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ABSTRACT

Pythagoras the Musician


Christine Marie Stanulonis
Director: Alden Smith, Ph.D.
It is contested whether or not the mathematical and scientific strain of the Pythagorean
tradition could have belonged along with the mythological and religious strain to the original sect.
Denying the mathematic tradition to original Pythagoreanism is often based upon assumptions
that privilege one form of mathematics over another. But the Pythagorean conception of number
need not be judged by the standard of deductive, axiomatic geometry, the paradigmatic
mathematics of ancient Greece; instead, it can be considered as a practice which shares many of
the characteristics of Greek arithmetic. This is because early Pythagorean figured numbers and
later Greek arithmetic share a non-verbal and intuitive nature in accord with number understood
through musical, poetic expression rather than through the strict, logical language upon which the
geometry relies. This thesis will argue that the practice of measuring the numerical ratios of
musical intervals may have been a kind of exemplar of scientific inquiry that acted as the catalyst
for Pythagorean philosophical development. In addition, because these musical intervals were the
living, pulsing heart of moral, religious, poetic, and communal life for members of the
Pythagorean sect, their Pythagoreans understanding of their relationship to what they measured
in mathematical terms would be radically different from the understanding of philosophers whose
methods began with geometry. Thus, the privileged place of music as part of both aspects of the
Pythagorean experiencethe scientific and the religiousmay have allowed for two modes of
expressionthe philosophical and the mythologicalto operate within the same system of
thought.

APPROVED BY DIRECTOR OF HONORS THESIS:

______________________________________________
Dr. Alden Smith, Department of Classics

APPROVED BY THE HONORS PROGRAM:

______________________________________________________
Dr. Andrew Wisely, Director

DATE: ___________________________

PYTHAGORAS THE MUSICIAN

A Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of


Baylor University
In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the
Honors Program

By
Christine Marie Stanulonis

Waco, Texas
May 2015

TABLE OF CONTENTS
Acknowledgments

iii

Introduction

Chapter One: The Discord between Ritual and Rational


Chapter Two: Pythagorean Mathematics and the
Greek Mathematical Traditions

26

Chapter Three: Music the Harmony between Ritual and Rational

47

Conclusion

67

Bibliography .

69

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
In completing this thesis, I owe a debt of gratitude to several individuals who
encouraged, advised, or in some other way enriched the project and my understanding of
it. I thank Dr. Smith, my advisor, for believing in my ability to write a worthy thesis,
even when I had little hope of it. I also thank the three other readers on my panel: Dr.
Froberg for his assiduous attention to stylistic details, Dr. Williams for her timely advice
and much-needed encouragement, and Mr. T.J. McLemore for his appreciation of
mystery. In addition, I thank Dr. Moser whose classes and conversation originally drew
me to the topic. Also, I am deeply indebted to Megan for her constant, gracious
friendship and to Jackson, Kara, Kelsey, and Zach for their camaraderie. Finally, I thank
Christopher for many months of patience.

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INTRODUCTION
The Pythagorean tradition is known in many ways. Pythagoras, called over the
centuries the founder of ancient Greek mathematics, was accredited at various times with
the discovery of the theorem for calculating the sides of a right triangle, the discovery of
the numerical ratios that govern musical intervals, and even the discovery of the
irrationality of the square root of 2. Also called the founder of philosophy, he first
attempted to explain the world as a cosmos ordered by numbers. His influence is sought
in many key places in the Western intellectual tradition, from the wisdom of Plato to the
medieval Quadrivium to the heliocentric Copernican solar system. Religious doctrines of
the Pythagorean tradition are also remembered: the transmigration of souls, the kinship of
all creatures, and the cyclical nature of the world. Mixed in with all this is mystical
disposition toward numbers and the various attempts at association between numbers and
physical objects or abstract realities.
Yet, while much can be known about the entire traditionas it has been
attributed, remembered, developed, and transmittedsurprisingly little can be known
about its founder or its earliest adherents. This paper will examine the question of
whether or not the mystical and mathematical strains could have both been fundamental
to the Pythagorean tradition from the beginning. It will note some of the presuppositions
concerning mathematics generally, assumptions that can lead scholars to discount early
Pythagorean number theory, and suggest the possibility that an emphasis upon music and
a musicians approach to mathematics might enable a more sympathetic reading of the
early Pythagorean tradition.
1

CHAPTER ONE
The Discord between Ritual and Rational

The favor and attention that has ensured the continuation of Pythagorean thought
across temporal, geographic, cultural, and linguistic divides also enabled alterations; and
the early sources necessary for understanding its origins are almost non-existent. Yet the
dearth of definitive sources is only the beginning of the difficulties involved in an
interpretation of Pythagoras and early Pythagoreanism. The inquiry is complicated
further because the evidence available points to a story difficult to understand and even
more difficult to credit with historical verity. The legendary character of Pythagoras
represents a combination of contradictory modes of human engagement with the world,
an odd assortment of traits associated with both ritualistic devotion and rational
observation. Pythagoras, shrouded in mystery, in ancient times inspired strong reactions
from devotees and detractors alike, and continues to be a subject of debate.
As a brief introduction to the study of early Pythagoreanism, this chapter first
offers a survey of major relevant sources. It will continue with a review of the legend of
Pythagoras as it was conceived in late antiquity and as it was passed down into the
middle ages. Finally, it will conclude with an examination of some views in
contemporary scholarship relevant to subsequent chapters.
The Problem of Sources
Hellenistic tradition held that Pythagoras transmitted all of the doctrines and
precepts of his sect orally and left no writings; and in modern scholarship this notion is
3

taken as fact. Contrarily, Diogenes Laertius in late antiquity attested in his Life of
Pythagoras that the famous man left behind at least three volumes of his own writings,
but his evidence is hardly convincing.1 Just as there are no texts attributable to
Pythagoras, there is none from his immediate followers. According to testimonia,
Pythagoreans held themselves to a vow of silence regarding their leaders teachings.
Presumably, Isocrates refers to this vow in his complaint: to this day, those who pretend
to be his [Pythagoras] disciples are more admired for their silence than those who have
the greatest reputation for speaking.2 The Pythagorean silence is especially notorious in
the different versions of the legends concerning a certain Pythagorean named Hippasus,
drowned for declaring openly the discovery of the dodecahedron.3
Possible echoes of the oral Pythagorean tradition are the Pythagorean symbola
and the Golden Verses of Pythagoras. The symbola are maxims for living, often bizarre
in their claims and in their demands. Some are as universal in scope as the most just
thing is to sacrifice, the wisest is number.4 Others seem to deal with minutiae, such as
not leaving the marks of a pot in a pile of ashes.5 They are also called acusmata (things
heard) because disciples of Pythagoras would listen in silence to his enigmatic sayings
that could not be properly interpreted by a listener who knew not the secrets of
Pythagorean discourse. The earliest evidence for these is dated ca. 400 B.C., found in an

1
Diogenes Laertius, The Life of Pythagoras, V. translated in Guthrie, The Pythagorean
Sourcebook and Library,(Grand Rapids, MI: 1987), 142-43; Diogenes Laertius bases his claim upon a
quote of Heraclitus (DK12 B129) which mentions Pythagoras and writings, but does not make clear
Pythagoras relationship with those writings or claim his authorship.
2

Isocrates, Busiris, 28. Qtd. in Khan, Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans, (Indianapolis: 2001), 12.

Iamblichus, De Vita Pythagorica, 18.88.

Iamblichus De Vita Pythagorica, 18.82.

No. 35 from Androcydes collection, qtd. in Burkert, Lore and Science, (Cambridge: 1972), 173.

Explanation of Pythagorean Symbola by Anaximander of Miletus.6 Thus, the symbola


are pre-Platonic and in the time of Anaximander were already supposed to require
allegorical interpretation, as would utterances wrapped in the mysticism and mythology
of archaic times.7 Following Anaximander, the practice of collecting and interpreting
Pythagorean symbola garnered a long tradition.8 Another possible product of the early,
oral tradition is the so-called Golden Verses of Pythagoras. Armand DeLatte maintained
in the early 20th century that these were compiled in the mid-3rd or early 4th century B.C.
either from written fragments or from oral tradition,9 and Thom argues that the Verses
should be dated earlier than 300 B.C.10 Like the acusmata, they are oriented toward
instruction for ordered living.
Because of the mysterious character of the Pythagorean sect, the earliest written
evidence for Pythagoreanism comes from non-Pythagoreans. These testimonia come
from various authors, namely, Heraclitus, Empedocles, Ion of Chios, and Herodotus, each
of whom in some way refers to the reputation of Pythagoras as a learned individual.11
However, because the fragments of Heraclitus are decidedly hostile in their description of

6
7

Burkert, Lore and Science, (Cambridge: 1972), 166.


As Burkert notes, Ibid.

For instance, in Iamblichus De Vita Pythagorica 18.86-87, in Porphyry De Vita Pythagorica 42


(Guthrie, 131), or more recently, in K. S. Guthries Pythagorean Sourcebook, (Grand Rapids: 1987), 159161.

9
DeLatte, Etudes sur la litterature pythagoricienne, Paris 1915, p. 44-79.
10

Thom, The Pythagorean Golden Verses, (New York: 1995), 57-58.

11

Heraclitus DK12 B40 and DK12 B129, Empedocles DK21 B129, Ion of Chios DK36 B4,

Herodotus 4.95.

Pythagoras, and others are ambivalent, a veritable philological storm has arisen in
modern scholarship over their interpretation.
After the testimonia comes the first genuinely Pythagorean author, Philolaus of
Croton in the 4th century B.C. On Nature was likely the first book written by a
Pythagorean.12 Fragments of it survive, on subjects of such central importance as the role
of numbers in human knowledge, in the arrangement of the heavenly bodies of the
cosmos, and in the musical intervals. The fragments of Philolaus have undergone
scrutiny over the years, and their authenticity has been variously affirmed and denied.13
According to Burkert, since the argument against authenticity issued by Frank in the early
20th century, the dominant mood has been uncertainty, though scholarly caution has
somewhat tipped the balance toward the negative.14 However, Carl Huffmans
comprehensive study, Philolaus of Croton, defends the authenticity of much that would
otherwise be discarded, and suggests a revised understanding of the Philolaus fragments
liberated from some of the preconceptions of Aristotles interpretation.15
The next Pythagorean author is Archytas of Tarentum. Although his connection
with the sect is more tenuous than that of Philolaus, and he lived half a century later,
according to Huffman, he fits the popular conception of a Pythagorean better than
anyone in the Pythagorean tradition.16 He was a known mathematician highly involved
and successful in the government of Tarentum and, in some respect, a friend or

12

Huffman, Philolaus Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2012, online.

13

See Burkert (1972), 221, no.17 for list of scholars for and against.

14

Burkert, (1972), 221.

15
16

Huffman, Philolaus of Croton, (Cambridge: 1993)


Huffman, Archytas of Tarentum, (Cambridge: 2005), 44.

acquaintance of Plato. The writings of Archytas are more mathematically intricate than
those of Philolaus, and they provide the most advanced explanation of musical harmony
in the pre-Platonic Pythagorean tradition, with a detailed introduction to the three means
(arithmetic, geometric, and harmonic) which came to occupy a foundational place in
Pythagorean harmonic theory. Recently, scholars have come to see Philolaus, and
especially Archytas, as philosophical figures in their own right, and not as mere sources
for referral in the attempt to reconstruct the thought of Pythagoras. This valuable insight,
in light of the scattering of the Pythagorean sect in the 5th century, makes unrealistic the
assumption that the tradition continued as a perfectly homogenous whole. Instead, it
assumes a different character in the various personalities who give it expression.
This notion is nowhere more obvious than in the most troublesome source for
Pythagoreanism, Plato himself. It has long been known that Plato develops themes
quintessentially Pythagorean, at least according to the traditional perception of
Pythagoreanism. Specifically, the cosmological, mathematical, and harmonic tenants are
woven throughout the Timaeus, and the religious doctrines on the transmigration of souls
are re-fashioned in the Phaedo. But to say that there is nothing in Plato so helpful as a
bibliography of previous scholarship is an understatement: in fact, he mentions the name
Pythagorean only twice in the entire corpus, even when he clearly deals with
Pythagorean material.17 Burkert suggests some reasons for this tendency. Not only does
Plato value arguments for their truth rather than for their source, but he also integrates
foreign material fully into his own structure.18 Indeed, one cannot read Platos writings

17

Republic, 600 b2 and 530 d8, according to Burkert (1972), 84-85.

