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Neo-Pythagoreanism

NEO-PYTHAGOREANISM

The Pythagorean school of philosophy became extinct in the 4th century b.c., but there continued to be "exoteric" Pythagoreans who cultivated an ascetic way of life modeled on the supposed practice of Pythagoras himself. References to them are found in Middle Comedy (in H. Diels, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker: Griechisch und Deutsch, ed. W. Kranz, 1, no. 58E), and the moralizing tractates preserved in Stobaeus [ed. F. G. A. Mullach, Fragmenta Philosophorum Graecorum 2 (Paris 1867) 1129]. Pythagoreanism had been originally perpetuated only by oral teaching, and the succession was broken in the 4th century. Therefore, when the school was revived in the 1st century b.c., especially at Alexandria and Rome, it became eclectic, drawing on the doctrines of various schools. Thus, Sextus Empiricus gives two accounts of the Neo-Pythagorean number doctrine, the first of which (10.261281) is Platonic, and the second (10.281284), Stoic. Diogenes Laërtius (8.2433) preserves a good, though brief, statement of NeoPythagorean tenets quoted from Alexander Polyhistor. Alexander discusses number symbolism, teachings on souls and daimones, the structure of the world, the kinship of man with gods and animals, and rewards and punishments in a future life. He does not mention transmigration of souls, but this doctrine is attested elsewhere.

Number Symbolism. Number symbolism is characteristic of Neo-Pythagorean thought. Some members of the sect used only the monad (Stoic), while others also introduced the undefined dyad (Platonic). In this and other respects, Neo-Pythagoreanism was not unified in doctrine. It was a movement rather than a well-defined school, and it is therefore not always easy to tell who was a Neo-Pythagorean and who was not. For instance, the work of Pseudo-Timaeus of Locri contains nothing specifically Pythagorean, and Ocellus Lucanus could as easily be regarded as a Peripatetic.

Moral Precepts and Practices. After number symbolism, moral precepts are the most characteristic mark of Neo-Pythagorean writings [e.g., Iamblichus, "Golden Verses," Vita Pythagorae, ed. A. Nauck (Leipzig 1884)]. The doctrine that all living thingsgods, men, animals are akin led to many practices: abstinence from meat and fish, the use of linen rather than woolen clothing, the cultivation of self-control and friendship, and the careful observance of piety toward the gods. Some members of the school believed that the air was full of souls and divine spirits (daimones ), that dreams are a reality, and that burial rites are very important [see F. Cumont, Recherches sur le symbolisme funéraire des Romains (Paris 1942)]. Some advocated an examination of conscience every evening. Agatharchides mentions three ways in which men become better: by making themselves as like the gods as possible; by doing good deeds; and by death, which frees the soul from bodily contamination. It is not surprising that such men looked down upon others with less high ideals and that, like the contemporary early Christians, they were regarded with suspicion, particularly in Rome, where all foreign religions were mistrusted.

Some Neo-Pythagoreans also practiced magic or worse, at least in popular opinion. P. Nigidius Figulus, whose piety Cicero extolled (Ad Fam. 4.13), used boys as mediums in the recovery of treasure (Apuleius, Apol. 42); and Vatinius, whom Cicero accused of sacrificing boys to the Manes (In Vat. 14, and Schol. Bob. ad 1), was a member of Nigidius's circle.

Apollonius of Tyana. The best-known NeoPythagorean is apollonius of tyana, born about the beginning of the Christian Era. According to his biographer Philostratus, he substituted hymns and prayers for blood offerings, forbade the use of meat and wine, ate vegetables, wore linen, never bathed or cut his hair, practiced holy silence and sexual purity, and thus was united to the gods. He acquired magic powers as well as knowledge of the future and the past, including that of his own previous incarnation (Philostratus, Vita Apoll. 3.23;6.21). The letters ascribed to him reveal Apollonius as he seemed to his immediate followers before the time of Philostratus. Apollonius was clearly a powerful personality living in a believing age, and he appealed to the learned as well as to the simple. Even some Christians respected him, for Sidonius Apollinaris (c. a.d. 43280), Bishop of Clermont, transcribed for a friend a revised version of a Latin translation of Apollonius's biography (Epist. 8.3). There were undoubtedly other similar Neo-Pythagorean teachers of whom we know nothing.

Evaluation of Neo-Pythagoreanism. There is little philosophy in all this. Neo-Pythagoreanism was most conspicuously a religious movement, as its general character and concerns make clear. The Neo-Pythagoreans were often at odds with contemporary society, but, at the same time, the movement embodied several characteristic features of the religious life of the Empire: mysticism and occultism, belief in miracles, asceticism, stern morality, and the close union of the believers within their own group.

Neo-Pythagoreanism was absorbed into Neoplatonism, as is evident from the writings of Numenius (c. a.d. 150250), who regarded the teachings of Pythagoras and Plato as practically identical, and from the lives of Pythagoras by Iamblichus and Porphyry. At an earlier date, it certainly influenced Philo Judaeus's terminology and it affected Christian thought through Clement of Alexandria. The latter often mentions Pythagoras, but largely as he was known through the Neo-Pythagorean writings.

See Also: asceticism; greek philosophy (religious aspects); neoplatonism; pythagoras and pythagoreans.

Bibliography: Sources. Ocellus Lucanus, ed. r. harder (Berlin 1926). P. Nigidii Figuli operum reliquia, ed. a. swoboda (Vienna 1889). e. a. leemans, Studie over den wijsgeer Numenius van Apamia mit uitgave der fragmenten (Brussels 1937). Other works. f. ueberweg, Grundiss der Geschichte der Philosophie, ed. k. praechter et al., 5 v. (11th, 12th ed. Berlin 192328) 1:51324. r. dodds, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, ed. m. cary et al. (Oxford 1949) 603. r. beutler, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. (1937) 17.2:236180. m. p. nilsson, Geschichte der griechischen Religion (2d ed. Munich 1955) 2:396407. a. schmekel, Die Philosophie der Mittleren Stoa (Berlin 1892). a. delatte, Études sur la littérature pythagorienne (Paris 1915).

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