The Vocabulary of Myth, Part XIX


The Immortality and Divinity of the Soul…

 The Controlling Images of Pythagoras’ Myth…

 Birth in the Body as Death, Imprisonment, Exile…

 Immortal Thoughts for Mortal Men…

     Pythagoras is probably the most important, and certainly the most influential of the Pre-Socratics, if only because Plato’s thought depends so heavily upon his, and Western thought depends so heavily upon Plato’s.

Pythagoras was born on the island of Samos, just off the Ionian coast and slightly north of Miletus.  Tradition has it that he left Samos because of his disgust with the tyranny of Polycrates, and like Xenophanes before him, fled westward.  C. 530 B.C., when he was forty years old, Pythagoras settled at Croton, a Greek settlement on the east coast of southern Italy, where there soon gathered around him a large number of devoted disciples.  The community at Croton was less a philosophical school, in fact, than a religious cult, and indeed, as in the other mystery religions of Greece and the Ancient Near East, the Pythagorean initiates were bound by oath not to divulge the doctrines taught them by their master.

Fortunately, many of Pythagoras’ later disciples broke their oaths, including Philolaus, an important Pythagorean thinker who lived in the 5th century B.C., and who enumerates some of the basic teachings of the founder as follows:

First, he said that the soul is immortal; second, that it migrates into other kinds of animals; third, that the same events are repeated in cycles, nothing being new in the strict sense; and finally, that all things with souls should be regarded as akin.


That the human soul is immortal, indeed, an inhaled portion of the divine “breath” that suffuses and animates the entire universe, had already been taught by Anaximenes.  But Pythagoras was the first Greek thinker to address the fundamental ontological, anthropological, and moral problems that inevitably follow from such a conception.

First, if the soul is immortal, how is it related to the human body, and to all material things in the universe, which are so obviously subject to decay, disintegration, and death?  Pythagoras’ answer was momentous for later Western thought.  Soul and body, he maintained, are ontologically opposite, belonging to entirely different orders of existence.

As Philolaus reports, Pythagoras taught that the soul is “buried in the body as if in a tomb”.  Birth in the body spells a kind of death for the soul, whose real life is in the other world, where it was born and pre-existed in a disembodied state before its incarnation, a condition which it naturally hopes to resume after the body dies.

This explains those other conventional Pythagorean metaphors, according to which the material body is the soul’s prison, that life in it on earth is a kind of “slavery”, “captivity”, or “exile” from the soul’s native realm and true home.  That home, where the soul was originally born, to which it belongs by right and nature, and whence it fell by a kind of sin, is the celestial world, the abode of the Divine. Thus nascent already in Pythagoreanism is that distinction that Aristotle was later to make famous, between the translunary order, made of a kind of super-rarefied fire called aether–absolutely pure, immutable, imperishable, eternal, and divine–, and the sublunary, where everything is grossly material, and thus subject to corruption and decay.

For Pythagoras, the human soul was, as Diogenes Laertius reports, “a detached portion of that celestial ether”, which is to say a deracinated particle of the Divine, as Anaximenes had also conceived it.  Thus, as Diogenes goes on to say, Pythagoras insisted that “soul is distinct from life and immortal”.  It is not affected by the corruption which overtakes the body, but stands apart from it even in life, preserving its affinity with the Godhead throughout its exile in the world.  At the same time, of course, the soul is oppressed by a palpable sense of alienation, yearning to be released from its carnal prison-house, and to return to that upper region whence it came, reunited forevermore with the Divine.


The effect of Pythagoras’ emphasis on the innate and essential divinity of the soul was to fatally undermine the traditional Greek view of the place of man in the world-order.  We’ve already encountered a number of expressions of the idea of the unbridgeable gulf between mortal and immortal, between a life subject to misfortune and vicissitude, and one lived in eternal and unchanging bliss.  Here are three more, from the fifth-century poet Pindar:

No man can win to happiness complete….
In brief space the joy of mortals waxes;
In brief space it falls to the ground,
Stricken by an adverse fate.
We are but creatures of a day.
What is a man?
Man is a dream of shadows…

If a man having wealth surpass all others in beauty,
Displaying his strength by victory in the games,
Let him remember the limbs he arrays are mortal,
And that he will come to the end that all men come to,
Clothing himself with earth…

Mortal thoughts befit mortal men.

But Pythagoreanism completely overturns this view; as Aristotle describes the moral imperatives of Pythagoras’ followers:

We are not to obey those who tell us that a man should think a man’s thoughts, and a mortal the thoughts of a mortal.  On the contrary, we should endeavour as far as possible to become immortal, and to do all that we can to live in accordance with what is highest in us.