Spheres.” Regarding seven as a compound of three and four, he gave a twofold account of its meaning: On the noumenal plane the triangle is Father-Mother-Son, or Spirit, while the quaternary represents the ideal root of all material things; applied to man, the triangle represents his three higher principles, immortal and changeless, while the quaternary refers to the four lower principles which are in unstable flux. Seven not only governs the periodicity of the phenomena of life on the physical plane, but also dominates the series of chemical elements, as well as the world of sound and color, as shown by the spectroscope.

The Pythagoreans called the number eight “Justice.” In that symbol we find an expression of the eternal spiral motion of cycles, the regular inbreathing and outbreathing of the Great Breath. They called the number nine the “Ocean” and the “Horizon,” as all numbers are comprehended by and revolve within it. If we consult the Table of the Yugas on page 125 of The Ocean of Theosophy, we shall observe that all the figures may be resolved into the number nine.

Ten, or the Decade, brings all these digits back to unity, ending the Pythagorean table. In both the Microcosm and the Macrocosm the three higher numbers of the Decade stand for the invisible and metaphysical world, while the lower seven refer to the realm of physical phenomena.

The Tetraktys of Pythagoras – composed of ten dots arranged in four rows to form a triangle -was the sacred symbol upon which the Pythagoreans took their most binding oath:

“I swear by him who the Tetraktys found,
Whence all our wisdom springs and which contains
Perennial Nature’s fountain, cause and root.”

Theon of Smyrna says that this symbol was honored by the Pythagoreans “because it appears to contain the nature of all things.” H.P.B. indicates the extraordinary philosophical value of the Tetraktys in The Secret Doctrine (I, 612). According to Iamblichus, the Pythagorean Tetraktys had eleven forms, each one applying to some one particular phase of cosmic or terrestrial life.

Pythagoras applied the Science of Numbers to music, giving the Western world the mathematical basis of its present musical system. The abstract Circle of music is Sound. The mathematical point within that circle, from which the music of our earth emerges, is the “Tone of Nature,” called Kung by the ancient Chinese. The “line” of music, derived from the ratio 2:3, is what is now called the “perfect fifth.” The rotation of this line forms the “Circle of Fifths,” which gives the basis of all key relationships.

The music of this planet, according to Pythagoras, is but a small copy of the “Music of the Spheres.” The seven tones of the musical scale correspond to the seven sacred planets, each of which is characterized by a certain tone. As Shakespeare makes Lorenzo say in The Merchant of Venice, “There’s not the slightest orb which thou beholdest but in its motion like an angel sings.” The study of music was obligatory in the Pythagorean School, not only as a science but also as a healing agent. Iamblichus informs us that “Pythagoras believed that music greatly contributed to health, if it was used in the proper manner.” Pythagoras taught that the purest type of sound comes from stringed instruments and that wind instruments tend to excite the lower nature rather than to quiet it, an observation later corroborated by Plato.

The study of astronomy was a duty of the School. Pythagoras taught the heliocentric system and the sphericity of the earth; he declared that the moon is a dead planet which receives its light from the sun and described the composition of the Milky Way. More than a thousand years later both Bruno and Galileo derived their theories of astronomy from Pythagorean fragments.

The esoteric students of Pythagoras were given the Mystery teachings in regard to the nature of the soul, its relation to the body and its ultimate destiny. Pythagoras taught that the soul of man is derived from the World-Soul; hence is immortal and cannot be destroyed by death. The soul of man, he said, accomplishes its evolution by means of numberless incarnations on earth. He frequently spoke to his pupils about their own former lives, and when asked about himself said that he had come into the region of mortality to benefit mankind. He also taught the doctrine of Karma, saying that all the seeming injustices on earth are explained by the fact that every life on earth is but a reward or punishment for deeds performed in previous lives. No outside circumstances are to blame for our unhappy lives, he said, since “men draw upon themselves their own misfortunes, voluntarily and of their own free choice.”

