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The Doctrines of Pythagoras

Dernière mise à jour : 10 août 2023

Bust of Pythagoras (-6th century)

Musei Capitolini, Rome

Extract from :

George G. M. James

Stolen Legacy



Born in the Aegean Island of Samos, supposedly in 530 B.C.; the following doctrines have been attributed to Pythagoras :

(i) Transmigration, the immortality of the soul and salvation.

This salvation is based upon certain beliefs concerning the soul. True life is not to be found here on earth, and what men call life is really death, and the body is the tomb of the soul.

Owing to the contamination caused by the soul's imprisonment in the body, it is forced to pass through an indefinite series of re-incarnations: from the body of one animal, to that of another, until it is purged from such contamination.

Salvation, in this sense, consists of the freedom of the soul from the "cycle of birth, death and rebirth", which is common to every soul, and which condition must remain until purification or purgation is completed.

Being liberated from the ten chains of the flesh, and also from successive re-incarnations, the soul now acquires her pristine perfection, and the eligibility to join the company of the Gods, with whom she dwells for ever.

This was the reward which the Pythagorean System offered its initiates.

(ii) The doctrines of (a) Opposites, (b) the Summum Bonum, or Supreme Good, and (c) the process of purification.

(a) THE UNION OF OPPOSITES creates harmony in the universe. This is true in the case of musical sounds, such as we find in the lyre: where the harmony produced is the result of the mean proportional relation between the length of the two middle strings to that of the two extremes.

This is also true in natural phenomena, which are identified with number, whose elements consist of the odd and the even. The even is unlimited, because of its quality of unlimited divisibility, and the odd indicates limitation; while the product of both is the unit or harmony.

Similarly, do we obtain harmony in the union of positive and negative; male and female; material and immaterial; body and soul.

(b) THE SUMMUM BONUM OR SUPREME GOOD in man, is to become godlike. This is an attainment, or transformation which is the harmony resulting from a life of virtue. It consists in a harmonious relationship between the faculties of man, by means of which his lower nature becomes subordinated to his higher nature.


The harmony and purification of the soul is attained, not only by virtue, but also by other means, the most important among them being the cultivation of the intellect through the pursuit of scientific knowledge and strict bodily discipline.

In this process, music also held an important place. The Pythagoreans believed and taught that just as medicine is used to cure the body, so music must be used to cure the soul.

Here it might be appropriate to insert the doctrine of the "Three Lives", since it is also a method and means of purification :

"Mankind is divided into three classes: Lovers of wealth; lovers of honour, and lovers of wisdom (i.e. philosophers); this last, being highest."

According to Pythagoras, philosophy determined the purification which led to the final salvation of the soul.

(iii) The Cosmological Doctrine

All things are numbers, that is to say not only every object, but the entire universe is an arrangement of numbers. This means that the characteristic of any object is the number by which it is represented.

(a) Since the universe consists of ten bodies, namely, the five stars, the earth and the counter earth, then the universe must be represented by the perfect number ten.

(b) Applied to the space around us, but called by Pythagoreans the Boundless or Unlimited, it must be taken to mean, the measuring out of this Boundless, into a balanced and harmonious universe, so that everything might receive its proper proportion of it. No more, no less.

(c) This arrangement seems to suggest the notion of forms capable of receiving a mathematical expression, i.e., a doctrine which later appeared in Plato, as the theory of Ideas.

(d) In the centre of the universe there is a central fire around which the heavenly bodies fixed in their spheres, revolve from West to East, while around all there is the peripheral fire.

This motion of the heavenly bodies is regulated in the velocity, and produces the harmony of the spheres.

(Roger's Students' History of Philosophy p. 14–22).

(Bakewell's Source Book of Philosophy) (Life and Tenets of Pythagoras).

(Ruddick's History of Philosophy) (Life and Tenets of Pythagoras).

(Fuller's History of Philosophy) (Life and Tenets of Pythagoras).

(Turner's History of Philosophy: p. 40–43).

(History of Ancient Egypt by John Kendrick vol. I p. 401-402)

(Plato's Phaedo, 85E).

(Aristotle's Metaphysics I 5; 985b, 24; and I 5; 986a, 23).

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