18

Burkert, (1972), 83.

without understanding that the unity of his thought and the shifting innovation and
creativity of his expression must confuse the traces of borrowed ideas. Walter Burkert in
Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism, through an impressively thorough array of
evidence attempts to separate an historical, religious Pythagoras from the mathematical
and scientific learning and achievements so long associated with him. Instead, he sees in
Plato (and in mathematicians of Platos time) the origins of the more philosophically
rigorous half of a tradition which until that time had been merely ritualistic and mystical.
The final major source for the pre-Platonic Pythagorean tradition consists of
certain passages of Aristotle. Aristotle and his school preserve the only significant postPlatonic view of early Pythagoreanism, a view free from Platonizing elements. This
assessment may not be completely accurate, for there are reasons to suspect that some of
the Aristotelian characterizations of Pythagoreanism are informed by a reaction to
Platonic philosophy. Even so, it is certain that Aristotle, unlike Plato, writes more in the
fashion of one only reporting on a system of thought in order to develop his own system
in contrast and reference to it and has no interest in re-inventing it for himself. Some of
the most relevant passages, particularly on Pythagorean cosmology, are found in the
Metaphysics, the De Caelo, and the Physis.19 Zhmud rejects Aristotle as a reliable source
for early Pythagoreanism because he maintains that there is interference of an antiPlatonic agenda with Aristotles record of Pythagorean beliefs.20
The search for the historical Pythagoras and the character of his original sect
treads upon a shaky foundation. The teachings drift down through the ages in the form of

19
Metaphysics 342b29, 345a13, 987a29 , 989b29, 990a27, 996a4. De Caelo. 284b6, 285a10.b24,
290b12-291a9, 293a19.b1. Physics. 203a3, 204a32, 213b22.
20

Zhmud, Pythagoras and the Early Pythagoreans, (Oxford: 2012), 13.

enigmatic maxims and lines assumed to preserve some fidelity to an original oral
tradition and also through the fragments of Philolaus and Archytas. But lack of evidence
for what came before Philolaus, leaves room to question what relationship existed
between his ideas and those of his predecessors, even if the authenticity of the fragments
is vindicated. Archytas, whatever his association with Pythagoreanism, stands farther
from the source, for there is more reason to think that Archytas is innovating and
developing the specifically mathematical portion of the tradition, if indeed it was part of
the early tradition. The commentary of authors outside of the Pythagorean tradition, from
Heraclitus to Aristotle, must be interpreted through the expressed attitudes and
assumptions of the authors; Platos rich presentation of Pythagorean ideas conceals as
much as it reveals. In light of these uncertainties, scholars have provided arguments both
for and against the traditional Pythagoras, the semi-mystical mathematic genius, but it
would be hardly fitting to proceed without first becoming better acquainted with
Pythagoras legend which now ignites such controversy.
The Traditional Pythagoras
Late sources say most about the life of Pythagoras. Three of the best known
Lives of Pythagoras were written by Diogenes Laertius (3rd century A.D.), Porphyry
(c.235-c.305 A.D.), and his student Iamblichus (c. 245-c.325 A.D.). Those from
Diogenes Laertius and Porphyry were part of larger works on Lives of the Eminent
Philosophers and the History of Philosophy, respectively. But The Pythagorean Life
from Iamblichus was the first volume of an encyclopedic, ten-volume work dedicated
entirely to Pythagorean thought. As the longest and most extravagant in its attributions, it
offers an example of the high regard and loyalty that students of the Pythagorean tradition
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devoted to the Pythagorean ideals in late antiquity and into the middle ages. Pythagoras
was the only Pre-Socratic to retain such fame beyond antiquity, due in large part to the
full synthesis achieved between Neoplatonism and Neo-Pythagoreanism by Neoplatonic
authors, Iamblichus in particular, who considered himself to be both a Platonist and a
Pythagorean.
The Pythagoras of the Neoplatonic Lives is a colorful, almost whimsical
combination of scientist, orator, mystic, musician, friend, vegetarian (perhaps), healer,
and moral teacher. As these sources reveal, he was born (by legend the son of Apollo,
god of reason and music) in Samos in the 6th century B.C. As a young man he studied
with the Ionians Thales and Anaximander, and absorbed the wisdom of the earliest Greek
philosophy. He then traveled to Phoenicia, acquiring Hebraic thought, and went from
Phoenicia to Egypt, where he visited temples, and sought out priests and sages to be
instructed by them in the secrets of their religion.21 He later came to in Babylon
(according to Iamblichus he was taken captive and brought there by soldiers of
Cambyses)22 where he eagerly learned from the Magi. There also, in the account of
Porphyry, he was ritually purified by Zoroaster himself.23 From these lands he gained a
marvelous knowledge of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, as well as
initiation into many mysteries. If that were not enough, upon return to the Greekspeaking world, he dwelt in Crete and Sparta for a time to become familiar with their
laws and visited all the oracles.

21

Iamblichus, De Vita Pythagorica, 3.13-4.19.

22

Iamblichus, De Vita Pythagorica, 4.19.

23

Porphyry De Vita Pythagorica, 12, translated in Guthrie (1987), 125.

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The sources relate that later, because he found the inhabitants of Samos
uninclined to apply themselves to education and because he deemed that the growing
power of the tyrant Polycrates would hamper a free man in his studies, he traveled to
southern Italy, and settled in Croton where he quickly gained popularity through the
wisdom and power of his speeches. Iamblichus relates that he began by addressing a
crowd of young men whom he found in the gymnasium, exhorting them to esteem their
parents and pursue other virtues especially important for young men. When the elders of
the city discovered him, they invited the newcomer to speak to them in their senate.24
Later, they asked him to speak also to their boys and then to their women. Iamblichus
even records the subject matter of these speeches as though they were remembered still in
late antiquity, although it seems more likely that he is using the story of the man
Pythagoras depicted generally as a mouthpiece for Neo-Pythagorean and Neoplatonic
morals. The coming of Pythagoras so affected the community of Croton that many
people, both men and women, began to join the Pythagorean sectso many in fact, that
the government of Croton came decidedly under their influence. Porphyry relates that
whole cities were constructed to hold the number of outsiders who came to hear him.25
The descriptions of the Pythagorean sect and their customs are equally
fascinating. All Pythagoreans lived under a vow of silence regarding their masters
teachings. Not surprisingly, the teachings of Pythagoras have always been something of
a mystery, and even in his lifetime there was a particular ordering within the Pythagorean
community as to which people were allowed to share in his more esoteric revelations and

24

Iamblichus De Vita Pythagorica, 9.45.

25

Porphyry, De Vita Pythagorica, 20, in Guthrie (1987), 127.

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which were not. Entrance among the Pythagoreans was apparently a long process.
According to Iamblichus, Pythagoras would first observe newcomers and judge their
character based on such things as their gait, how and when they laughed, or what caused
them joy and sorrow.26 If accepted by him, aspirants would be neglected for three years
while still being under the masters observation, so that they could prove the stability of
their character. Those who passed this test were required to relinquish their possessions
to be shared in common among the Pythagoreans (as did all members of the sect, it being
a maxim of Pythagoras that friends had all things in common). They were allowed to
listen silently to the teachings of Pythagoras but were not allowed to see him because he
sat behind a veil. After five years they would become esoterics, allowed to speak with
him behind the veil and share in his most hidden doctrines. If anyone failed the test of
the five-year silence, he was returned double the wealth he brought them, but he was
treated as though dead.
Porphyry places the blame for the destruction of the Pythagoreans on Cylon of
Croton.27 This man, by Porphyrys account, thought highly of himself and was greatly
insulted when Pythagoras would not consider him for admittance into the Pythagorean
community. As an act of vengeance, he stirred up a popular rebellion against the
Pythagorean leaders of Croton and burned them in a house where they had gathered
together. All of the Pythagoreans were either killed or scattered, and Pythagoras himself,
according to the tradition, traveled about Southern Italy seeking refuge. However, the
political upheaval had already spread beyond Croton, and riots arose around him

26

Iamblichus, De Vita Pythagorica, 17.71.

27

Porphyry, De Vita Pythagorica, 54-55, in Guthrie (1987), 134.

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wherever he went. He died either from starvation or from grief in the temple of the
Muses in Metapontum.28
The vignettes of strange and miraculous deeds of Pythagoras included in these
sources are characteristic of the status attributed to him as a man above ordinary mortals.
Diogenes Laertius relates a legend in which Pythagoras, in a former life, had been a son
of Hermes, and when his father gave him the promise to grant any wish short of the wish
for immortality, the not-yet Pythagoras asked for a perfect and lasting memory.
Consequently, he could remember all of his former lives, one of them a life as the hero
Euphorbus, spoken of in Homers Iliad. Another famous story in several sources was
that of the Daunian bear. In this tale, Pythagoras possessed, like Orpheus, the ability to
communicate with animals. When a certain savage bear had killed a few local
inhabitants, Pythagoras secured its promise that it would become a vegetarian, and it left
the vicinity and never harmed man or beast again. In another legend, Pythagoras met a
group of fishermen just pulling in their catch and told them the exact number of fish in
their nets. Having agreed to do whatever he commanded if he were correct, they counted
the fish and proved his assertion accurate. Then according to his wish, they threw all the
fish, still living, back into the water. But the most spectacular of all the Pythagorean
legends, perhaps, is the claim that he was seen talking to his disciples in Metapontum in
Italy and in Tauromenium in Sicily, at exactly the same time.29
This oddly attractive picture of Pythagoras (if in some points bizarre) no doubt
was meant to be appreciated by ancient admirers such as Iamblichus. In modern

28

Porphyry, De Vita Pythagorica, 57, in Guthrie (1987), 134.

29

Porphyry, De Vita Pythagorica, 27, in Guthrie (1987), 128.

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scholarship a more modest reconstruction of the life story of Pythagoras agrees that he
was from Samos and was born a contemporary of the beginnings of Philosophy in Ionia.
However, little can be known about his life prior to his arrival in Croton in the latter half
of the sixth century. Guthrie suggests as credible the report that Pythagoras left Samos as
a consequence of the character of its tyrant Polycrates because, whether or not political
reasons for his flight existed, Pythagoras as an ascetic would have begrudged the tyrants
encouragement of luxury and license.30 Ancient and modern historians verify that
Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans had a significant effect on the political life of Southern
Italy, although it is not necessary that Pythagoras rose to popularity with such marvelous
immediacy as the Neoplatonic sources describe. It is known that Croton was badly
defeated by Locri at the river Sagra around the time that Pythagoras would have arrived,
but that later in 510 B.C. Croton defeated and destroyed the wealthy city of Sybaris,
thereby becoming the dominant force in the area for the next half century. Some
historians have credited this dramatic shift in the fortunes of Croton to the moral reforms
and discipline which Pythagoras inspired. Dunbabin confidently asserts the opinion that
the Pythagorean hetaireiai, that is, brotherhoods or political clubs, guided the affairs of
Croton and most of the other southern Italian cities for the first half of the fifth century
and became responsible for Crotons political expansion.31 Even after the revolt named
in ancient histories, the Pythagorean influence remained for about a century and a half in
Southern Italy, so that even in the first half of the fourth century B.C. the mathematician

30

Guthrie, W.K.C., History of Greek Philosophy, vol. 1, (Cambridge: 1962), 174.

31

Dunbabin, The Western Greeks, (Oxford: 1948), 359, 360; Burkert is skeptical, (1972), 116, n.

44.

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Archytas, who could claim some kind of association with Pythagorean ideas, was several
times elected to high positions in the government of Tarentum.
Pythagoras image, passed down through the ages, is double-sided. On the one
hand, he was seen as a brilliant philosopher who endeavored to present the world as a
cosmos founded upon rational, mathematical principles, a great master in the studies of
arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. But he was also remembered as a religious
leader who introduced the doctrine of metempsychosis to the Greek world, a kind of
shaman connected to the old Orphic cults (and possibly to religious beliefs derived from
the East, depending on the interpretation.)
The Dichotomy between Rational and Ritual in Modern Scholarship
This legend of Pythagoras was accepted, for the most part, throughout late
antiquity, the middle ages, and the early modern period. But in the nineteenth century,
scholars expressed doubts over whether the authentic teachings and true character of
Pythagoras could ever be known. In 1865, Eduard Zeller famously noted that the
majority of the records of Pythagoras life and teachings are of questionable authenticity
and that the information they provide becomes both more abundant and more dubious the
later the source.32 Scholars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have continued to
provide in Zellers wake excellent philological examinations of the earliest source
material for Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans. While there is general agreement that
Pythagoras, the religious leader, existed in fact, a controversy continues to brew over the
traditional identification of Pythagoras as mathematician-philosopher.

