Pythagoras was the Ionian Greek philosopher, mathematician and teacher whose influence on human life has been as profound as it has been timeless.
Born in 570 BC on the island of Samos, part of the Greek empire, he founded the movement called Pythagoreanism. Entire traditions of philosophy, mathematics and astronomy have been based on and influenced by his soul-impulsed way. Many great men throughout the Ages including Philolaus, Empedocles, Parmenides, Plato, Euclid, Johannes Kepler, Copernicus and Newton were inspired by his teachings and his most natural unification of science, religion, philosophy and daily human life.
As a young man Pythagoras studied under teachers in Ionia, Greece. He then travelled to Egypt and Chaldea (the southern part of modern day Iraq) and dedicated twenty years of his life to the study of the Eleusinian and Orphic mysteries, as well as the Chaldean and Zoroastrian teachings in Chaldea.
It was after his initiation into these mysteries and teachings that Pythagoras settled in Italy, for his native Greece did not allow the flourishing of the way of living that he was teaching to his students. Pythagoras consciously and deliberately left his own island to find a more isolated outpost, a more open place where he could teach, unhampered by the control and dictates of the political powers of the day. As the Ageless Wisdom has always done historically, he sought a place where there was freedom to question the way things are, freedom to express without constraint, far removed from the oppression and self-interest of the ruling elites.
The core of Pythagoras’ teachings was harmony, Greek harmonia. As a way of living, this entailed living in a self-loving way that confirmed the body in its connection to Divinity and Universal order, in which everything, no matter how seemingly small or inconsequential, was a reflection of something greater, harmonia.
Essential to this was an emphasis on rituals and a way of living that was always in regard to all of the cycles of life – the earthly cycles as reflected in the seasons, equinoxes and solstices, the lunar cycle, and the cycles of the planets and stars – all which were accounted for in the way daily life was lived in the Pythagorean school. It was understood by Pythagoras that as human beings we were an inextricable part of the planet and the Universe. It was essential to our evolutionary process that we live in accord with their rhythms, bringing Divine quality to ordinary human life.
For Pythagoreans, harmony represented the flow of all life in balance – the activity and the constellation of all aspects in relation to the whole – where each part was held in the respect and consideration of all else; nothing left out, every aspect of equal importance and in accord with the all.
Harmony was understood as specific and or definite whilst remaining eternally flexible and all encompassing and was defined as the activity of love and truth represented by a divine order.
Developing the self-care and self-nurturing that was needed to support the body in holding the connection to this order and innate Divinity in that era was difficult; enormous loving dedication was required to maintain the connection through the body to God and universal order. Self-care and nurturing were core to the teachings as they developed a person with the sensitivity, awareness and responsiveness essential to living the harmony of the Pythagorean way.
Another principle central to Pythagoras’ teachings was discipline, the discipline of self-awareness and self-development, guided by the insight that the way that you lived life was your greatest healing.
So the student of the Pythagorean Way was essentially a physician and a healer for themselves through the way they lived. In a word, the key to the school was a way of living. This brought in every aspect of life – food and exercise were important. Traces of attention to diet can be found in surviving texts: certain foods were to be avoided, like beans, and also various meats, such as birds.
For Pythagoras, the magic and order of the Universe was based on number; numbers had a vibration, again a vibration that expressed the Harmony of the Universe, often expressed by later writers inspired by Pythagoras as ‘the music of the spheres’.
Mathematics therefore was a description of universal Harmony. Philosophy, mathematics and geometry were expressions of relationships between all things. They were not abstractions, or tools to solve problems. Rather they were principles that guided human life in intricate detail, and always in consideration to the whole – the microcosm of our lives thus representing the macrocosm of the Universe; one such example is the Pythagorean Theorem that is still taught in schools today and is the basis for everyday calculations in many professions.
This is remarkable to conceive in our modern time, when we are so very focused on our full lives and individual demands and little else. Everything was treated equally, accorded equal care, attention and respect – be it the cosmos, the position of the planets, numbers, music, your fellow human being or the activity of simple daily chores. Each communicated a reality, an essence of the way things are, the ‘what is’.
Pythagoras was the one who originally coined the word cosmos – which comes from Greek and means ‘order’, ’arrangement’. Pythagoras was the first one who used this word in its today known meaning for ‘the universe’ or ‘the all’. It had not been used in this way before him. He brought this word to us, not merely in admiration of the far distant majesty of the stars, but more so because he knew our essential nature was Universal, and Divine – we were never separate from ‘the all’, rather an equal, living part of it. We too were the cosmos.
Pythagoras presented to his students the challenging and evolutionary truth that the greatest form of thinking came from the heart-impulsed mind. Intelligence was not developed in rote learning and memorisation, but through the quality of the body – intelligence was developed through the way the student lived. It was the human body, lived in accordance with the cosmos and its cycles, that was capable of developing true understanding through harmonia.
