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by Thomas W. Olzak
As we part the veils of history's portals, we find that many men and women of the past are known to us only through legend and the sometimes biased reporting of their contemporaries. To learn of the man or woman behind the legend is difficult; and sometimes impossible. Such is the case with Pythagoras.
What we know of the life of Pythagoras is, for the most part, a combination of religious myth and legend. (1) I attempted to take what I believe to be the slender threads of truth which run through the colorful tapestries portraying his life, and weave a new tapestry. This composite representation of Pythagoras' life includes his early life, his travels, his school, and the possible Pythagorean influence on Freemasonry. Although there may be no direct link between Pythagoras and Freemasonry, the teachings of Pythagoras have greatly influenced its structure and its teachings.
Pythagoras was born, as far as we can tell, in the year 600 B.C. His birth was allegedly foretold by Pythoness, then the Oracle of Delphi. The Oracle told Pythagoras' parents, the merchant Menesarchus and his wife Parthenis, that they would have a child destined to surpass all men in beauty and wisdom. They were also told by the Oracle, that throughout his lifetime, their son would contribute much to the benefit of mankind. When he was born in Sidon, in Phoenicia, Pythagoras was named in honor of the Oracle. (2)
The story of Pythagoras' birth is often accompanied by stories of a virgin birth. Sacred writings indicate that Pythagoras' mother conceived through a specter or holy spirit which appeared to her. His father had revealed to him through a vision that his wife would bear a son through divine conception and that he would be a benefactor to mankind.(3)
Legends of a virgin birth may have surfaced after the death of Pythagoras to help raise him to a status above normal man. As will be shown later, Pythagoras was thought by many to be a "Divine" teacher.
Not much is known of Pythagoras' childhood. However, there is much written about his travels during his early adult life. It seems he was initiated into the mysteries of several countries. These included the mysteries of Isis, Adonis, the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Chaldean Mysteries and the secrets of Babylon. In addition, he studied for several years in Hindustan where the Brahmins who taught Pythagoras named him Yavancharya, the Ionian Teacher.(4)
It was from the Brahmins that Pythagoras probably learned of the transmigration of souls. This concept played a major role in his future teachings. But, it was in Egypt that Pythagoras learned the sciences upon which he would build his explanation of the world; mathematics and geometry.(5) As was partially evident from his later teachings, he was thoroughly familiar with oriental and occidental, or western, philosophies. Nevertheless, Pythagoras did not exalt himself because of his knowledge. According to Albert G. Mackey, in his Encyclopedia of Freemasonry,
" Disdaining the vanity and dogmatism of the ancient sages, he contented himself with proclaiming that he was simply a seeker after knowledge, not its possessor, and to him is attributed the word philosopher, or lover of wisdom, as the only title he would assume."(6)
In fact, Pythagoras was the first to use the term philosopher as a description of himself.
After preparing himself through the study of the mysteries and religions of the seats of wisdom of the ancient world, it was time for Pythagoras to teach his world view to those who were worthy.
Sometime during the second half of the sixth century B.C., Pythagoras travelled to Crotona, Italy where he opened a school. The word school may be a misnomer, however. The Pythagoreans, as they would soon be called, were a religious group or community. Further, Pythagoras was thought to be more than a philosopher.(7)
Iamblichus, in his life of Pythagoras, calls him "leader and father of divine philosophy," a superhuman being, a divine man. This description of Pythagoras is not unique. He was also given these attributes in accounts written by Porphyry, a Tyrean philosopher and author (circa 232-301 A.D.), and Diogenes Laertius, a notable third century A.D. biographer of the Greek Philosophers.(8)
The followers of Pythagoras were also convinced of his divinity. They called him the "son of god. " Every word Pythagoras spoke was noted and considered important. In his book Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy, Manly P. Hall gives us an example of his legendary stature,
"In height he exceeded six feet; his body was as perfectly formed as that of Apollo. Pythagoras was the personification of majesty and power, and in his presence all felt humble and afraid. As he grew older, his physical powers increased rather than waned, so that as he approached the century mark he was actually in the prime of life. The influence of this great soul over those about him was such that a word of praise from Pythagoras filled his disciples with ecstasy, while one committed suicide because the Master became momentarily irritated over something he had done. Pythagoras was so impressed by this tragedy that he never again spoke unkindly to or about anyone." (8)
Life at the school was highly structured and discipline was considered of great importance. Silence, Secrecy, and unconditional obedience were cardinal principles of this great order. This does not mean that there was a lack of warmth and friendship among Pythagoras' students. Pythagoras taught that friendship was the truest and nearest perfect of all relationships. He believed "...that relationships were essentially mental rather than physical, and that a stranger of sympathetic intellect was closer to him than a blood relation whose viewpoint was at variance with his own.(9)" Consequently, the Pythagoreans became a brotherhood with each member caring for the others.