32

Zeller. Pythagoras und die Pythagoraslegende. Vortrge und Abhandlungen I. (Leipzig:


1865), 30-50; as an example, even the account of Iamblichus is more far-fetched in comparison to that of
Diogenes Laertius, though the time between them is not great.

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A major line in Pythagorean scholarship is drawn between those who argue for a
synthesis between mysticism and mathematics, and those who argue against it. August
Dring, in 1892, argued for a synthesis that was based upon the concept of katharsis.33
Dring suggests that Pythagoras sought the souls purification in ritual but found it most
accessible of all in the contemplation of scientific knowledge. In opposition to this,
scholars such as Erich Frank in the early 20th century emphasized the highly religious and
mystical character of early Pythagoreanism as something at odds with the scientific and
mathematical developments; these, according to Frank, must have been added into the
tradition later by the Southern Italian mathematicians of Platos acquaintance, especially
by Archytas.34 Somewhat later, Cornford posited that the mathematical tradition, though
not original, developed from the mystical tradition earlier than this, in response to
Parmenides criticisms of Pythagoreanim.35 He identifies this mathematical tradition as a
kind of number-atomism, similar to, but not identical to, the atomism of Democritus
and Leucippus, and maintains that it was the target of extant criticisms from Zeno.36
As might be expected, there are two major questions to be contested. First,
scholars seek to determine what form Pythagorean religion or mathematics would have
taken in the 6th and early 5th century. Second, they inquire whether religion and
mathematics in such forms could have possibly cooperated to form a synthetic system of
thought. The issue tends to be contested on two different planes, sometimes

33

Dring, Wandlungen in der pythagorischen Lehre. Archiv fr Geschichte der Philosophie 5


(1892), 503-531.
34

Frank, Plato und die sogenannten Pythagoreer, (Halle: 1923).

35

Cornford Mysticism and Science in the Pythagorean Tradition. In Mourelatos, The PreSocratics, (Princeton: 1993), 135-136.
36

Ibid.

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simultaneously. On the one hand, scholars seek out and interpret written sources as well
as cultural and political context. On the other, scholars face their own preconceptions
(and those of the source-materials) concerning whether or not religion and mathematics
in those presumed forms could form a synthetic system of thought.
One of the most comprehensive, influential works of scholarship on
Pythagoreanism is Walter Burkerts Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism,
published in English in 1972. Because of the breadth of his evidence and the intricacy of
his arguments, anyone who wishes to comment on the history of early Pythagoreanism is
almost obligated to address his claims. Burkerts work demonstrates that the scientific
and mathematical side of Pythagorean tradition is inextricable from the Platonic sources
(both Plato and his acquaintances and followers) that ensured its fame throughout later
ages. It lacks, in his evaluation, the early evidence to stand upon its own, and because of
this, it ought not to be assumed to have preceded Plato and the thinkers of his time.
The major obstacle standing in the way of Burkerts assertion that Pythagoras did
not practice scientific inquiry or consider numbers from a mathematical point of view is
the set of early testimonia from non-Pythagoreans. These fragments, some of the earliest
written evidence for Pythagoras, all comment on his great learning in some fashion,
sometimes in praise, sometimes in derision or ambiguity.The fragments from Heraclitus
are rich with suggestion but also complex and unfavorable:
<>
.
DK12 B40

, ,
.
DK12 B129

17

Clearly, the words , , and must lie at the center of debate. At


its simplest reading, fragment 40 seems to place Pythagoras in company with both
Xenophanes and Hecataeus, thus giving him a place amongst the Ionian thinkers, a
position beneficial for a philosophical figure. Burkert, however, suggests that the
position of the word in the sentence shows that Heraclitus is grouping Pythagoras
with Hesiod rather than with the other two, emphasizing that as a polymath he did not
specialize in the newer science but, like Hesiod, he specialized in the older myths, rituals,
and theogony.37 Burkert acknowledges the connection of with the Milesian
disposition to rational inquiry, but finds it to be overpowered by the words
and, especially because the sound like Orphic writings.
All scholars by no means agree with Burkerts reading of Heraclitus fragments;
some do not accept his effort to minimalize the scientific identity of Pythagoras in these
early sources. Zhmud passes over Burkerts complicated reading, doubting the authority
of Heraclitus because he is known to have had derisive things to say about almost every
other person he named.38 Khan does not concede the weakening of the force of the word
, which was routinely used in reference to the Milesian science, including

geometry, astronomy, geography, and history.39 In addition, Zhmud counters that


refers to prose writings, and thus could not be Orphic poetry, but more likely

37

Burkert, (1972), 209-210.

38

Zhmud, Pythagoras and the Early Pythagoreans, (Oxford: 2012), 32.

39

Khan, Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans, (Indianapolis: 2001), 17.

18

writings from such men as Anaximander and Anaximenes, whose ideas Pythagorean
thought resembles.40 Evidently the interpretation of the testimonia is not soon to be
settled.
While Burkert denies that sufficient evidence supports the mathematical and
scientific tradition in the early days of the sect and affirms the evidence for the early
religious tradition, Zhmud disagrees entirely. In his view, to apply an argumentum ex
silentio to the early mathematical tradition is inconsistent. He cites the presence of
meager, early evidence for the political influence of Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans, but
the political tradition is accepted far more commonly.41 Again, he compares Pythagoras
to Thales, who also left no writings. He notes that the tradition surrounding Thales
attributes to him sayings and actions not historically possible, and the first specific
evidence for his philosophical and geometrical discoveries appears as late as Aristotle.42
Yet, there is generally little doubt that Thales was not in some fashion a man who
pursued mathematical and natural inquiry.
The above examples introduce some of the complexities involved in identifying
and interpreting the early sources for Pythagoreanism and their context. But beneath the
philological quandaries, understanding of mathematics often drives the debate. This
tendency is even explicit in Gomperz, who locates in Pythagoras the full range of
traditional identitiesmathematician, acoustician, astronomer, founder of a religious
sect, scientist, theologian, and moral reformer.43 According to Gomperz, the reason that a

40

Zhmud, Pythagoras and the Early Pythagoreans, (Princeton: 2012), 33.

41

Zhmud, Pythagoras and the Early Pythagoreans, (Princeton: 2012), 27.

42

Zhmud, Pythagoras and the early Pythagoreans, (Princeton: 2012), 26.

43

Gomperz, Greek Thinkers, vol. I. (London: 1955) , 99.

19

pioneer of exact science can at the same time be a prophet of mysticism lies in the
character of the mathematical temperament.44 He relies upon a certain evaluation of
the mathematical which has the power to justify all the strange contradictions of the
legendary Pythagoras. However, there are scholars who rely upon the nature of
mathematics and the mathematical temperament in order to refute the same synthesis.
Burkert is perhaps the most prominent example. A major theme of his work Lore and
Science is that genuine mathematical methods and the natural science which arose from
them are not compatible with what is known of early Pythagoreanism. In the middle
ground, Riedweg maintains that any interpretation too narrowly focused on mathematics
and the natural sciences does not do justice to the Pre-Socratics in general, let alone
Pythagoras, and appears as a result of nineteenth century positivism.45
The Necessity of Abstraction for Mathematical Thought
The issues which Burkert brings to light are highly useful for investigating the
nature of mathematics and its relationship to early Pythagorean teaching. In Burkerts
view, Pythagoras sits on the wrong side of a divide in the development of Greek thought.
In a culture and an age just beginning to engage in scientific inquiry, Pythagoras stands
out as a figure whose primary allegiance is to an older, mythological explanation of the
world.
From the very beginning, his influence was mainly felt in an atmosphere of
miracle, secrecy, and revelation. In that twilight period between old and new,
when Greeks, in a historically unique achievement, were discovering the rational
interpretation of the world and quantitative natural science, Pythagoras represents

44

Gomperz, Greek Thinkers, vol. I. (London: 1955), 108.

45

Riedweg. Pythagoras: His Life, Teaching, and Influence. (Ithaca: 2005), 73.

20

not the origin of the new, but the survival or revival of ancient, pre-scientific lore,
based on super-human authority and expressed in ritual obligation.46
Burkerts criticism of the theory of synthesis between the ritual and the rational
which Dring and others propose relies on his attempt to separate the elements of older
and newer ways of thinking. Specifically, his argument is in response to the one
presented by Burnet in his Early Greek Philosophy. Burnet, like Dring, argues for a
synthesis between the mathematical and the religious Pythagoras which depends upon the
idea of catharsis. In Burnets understanding, Pythagoras could have had a doctrine of
catharsis which would have bridged the gap between Orphic practices of catharsis and the
Platonic conception of it, thus blending old mysticism with new rational, mathematical
thought. Orphic cults, which in Pythagoras day had gained popularity in the Greek
world, taught that man had a godlike soul which longed to be free of its body, and could
begin to experience this ecstasy through the practice of purification (), although
ultimate freedom would not come until the soul escaped from the cycle of
reincarnations.47 Aristoxenus wrote that Pythagoras used to use music to purge the
soul.48 Burnet argues that we can add that to effect purification, Pythagoras promoted not
only music, but also more significantly the study of science, and of mathematics in
particular.49 He turns to the Pythagorean technique of arranging numbers of pebbles into
shapes, as an example of an early Pythagorean interest in arithmetic. This practice
appears to be an early innovation, because the veneration of the tetractys was central to

46

Burkert, (1972), Preface to the German Edition.

47

Add citation: Kirk and Raven?

48

Aristoxenus, Fr. 26.

49

Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, (London: 1958), 98.

21

Pythagorean thinking and accredited to Pythagoras himself.50 If Pythagoras taught that


scientific investigation was to be pursued for the sake of the purification of the soul, then
this doctrine would link the religious teachings with the philosophical teachings, making
it possible for them to be united in one man.
Burkert rejects this proposal by positing that the theory of catharsis cannot remain
intact if it is removed from the conceptual background which belonged to Plato but not to
the early Pythagoreans. Burkert from Platos writings identifies passages that suggest a
theory of catharsis. In the Phaedo, catharsis is achieved by philosophy, whose goal is
deaththe separation of soul and body that enables the full realization of truth.51 And
again in the Republic, the studies of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy lead the
soul from the world of appearances to the true forms.52 Burkerts main point of
contention is that the forms or ideas are absent from the Pythagorean mindset. He cites a
passage from Aristotle as evidence that the Pythagoreans thought of numbers in a way
inseparable from the physical world,53 unlike Plato for whom the forms were incorporeal
objects of knowledge. Because of this, there could not have been a Pythagorean
understanding in which the goal of life, death, and metempsychosis was escape from the
physical world. For Burkert, this constitutes sufficient cause to believe that the catharsis
of the early Pythagoreans was not based on music and mathematical study, but on music

50

A triangle made of rows of one, two, three, and four pebbles, adding to ten, the perfect number
for Pythagoreans. The tetractys was said to have contained the nature of number.
51

Plato, Phaedrus 64a-67d.

52

Plato, Republic 521c-522d.

53

Met. 989b29; Aristotle notes that the Pythagoreans did not take a physical substance as their
fundamental element, yet all of their investigations are concerned solely with the physical world.

