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The King in his Realm hath two superiors: God and the Law. -- Henry Care (1646-1688) on English liberties and the Magna Carta


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Ancient History

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Meditation on Pythagoras & Souls

While Pythagoras and his cult-like followers are most known (particularly by junior high school students)  for their development of mathematical theories, he’s also known as the one who revived the concept of the transmigration of the soul.

An oft-repeated tale involves him telling a man not to hit his dog because by the dog’s bark, Pythagoras recognized an old friend. But in Histories II, Herodotus relates a story that shows Pythagoras as a transmigration traveler through time:

Heraclides of Pontus reports that [Pythagoras] tells the following story himself. He had once been Aethalides and was considered to be the son of Hermes. Hermes invited him to choose whatever he wanted, except immortality; so he asked that, alive and dead, he should remember what happened to him. Thus in his life he remembered everything, and when he died he retained the same memories.

Sometime later he became Euphorbus and was wounded by Menelaus. Euphorbus used to say that he had once been Aethalides and had acquired the gift from Hermes and learned of the circulation of his soul—how it had circulated, into what plants and animals it had passed, what his soul had experienced in Hades, and what other souls undergo.

Copleston notes that it’s possible Pythagoras was influenced by Orphicism, as they shared a principle that Orphic novices were taught: “the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, so that for them it is the soul, and not the imprisoning body, which is the important part of man; in fact, the soul is the ‘real’ man, and is not the mere shadow-image of the body, as it appears in Homer.”

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:

The idea of a soul has always intrigued me. In separating myself from established religions and disbelieving in a God or gods, the one thing I have not been able to divorce myself from is the belief that I have a soul. It bothers me that I have no logical proof of this, and that in the absence of any proof my belief in it is solely based on my faith in it.  I can’t conceive of what life would be if there were no soul. We’d be just fleshy automatons.

When I first entered into atheism, I could accept the psychically brutal concept that this is it, that once you die, it’s over. While that belief provides no comfort in times of turmoil and trouble, it does provide motivation to get going, to not waste this chance. It’s a hard, tough way to live, having no forgiveness or second chances, but I think it made me stronger.

(I’m reminded of Eminem’s song, “Lose Yourself,” which starts: “Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity / To seize everything you ever wanted in one moment / Would you capture it? Or just let it slip?” and continues the concept in the chorus of “You better lose yourself in the music, the moment / You own it, you better never let it go go / You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow / This opportunity comes once in a lifetime yo.”)

But as I looked over Eastern philosophies, I began to wonder, if I believed I had a soul but that death was final, did that mean a soul was not eternal? Where would it come from then? Could it really just go poof and be gone? I had a big gap in my personal philosophy.

Slowly I let myself slip back into belief of some sort of reincarnation, and energy that remains when we leave and recycles, similar to the principles of E=mc^2 in which there is a finite amount of energy that merely transforms but remains equal. [Math people: don’t slay me if I’ve been less than articulate in paraphrasing Einstein’s theory.]

That seems to make logical sense, and it seems almost provable in anecdotal tales of past lives. And yes, I know, if you want to make fun of that, you could also point out that there’s anecdotal evidence of alien abduction, too.

But if I’m truly honest with myself, I have to wonder if my growing faith in “reincarnation” is not just a weakness, based not on logic and reason, but on desire, on a wish so strong that all my mistakes of this lifetime will not be for nothing. That there will be some benefit that remains behind, and that there’s added purpose in moving forward.

My desire for eternal recycling was somewhat tempered, however, when I read what Herodotus also wrote in Histories II:

The Egyptians were the first to propound the theory that men’s souls are immortal and that when the body dies they enter another animal which is then being born; when they have gone round all creatures of land, sea and air, they once more enter the body of a man which is then being born. This cycle takes three thousand years.

Three thousand years. Wow. Sounds less enticing now. I think I’ll favor the Eastern teachings in this aspect, that each lifetime is used to perfect a flaw, to gain experience to benefit the whole, to pay penance for past grievances.