His debates were legendary: far from the combative and point-scoring technique we know debate to be today, Pythagorean debate was a delicate, respectful, and evolutionary process in which each point offered by a participant built upon the one before. Understanding of the whole group was elevated to a greater level with each contribution. The art of bridging understanding was core to Pythagorean debate; it was a very joyful event and it was not about who is the best and can bring the strongest argument but how the group as a whole could reach to greater understanding (in sharp contrast to the adversarial version that is known as debate currently).
The emphasis of Pythagoras’ teaching was that the body and the natural world both were an expression of the Divine Principle, and hence there was nothing to transcend. The human body was not regarded as an object to be ignored or overcome, as so many religions and philosophies of the time (and since) held it to be. In this the influence of Hermes can be clearly felt. It was about living in the world in a way that the world did not own you, breaking down both the indulgences of the body in excessive pleasure and desire, and its maltreatment in the form of harshness and abuse. It taught the willing student to hold a level of purity so that the world did not affect one so easily. Thus, the teachings of the Pythagorean school were strongly grounded in the practical aspects of temporal life with full respect to the universal nature of life – the simple and the cosmic lived as one. All that was learned in the school could then be taken back out into life and community.
Pythagoras taught the virtue of silence as a way of establishing a living way that was a return to who we already truly are, a way that was ancient, a way that was naturally philosophical, naturally religious, naturally scientific. People entering Pythagoras’ school were in silence for five years.
To study in the school required commitment to gain entry and a willingness to undertake the strictures required to live the ‘Pythagorean Way of Life’. Anyone who came in good faith and willing to live a life in purity was welcome. Pythagoras accepted anyone ready for such a level of commitment. The school was open – not only to the educated or children of the political elite (as was, for instance, Plato’s Academy). Its students were very diverse, of different backgrounds, with various skills and strengths, and Pythagoras brought through diverse modalities and techniques, whatever was needed for each student.
The purpose of the school was to deeply connect and master a way of living and then take that mastery back out into the world to live it as one’s normal way. Enrolment at the school was not life-long, nor was it ever intended to be. Students went through two or three phases. After a phase of silence and observation, students would be admitted to the deeper phases and then go back out into community life and live what they had learnt. Because much of Pythagoras’ teaching was about right relationships – that is, balance and order, in a word, harmony, in real life – this brought in the study of ethics and politics. In turn this led to a continuing interest in government, hence students of Pythagoras were heavily involved in political life in the southern cities of Italy.
Many students went on to make great contributions to their community, and so Pythagoras was regarded to be ‘the Master of masters’.
To make clear how profoundly different this school was to any other at the time, it developed a number of very important women. This was never a male-dominated environment – far from it – thus women were an integral part of all aspects of the Pythagorean way, respected in their innate ability to live and express the universal way by virtue of the woman’s cycles. His understanding of this and willingness to accord them respect was extraordinary in an era and culture where women were second-class citizens. Pythagoras realised that men were caught in a world dominated by aggression, violence, competition and conflict. While women were not innately more divine than men, they had an enhanced ability in most instances to sense their connection to their Divinity (as a result of the cleanse the cycles brought to their body).
Pythagoras confirmed, acknowledged and celebrated the marriage of human and divine nature represented naturally by women. In this the Pythagoreans lived equality... a truly equal society with men and women harmoniously participating in all areas of life.
It is a testament to the quality of his teachings that the influence of Pythagoras did not end. However resistance to the truth of his teachings did cause strife and tension beyond the confines of the school, and the followers of Pythagoras, the Pythagoreans, gradually fell under persecution and were dispersed from Southern Italy. Many students migrated east back to Greece and Ionia, where later philosophers became acquainted with Pythagoras’ teachings and were profoundly influenced by them, Plato being a case in point. With the conquest by Alexander of the Persian Empire, Greek philosophy, including the teachings of Pythagoras, was spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean. New communities inspired by Pythagorean teachings sprang up. In Judea the Essenes were a Jewish sect who followed the Pythagorean way. Cosmopolitan Alexandria became the home for the rich blend of Neo-Pythagorean philosophy for which the philosophers of that city are so renowned.
The teachings lived on, forming an unbroken thread that although largely unacknowledged, is interwoven through Western society and remains with us today.
Listen to this short audio about the teachings of Pythagoras and Patanjali, that present an understanding of Spirit and Soul, and the practice of a way of living that helps bring the spirit into line – A disciplined loving and responsible way of life that unfolds and develops the Kingly Body we all have within, a way of living in connection with our Soul. This is the Way of the Livingness.
Where man meets Soul
It could be said that the birth of The Way of The Livingness began 2,500 years ago with Pythagoras and the ensuing Pythagoreans. However the principles of purpose and dedication towards responsibility, towards love, towards developing the Kingly or Divine body have not changed.