22

and religious ritual, closely related to the Orphic practices.54 He speculates that Plato
could have borrowed the lifestyle of catharsis from the Pythagoreans along with its
connection to music, but reinvented it with a scientific focus and a mathematical
understanding of music.55 Burkerts analysis reveals the one key characteristic which he
holds to be necessary to true mathematical thought: abstraction. Without a conception of
numbers abstracted from things, he argues, the Pythagoreans could not have risen to a
level of scientific inquiry as we know it. Khan also identifies this abstraction of numbers
as a fundamental question in the study of early Pythagoreanism.56
Thus, the Pythagorean question is concerned with more than merely a lack of
adequate, early source material; it is complicated by various interpretations of the
relationship between a more ancient mythological understanding of the world and the
newer, more scientific revolution of thought which the pre-Socratic philosophers began.
Much depends upon whether the interpreter considers these two modes of thought to be
incompatible, or if he endeavors to find some fundamental commonality by which the
latter evolved from the former. As has been seen, Burkert (and other scholars who take a
similar position) views the mythological and the scientific as basically opposed to one
another. On the other side, Dring and Burnet work to find a common strand (the
practice of catharsis) to unite the two in the person of Pythagoras. Burkerts criticism of
this focuses on the Pythagorean perception of number: he argues that if the Pythagoreans
did not have a conception of number as something incorporeal, they could not have

54
55

Burkert, (1972), 212-213.


Ibid.

56

Khan, Pythagorean Philosophy before Plato, In Mourelatos, The Pre-Socratics, 163; Aristotle
records the Pythagorean perception of number in different ways, saying both that things are number and
that things resemble number. There seems to be a possible difference between a sensible and a nonsensible concept of number.

23

believed in purification through contemplation of scientific knowledge. This idea


illustrates that one of the most fundamental questions in Pythagorean scholarship (if not
the most fundamental) is the question of in what way the early Pythagoreans perceived
and encountered number.

24

CHAPTER TWO
Pythagorean Mathematics and the Greek Mathematical Traditions
Pythagorean understanding, without question, was generated or in some way
fashioned by an attention to number. This idea is apparent in the symbol which states
that the wisest thing is number,1 as well as in a fragment of Philolaus which reads, and
all things, indeed, that are known have number: for it is not possible for anything to be
thought or known without this.2 Aristotle, as well, attests to it in his Metaphysics:
the people called Pythagoreans took up mathematics, and were the first to advance
this science; and having been reared on it, they thought that its principles were the
principles of all things. Since of these it is the numbers that are by nature first, and in the
numbers they thought that they saw many likenesses to the things that are and that come
into being, more so than in fire and earth and water3
Metaphysics 985b23 (DK58 B4)
These are only a few examples of many. Whatever Pythagoras taught, it must have found
its meaning or its language of expression in number.
Thus, it is not the importance of number in early Pythagorean teaching which
scholars question but the way that number was encountered, and whether that way really
matches what a later system of thought would define as mathematical,or only
mystical, mythological, or poetic. And even if the assumption is accepted which is
present in Aristotles summary, that Pythagorean ideas begin with a study of
mathematics, it still remains to be determined what sort of mathematics were studied, for
not all mathematics in ancient Greece conformed to a single method. Unavoidably it is

Iamblichus De Vita Pythagorica, 18.82.

DK 44 B4. Translation in Barker, Greek Musical Writings, vol. II, (Cambridge: 1990), 36.

Translation in Barker Greek Musical Writings, vol. II, (Cambridge: 1990), 32.

25

necessary to determine something of the character of the Pythagorean understanding of


numbers before attempting to distinguish between the perceived incompatibility of the
scientific and religious strains of thought attributed to them, for the manner or method by
which they thought about numbers would surely influence their thinking in other areas.
Figured Numbers the Earliest Pythagorean Conception of Number
The earliest testimony that sheds light on how Pythagoreans regarded numbers on
the most basic level occurs in references to the method of one Pythagorean named
Eurytus. This testimony is given both by Theophrastus and by Aristotle on the authority
of Archytas, who reportedly had first-hand knowledge of the somewhat older man
Eurytus. Like Archytas, Eurytus was from Tarentum, a Pythagorean most likely closer
than Archytas to the original strain of the sect. He was also regarded as a pupil of
Philolaus.4 Theophrastus writes that Eurytus had the method of arranging particular
quantities of pebbles in order to show the numbers which were associated with certain
things, in this case, a man and a horse.
For this is the [approach] of an accomplished and sensible man, that very thing
which Archytas once said that Eurytus did, in his various diatheseis of psephoi;
for he said that this number turned out to be of man, that of horse, that of some
other thing.5
Theophrastus, Metaphysics 6a19-22
Similarly, Aristotle refers to the same thing in his writings:
as Eurytus assigned a certain number to a certain thing, e.g., this [number] to
man, that [number] to horse (just as is done, making numbers into the figures
triangle and square), making the forms of living beings analogous, in this way, to
psephoi.6

Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, (London: 1958), 99-100.

Translation in Netz, The Problem of Pythagorean Mathematics, in Huffman, A History of


Pythagoreansm,, 173.
6

Translation in Netz, The Problem of Pythagorean Mathematics, in Huffman (2014), 174.

26

Metaphysics 1092b9-13
What exactly Eurytus was doing in laying out his pebbles remains unclear.
Theophrastus refers to him with some respect; the evaluation of Aristotle is more
questionable. Netz gives an interpretation of Aristotles treatment of Eurytus method in
which Aristotle, though discounting it as a scientific procedure, is not wholly in
disagreement with some of its fundamental assumptions.7 It is at least known that
patterned numbers are not an uncommon way of manipulating numbers in ancient
cultures.8 Simpler arrangementssuch as triangular numbers, square numbers, and other
classificationswere likely customary, perhaps as a form of calculation in business
transactions or other practical matters (one might think of the art of calculating using an
abacus, keeping in mind that the original meaning of calculus was pebble). Aristotle
at any rate alludes to the practice as a known phenomenon (just as is done, making
numbers into the figures triangle and square). Heidel expresses certainty that square and
oblong numbers were almost as old in the time of Pythagoras as they are in the present
day.9 The preeminent example of a figured number is the tetraktys, the triangular
arrangement formed when one, two, three, and four pebbles are set out in parallel rows.
This figure was believed to express the nature of number and was highly revered in
Pythagorean circles. The triangular figure may be extended by the addition of subsequent
rows of quantities. Thus, triangular numbers are the sums of consecutive whole numbers,
that is {3, 6, 10, 15, 21,}.

Netz, The Problem of Pythagorean Mathematics, in Huffman, (2014), 173-77.

Netz, The Problem of Pythagorean Mathematics, in Huffman (2014), 176.

Heidel, W.A. The Pythagoreans and Greek Mathematics. Studies in Pre-Socratic Philosophy.
Vol. I, (New York: 1970), 352.

27

Other shapes were formed as well. Square numbers are the sums of consecutive odd
numbers, for instance {4, 9, 16, 25, 36}. Three pebbles added to one pebble forms the
shape of a square, while five added to the first four conveniently does the same, and so on
for the rest of the odd numbers.

In a similar way, oblong or rectangular numbers are the sums of consecutive even
numbers, such as {2, 6, 12, 20, 30,}. Four pebbles added to two makes six; six added
to six make twelve; and so for the rest.

Triangular, square and oblong numbers are only the most basic of the patterned
or figured numbers, as they are called. In the Introduction to Arithmetic, of
Nicomachus, there are also found pentagonal numbers, hexagonal numbers, and more.
28

One can only wonder what a man-number, or a horse-number might have been under
the hands of Eurytus.
So far as can be told, the arrangement of these simple figured numbers would
have been Pythagorean mathematics in its earliest form, and this is not hard to believe
if figured numbers really were a common occurrence outside the Pythagorean community
at that time.10 It is further substantiated by tradition surrounding the tetraktys, a figure
wrapped in the ritualistic and religious attitude which is widely considered to be the most
certain element of original Pythagoreanism. And in later generations, Pythagoreans
continued to use this as the primary mode of working with numbers, undeterred by newer
mathematical innovations. At least it is certain that later avowedly Pythagorean or NeoPythagorean authors, such as Nicomachus of Gerasa in the 2nd century A.D., continued to
base their arithmetic in some key part on these figures, in contrast to the mainstream
axiomatic-deductive tradition of Greek mathematics exemplified in much of Euclid and
Archimedes. It can safely be asserted that the Pythagoreans from the beginning
conceived of numbers as clusters of pebbles rather than in alphabetical notation or in the
later Euclidean line representations of Greek geometry. Netz calls attention to this:
[Counters, for the Greeks] were the medium of numerical manipulation par
excellence, in exactly the same way in which, for us, Arabic numerals are the
numerical medium par excellence. We imagine numbers as an entity seen on the
page; the Greeks imagined them as an entity grasped between the thumb and the
finger.11
This being the case, it will be profitable to speculate on what effect the figured numbers
would have had on the early Pythagorean perception of number.

10
As Netz hints that they were. Netz, The Problem of Pythagorean Mathematics, in Huffman
(2014), 176.
11

Netz, Counter Culture: Towards a History of Greek Numeracy, History of Science, 40 (2002),

341.

29

The arrangement of figured numbers is a practice in natural concordance with the


way the human mind recognizes different numbers through counting. We know that the
Pythagoreans did not consider one to be a number. One, because it is by definition
indivisible, cannot be measured by any other number. Instead, it is the principlethe
beginning and sourceof all numbers and the standard by which all numbers are
measured or counted out, just as any shape arranged out of pebbles is composed of the
individual pebbles. The concept of unity is what makes counting possible. However, one
cannot rely on unity alone. When Filon describes the development of calculation in
cultures generally, he notes that the number of objects which can be immediately
perceived by the human eye is usually low, four or five; all numbers above this are
ascertained through counting. But larger numbers can hardly be counted by the unit
alone. It is difficult for the human mind to measure greater numbers, such as one
hundred, with the unit. In practice, therefore, counting necessarily takes the form of
counting in groups, and then counting the number of groups; then forming groups of
groups, and so on.12 Here lies the reason for the establishment of counting systems in
base five, base ten, or whatever the case may be. And why should it not also lead to the
figured numbers of the Pythagoreans?
Represented here are the numbers 2, 6, and 12:

12

Filon, The Beginnings of Arithmetic, The Mathematical Gazette, vol. 12, no. 177, (1925),

403.

30

Two is easily recognizable. But six is probably identified as two lines of three; thus it is
literally measured by the numbers 2 and 3. Twelve likewise is seen as three lines of
four; it is measured by 3 and 4. It is imaginable that with larger shapes or composite
shapes the same observation holds: the number is recognized through the parts which
make it up. And though it is possible that the more complex figured numbers were not
discovered until later, because these are only juxtapositions of triangles and squares, it is
not difficult to imagine that Pythagoreans might have arranged them also as objects of
contemplation, this being an activity that most children could engage in. It is also not
difficult to imagine that they would still consider the simpler figures to be the most
important, and be known for their allegiance to them, because they are the principles of
all the others. In this way, for instance, a heptahedron might be formed.

From all this it ought to be clear that the heart of Pythagorean number practices is
the recognition of a number through measurement and classification. This measurement
is not the geometrical measurement of segments and planes, but an ability to identify one
number by its relationship with other numbers, by means of recognizing the numbers
which add and multiply together to compose it. The classification of numbers is not
based only on their shapes, but also on the smaller numbers by which the shape of the
larger number is measured, because the two are inseparable. For example, the numbers
classified as square must also be classified as composed by addition of consecutive odd
31

numbers (1, 1+3, 1+3+5, etc.), and by multiplication of consecutive whole numbers (11,
22, 33, etc.). Now, there is no need to suppose that the Pythagoreans themselves
would have articulated it in this way, or would have set their observations down into
formulas and definitions. Likely they did not, and the recognition of numbers through
measurement and classification was mostly intuitive. Still, measurement and
classification are the thought processes, as it were, which would naturally derive from the
representations of figured numbers.
Once it is accepted that figured numbers are the key to Pythagorean involvement
with numbers, it becomes necessary to determine how far they were applied and with
what results. The controversy begins with this question: how mathematical was the
method and understanding of the early Pythagoreans? This question begs another: how
do scholars decide beforehand what qualifies and does not qualify as mathematical?
Determining an answer requires that there be some kind of exemplar of mathematical
practice.
This reliance on an exemplary mathematics outside of the early Pythagorean
tradition is especially apparent in Burkerts evaluation. Burkerts aim is to disprove the
tradition that Pythagoras was the founder of mathematics in Greece. He begins by
attacking an argument by Becker that some of the Euclidean propositions (9.29-34) on
properties of the even and the odd are Pythagorean in origin because, among other
reasons, they can be derived from a reconstruction using pebble numbers.13 These
propositions are seemingly out of place and isolated in Euclid; they are used only in the
proposition on perfect numbers (9.36) and in the proof of irrationality, two subjects
strongly associated with Pythagorean tradition. Burkert does not object to the notion that

13

Referenced in Burkert, (1972), 434.