To enter the school at Crotona did not give the new student the right to come into direct contact with Pythagoras. A neophyte was required to pass through three degrees before he could enter into Pythagoras' presence. The first, Mathematicus, assured the student of proficiency in mathematics and geometry. The second, Theoreticus, dealt with the superficial applications of the exact sciences. The third, Electus, "entitled the candidate to pass forward into the light of the fullest illumination which he was capable of absorbing." (10) It was only after a candidate reached the level of Electus that he was allowed personal contact with Pythagoras. "The study of music, Geometry and astronomy was considered essential to a rational understanding of God, man, or nature, and no one could accompany Pythagoras who was not thoroughly familiar with these sciences. " (11)
As members of the school passed through the three degrees, they learned the great teachings which would be identified by later philosophies as Pythagorean. The greatest of these teachings may have been Pythagoras' system of numbers.
According to Dagobert D. Runes, "There is general agreement that Pythagoras is regarded as the initiator of mathematical demonstration and deduction." (12) The Pythagorean philosophy is based on numbers. Aristotle also commented on the importance of mathematics to Pythagorean thought,
"...the Pythagoreans, as they are called, devoted themselves to mathematics, they were the first to advance this study, and having been brought up in it they thought its principles were the principles of all things. " (13)
Not only did Pythagoras apply mathematics to logic and science, but he also used it to explain the world.
" . . . Pythagoras combined rational science and religious mysticism, and endeavored to use mathematical concepts and axioms for other worldly speculations. He influenced Plato and Plotinus, and, through them, many mystics and metaphysicians up to the present day. (14)
In addition, the Pythagoreans developed a form of algebra from their study of mathematics. "...Pythagoras has been not only credited with a method common in value to all branches of mathematics but to be personally comparable himself with Descartes who decisively combined geometry and algebra." (15)
Pythagoras used numbers to explain material phenomena. The first four numbers are of great importance. The number one represents the point, number two the line, number three the surface, and number four the solid (16) These are the fundamental Pythagorean geometric figures.
Combinations of the geometric elements constructed from the first four numbers were used to construct geometric shapes. These shapes were also used as symbols to explain the gods and existence. According to Plutarch, this was as a result of images Pythagoras had seen in Egypt. (17)
Two of the shapes used by Pythagoras were the triangle, or triad, and the square, or tetrad. The triangle represents the monad, 1, and the duad, 2, the monad representing the male and duad representing the female. Further, the tetrad, 4 represents the soul of man and the most perfect number. The concept of the triangle and the square was later adopted by the 17th century Rosicrucians. Some say that these two concepts, possibly influenced by Rosicrucian teachings, are represented by the Masonic apron. The triad, which in total represents spirit, mind, and soul, descends into the four, the world.(18)
Pythagoras' most important contribution to the world of geometry was the Pythagorean Theorem. This theorem describes the relationship among the three sides of a right triangle.
There are two more teachings of Pythagoras which must be mentioned. The first describes the concept of one god. The second describes the belief in the immortality of the soul.
In the Greece of Pythagoras, many gods were worshipped. In fact, there was a god for each important aspect of human endeavor. Pythagoras believed that transcending these popular gods was the absolute deity. This absolute deity was indescribable, without beginning or end, and without form. This deity of Pythagoras must not be confused with the Judeo-Christian Yahweh. Blavatsky infers in her "The Secret Doctrine" that the god of the Pythagoreans, and many other great schools of their time, may have influenced the Judeo-Christian concept of god. (19)
The last teaching of Pythagoras we will examine is his belief in the immortality of the soul. The system of gods which the Greeks worshipped did not allow for a blissful life after death. Instead, the essence of a person was confined to Hades and an eternity of meaningless, suffering existence. Pythagoras believed that man had a soul which was one with God.