Applying the Science of Numbers to the problem of good government, Pythagoras first made himself a “point” in which great spiritual forces were focused, and from that “point” the radii of their influence extended. The Pythagorean School eventually became a small model city, its form of government being adopted by Crotona. From Crotona the sphere of Pythagorean influence expanded to include the neighboring towns, where legislative systems based upon Pythagorean principles lasted for generations.

When Pythagoras was almost a hundred years old he went to Delos to attend the funeral ceremonies of an old friend. One evening, when the Teacher and forty of his pupils were talking together, some of his former pupils who had been expelled from his School set fire to the building where they were assembled, and Pythagoras, with thirty-eight of his pupils, were consumed in the flames.

After the death of the Teacher the School at Crotona was closed and the students departed from Italy. Fearing that the very word philosophy – a word which Pythagoras had coined – would disappear from the Greek language, some of these loyal disciples collected the writings of the older Pythagoreans and wrote down many things which Pythagoras himself had said. These writings were passed down from teacher to pupil, or from father to son, for many generations.

The direct successor to Pythagoras – if such a man could be said to have a successor – was his pupil Aristæus. After him came Pythagoras’ son Mnesarchus, who was named after his grandfather. The Pythagorean fragments were preserved by two hundred and thirty-five of his loyal disciples, two hundred and eighteen of whom were men, the other seventeen women. At the present day all that remains of his ethical precepts is found in the Golden Verses.

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[Note: The term “Daimon” or “Daemon” did not originally have the “evil” significance that was later attached to it by Christian theology, which proceeded to render the word as “demon” and define it as a type of malevolent devilish being. For Pythagoras, as also for most other ancient philosophers, including Plato, the Daimon or Daemon was the inner voice of conscience and intuition of a human being and therefore an aspect of the human soul. “The appellation is often synonymous with that of gods or angels,” explains H. P. Blavatsky’s “Theosophical Glossary,” adding that Theosophically speaking the Daemon generally (but not necessarily always) represented “the incorruptible part of the man, or rather the real inner man which we call Nous or the rational divine Ego.”]

1. In the first place revere the Immortal Gods, as they are established and ordained by the Law.

2. Reverence the Oath.

3. In the next place revere the Heroes who are full of goodness and light.

4. Honour likewise the Terrestrial Daimons by rendering them the worship lawfully due to them.

5. Honour likewise thy father and thy mother, and thy nearest relations.

6. Of all the rest of mankind, make him thy friend who distinguishes himself by his virtue.

7. Always give ear to his mild exhortations, and take example from his virtuous and useful actions.

8. Refrain, as far as you can, from spurning thy friend for a slight fault, for power surrounds necessity.

9. Know that all these things are as I have told thee. Accustom thyself to surmount and vanquish these passions:

10. First gluttony, sloth, lust and anger.

11. Never commit any shameful actions, neither with others nor in private with thyself.

12. Above all things, respect thyself.

13. In the next place, observe Justice in thy actions and in thy words;

14. and accustom not thyself to behave thyself in any thing without rule and without reason.

15. Always make this reflection, that it is ordained by Destiny for all men to die;

16. and that the goods of fortune are uncertain. As they may be acquired, they may likewise be lost.

17. Concerning all the calamities that men suffer by Divine Fortune,

18. support with patience thy lot, be what it will, and never repine at it,

19. but endeavour what thou canst to remedy it,

20. and consider that Fate does not send the greatest portion of these misfortunes to good men.

21. There are among men several sorts of reasonings, good and bad.

22. Admire them not too easily and reject them not either,

23. but if any falsehoods be advanced, give way with mildness and arm thyself with patience.

24. Observe well, on every occasion, what I am going to tell thee:

25. Let no man either by his words, or by his actions, ever seduce thee,

26. nor entice thee to say or to do what is not profitable for thee.

27. Consult and deliberate before thou act, that thou may’st not commit foolish actions,

28. for it is the part of a miserable man to speak and to act without reflection.

29. But do that which will not afflict thee afterwards, nor oblige thee to repentance.

30. Never do anything which thou dost not understand;

31. but learn all thou oughtest to know, and by that means thou wilt lead a very pleasant life.