32

Pythagoreans had some kind of awareness of the relationships between the even and the
odd, because they could see such things in their figured numbers (for instance, they could
see that one pebble added to an even number produces an odd number). However, he
does object to the notion that this observation proves the existence of an early
Pythagorean deductive mathematics, perhaps the ancestor of the fully developed
propositions and proofs in Euclids Elements.14
Burkert clearly distinguishes between Pythagorean number theory and the highly
geometrical mathematical tradition represented in Euclids Elements because he seems to
be interested in maintaining a certain conception of the nature of mathematics, and
mathematics as it existed in the larger part of Greek culture specifically. He correctly
recognizes that the paradigmatic form of Greek mathematics, as a deductive system
based on axioms, is geometry.15 In contrast to this, he notes that the Pythagorean
practice of figured numbers is pictorial and inductive. Every figured number may be
probatory into some mathematical concept, but each is taken as evident on its own.
There is no need for a systematic structure, with every proposition or proof based on
other propositions, the defining characteristic of Greek geometry.16 On these grounds
Burkert does not completely reject the Pythagorean figured numbers as a mathematical
exercise, but he comes close: he concedes that even a game may be regarded
legitimately as a kind of mathematics and the axiomatic-deductive form is not the only

14

Burkert, (1972), 434-35.

15

Burkert, (1972), 427.

16

Burkert, (1972), 435.

33

one possible.17 But he does maintain that, compared to Greek geometry, Pythagorean
arithmetic is an intrusive, quasi-primitive element.18
In the final consideration, Burkerts version of the early Pythagoreans is that of a
sect based on the mystical and ritualistic doctrines of some kind of shaman, with almost
no influence on the scientific developments of the Greek world around them. Perhaps
this is the natural conclusion if the later advances in Greek geometry are taken as the
standard for measuring the mathematical worth of the early Pythagorean contribution.
But this may not be the only way, or the best way, to evaluate it. To begin with, more
might be said on the nature of Greek mathematics, for the mainstream tradition of Greek
geometry was not the only one.
Greek Arithmetic and Geometry
Netz, in an attempt to determine the place of the early Pythagorean interest in
number within the larger story of the development of Greek mathematics, notices a
division in the mathematical tradition. He divides the major mathematicians into two
networks, based on a difference in their emphases and the methods of their inquiry.19
The first network he identifies flourished in the first half of the fourth century. The
names of its contributors are found in Proclus summary of Greek mathematics before
Euclid, written as the first part of his introduction to the Euclidean Elements20. Netz calls
attention to the names Theodorus, Theaetetus his student, Archytas, Eudoxus,

17

Burkert, (1972), 423.

18

Ibid.

19

Netz, The Problem of Pythagorean Mathematics, in Huffman, (2014), 167-171.

20

Proclus, On Euclid, 64.16-70.18; the introduction which he writes is believed to be a summary


of another text written by Eudoxus.

34

Menaechmus his student, Dinostratus, Menaechmus brother, and Philippus, and


Leodamus. All these men are attested to have had connections with Plato. Netz
significantly points out that they pursued a whole set of mathematical topics relegated to
the background in subsequent generations, namely, means, ratios, proportions, irrationals,
and harmonies. In general, the one most characteristic pursuit of these mathematicians
was the classification of numbers, ratios, and proportions without reliance on complex
geometrical diagrams. These topics find expression in Books VII-IX of Euclid, and in
parts of Books V and X.
The remaining books of the Elements, roughly the first half, contain a form of
geometry which coincides more neatly with the second network of mathematicians whom
Netz categorizes, those associated with the correspondence and writings of Archimedes
and the works of the generation following him. This group is characteristically provided
inspired solutions to the problems of finding the measurements of geometrical shapes and
established tight, deductive reasoning based on axioms. In short, the primarily geometric
accomplishments for which Greek mathematics are especially remembered derive from
the second network. The division between the two is not perfect, as Netz admits. He
refers to the methods attributed to Eudoxus (a mathematician of the first network) for
the measurement of the volumes of pyramids, cylinders, and cones in Book XII of the
Elements. This work clearly shows mathematics associated with the later methods and
discoveries. But instances such as these are exceptional. Generally, Netzs distinction
holds true. Thus, two schools of thought in mathematics become apparent, one which
puts arithmetic first, and one which puts geometry first. Euclids Elements, by its very

35

arrangement of the geometrical books in the first half of the work, seems to fall into the
second category.
This evidence clearly shows that the story of Greek mathematics need not be so
one-sided as Burkert would have it. A reconsideration of the value of early Pythagorean
understanding of number, against the backdrop of a more varied conception of
mathematics, is appropriate. A brief review of some elementary concepts of the
arithmetic tradition will facilitate this. Unfortunately, because the writings of Archytas
are so fragmentary, relevant information proves more productive if sought from a later
author, in the Introduction to Arithmetic of Nicomachus of Gerasa. Although
Nicomachus is an author later than would be wished, he seems to be a compiler more
than an innovator in his work. Also, because his most complicated subjects in the
Introduction are the three means (arithmetic, geometric, and harmonic) described in the
second fragment of Archytas, it is reasonable to assume that the simpler and more
elementary discussions would not have been beyond Archytas and the arithmeticians of
his time either.
Nicomachus work first teaches the relationship between odd and even numbers.
This relationship between odd and even numbers is one of the most important aspects of
Pythagorean number-theoretical tradition. Nicomachus introduces this idea in the
following way: the most fundamental species in [number] are twoodd and even, and
they are reciprocally woven into harmony with each other, inseparably and uniformly.21
This means that the entirety of the class of all numbers is composed only of even
numbers and odd numbers, but when he speaks of them being woven together he is
referring to much more than the fact that even and odd numbers alternate down the

21

Nicomachus, Introduction to Arithmetic, VI, translated by Dooge, (London: 1926), 190.

36

number line. He then spends many pages exploring this harmony which arises from the
two opposite elements of number, but in order to begin to glimpse it, we must subdivide
both the even and the odd numbers into classes, as he does.
The even numbers are divided into what he calls the even-times-even, the oddtimes-even, and the even-times-odd numbers. A number is called even-times-even if it
can be divided in two, its two parts can be divided in two, and so on consecutively until
the quotient is one and can be divided no further. In other words, the even-times-even
numbers are those which are multiples of two and of two only, {2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64,}.
When broken down into their constituent factors, there are no odd numbers whatsoever.
In fact, when fully broken down there are no factors other than the number 2. Thus, the
even-times-even numbers are the most purely even. The even-times-odd numbers, in
contrast, are those even numbers which can be divided into two, but whose two halves
cannot be divided in two. For example, the numbers {6, 10, 14, 18, 22,} contain
factors which are odd (3, 5, 7, 9, and 11 respectively); thus, the numbers, though even,
are not purely even in the same sense as are the even-times-even numbers. All of the
even-times-odd numbers can be produced by multiplying each of the odd numbers
(excepting 1) by 2. Finally, the odd-times-even numbers are those even numbers which
can be divided in half, and whose halves can be divided in half; but though the division
by two may continue beyond this, it cannot reach 1 because eventually the division will
produce an odd number. For example, the number 24 can be divided in half, yielding 12;
in turn so can 12, yielding 6; but 6, divided in half, yields 3. At this point the number
cannot be divided any further by 2. Thus, the odd-times-even numbers are closer to the
even-times-even, but are still not purely even in their composition.

37

The odd numbers are also split into sub-categories. The first contains the prime
numbers, those odd numbers that cannot be divided by any other number besides 1.
These are well-known: {1,3,5, 7, 11, 13,}. Composite numbers are those odd numbers
which can be divided by other factors besides one and so are not prime, for instance 9
(divisible by 3 and 1), 15 (by 5, 3, and 1), and 21 (by 7, 3, and 1). In addition,
Nicomachus takes note that some composite numbers are prime in comparison to other
numbers even though they are not prime absolutely. For example, 9 and 25 are both
composite, the one being divisible by 3 and 1 and the other being divisible by 5 and 1;
but they share no divisor in common besides 1 and because of this are considered prime
in relation to each other.
The classification of the even and the odd numbers is based upon origin and
measurement. One is the origin of all other numbers and measures all other numbers.
Two is the origin of the even. It is very helpful to use Nicomachus own metaphor at this
point and to imagine the whole infinite progression of numbersthe number lineas
being composed of different strands or strings woven together. Different numbers belong
to different strands based upon what they are measured by. One is the source of all these
strands because it measures all numbers. But every number in the number line is in a
sense a source of a new strand because it measures its own strand of multiples (thus 3
measuresor divides6, 9, 12, 15, etc.). Of these, some numbers are more or less
original. Thus 15, is not so original a source as 3; and 3 is not so original as 1. Fifteen
measures its own multiples {30, 45, 60, 75,} but is itself measured by 5, and 3; so all
of its multiples are also measured by 5 and 3. In turn, 15, 5, and 3 and all of their
multiples are measured by 1. The only numbers, after 1, which act as primary origins of

38

their multiples are 2 and the prime numbers.22 This is obvious because these numbers
can each be measured only by 1 and themselves, and so their multiples cannot be
measured by any more original source.
From 2 and the prime numbers the harmony between even and odd is most clearly
seen. Two for the Pythagoreans was classed among the prime numbers but was given its
own, special status as the source of the even. By even is meant not merely every even
number, but the characteristic of the Even, i.e. the ability to be divided (and measured) by
two. No prime number has this characteristic symmetry which divides into equal halves.
Some numbers, as has been related already, possess this even-ness purely, and are
completely derived from 2 and only 2. These are those numbers which increase
exponentially from two: {4, 8, 16, 32,}. Other even numbers are a mix or an
intertwining between the Even and the Odd, such as the odd-times-even and even-timesodd which were already classified. These numbers are measured both by 2 and by certain
prime numbers (for instance, 30 as a multiple of 2, 3, and 5).
This explains why Nicomachus calls the relationship between the even and the
odd the harmony between the Unlimited and the Limiters. Unlimited carries the
connotation of unshaped, unformed, and undefined rather than unending; a thing which is
not given limits is not demarcated by measurements by which it may be known or
recognized. In this sense, the Even (think of the exponential multiples of 2: {4, 8, 16,
32,}) is Unlimited because it can be measured only by 2. Every prime number, by
contrast, adds a new standard of measurement into the number line, a standard that did
not exist before it, and with that a whole string of multiples can be reduced to that prime

22

2 was not considered a prime number among the Pythagoreans, but the source of all the even

numbers.

39

and to no other. This makes them Limiters. And when the Unlimited and the Limiters
are multiplied together the result is the odd-times-even and even-times-odd numbers (the
even numbers that contain odd numbers in their composition), and the harmony of the
even and the odd is complete.
The arithmetical vision articulated in part above is so different from the rigid
method of the geometric tradition that the very way in which they are communicated
through language is vastly dissimilar. A typical Euclidean proof is so neatly constructed
that there is almost only one way to articulate it in language. This occurs because it is an
exercise in verbal logic as much as it is an experiment in physical measurement. That the
axiomatic element is so necessary, as Burkert notices, must mean that the words
themselves are inseparable from the method of the mathematics. With Nicomachean
arithmetic, however, it is quite to the contrary. The very way it is written suggests that
there is a different relationship between the numbers and the words which attempt to
explain them. Nicomachus often describes in two or three different ways the properties
which identify a class of numbers, for these will stay the same no matter how they are
decorated with words or sentences. The arithmetic could be demonstrated without words
because it deals only with the relationships between numbers, relationships which are in
themselves self-evident; but the geometry would be difficult to convey without words
that brought to mind the generalizations of equality and inequality, or without the
syntax that communicates the logical conditional, to name a few. Because the arithmetic
is self-evident without the help of words, the language that Nicomachus uses is not
essential to the subject it is communicating and acquires a different role. It becomes

40

descriptive instead of axiomatic, and most fully summarizes the reality of the numbers
when it uses symbolic descriptors, like woven and harmony.
There are other differences. The Euclidean geometry is abstract while the
Nicomachean arithmetic is more concrete. The propositions and proofs of the geometry
rely upon generalizations such as equal, unequal, greater than, less than
abstracted from the relationships between numbers, while the classifications of the
arithmetic rely upon examples of specific numbers and their relationships recognized by
the mind. In addition, the Euclidean geometry is systematic. This means that each step
in the progression of a single proof and from one proof to the next and one section to
the nextdepends upon an understanding of formerly demonstrated propositions. Each
part of the argument is not immediately intuitive on its own. It is otherwise in the
arithmetic. Its approach to understanding those numbers is less systematic and more
exploratory. The order in which Nicomachus expounds the different classes of numbers,
ratios, and proportions is fitting in the way that it moves from the simpler to the more
complex, but it is not necessary for understanding. There is more freedom in his field to
begin at any point. Finally, the geometry is comprehensive. Everything which is
relevant to the problem is noted and contained on the page: the diagram, the laws which
order relationships of equality and inequality, and the former proofs which may be
referred to at need. It relies heavily on written statements, because of the need to keep in
mind the relation of each step to the one before it. The arithmetic is less comprehensive
in approach. It is does not require the particulars of every discovery to be held in mind,
or on paper. Instead it requires an intuition of the whole but a clear comprehension only
of the number under immediate consideration.

