Theosophical Encyclopedia


TE 6 Pythagoras

A pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who lived circa 582-507 B.C. Although the neo-Platonists Proclus (circa 232-304) and Porphyry (410?-484) both wrote biographies of him, little is known historically about his life. He was born on the Greek island of Samos, but migrated to Italy (called Magna Graecia in his day) and founded a school at Krotona, which taught an esoteric doctrine to a group of disciples who revered Pythagoras as a demigod. He and his ideas appear frequently in Theosophical literature, such as The Secret Doctrine and Isis Unveiled by Helena P. Blavatsky, The Masters and the Path by Charles W. Leadbeater, and The Lives of Alcyone by Leadbeater and Annie Besant. In the last two books, Pythagoras is identified as a previous incarnation of Mahātma Koot Hoomi, one of Blavatsky’s teachers.

One of Pythagoras’s principal doctrines was metempsychosis or reincarnation, and he required of his disciples a meatless diet and the moral behavior he taught conducive to achieving a more spiritual stature and eventual liberation from the wheel of rebirth. His followers were required to maintain a discipline of silence for the first six years of their discipleship during which they were akoustekoi or “hearers.” He also held women to be the equals of men and enjoined his followers to treat slaves humanely and to respect animals. It is obvious, then, that his was not just an intellectual philosophy, but also a spiritual practice, and that philosophy meant to his followers a genuine pursuit of wisdom, not merely an acquisition of knowledge.

The most characteristic doctrine of Pythagoras was that Nature manifests itself in numbers or proportion. The forty-seventh proposition in Euclid’s geometry (that the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides) is usually called “the Pythagorean theorem” and was undoubtedly discovered by Pythagoras or his followers. He taught that, when the Absolute manifests, it does so in mathematically describable ways. Ultimate reality is a unity or monos that emanates the world by means of sound or harmony. The first to emanate is the dyad, but since two is not a stable number (cannot make a solid, that is, manifest anything), it is followed by the triad. The other numerical proportions follow from that. The soul, a self-moving entity, is symbolized by the number four, and is midway between a spiritual triad and a psycho-physical triad — in other words, humans have a septenary nature, which is the occult teaching as found in modern Theosophy. The idea of the decad or ten is important in Pythagoreanism and it is generally accepted that the Pythagoreans taught the decimal system, including the idea of zero (cf. SD 1:361), long before the Arabs brought it to Europe from India. But twelve was their most important number, hence the dodecahedron (a twelve-sided regular solid) was the “perfect” figure, an idea that may be related to the twelve signs of the zodiac and other dodecads in ancient times (e.g., the twelve tribes of Israel). Pythagoras also taught that even moral attributes, such as justice, can be expressed by means of number or proportion. This idea probably influenced Plato’s idea of justice as outlined in the Republic.

H. P. Blavatsky states that Pythagoras was an initiate in the Mystery schools (as were Plato and some other early Greek philosophers), which traced their ideas to Egypt, Chaldea, and eventually India (SD 1:361). As such, he taught that the earth was a sphere which rotated on its axis and revolved around the sun (ideas known to ancient Egyptians, but rejected by Aristotle). He was also aware of the inclination of the earth’s axis and of the precession of the equinox. He also, like some other early Greek philosophers, taught that all natural forces were “Spiritual Entities” (SD 1:492), intelligent, not blind, forces, a central idea of occult philosophy.

Pythagoreans made important contributions not only to mathematics and astronomy, but also to medicine. Around the end of the fifthth century B.C., they were persecuted because of their opposition to traditional customs, and the school at Krotona was forced to close. Their ideas strongly influenced Plato and the neo-Platonists as well as Hellenistic Jews.

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