32. In no wise neglect the health of thy body;

33. but give it food and drink in due measure, and also the exercise of which it has need.

34. By measure, I mean what will not incommode thee.

35. Accustom thyself to a way of living that is neat and decent, without luxury.

36. Avoid all things that will occasion envy,

37. and be not expensive out of season, like one who knows not what is decent and honourable.

38. Be neither covetous nor niggardly. A due measure is excellent in these things!

39. Do only the things that cannot hurt thee, and deliberate before thou doest them.

40. Never suffer sleep to close thy eyelids after thy going to bed,

41. till thou hast thrice reviewed all thy actions of the day:

42. Wherein have I done amiss? What have I done? What have I omitted that I ought to have done?

43. If in this examination thou find that thou hast done amiss, reprimand thyself severely for it;

44. and if thou hast done any good, rejoice.

45. Practise thoroughly all these things; meditate on them well; thou oughtest to love them with all thy heart.

46. It is they that will put thee in the way of Divine Virtue.

47. I swear it by Him who has transmitted into our souls the Sacred Tetraktys, the Source of Nature, whose course is eternal.

48. Never set thy hand to the work, till thou hast first prayed the Gods to accomplish what thou art going to begin.

49. When thou hast made this habit familiar to thee,

50. thou wilt know the constitution of the Immortal Gods and of men;

51. even how far the different Beings extend, and what contains and binds them together.

52. Thou shalt likewise know, in accordance with Cosmic Order, that the nature of this Universe is in all things alike,

53. so that thou shalt not hope what thou oughtest not to hope; and nothing in this world shall be hid from thee.

54. Thou wilt likewise know that men draw upon themselves their own misfortunes, voluntarily and of their own free choice.

55. Wretches that they are! They neither see nor understand that their good is near them.

56. There are very few of them who know how to deliver themselves out of their misfortunes.

57. Such is the Fate that blinds mankind, and takes away his senses.

58. Like huge cylinders, they roll to and fro, always oppressed by ills without number;

59. for fatal contention, which is innate in them, pursues them everywhere, tosses them up and down, nor do they perceive it.

60. Instead of provoking and stirring it up, they ought by yielding to avert it.

61. Great Jupiter, Father of men, you would deliver them all from the evils that oppress them,

62. if you would show them what is the Daimon of whom they make use.

63. But take courage, the race of men is divine.

64. Sacred Nature reveals to them the most hidden Mysteries.

65. If she impart to thee her secrets, thou wilt easily perform all the things which I have ordained thee,

66. and healing thy soul, thou wilt deliver it from all these evils, from all these afflictions.

67. Abstain thou from all that we have forbidden in the Purifications; and in the Deliverance of the Soul

68. make a just distinction of them; examine all things well,

69. leaving thyself always to be guided and directed by the understanding that comes from above, and that ought to hold the reins.

70. And when, after having divested thyself of thy mortal body, thou arrivest in the most pure Aether,

71. thou shalt be a God, immortal, incorruptible, and death shall have no more dominion over thee.

As said, we have not included here the commentary by Hierocles on the Golden Verses, as it is too lengthy to do so. Hierocles composed his commentary some time between 415 and 450 A.D./C.E. while occupying the “successor’s chair” of the Alexandrian Academy, which was the direct offshoot of the Platonic Academy in Athens. But, in closing, here are the final few sentences of his commentary:

“These elements may justly be called the greatest and most excellent mark of the nobility of man, and are not the private opinion of any particular person but the doctrine of the whole sacred body of the Pythagoreans and, as it were, the common voice of all their assemblies. For this reason there was a law which enjoined each of them, every morning when he rose, and every night at his going to bed, to have these Verses read to him as the Oracles of the Pythagorean doctrine, to the end that by continual meditation on these precepts their spirit and energy might shine forth in his life. And this is what we likewise ought to do, that we may make trial, and find what great advantages we should in time gain by so doing.”

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