41

Arithmetic through a Musical Method and Metaphor


Now, the Greek arithmetic tradition just contrasted with the geometric tradition
has been called Pythagorean; however, not all scholars agree on the connection between
this intricate and elegant system found in late Pythagorean and Neo-Pythagorean sources
and what would have been the number theory of primitive Pythagoreanism and its
founder. Because of the lack of evidence to indicate what exactly was the nature of
Pythagoras interest in number, there is no way to prove conclusively a line of descent in
the arithmetical ideas from the founder to Archytas, Plato, and the network of
mathematicians in their time who gave the preeminence to arithmetic above geometry.
But this does not mean that the tradition should be wholly or easily discounted. For
Burnet, it is sufficient that the figured numbers persisted in the works of late authors. He
sees these as anachronistic, having been made obsolete by the development of
alphabetical notation and the linear representations of geometry, and proposes that it
would not have been likely to survive into later generations had it not been propelled by
the remarkable authority of some famous namethat of Pythagoras.23
Netz also assigns Pythagorean roots to the arithmetical tradition, albeit by way of
a different argument. He reasons that because Archytas was likely the oldest of the
mathematicians in the circle around Plato, as well as the most influential in the sociopolitical realm, it is not unlikely that he could have been the paradigmatic individual for
this earlier form of mathematics.24 If this be true, he suggests, the roots of the tradition
strike near the heart of Pythagoreanism. For even if there is no evidence that Archytas

23

Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, (London: 1958), 99-102.

24

Netz, in Huffman (2014), 170-171.

42

was a true Pythagorean in terms of the earliest tradition, this is largely speculative
because it is often impossible to determine what makes an authentic Pythagorean.
Individuals remembered as Pythagoreans come in many types, and in the time of
Archytas the ties that bound the original society together would have been breaking apart
due to persecution, migration, and the passage of time. In the view of Netz, the
connection of Archytas to Pythagoreanism, whatever it was, was substantial enough to
bind the arithmetical tradition of Platos time to Pythagoras, the founder of the sect.25
In addition to these historical considerations, it seems reasonable at least to take
note of the inherent similarity between the early Pythagorean fascination with number
and the later tradition of arithmetic. Burkert admits that even a game may be regarded
legitimately as a kind of mathematics,26 and he seems to hint at the same time that the
figured numbers of the Pythagoreans fall into this category of mathematical activity. In
this evaluation, he is most likely correct. But more than anything, this concept
strengthens the connection between the early number theory and the later arithmetical
developments. The exploratory and incomprehensive nature of the arithmetic is precisely
the kind of attitude toward mathematics that would be expected to grow out of a nonsystematic, non-rigorous love for number, an approach that accepted number, sometimes
in odd ways, as central to moral, religious, artistic, and communal life. The arithmetical
tradition may have arisen as something so different from the more common geometrical
tradition because of roots in such Pythagorean play. Specifically, the non-verbal and
intuitive nature of the arithmetic would be in accord with an appreciation of number
understood through musical activity, as would the almost poetic descriptions of it. It may

25

Netz, in Huffman, (2014), 170-71.

26

Burkert, (1972), 423.

43

not be coincidental that the one thing which Burkert allows to be an unequivocally
Pythagorean element is the arithmetization of music theory and, to a degree, the elevation
of number theory (arithmetic) to an independent branch alongside geometry.27 It is
only reasonable that the arithmetization of music theory is what did elevate arithmetic to
the level of geometry, if the Pythagorean interest in music is a fundamental an element to
the teachings of the sect as it is remembered.

27

Burkert, (1972), 422.

44

CHAPTER THREE
Music, the Harmony between Ritual and Rational
Because the presence of the musical element is one of the least contested in early
Pythagoreanism, it seems remarkable that its influence upon the rest of Pythagorean
thought, from the religious to the philosophical, is not more widely investigated. The
fascination with the ratios of the musical harmonia has generally been accepted as part of
early Pythagorean life. Possibly at least the discovery of these ratios had a far more
dramatic effect upon Pythagorean thought than is usually surmised. For it is not at all
unlikely that the ratios of the musical intervals were the first thing that the Pythagoreans
would have learned to measure, both because of the centrality of music in their way of
life and because the exercise itself is simplesimpler than the arithmetical observations
of later authors and more immediate than the cosmological speculation. If the practice of
measuring the ratios of musical intervals was a kind of exemplar or paradigm of
Pythagorean inquiry, then naturally it would shape their pursuit of understanding
generally and in other areas.
The effect that the Pythagorean preoccupation with music may have had on the
tradition as a whole is implicit in Aristotles words summarizing the Pythagorean
philosophy, is latent in the character of the Pythagorean engagement with music, and is
finally manifest in the language of Pythagorean cosmology. First, this chapter will posit
that Aristotles summary is structured as though by the assumption that the measurement
of musical ratios was the catalyst for the Pythagorean efforts in natural philosophy.
Second, in order to see the significance of this claim, it will examine the historical
45

Pythagorean involvement with music as a double-sided experience, both scientific and


religious. Finally, it will argue that because the discovery of the ratios of musical
intervals was the catalyst for their philosophical development and because their
experience of music was already twofold, the Pythagoreans learned to express their
cosmological system in two different modes, one philosophical and one mythological.
Evidence from Aristotle for the Primacy of Music
That the mention of the musical ratios in the passage from Aristotles Metaphysics
(cited in the last chapter) appears prominently in his summary and introduces the
technical account of Pythagorean philosophy may communicate the vital role that
musical ratios played in Pythagorean thought. It is customary to assume that Aristotles
words indicate that the one seminal item in the Pythagorean tradition was mathematics.
But closer observation of the passage hints that Pythagorean mathematics was not
sufficient to generate the full Pythagorean philosophy, and that the knowledge of number
in music specifically, rather than through mathematical practices or methods, takes the
central role.
Aristotle relates,
and through studying [mathematics] they came to believe that its principles are
the principles of everything. And since numbers are by nature first among these
principles, and they fancied that they could detect in numbers, to a greater extent
than in fire and earth and water, many analogues of what is and comes into
being.1
In the reference to fire, earth, and water, Aristotle sets the Pythagoreans apart from the
Ionian philosophers who sought the principle of all things in one specific physical
element. Instead the Pythagoreans sought it in number; however, according to Aristotle,

985b23-29 translated by Hugh Tredennick, (Cambridge MA, 1980), 33.

46

these numbers were not immaterial but were inseparable from the thing through which
they were known, both as the material of things and as constituting their properties and
states.2 The figured numbers are the archetypal illustration of this claim because each
number is not represented merely by its figure but is equated to the actual physical
pebbles patterned in a physical space.
But notice what occurs when the Pythagoreans in Aristotles account attempt to
find numbers in other things. This follows immediately in the account: such and such a
property of number being justice, and such and such being soul or mind, another
opportunity, and similarly, more or less, with all the rest.3 It is unclear what exactly this
modification of numbers was, and Aristotle himself mentions it with some vagueness.
Perhaps it could have been a modification of the arrangement of pebbles, similar to what
Eurytus did in placing out the patterned number for horse or man. Whatever the
case, the things equated to numbers are not physically measurable entities but realities of
human personhood, experience, or morality. A direct relationship to number in these
things is hard to imagine without some symbolic overtones. This treatment of numbers
scholars would sooner name number mysticism than number theory and would expect to
find in the realm of ritual, the acusmata, and the so-called Golden Verses.
However, this is only one side of the Aristotelian summary. He continues, they
saw further that the properties and ratios of the musical scales are based on numbers.4
Musical scales and ratios, given here as a complete category of inquiry, must surely have

986a15 check. Translated by Hugh Tredennick, (Cambridge MA, 1980), 35.

985b29-30, translated by Hugh Tredennick, (1980), 33.

985b30, translated by Hugh Tredennick, (1980), 33.

47

been an important focus in Pythagorean study. But perhaps more interesting is the
change that the discussion takes after the mention of music.
And all other matters appeared to be ultimately of the nature of numbers; and
numbers were for them the primary natures. In view of all this, they took the
elements of numbers to be the elements of all things, and the whole heaven to be
harmony and number. They were adept at finding numbers and harmonies, both
in patterns of change and in the structure of parts. And they organized and unified
the whole arrangement of the heavens to exhibit its harmony.5
Metaphysics 985b30-986a10
This describes hardly the same mystical treatment of number. Now things not
only find in numbers their principle, but share with them nature and elements. The
language resembles more and more that associated with pre-Socratic inquiry. Granted,
the passage in question comes in the midst of Aristotles summary of the thought of his
predecessors, and so he would naturally use common words to compare their different
systems with each other and with his own. However, patterns of change and structure
of parts bears the connotation of measurement of concrete things in the physical world,
and few things could be more pre-Socratic than the cosmological description of the
heavens. At least it is reminiscent of the similar endeavor by Anaximander, who was,
perhaps for this reason, purported to be one of Pythagoras tutors.6 Primavesi also
notices this shift in the language: he observes that the first half of Aristotles argument
presents a general introduction to the Pythagorean understanding, while the latter half is
far more comprehensive and precise.7

Translated by Richard Hope, Aristotles Metaphysics, (New York, 1952), 15..

Porphyry, De Vita Pythagorica, 2, translated in Guthrie (1987), 123.

Primavesi, Aristotle on the So-Called Pythagoreans. A History of Pythagoreanism. Ed. By


Huffman, (2014), 235.

48

Aristotle states summarily that the Pythagoreans sought an explanation in number


for things as they are and come into being. Then he proceeds to offer a more detailed and
technical account of their investigations, but not until after giving privileged place to the
study of musical intervals and scales. Moreover, he positions the study of music between
the symbolic and mystical number theory related to human experience and identity at the
beginning of the passage, and the later references to the role of number in natural
philosophy and cosmology. The structure of the passage may contain some implicit
awareness of something in Aristotles time generally known about the Pythagoreans,
namely that the discovery of the ratios of musical intervals is what drew them into
scientific inquiry.
Music in Early Pythagoreanism
In the Pythagorean tradition, the emphasis on music provides an integral
connection between two different modes of thought and experiencethe scientific and
the religious. The Pythagoreans explained the three most important intervals in a musical
scalethe octave, the fifth, and the fourthby the numerical ratios of 2:1, 3:2, and 4:3,
respectively. A fragment of Xenocrates, a follower of Plato, provides the earliest
attribution to Pythagoras of the discovery of these ratios hidden in the musical
concordances.8 Though this testimony is not entirely reliable, it has been generally
accepted that the Pythagoreans were responsible for the discovery of the musical
intervals. Burkert cites evidence to suggest that the knowledge of the ratios and the
acoustic theory which accompanied it was already present in Ionian, pre-Socratic circles,
and the Pythagoreans were unique only in that they celebrated the numerical ratios, which

Xenocrates, Fragment 9.

