Pythagoras was born on the Greek island of Samos in 580 B.C. or thereabouts. His father Mnesarchus was a Phonecian from the Levantine city of Tyre; his mother was a Samian Greek. The events of his early life are lost to us, but tradition has it that after studying with such great Ionian thinkers as Thales and Anaximander, he traveled to Egypt and Persia for a fifteen year postgraduate course in astronomy, number symbolism, comparative religion, and other arcane subjects. However much wisdom he may have imbibed from the Egyptians and the Persians, his philosophy and personal conduct seem to owe more to the Jains and the brahmins of ancient India than to anyone else. Of course much of India was under Persian rule at this time, and Indians traveled to Greek lands as recruits in the Persian king's army.
As trade generally follows the flag, there was undoubtedly a lively commerce in ideas and goods between India and Greece. Certainly Pythagoras, the wandering sage who espoused vegetarianism and reincarnation, reminds one of nothing so much as a Hindu swami in the style of Krishnamurti, Prabhupada, or Rajneesh. He is the first in a line of "Hinduized" westerners, a guru for the Greeks. Finding on his return to Samos that his native country was under the sway of the tyrant Polykrates, Pythagoras fled to southern Italy, where in 529 B.C., he settled in Croton.
As in most biographies of great men that have come down to us from antiquity, one must allow for the tendency of the writer who is usually a disciple, (or a gushing votary of his subject) to glorify these great men's needs. But even discounting this, Pythagoras emerges as one of the most striking figures in the history of Western culture. Not only is he credited with having formulated the Pythagorean theorem, but he is also held to have been the author of many other mathematical and geometrical discoveries. It was Pythagoras who first perceived that musical harmony is determined by mathematical proportions, and it was Pythagoras who first conceived the idea of planetary motion. He anticipated, by two thousand years, Copernicus's speculation that the earth is a planetary sphere that moves about the sun.
He is also the first historically attested figure in Western culture to have founded a society that pursued wisdom for its own sweet sake -- philosophia (a term that he is reported to have coined). Meat-eating and materialism were taboo in the Pythagorean brotherhood, not only because the Master considered them to be morally repugnant, but because he felt they interfered with the attainment of theoria (pure contemplation).
The fundamental tenet of the Pythagorean order was the doctrine of the transmigration of souls. Paralleling the Hindus, Pythagoras believed that the soul is condemned to pass through a seemingly endless cycle of rebirth during which it may be successively embodied in all the forms of life that exist on earth. After each incarnation the soul's conduct in its previous life is judged at a trial in Hades. Here the soul is punished or rewarded according to its deserts. The verdict determines whether the soul will be allowed to reincarnate as a snake, a deer, a bear, a prince, a slave, or a philosopher (which Pythagoras, not surprisingly, regarded as the highest incarnation). But the greatest reward that a soul can achieve is to be entirely liberated from the wheel of rebirth, and to return to the state of divine bliss from which it came.
Pythagoras taught that through the transmigration of souls, all the forms of animal life are interrelated. Precisely because the body of a deer may house the soul of a dear-departed relative, to eat of its flesh would be akin to an act of cannibalism. Similarly, Darwin's theory of evolution, which is a kind of biological transmigration, has shown us that by reason of their descent from a common ancestor (somewhere in the primordial ooze), all forms of life, from fish to philosopher, are kindred.
Was it Shaw, paraphrasing Shakespeare, who said that "One touch of Darwin made the whole world kin"? Well, for the ancient Greeks, "One touch of Pythagoras made the whole world kin.'' Since Pythagoras' chief disciple Plato was being taught at Oxford as early as the 13th century, Englishmen were conversant with Pythagorean ideas long before they were being aired on the continent.
Even Shakespeare who was no vegetarian was burlesquing the Pythagorean theory of reincarnation as this snatch of dialogue from Shakespeare's Twelfth Nigh t illustrates:
Clown: What is the opinion of Pythagoras concerning wild fowl?
Malvolio: That the soul of our grandam might haply inhabit a bird.
Clown: What think'st thou of his opinion?
Malvolio: I think nobly of the soul, and no way approve of his opinion.
Clown: Fare thee well. Remain thou still in darkness: thou shalt hold the opinion of Pythagoras ere I will allow of thy wits; and fear to kill a woodcock, lest thou dispossess the soul of thy grandam.
Closer to Pythagoras' own time, the poet-philosopher Xenophanes satirized his theory of reincarnation as this mocking verse makes plain:
They say that once when a puppy was being whipped, Pythagoras, who was passing by, took pity on it, saying, "Stop! Do not beat it! It is the soul of a friend; I recognize his voice!"