It’s not that I would mind returning as an animal from time to time if it would teach me something instead of being just a mandated sequence of transmigration. (Obviously Pythagoras had found a loophole for himself, as he was not waiting 3,000 years before reinhabiting a new man.)

A cat, for instance. I wouldn’t mind experiencing such a life, though it would be my luck to end up a scraggly alley cat. Watching my cat, I sometimes think that such a life would be one way to learn patience. I look at my cat and wonder, if she is a recycling soul that I’m responsible for nurturing, I wonder if this life was to be a reward or a punishment for her.


And Now For Something Completely Different:

I have had a request for more video. Ask and ye shall receive. Here’s a cartoon summary of Pythagorean philosophy in three minutes by some Australian guy. [Language Warning: A few unnecessary, juvenile uses of the F-bomb ahead. What a shame. It could have been great for kids otherwise.]


Pre-Socratic Self Quiz:

Q3. Pythagoras was an ancient Ben Franklin, creating lists of rules for clean and healthy living. Other than not eating beans, what are three Pythagorean rules that you could obey, and one that you could simply not abide.


Open Thread Discussion Topic:

What part of Pythagorean philosophy gave you the most food for thought?


NOTE: If you have been coming here every day by my stated 8 am posting time, you have no doubt noticed I’ve been missing that deadline. My apologies. I’m trying to get a few posts in the hopper so that there is always something ready to go, but I’m still behind on my preparation. So, to be sure I don’t have you coming here when there is nothing ready for you, I’m going to move the posting time to 2 pm ET. Once I get ahead, I’ll move it back to the morning for you. Thanks for your cat-like patience with me.


Tomorrow: More Pythagoras/Alcmaeon [to allow some of you to get caught up as well :)]

If you are just joining the Daily Tread Society and would like to see where we started and where we are headed, click on the Daily Tread tab above and scroll down to our first postings.

3 comments to Meditation on Pythagoras and Souls

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Prudence Paine, Prudence Paine. Prudence Paine said: New Post: Meditation on Pythagoras and Souls #tcot #tlot #sgp #teaparty #hhrs #rsrh #ftrs […]

  • Liberty Frog


    The philosophical frog is back with an update.

    My first volume of Copleston’s book arrived Wednesday and after two nights of reading, I have a headache. For someone not well educated in the subject and not fluent in the language of those under study, it has been a difficult read. I did much better by reading what Wikipedia had to say about Thales and Anaximander and a couple of free Amazon ebooks.

    I haven’t completely given up as I will drop by ever so often to read what you have to say about the great ones (far easier to read than Copleston). I appreciate what you are doing, but any comments on your postings I might offer will be well behind your swift advance through the timelines of reasoned thinking.

    The Plodding Frog

    • Prudence

      Frog! So glad you returned.

      I’m sorry the Copleston has been unhelpful. Combine the British phrasing and academic/intellectual approach and it does become rather dry reading. I totally agree with you on the foreign language issue. The long-standing tradition in publishing was that it was considered supremely declasse to translate quotes into English to broaden a book’s reaches into the icky middlebrow masses. The highbrows believed that if you couldn’t speak French and Latin and German and Icelandic, well then you were too intellectually feeble to be reading such material—and they refused to be caught reading a book that the little people, the commoners, would read as well.

      So we’re stuck with many great books that people like you and me just have to skip over the untranslated quotes after trying to see if there is anything recognizable in them at all. Fortunately, the prohibition against translation is breaking down (especially since Latin isn’t even taught in most schools anymore, so even our highbrows now have a tough time reading the same books!).

      That’s wonderful that you have taken the time to chart your own course, to find your own materials online. There is a real wealth of information out there on the subject of philosophy, so I would encourage everyone to do a search on the various philosophers or essays you are studying to find supplemental information. You sometimes have to read several sources before you find one whose explanation suddenly unlocks the door for you and you finally connect with it.

      So do stop back by! You’re always welcome to comment on anything, old or new. It’s just nice to know I have companions out there on this journey with me. Plod on, frog. 🙂

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