49

were of no great practical interest for professional musicians, as an insight into the nature
of reality.9 Yet here, Burkert does not seem to deny the importance of this fascination
with the numbers of musical intervals, even if he denies the scientific discovery of them.
A complete overview of the basic intervals with their names and ratios is found in
fragment 6 of Philolaus. The octave is called dia pason, which means through all, that
is, through all the strings. Its ratio is that of the duple, that is, 2:1. The fifth is called
the dioxeian, which means through the sharp, or, presumably, through the sharp
[strings on an instrument]. Sharp was the metaphor the Greeks used for high in
pitch; heavy was attached to the idea of low pitch.10 The dioxeian in Philolaus
system is the hemiolic ratio 3:2. Finally, the fourth is named the syllaba which means
grasp; according to Barker, a syllaba refers to the number of strings which a hand can
comfortably grasp at one time.11 The ratio which defines the fourth is the epitritic ratio
4:3.
Alternatively, the octave is called the harmonia, a term that conveys the idea of
things being fitted together.12 This idea makes sense in Philolaus system because the
harmonia is fitted together out of syllaba and dioxeian.13 In other words, the octave
divides into the perfect fifth and perfect fourth. The ratios 3:2 and 4:3 added together
produce the ratio 2:1. However, the harmonia did not just contain an attunement of the

Burkert, (1972), 377-78, 382-83.

10

Barker, The Science of Harmonics in Classical Greece, (Cambridge: 2007), 21.

11

Barker, The Science of Harmonics in Classical Greece, (Cambridge: 2007), 22.

12

Or attunement in Barker, (Cambridge: 2007), 22.

13

The magnitude of harmonia is syllaba and dioxeian. Philolaus, Fr. 6, DK44 B6, translated in
Barker, Greek Musical Writings, vol. II., (Cambridge: 1990), 37.

50

fifth and the fourth, but also of all the other pitches in the mode (scale). Barker points out
that writers in the tradition of Pythagorean harmonics, like Philolaus and Archytas, did
not divide the octave into a scale as though it were a line divided by points into various
segments.14 Some Greeks did measure the octave this way, by a reliance on the smallest
intervals in the scale. Instead, the Pythagoreans divided the octave by the fifth and the
fourth, and then continued to use these larger intervals and simpler ratios to calculate the
ratios of the smaller divisions. For example, a basic version of this method is to stack
another fifth onto the fifth within the octave (thus, to add 3:2 to 3:2, producing 9:4) and
then to remove from that one octave (thus, to subtract 2:1, producing 9:8). The
resulting epogdoic ratio 9:8 is the ratio that governs the second note of the scale being
reconstructed (roughly the equivalent of a modern whole tone).
Barker examines more closely what the Pythagoreans may have been measuring
when they posited these ratios. He contends that they could not have been measuring
aurally; it is difficult to imagine someone aurally perceiving that one pitch a fifth sharper
than another, for instance, is one-and-a-half times sharper.15 This seems to be verified in
the fact that the names used for the intervals (dia pason, dioxeian, syllaba) are not
connected to their mathematical ratios, but rather to the way that a musician playing notes
on an instrument would understand the intervals, as Barker points out.16 This explanation
means that the claim of Plato in the Republic that the Pythagoreans measured audible

14

Barker, (Cambridge: 2007), 29.

15

Barker, (Cambridge: 2007), 26.

16

Ibid.

51

concords against one another17 is a baffling piece of evidence, if it signifies that the
Pythagoreans had some way of measuring the sounds themselves.
The more common explanation is that they measured something in the physical
instruments which produced the sound. The easiest way to do this is to measure the
length of a string that produces one note, move the finger along the string to produce the
octave above, or the fifth, and measure the length of the sounding string again. In these
cases, the string length for the higher note will be half the length of the lower for the
octave, and two-thirds the length for the fifth. Because the easiest way to prove this is
with strings of different lengths (it is not so straightforward with strings of different
tensions), the best instrument would be the kanon, a one-stringed instrument upon which
the pitch is changed by moving the bridge up or down the string. The kanon seems to
have been an instrument created for theoretical demonstrations of this sort rather than for
musical use. This instrument is not attested before the fourth century, although the
earliest reference to it claims that it was invented by Pythagoras himself.18
Possibly the Pythagoreans believed themselves to be measuring the movement of
the sound, and not just the physical structure of the instrument. This notion is attested in
the first fragment of Archytas. He writes that, of the sounds reaching our perception
those which arrive quickly () and strongly () from impacts appear high in
pitch, but those which arise slowly () and weakly () seem to be low in
pitch.19 In Archytas theory, sound arises from the impact of bodies, and the speed or

17

Plato, Republic, 531a1-2, translated in Barker, (Cambridge: 2007), 25.

18

Qtd. in Barker, (2007), 26; the source is fragment 23 of Duris.

19

Archytas fragment 1, in Huffman with translation, Archytas of Tarentum, (Cambridge: 2005),

103-106.

52

force of the impact effects the highness or lowness of the sound. He gives examples of
this theory in practice, one of which is the necessity for a more violent force of breath to
make higher sounds. It is possible, though debated, that this theory that ratios measured
in the physical properties of the instrument were believed to be applied to the actual
movement of the sound could have been derived from the early days of the Pythagorean
tradition.20
The other side of the Pythagorean interest in music is not scientific and theoretical
but practical and possibly even ritualistic. Iamblichus, though a late author looking back
to Pythagoras through a Neo-Platonic lens, records legends that may have once had their
roots in real Pythagorean religious practice. He writes that Pythagoras believed that
people should be cared for through their senses first, particularly through seeing beautiful
forms or patterns (one thinks of the figured numbers) or through hearing beautiful
melodies and rhythms.21 In Iamblichus, these melodies of Pythagoras had the power to
restore to health both the body and the soul. He restored the pristine harmony of the
faculties of the soul by soothing overwrought passions and disordered behavior, even
knowing which kind or combination of diatonic, chromatic, or enharmonic scale would
circulate the passions of the soul in a contrary direction.22 Pythagoras musical therapy
would be applied both in the evening, to quiet and cleanse his disciples from the cares of
the day and prepare them for prophetic dreams, and in the morning, to rouse them from

20

Barker suggests that this would explain Platos statement that the Pythagoreans were actually
measuring the sound itself, as well as Archytas claim that he was reproducing the teachings of past
thinkers. (2007), 29.
21

Iamblichus De Vita Pythagorica 15.64-15.67.

22

Iamblichus De Vita Pythagorica 15.64, translated in Guthrie, The Pythagorean Sourcebook,


(Grand Rapids: 1987), 72.

53

the lethargy of sleep.23 Iamblichus even claims that Pythagoras had such a special gift in
this sort of healing because he alone of mortals could hear, inwardly through his divine
intellect, the sublime symphonies of the world and the universal harmony and
consonance of the spheres.24 Listening to this universal music, he would then attempt to
share something of it with his followers through imitating it on instruments or with his
voice. Thus, the Pythagoras in Iamblichus writing is some kind of musical composersavant and perhaps one of the first to give serious attention to the practice of music
therapy.
A much earlier writer, Aristoxenus, records something similar: The
Pythagoreans purified the body through medicine, and the soul through music.25 Burkert
points out that the sharp distinction of soul from body in this fragment is reminiscent of
Plato. He maintains that the version in Iamblichus, in which music works upon the body
as well, and not the soul alone, is more likely closer to some original magical practice
whence the legends derive.26 Whether this practice was magical, moral, or intellectual,
scholars seek its roots in the connection between Pythagoreanism and the Orphic cults.
Orphism and Pythagoreanism have distinct similarities. They both refer to a
single figure for their authority, a somewhat unusual circumstance in ancient Greek
religion generally. The difference here is that Pythagoras was historical, but Orpheus
was a figure of myth. Both are remembered as masterful musicians with the power

23

Iamblichus De Vita Pythagorica 15.65, translated in Guthrie (1987), 72.

24

Ibid; the Pythagoreans believed that the heavenly bodies, through their size and ordered
movement, gave off an actual music to which mortal ears were deaf.
25

Aristoxenus, Fragment 26.

26

Burkert, (1972), 212, no. 15.

54

through their music to affect both human beings and animals. Inseparable from this
musical reputation is a poetic one, because in the Greek understanding music and poetry
are two sides of the same thing. It is a common element of both Pythagoreanism and
Orphism to assign special authority to certain poetic texts or utterances. One of the basic
elements of Orphism seems to be the use of poems attributed to Orpheus himself and
used in purification rituals; they were believed to have power over the fate of the soul.27
This notion seems reminiscent of the Pythagorean acusmata and the Golden Verses,
enigmatic utterances held to be communicated by Pythagoras to his disciples and treated
with greatest respect as having sprung from an unquestionable authority. In the 3rd
century B.C. and possibly earlier (although it is unclear how formalized the Orphic
tradition was in its earlier stages), Orphism was a combination of the cult of Apollo the
Purifier (katharsios) and Thracian reincarnation beliefs, with the goal of purifying the
soul in order that it might survive death.28 There are obvious similarities between this
and the Pythagorean katharsis. Betegh notices one difference, however, between
Orphism and Pythagoreanism in regards to musical-poetic ritual and teaching: people
who gravitated to Orphism seem to have been interested in special occasions beyond the
bounds of ordinary lifeinitiations and purificationswhich had some dramatic healing
effect upon the soul, while the Pythagoreans devoted themselves to precepts which were

27

Betegh, Pythagoreans, Orphism, and Greek Religion. in Huffman, A History of


Pythagoreanism, (Cambridge: 2014), 153.

28
Kirk, Raven, and Schofield, The Pre-Socratic Philosophers, (Cambridge: 1983), 21.

55

almost entirely concerned with everyday actions and habits.29 He notes it as the
difference between regaining and maintaining purity.30
In all these ways, music for the Pythagoreans was something essential to their
lives as members of the Pythagorean sect. It was encountered in ritual and in poetry, and
it was believed to be connected to their moral and communal life. Yet at the same time it
was something they were able to measure by numerical ratios, possibly even to measure
with an inchoate scientific understanding of the physical properties of sound.
The Harmonia of the Cosmos
The twofold experience of the rational and the religious in music became the
norm for the Pythagorean mind and generated a twofold manner of expression in the
Pythagorean explanation of the world as a whole. It simply ought not to be expected that
Pythagorean investigation of the world would follow the pattern of that of the Ionian
philosophers because the Pythagoreans and the Ionians attempt to explain the order of the
cosmos by means of different paradigms for the relationship between the man measuring
and the thing measured. For each, this relationship is defined by whatever kind of
investigation had the greatest influence on their incipient development in natural
philosophy. For the Ionian Anaximander, it was geometrical investigation, a fact which
Burkert praises. Geometrical measurement for Anaximander becomes the paradigm,
translated into his cosmology as the analogy through which all cosmological
measurement, inquiry, or speculation is understood. In Anaximanders cosmology,

29

Betegh, in Huffman (2014), 159.

30

Ibid.

56

geometry extends its purview to the whole universe,31 as he describes size and distance
of heavenly bodies and positions the earth in the exact middle of the spherical wheels of
the stars.
But the Pythagorean approach differs in at least one key respect. Assuming that
the Pythagorean attempt at mathematical measurement began with or focused upon
musical intervals, the Pythagoreans would have seen themselves as having a dramatically
different relationship (compared with that of Anaximander) with the thing measured.
The musical intervals and modes were not just diagrams to be manipulated but were
intangible and mysterious, things which had power over them in soul and body, things in
which they participated as a way of life. Burkert himself observes that music, which is
the most spontaneous expression of psychic activity, at the same time admits, or rather
even challenges, the most rigorous mathematical analysis.32 He wishes to deny the
mathematical rigor to the early Pythagorean tradition, but a fervent attention to music is
precisely what could give birth to these two different modes of thought and experience at
once. Could it not be that the Pythagoreans did begin to measure and understand the
world in numerical and even mathematical terms, but did so in such a way so as not to
exclude a very human, mythological, and poetic interpretation of what they attempted to
measure?
This strange conjunction is what is seen in the earliest Pythagorean author,
Philolaus of Croton. While Burkert would like to diminish the scientific merits of

31

Burkert, (1972), 417.

32

Burkert, (1972), 369.

