Today’s Phrase for Latin Lovers

Rex in Regno suo superiores habet Deum et Legem.

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 Alcmaeon, Physician Philosopher

From Clement’s Miscellanies VI:

Alcmaeon of Croton says that it is easier to be on your guard against an enemy than against a friend.

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:

This seems to be the perfect advice to give to all the new incoming US Senators and Representatives.

The Prudence translation: Beware the welcome party until you are sure you can tell the difference between a smile and bared teeth.


Pre-Socratic Self Quiz:

Free Day! No quiz.

Celebrate by making up your own question that will show how brilliant you are when you answer it with ease.


Tomorrow: Xenophanes

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Meditation on Pythagoras and Women

From Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras:

After that, [Pythagoras’] reputation greatly increased: he found many associates in the city of Croton itself (not only men but also women, one of whom, Theano, achieved some fame), and many, both kings and noblemen, from the nearby non-Greek territory. What he said to his associates no one can say with any certainty; for they preserved no ordinary silence. But it became very well known to everyone that he said, first, that the soul is immortal; then, that it changes into other kinds of animals; further, that at fixed intervals whatever has happened happens again, there being nothing absolutely new; and that all living things should be considered as belonging to the same kind. Pythagoras seems to have been the first to introduce these doctrines into Greece.

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:

It wasn’t until I read that paragraph that I realized I could not name a single female philosopher until reaching the 20th century and Ayn Rand.

I don’t go around taking score on gender diversity in anything really. I figure that if you excel at something, you will be admitted to the club. It doesn’t bother me that some fields are predominated by women and others by men.

But as I am just starting on this philosophical journey, I have to wonder, am I venturing into an area that women typically don’t excel at? Why is there such a dearth of women philosophers? Don’t worry, it won’t scare me off. I’m used to going places where I make a surprising addition. I just hadn’t considered the possibility that I wasn’t supposed to be doing this.

Could it be as Larry Summers said, and was roundly chastised for, about women mathematicians and scientists: that even in the brain, we’re just built different. Gary Kasparov, the former world chess champion and Russian politician, once said that women could never equal men in chess either. Our brains just couldn’t handle the mathematical complexities. I don’t know. Perhaps it’s true. But that doesn’t mean of course that we can’t make our own contributions to the science, or have occasional “freaks of nature” that do find themselves competing on the same level. It would, of course, be nice to see more women give it a try.

It does strike me as odd that the first mention I find of a female philosopher is one attached to Pythagoras, whose philosophy was heavily intertwined with mathematics (see preceding paragraph).

I looked up Theano on the internet, and found a website dedicated to women philosophers. It turns out that Theano was Pythagoras’ young wife who took over his school upon his death. Ah, so that’s how you become the first famous female philosopher. (Not to take away from her own intellectual abilities, which in her writings showed she was one smart cookie.)

The website has lists of women philosophers in different eras. Upon review, there are a few names that I recognize, but couldn’t tell you why I have heard of them. Upon reaching the 20th century there, I see that I left Mary Shelley Wollstonecraft off my one philosopher list. (I hadn’t really thought of her as a philosopher, even with her Vindication of the Rights of Women, but I can the classification now. Apologies to Mary.) There was also Iris Murdoch, whom I know as a novelist, but wasn’t aware of her philosophical writings.

It’s funny. The one female philosopher that I could name—Rand—and who had a great impact in my conservative/libertarian evolution, she wasn’t to be found at all on the Women Philosophers website.

Pre-Socratic Self Quiz:

Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy, says:

The influence of geometry upon philosophy and scientific method has been profound. Geometry, as established by the Greeks, starts with axioms which are (or are deemed to be) self-evident, and proceeds, by deductive reasoning, to arrive at theorems that are very far from self-evident.

Q4. What 18th century American document models itself on this method?


Tomorrow: Alcmaeon

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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.