With its emphasis on privacy, meditation, and splendid isolation, there is much about the Pythagorean brotherhood that is redolent of the monastery. But the similarities are merely superficial: from the very start, women were admitted to the society on an equal footing with men, and were allowed to rise through its ranks according to their abilities.
This was at variance with the prevailing attitude towards women throughout Greece. Even in democratic Athens, women were kept in a kind of oriental seclusion. Owing, however, in large part to the example set by Pythagoras, it became customary for women to be taken into scientific and philosophical societies as the intellectual peers of men. Moreover, there was nothing monkish about the Pythagoreans' views on sex. They took a dim view of celibacy. Male and female members were urged to marry and to raise little Pythagoreans.
Pythagoras himself stood exemplar, for he married the mathematical genius Theano, who held a high position in the Order.
Not only did the Pythagorean society serve as a model for Plato's Academy and more orthodox philosophical groups, but it also stimulated the formation of such esoteric and mystical philosophical societies as the Essenes (a Jewish, mystical brotherhood that flourished in the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C.). Like the Pythagoreans, the Essenes held their goods in common, gave themselves up to a life of contemplation, practiced a form of numerology, and were vegetarians.
Since Pythagoras's utterances were shrouded in secrecy, with the Master actually holding forth to his followers from behind a veil, much of his teaching had to be reconstructed from the writings of his followers. Among his disciples are numbered some of the greatest thinkers in antiquity. They include his proteges, Empedocles of Akragas, Porphyry, Plotinus, and of course Plato (whose philosophy is deeply indebted to Pythagorast).
As professor Moses Hadas observes, "The largest precipitate of Pythagoreanism is to be found in Plato." Some of Plato's most "Platonic" theories actually have their origin in Pythagoras. For example, Plato's belief in reincarnation and the tripartition of the soul is Pythagorean. Also Pythagorean is his theory of the forms; the "Platonic ideals": the notion that the world is a badly smudged copy of an ideal world, and the idea that mathematical reasoning can give us access to this ideal world.
Many latter-day admirers of Pythagoras have been bemused by his taboo on the eating of beans. Could Pythagoras really have prohibited such a versatile and nutritious food? Some of his meatatarian critics have seized upon this fatuous-seeming taboo to laugh out of court his injunction against the slaughter of animals for food (which Pythagoras believed led to warfare). However, classical scholarship suggests a rational motive for his ban on beans: In antiquity the Greeks elected their political candidates to office by casting a bean rather than a ballot (a modern ballot is a ticket or a strip of paper, and paper was a precious commodity in the ancient world). So what Pythagoras was really saying to his followers was "Stay out of politics!" -- perhaps the sagest advice of all.
Asked by a Hellenic king what sort of man was a philosopher (a term that Pythagoras first minted and applied to himself), Pythagoras answered with a parable. He said that there were three types of men who attend the Olympic games -- the athletes who compete for glory; the merchants who hawk their wares to the crowd for money; and the spectators who take an unabashed delight in contemplation. A philosopher is like the spectator at the games.
Although Pythagoras was fond of punning on the two Greek words soma (body), and sema (tomb), this does not suggest that he felt the body should be allowed to deteriorate before its death. On the contrary, he had a yogi-like conviction that the body should be developed and made flexible so that it could become a more efficient instrument of the spirit. A rundown body, he felt, interferes with philosophizing.
So he urged all the Pythagoreans, men and women alike, to undergo a daily program of vigorous exercise that included running, shadow boxing, wrestling, and gymnastics. Consequently, along with brilliant mathematicians and philosophers, the society turned out a disproportionate number of athletic champions (like the famous Milo of Croton, who credited his Olympic victories to Pythagorean dietetics).
In sum, the Pythagorean society was a combination health spa and think tank. With its emphasis on contemplation, physical fitness, and dietetics, it would not be out of place in the hills of Southern California.
"For this is the Pythagoras who forbade the killing much less the eating of animals who share with us the right of having a soul. This was their pretext for eating vegetarian fare, but the real reason that he prohibited the eating of our fellow ensouled beings was that he wanted to accustom people to a contented life so that they should eat unfired (apura) food and drink plain water. Hence, they would have sharp minds and healthy bodies." (Diogenes Laertius, VIII, 13, translation mine).
Another reason why Pythagoras may have encouraged his disciples (among whom Plato and Socrates would have been among the most prominent) to eat unfired fruits and vegetables is that he may have wanted further to dramatize the difference between iera or the barbecued flesh of animals that was sacrificed to the gods on a fiery altar and shared out among the worshippers, and the raw, uncooked apura foods that formed the sustenance of ethical vegetarians. "Pythagoras was concerned to sacrifice only cakes, meal and flour at the temple of Apollo the Lifegiver, which is behind the temple of Horns, because he could make these offerings without fire and without an animal victim , as Aristotle tells us in his Politics of Delos ." (Diogenes Laertius, VIII, 13, italics mine, translation mine).
