Friday, 16 October 2015

Apollonius and the Pythagoreans - Part I

First published on my classics blog, Memento, on 26 February 2015.

In the next couple of posts, I want to look at the mysterious figure of Apollonius of Tyana, a Pythagorean holy man who flourished in the 1st century AD.

A good place to start is to look at the Pythagorean movement itself and its origins.  Who were these people and what were they trying to do?

Pythagoras himself is a very shadowy figure.  He lived in the decades around 500 BC - before almost all the great writers and thinkers of the classical world, before the golden age of Athens, and before Rome was anything more than a town in central Italy.  He probably grew up on the island of Samos before moving in later life to Croton in southern Italy.  He and his followers may subsequently have been expelled from there to another southern Italian city, Metapontum.

To the best of our knowledge, he wrote nothing.  Our knowledge of him begins with fragments of writings about him which date to 150 years after his death.  For other early philosophers, we have quotations from their own writings.  In the case of Socrates, we have testimony from people who knew him.  We have none of this for Pythagoras.

Most people remember Pythagoras today as the originator of the famous theorem on triangles - the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.  There is some evidence that Pythagoras may have been interested in numbers, but we can be fairly sure that he wasn't a mathematician in the sense in which we would understand the word.  It only seems to have been after his death that a split developed among his followers between those with religious interests (the akousmatikoi) and those with mathematical and scientific interests (the mathematikoi).  The man himself was first and foremost a religious guru.  More specifically, he belonged to that long succession of religious teachers who have taught that asceticism is the path to the sacred.

The most confident claim that we can make about Pythagoras is that he laid down a distinctive way of life for his followers - an ascetic lifestyle, which included unusual dietary rules.  He became famous in later times as a vegetarian.  However, even relatively early sources do not agree on whether he abstained from eating all meat or only some kinds (and, if so, which).  There is also evidence that he taught abstinence from beans, but the evidence is not unequivocal and in any case no-one seems to have remembered the reason for the prohibition.

As far as doctrine is concerned, Pythagoras' main contribution to religious thought seems to have been the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.  Greek religion was not especially interested in life after death, and the early Greeks believed that the dead lingered on in a kind of shadowy half-existence in Hades.  Pythagoras seems to have thought that there was more to it than that.  In particular, he was credited with teaching the doctrine of reincarnation.  This included the transmigration of souls between humans and other animals.  Abstaining from eating animals makes some sense if you believe that human souls might end up in them.  It might also make sense if you are trying, Buddhist-style, to escape your cycle of incarnations by means of a process of self-purification.

Ordinary Greeks might perhaps have been forgiven for mistaking the Pythagorean path for what we would today call a cult.  The early Pythagoreans come over as a kind of cross between monks and hippies.  They weren't alone, either - they had some similarity with other shadowy, mystical religious movements, including one known as Orphism which likewise seems to have taught reincarnation.  The Pythagoreans and their fellow mystics formed a kind of radical fringe of Greek religion: the side of it that wasn't about marble temples or salacious myths.  Some people couldn't resist making fun of them.  This is how the comic playwright Alexis (c.375 - c.275 BC) wrote about them:
-   ....Clever Pythagorean
discourses and refined philosophy
are what those men live on.  This is their daily fare:
one plain loaf for each of them, and a cup
of water: that's it!
-                                    You're telling me
that all these wise men live like they're in prison?...  (Athenaeus, 161b-c) 
They have to put up with hunger, dirt,
cold, silence, gloom and not being able to wash.  (Athenaeus, 161d)
It didn't help that the Pythagoreans seem to have had some involvement in politics.  Their distinctive combination of religious esotericism, fraternalism and political activity has been compared to the modern phenomenon of Freemasonry.

So much for the origins of Pythagoreanism.  By about the 300s BC, it seemed that the movement was already on the decline.  But the story wasn't over; not by a long way.