57

Philolaus fragments,33 Huffman gives a different account. In his understanding,


Philolaus did indeed wed natural philosophy with mythical cosmology, whose
antecedents can be seen in the Pythagorean acusmata.34 Interestingly, Huffman does not
make excuses for this union or attempt to lessen either the seriousness of the natural
philosophy or the commitment of the mythical cosmology. His evaluation deserves some
attention.
The cosmos of Philolaus is described in some of his fragments.35 The harmonia
between the Unlimited and Limiters is of central importance, as is the notion that a
central fire rather than the earth holds the place in the middle of the cosmos.
Nature in the universe was harmonized from unlimited and limiters, both the
whole universe and all things in it.36
DK44 B1
The first thing fitted together [harmosthen], the one, in the middle of the sphere,
is called the hearth.37
DK44 B7
The cosmos is One. It came to be generated from the middle, and from the
middle to the upper reaches and from the upper reaches to the lower. For the
things above the middle lie over against those below.38
DK44 B90
Portions of Aristotles De Caelo also give a view of the cosmos that is at least
Pythagorean, if not directly related to Philolaus. The presence of the central fire (also
called the hearth and the one) in the center of the spherical cosmos seems to be

33

Burkert, (1972), 337-350.

34

Huffman, Philolaus and the Central Fire, in Stern-Gillet, Reading Ancient Texts, vol. I.
(Boston: 2007), 60.
35

Fragments 2, 6, 10, and 11 are also relevant to the cosmos, dealing mostly with limiters,
unlimited, harmonia, and the nature of number and of things.
36

Philolaus, Fragment 1, translation in Barker, (1990), 36.

37

Philolaus, fragment 7, translation in Barker (1990), 38.

38

Huffman interprets this fragment as describing the symmetry of the cosmos, (2007), 87.

58

attested by Aristotle as well. This was a subversion of the usual earth-centric paradigm,
as Aristotle points out.39 In his account, the Pythagoreans would not put the earth in the
center of the cosmos because the center was the most important position. He adds that
the Pythagoreans believed that the earth orbited the central fire along with nine other
celestial bodies, one of which was the invisible Counter-Earth, closer to the central fire
than the Earth but orbiting oppositely so as to be unseen. The Counter-Earth was
invented by the Pythagoreans because they conceived that the total number of bodies
moving in the cosmos must be ten.40
Huffman demonstrates the Pythagorean harmony between natural philosophy and
mythology primarily through the way that the Central Fire is described in Philolaus and
related sources. He notes in Aristotles summary that it is said that the Pythagoreans did
not assign the earth the central position in the cosmos because it was not right (). In
Huffmans analysis, the decision to place fire at the center of the universe seems
motivated by observations that have a great deal in accord with some of the most
cherished objects of pre-Socratic philosophy: the fundamental element and geometry.
First, the Pythagoreans concern for the honorableness of the middle was based upon an
attention to the geometry of the sphere.41 In accordance with the basic Pythagorean
observation that the Limit is more defining than the unlimited, the limits of the sphere,
the center and the circumference, are the most important parts of the sphere, because a

39

Aristotle, De Caelo, 293a18-20.

40

Aristotle, De Caelo 293a20; ten is a perfect number and the number of the tetraktys.

41

Huffman, (2007), 87.

59

sphere is defined in terms of its center and surface just as a circle is defined in terms of its
center and circumference.42
Because of this observation, Huffman argues, Philolaus believed that the most
fundamental element ought to claim the most defining place.43 For Thales and
Anaximenes, the most fundamental elements were water and air, respectively. It seems
that Aristotle attests that the Pythagoreans did not claim the existence of fundamental
material element, such as water, air, or fire, but found it in material number.44 However,
Huffman suggests that there is good reason to believe that Philolaus and the Pythagoreans
gave special eminence to the element fire.45 As evidence, he cites that Aristotle named
the Pythagorean Hippasus with Heraclitus as one of those who identified fire as the
fundamental element.46 More significantly, he sees in the description of the beginning
and development of Philolaus cosmos an analogy to human birth that gives first place to
fire.47 In any case, fire holds the central place in Philolaus cosmology. The reliance
upon the geometry of the sphere is even clearer in the doxographical tradition on
Philolaus: there fire is not only in the center of the sphere but also around its surface, for
there is again another fire at the uppermost place which surrounds [the whole].48

42

Huffman, (2007), 79-80, 89.

43

Huffman, (2007), 90.

44

Aristotle, Metaphysics 985b23 (DK58 B4)

45

Huffman, (2007), 90.

46

Ibid. Metaphysics 984a7.

47
The argument for this is a bit involved. The cosmos expands as the central fire draws in breath
and time (Aristotle fragment 166) much as a child draws in breath after birth. Huffman points to the
connection between heat as the original state of a newborn and the heat of the central fire expanding and
cooling as it breathes in the unlimited. 90
48

DK 44 A16, translated in Huffman, (2007), 90.

60

For Huffman, the writings of Philolaus are a great achievement and further
develop the themes of the incipient natural philosophy of the Greek world. He writes,
the momentous moving of the earth to the center of the cosmosis a result of Philolaus
decision to take seriously the structural as well as the material components of the cosmos,
or rather to take seriously the way the two work together.49 The tendency to found the
cosmos upon geometrical principles was already present in the predecessors of Philolaus.
Huffman points out that Parmenides described reality in terms of the bulk of a sphere,
well-rounded on all sides.50 In addition, the efforts to discover the most basic material
principle of the universe were also common. But in Philolaus and the Pythagorean
cosmology these were combined, in accordance with the Pythagorean doctrine of the
harmony between the Limiters and the Unlimited. Huffman posits that the very name
central fire demonstrates this harmony, because central refers to its place in the
structure of the universethe limiting elementand fire refers to its materialthe
unlimited element.51 Philolaus combines the material starting point of the cosmos with
the structural starting point, the center of the sphere from which the cosmos expands.52
Here in the heart of Philolaus cosmology is seen the elements of number as the
elements of all things,53 the Limiting and Unlimited working together in a harmony.
The brilliance of the cosmology of Philolaus as natural philosophy is only one
side of the story. There are also elements of a tendency to cast these scientific

49

Huffman, (2007), 90-91.

50

DK 28 B8.43, translated in Huffman (2007), 89.

51

Huffman, Philolaus and the Central Fire, Reading Ancient Texts, vol. I, (Boston:2007), 89.

52

Ibid.

53

Aristotle,Metaphysics , 985b30-986a10.

61

speculations into symbolism and narrative, to which Huffman draws attention. For
instance, Philolaus, in fragment 7, not only names the center of the cosmos the central
fire and the one, but also the hearth.54 The third of these appellations makes no
sense outside of a symbolic environment, because it clearly relates an invisible,
unreachable celestial reality to one very familiar and earthly. In Aristotles De Caelo it is
specifically Pythagorean to call the central fire the watch-tower of Zeus because the
most important part of the cosmos deserves to be guarded.55 Huffman maintains that
there is a connection between the hearth and the watch-tower: because the hearth was the
center of a Greek home, the hearth in the middle of the sphere is the center of the palace
of Zeus, and the watch-tower of Zeus is appropriate because the hearth above all things
is worthy to be guarded.56
Huffman finds echoes of this mythologizing tendency in the Pythagorean
cosmology in the myths of Plato, for in a remarkably similar fashion, Plato frequently
argues for a particular idea but also illustrates it with the re-telling of some myth.57
Specifically, he cites the myth of Prometheus in Platos Protagoras. In this myth, the
garrisons of Zeus are guarding within his palace fire, which Prometheus intends to steal
in order to distribute it to humanity.58 Huffmans most fascinating insight in this area is
that he finds a direct connection between the Prometheus myth in Plato and the
Pythagorean cosmology. He notes that the myth reappears in Platos Philebus, precisely

54

Philolaus fragment 7, DK 44 B7.

55

Aristotle, De Caelo 293b1, translation of phulake as watch-tower In Huffman (Boston: 2007),

56

Huffman, (2007), 80-83.

57

Huffman, (2007), 90.

58

Huffman, (2007), 91-92.

80-91.

62

when Plato is explaining Philolaus system of Limiters and Unlimited as the elements of
the cosmos. Plato marvels that the system was hurled down by some Prometheus along
with fire.59 Huffman suggests that in this passage Plato transmits the cosmology of
Philolaus in both its philosophical and mythological versions.60 In the philosophical
version, the universe is produced because the central fire breathes in time, void, and
breath from the unlimited and in so doing separates itself into one fire in the center of the
sphere, and the other fire of the stars which forms outer limit of the cosmos, surrounding
its orbiting bodies. The mythological correlation of this, in Huffmans argument, is
found in the story of Prometheus, who steals the fire from the palace of Zeus and spreads
it, in this case, to the rest of the cosmos.
Here, in the cosmological tradition, there seem to be two co-existing explanations
of the universe, one built from philosophical terms and methods of inquiry, and one
leaning upon symbolic language and mythical narratives. Though this can appear as an
entangled confusion of new and old ways of perceiving the world, Kirk, Raven, and
Schofield warn against simplifying the supposed conflict by over-emphasizing the
irrationality of the old understanding.61 They make the clarification that the
anthropomorphic and personifying view of the world expressed in mythology is not
irrational but does makes in the worlds phenomena distinctions that were genuinely
accurate and helpful.62 In fact, they even boldly state that this older description of the

59

Plato, Philebus 16c.

60

Huffman, (2007), 92.

61

Kirk, Raven, and Schofield, The Pre-Socratic Philosophers, (Cambridge: 1983), 72.

62

Ibid.

63

world is un-philosophical only because of the symbolic language of myths in which it is


expressed andconceived.63
Accordingly, the difference between the two sides of the Pythagorean cosmology
is the difference only between two modes of expression. As has been seen, the
philosophical achievements of the Ionian Pre-Socratics was due in no small part to a
certain development in the use of logical, deductive, and axiomatic language which
belonged to the method of geometry. However, it is only natural that the Pythagoreans
would not become fully dependent on this mode of language. The geometrical figures
that engaged the mind of Anaximander and inspired his geographical and cosmological
endeavors would not have been tightly tied to the moral, religious, and artistic elements
of his life. But the musical intervals that the Pythagoreans learned to define by means of
numerical ratios were the living, pulsing heart of their moral, religious, poetic, and
communal existence as members of the Pythagorean sect. In such a context, it could
hardly be otherwise than that the scientific and the symbolic language would not only
continue to co-exist, but also to cooperate as valid modes of exploring reality within one
system of thought.
Conclusion
Thus, the Pythagorean fascination with music provides one possible key to the
synthesis of mystical and mathematical language, thought, and exploration in early
Pythagoreanism. Aristotles overview of Pythagoreanism hints that the rational,
numerical order observable in the musical intervals inspired the Pythagoreans to more
rigorous engagement in scientific inquiry. This assumption is supported by the

63

Kirk, Raven and Schofield, (1983), 73.

64

observation that the scientific and religious aspects of Pythagorean musical thought and
practice are mirrored in the philosophical and symbolic aspects of Pythagorean language.
Because the study of musical intervals was for them the paradigm of rational inquiry, the
Pythagoreans conceived of their relationship to everything they examined, even to the
entirety cosmos, in the same terms as they conceived of their relationship to music.

65

CONCLUSION
It is true that the Pythagorean question is and will remain largely without a
conclusive answer. Part of the difficulty is the result of insufficient early evidence, and
part is the result of the multiplicity of voices in antiquity with such varied relationships to
the original teachings. But it may be that the Pythagorean question is partly confused by
the pre-conceptions that those who read it bring into it. It may be that early
Pythagoreanism was in fact something rather simple: something unaware of the
metaphysical subtleties of Plato or the moralizing of the Neo-Platonists; something
unencumbered by the serious system of geometry; something quieter than the
sensationalism of Orphic experiences. In order to understand such a thing, it seems better
to look to the things that are known to be inherent to it, such as the figured numbers and
the preoccupation with music and poetic utterance, than to force it to give an account of
itself under the judgement of later developments, such as deductive geometry and strict
logical thought.
If early Pythagoreanism is measured by its own standard rather than by one which
is foreign to it, there is the possibility of coming to a fuller appreciation of its merits. For
in exploring the nature of number through pebbles and melodies, the Pythagoreans
prepared the way for the full blossoming of arithmetical mathematics, whether through
their own achievement in the study or only through their emphasis. Again, it cannot be
denied that in making the earth an orbiting body rather than the center of the cosmos, the
Pythagoreans were in the right, no matter how modernity may question their methods. If
early Pythagoreanism is relegated to the dustbin of ancient mythologizing, much of the
66

richness and insight of its perception of the world is overlooked. Somewhere between
our distrust of the old mysticism and zeal for the new mathematics, a more balanced
approach might be found through closer attention to Pythagorean devotion to music.

67

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