"Late in the sixth century, Pythagoras taught that souls migrated after death into other bodies, both human and animal. Meat-eating was therefore an abomination, a form of cannibalism. (20)
The Pythagoreans believed that the soul should be tended and purified. "The practice of silence, the influence of music, and the study of mathematics were all looked on as valuable aids in tending the soul. (21)
After returning to a material form enough times to purify the soul, the soul would eventually become one with God and discontinue its journey through successive bodies.
It can be seen that the Pythagoreans described their world in terms of geometric and mathematical symbols. They believed in a supreme God of which all men's souls were a part. Their community, or school, was based on caring, study and purification. But how did Pythagorean thought of the 6th century B.C. influence Freemasons of the 17th and 18th centuries?
Influence on Freemasonry
The ritual, teachings and system of morality of Freemasonry can be said to be derived from the teachings of the Greek philosophers. According to William Hutchinson, called by many the "Father of Symbolic Freemasonry,"
"Our morality is deduced from the maxims of the Grecian philosophers, and perfected by the christian revelation. (22)
The scholars of 17th and 18th century Europe were greatly influenced by classical studies. These studies particularly concentrated on Plato and Aristotle. Plato was greatly influenced by the Pythagoreans.(23) Aristotle, his pupil, was also affected but to a lesser extent.
Plato also believed that the world could be described in terms of numbers. It is possible that he borrowed this concept from the Pythagoreans;
"In Italy he (Plato) stayed for a time with a Pythagorean community, vegetarian and communist, which had for generations controlled the Greek colony in which it lived." (24)
The study of geometry was also very important to Plato. Will Durant describes the possible combination of Pythagorean and Platonic numbers in a story about a bridge;
"There is, as the gentle Spinoza would say, a world of things perceived by sense, and a world of things inferred by thought; we do not see the law of inverse squares but it is there, and everywhere; it was before anything began, and will survive when all the world of things is a finished tale. Here is a bridge: the sense perceives concrete and iron to a hundred million tons; the mathematician sees, with the mind's eye, the daring and delicate adjustment of all this mass of material to laws of mechanics and mathematics and engineering, those laws according to which all good bridges that are made must be made; if the mathematician be also a poet, he will see these laws upholding the bridge; if the laws were violated the bridge would collapse into the stream beneath; the laws are the God that holds up the bridge in the hollow of his hand. Aristotle hints something of this when he says that by ideas (idealistic representations of things or phenomena as we know them) Plato meant what Pythagoras meant by "number" when he taught that this is a world of numbers meaning presumably that the world is ruled by mathematical constancies and regularities...To Plato...mathematics is therefore the indispensable prelude to philosophy, and its highest form; over the doors of his Academy Plato placed...these words, 'Let no man ignorant of geometry enter here." (25)
It is true that geometry played a fundamental role in the operative craft from which speculative Masonry was born. In addition, the system of morality and philosophy upon which speculative Masonry is based must have been influenced to some extent by the teachings of Pythagoras and Plato.
Pythagoras can be directly linked to Freemasonry through the writings of some of the early Masonic authors. James Anderson, author of "Anderson's Constitutions of 1723, " makes this comment;
"Nor do we find the Grecians arrived to any considerable knowledge in Geometry, before the Great Thales Milesius, the philosopher, who died in the reign of Belshazzar, and the time of the Jewish captivity. But his scholar, the Greater Pythagoras, proved the author of the 47th problem of Euclid's first book, which, if duly observed, is the Foundation of all Masonry, sacred, civil and military."(26)
Although Anderson's grasp on actual historical events is not without doubt, it is clear from this early Masonic work that the link between the speculative mathematics of Pythagoras and the speculative craft was established.