Crumble the Essene bread into a mixing bowl. (NB: Essene bread is moist and friable and crumbles easily.) Then add the grated onion, the chopped nuts, the diced celery, the mixed herbs and the spices.
With a sharp knife, cut out the hard stem from each cabbage leaf. Lay the leaf flat on a working surface, and spoon the filling onto the edge of the leaf. Coat the edge evenly, then roll it up tightly. If the cabbage leaves are small in size, take two leaves and arrange them so that one edge overlaps the other; line the leading edge with the filling and roll it up.
Serve garnished with sprigs of parsley or mint.
Note: This is an unfired (apura) recipe.
This recipe should really be called "Acorn-Stuffed Cabbage Rolls," because the Golden-Age inhabitants of Greece, who were strict vegetarians (according to Hesiod, Empedokles, Ovid, et al.) were reputed to have fed on acorns. This at any rate is the legend attested to by Ovid (Metam XV, 96f.l; Lucretius (V, 692; 1414); Horace (Sat., I, 3, 100); Vergil (Georg., 1, 148); et al.
These balanaphagoi (acorn eaters) and their tradition would certainly have been known to Pythagoras, who was trying to restore Greece to the pristine diet of the Golden Age, when all men were vegetarians. In The Republic , when Plato proposed that the citizens of his ideal city should eat among other vegetarian foods "acorns to roast at the fire," (Republic , II, 372 d), doubtless he had this tradition in mind.
Since acorns were a deeply symbolic vegetarian food, bound up with the symbolism of the Golden Age, there is no doubt that Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans partook of them. It is quite possible that Plato, who was a Pythagorean, was making an allusion to Pythagoreanism when he recommended that the citizens of his ideal society should sit by the fire and eat roasted acorns. In prehistoric Greece, acorns were a popular food and remained so down to classical times. According to Galen (VI, 620), the Arcadians continued to eat acorns long after the other Greeks had turned to the gifts of Demeter.
Some strains of acorn are highly edible, and in times of famine are still resorted to when people grind them into flour in place of grain or use them as a coffee substitute. However, they are now chiefly harvested as fodder for pigs, who are particularly partial to them. In fact Plato, through his dragoman Socrates in The Republic (II, 372, d), was accused of trying to found a "city of pigs," when he urged that the citizens of his ideal city adopt a vegetarian diet that included roasted acorns. Since edible strains of acorns are not readily available, one may substitute pecans or hazelnuts, which are botanically closer to acorns than any other nut.
According to Pliny (24-79 A.D.), Pythagoras was so fond of cabbage that he extolled its virtues in a book. Therefore, I have combined cabbage with hazelnuts or pecans (as acorn substitute) to furnish this recipe. Here is my translation of the passage from Pliny's Natural History (XX, xxxii) in which he mentions that Pythagoras and other great sages wrote books in praise of the cabbage:
It would take a long time to recount the praises of cabbage, since Chrysippus the physician devoted a special volume to it, arranged according to its effect on each part of the body, and Dieuches also wrote a book about it; however, before all of them Pythagoras wrote a book about it, and Cato in his writings glorified it no less than they.
Finely chop the cabbage. In a large skillet heat the olive oil and add the
mustard seed, salt and pepper. As soon as the mustard seed starts to sputter,
add the chopped cabbage. Cook over a high flame for three minutes, while stirring
briskly to prevent scorching. Serve with whole barley grain bread.
In his Natural History (XX, lxxxvii), Pliny tells us that mustard, like cabbage, was highly esteemed by Pythagoras. Here is my rendering of the pertinent passage:
Mustard of which we have discussed three varieties among the cultivated plants was considered by Pythagoras to be the chief among those herbs that have the power to mount upwards, seeing that no other penetrates deeper into the nostrils and the brain.
Grind all together, and knead. Shape into a loaf, and set aside for 12 hours before serving. No heating or baking is necessary, as this is an unfired (apura) bread. Slice for serving.
Porphyry in his life of Pythagoras tells us that Pythagoras customarily dined on bread of millet or barley, and vegetables. "Of his diet, the breakfast was honey comb or honey, the dinner, bread of millet or barley and vegetables, whether boiled or raw." Moses Hadas and Morton Smith, Heroes and Gods (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), p. 118.
This bread was a staple of Greek diet in Pythagoreas's lifetime and is a reasonable facsimile of the bread to which Porphyry refers. It should be remembered that in antiquity einkorn and emmer wheats were almost twice as rich in protein as the breadwheats of today. Eaten daily in conjunction with vegetables, boiled or fresh, it was truly the staff of life.
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