Hutchinson, in his work "The Spirit of Masonry," first published in 1775, again establishes the link between Pythagoras and speculative Masonry, but in more familiar terms;
"It is known to all the learned that Pythagoras travelled into Egypt, and was initiated there into several different orders of priests, who in those days kept all their learning secret from the vulgar.--He made every geometrical theorem a secret, and admitted only such to the knowledge of them, as had first undergone a five-year silence.--He is supposed to be the inventor of the 47th proposition of Euclid, for which, in the joy of his heart, it is said he sacrificed a hecatomb." (27)
It is probable that Pythagorean teachings, either directly or indirectly, affected the development of speculative Masonry. The use of mathematics and geometry to explain the world is as fundamental to Freemasonry as it was to the Pythagoreans .
Aside from the connection between the teaching of Pythagoras and speculative Masonry, there may be a connection between the structure of Pythagorean schools and Masonic Lodges. According to Mackey,
"The schools established by Pythagoras at Crotona and other cities, have been considered by many writers as the models after which Masonic Lodges were subsequently constructed. They undoubtedly served the Christian ascetics of the first century as a pattern for their monastic institutions, with which institutions the Freemasonry of the Middle Ages, in its operative character, was intimately connected."(28)
This possibility is provided for your consideration. I was unable to find proof of its validity.
Even though the "real" Pythagoras may never be known, I believe this to be a reasonably true representation of his life and the affects of his teachings on the world.
His beliefs concerning numbers as they relate to the material world and morality influenced the greatest minds of recorded history. In addition, I believe I have shown that his concept of geometry and mathematics played a significant part in the development of speculative Masonry. Further, the system of morality upon which Freemasonry is based may be traced to the classical Greek Philosophers, who were influenced by the Pythagoreans.
Although this last point was not expanded here, I leave it to the reader to seek out the basic writings of these great minds. For it was on the teachings of Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and many more that the framework of western civilization was built. As we travel to the East, we can only benefit from the help these great teachers can give us. And who knows, maybe that for which we have so long wrought is hidden in the geometry of Pythagoras or the Ideals of Plato.
1. Runes, Dagobert D., A Treasury of Philosophy, Volume 11, (Grolier, New York 1955), P. 979.
2. Hall, Manly P., Masonic Hermltic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy, (The Philosophical Research Society, Los Angeles, 1977), P 65.
3.Spencer, Lewis H.,Ph.D.,F.R.C.,Mystical Life of Jesus, (Supreme Grand Lodge of Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, SanJose, 1953), P 84.
4. Hall, Masonic. . . Philosophy, P. 6s.
5 . Hutchinson, William The Spirit of Masonry, (The Aquarian Press, Weilingborough, Northamptonshire, 1987), P 39.
6. Mackey, Albert G., Encyclopedia of Frecmasonry, Volume 11, (Macoy Publishing and Masonic Supply Company, Richmond, 1966), P 823.
7. Hall, Manly P., Masonic...Philosophy, P. 66.
8. Ibid, P. 66.
9. Ibid, P. 66.
10. Ibid, P. 66.
11. Ibid, P. 66.
12. Runes, Dagobert, A Trcasury of Philosophy, P. 979.
13. Coppleston, Frederick, A History of Philosophy, Volume 1, (Doubleday, New York, 1985), P. 32.
14. Runes, Dagobert, A Treasury of Philosophy, P. 979.
15. Mackey, Albert, Fncyclopedia of Freemasonry, P. 824.
16. Hall, Manly P., Masonu...Philosophy, P. 67.
17. Ibid, P. 69.
18. Ibid, P. 72.
19. Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna, The Secret Doctrine, Volume 1, (The Theosophical University Press, Pasadena, 1988), P. 613.
20. Boardman, John; Griffin, Jasper; Murray, Oswyn, The Oxford History of the Classual World, (Oxford University Press, New York, 1986), P. 269
21. Coppleston, Frederick, A History of Philosophy, P. 3 1 .
22. Hutchinson, William, The Spirit of Masonry, P.
23. Runes, Dagobert, A Treasury of Philosophy, P. 979.
24. Durant, Will, The Story of Philosophy, (Washington Square Press, New York, 1961), P. 42.
25. Ibid, P. 30.
26. Anderson, James, Anderson's Constitutions of 1723, (The Masonic Service Association of the United States, Washington, D.C., 1924), P. 50-
27. Hutchinson, William, The Spirit of Masonry, P. 39-40.
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