Anonymus, Life of Pythagoras

1 Introduction

This text about Pythagoras, from an anonymous writer, is lost in its original form, but a summary survives in Photius’ Bibliotheca (codex 249). This summary almost skips over the biography, and instead preserves what may be, for its length, the most comprehensive overview of mainstream Greco-Roman thought. (For an overview of more characteristically Pythagorean teachings, see Alexander Polyhistor, Pythagoric Memoirs.) I translate from the Greek edition of R. Henry. Section headings added by me.

2 Translation

I read a Life of Pythagoras.

<Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans>

(The author claims) that Plato was the ninth successor of Pythagoras, since he was the student of Archytas, the previous successor, and that Aristotle was the tenth. Some of Pythagoras’ followers concerned themselves with contemplation, and were called the reverent (sebastikoí), some with human affairs, and they were called statesmen (politikoí), others with mathematics, geometry and astronomy, and these were called mathematicians. And those who studied with Pythagoras himself were called Pythagorics, their students were called Pythagoreans, but those who became followers in other ways, from afar, were called Pythagorists. They abstained from ensouled beings, and only tasted them on the occasion of sacrifices.

That Pythagoras is said to have lived a hundred and four years. And that Mnesarchus, one of his sons, is said to have died earlier, and that his other son, Telauges, succeded him, and that Aesara and Myia were his daughters. And Theano was not only a student of his but also one of his daughters.

<The doctrine of numbers>

That the followers of Pythagoras said that monad (‘unit’) and one differ. For they believe that monad is among the intelligibles (objects of thought), while one is among the numbers. And likewise, two is among the numbers; and they said that the dyad is indefinite, because the monad is taken as evenness and measure, while the dyad is taken as excess and deficiency. Now, the mean and measure cannot become more or less; but because excess and deficiency go on to infinity, they called the dyad indefinite. And because they reduced all things to numbers on the basis of the monad and the dyad, and they said that all things were numbers, and the numbers are completed by the ten, and ten is the product of four if we count successively (i.e., 1+2+3+4), for this reason they called all number tetractys.

<How humans become better>

That they said a human being becomes better than themselves in three ways, firstly through associating with the gods – for those who approach them necessarily are separated from all vice for that moment and assimilate themselves to the god insofar as possible –, secondly through acting well – for that belongs to a god and imitation of the divine –, thirdly through dying; for if the soul becomes so much better when it is separated from the body while the living being is still alive, and becomes capable of divination by dreaming during sleep and in the ecstasies of sickness, by how much more must it be improved when it dies and is separated from the body?

<From the monad to bodies>

That the Pythagoreans called the monad the beginning of all things, because they said that the point was the beginning of the line, the line of the plane, and the plane of the three-dimensional object or body. And the monad must be understood to be prior to the point, so that the monad is the beginning of bodies; and all bodies have been generated from the monad.


That the Pythagoreans abstained from ensouled beings, because they stupidly took the transmigration of souls to be true, and because these kind of foods dull the mind, being very filling and causing much flatulence. For this reason, they also abstained from beans, as being windy and very filling.

<On Pythagoras and the divisions of philosophy>

That Pythagoras foretold many things, and they all came to pass.

That he says Plato learned speculative and physical (philosophy) from the Pythagoreans in Italy, but ethical (philosophy) largely from Socrates. Zeno and Parmenides, the Eleatics, threw the seeds of logical (philosophy) to him; these were also of the Pythagorean sect.

<The senses>

That vision, according to Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle, distinguishes twelve colors, white and black and those in between: reddish yellow (xanthón), grey (phaión), pale yellow (ōchrón), red (erythrón), blue (kyanón), purple (halourgón), ‘bright’ (? lamprón) and brown (órphninon). Hearing distinguishes between shrill (oxýs) and deep (barýs) sound. The sense of smell distinguishes good and bad smells and those in between: from things that are rotting (sēpoménē), drenched (brekhoménē), wasting away (tēkoménē) or being burned (thysiazoménē). Taste distinguishes between sweet (glykýs) and bitter (pikrós) flavors and the five between them, because there are seven flavors: sweet (glykýs), bitter (pikrós), sour (oxýs), pungent (drimýs), spongy (? somphós), salty (halykós), astringent (stryphnós). Touch distinguishes the most things, like heavy, light and those in between, hot and cold and those in between, coarse and smooth and those in between, dry and wet and those in between. The five senses are located in the head and each confinet to their own organs, but touch is located in the entire head and the entirety of the body, and it is shared with all perception, but it yields the clearest distinction in the hands.

<The order of the cosmos>

That there are twelve orders in heaven, the first and outermost being the fixed sphere, in which there are the First God and the intelligible gods, as Aristotle thinks, or according to Plato the ideas; after the fixed sphere, the star of Kronos is arranged and the six following planets, I mean that of Zeus, that of Ares, that of Aphrodite, that of Hermes, that of Helios, that of Selene, then the sphere of fire, subsequently that of the air, after it that of water, and last of all, the earth. Although there are twelve orders, the First Cause lies in the fixed sphere. And whatever is near it he says is ordered firmly and excellently, but what is further is worse; still, order is secured down to the Moon, but below the moon, things are no longer the same. Out of necessity, there is also evil in the space around the earth insofar as the earth has the position of the bottom in relation to the cosmos, and its purpose is as receptacle for dregs. And all other parts are regulated by the god according to providence and good order and fate, which follows the god, but the things below the moon are regulated by four causes: by god, by fate, by our choice, and by fortune. For example, whether to go aboard a ship or not go aboard is up to us; for calm weather to suddenly change into storm and squall is a matter of chance; and if, against all hope, the sinking ship is saved, it is due to a god’s providence. But of fate, there are many kinds and sorts; it differs from fortune because it has a sequence, order and consistency, while chance is spontaneous and arbitrary. It belongs to one kind of fate, for example, to grow from a child into a youth and to go through each age in order.

That the zodiac moves at an inclination – as Aristotle, who sought to find (the reason), thought – for the sake of the generation of the places around the earth to complete the universe. For if it moved evenly, it would always be one season of the year, either summer or winter or another. But as it is, the Sun and the other planets move from sign to sign in the zodiac, and changes between the four seasons come about, and the crops grow and the other births of living beings occur due to the change of these into each other.

That the sun – as Pythagoras declared his own opinion to be, and hit upon the truth in saying so – is a hundred times the size of the earth. But most say that it is no less than three hundred times that size.

That he says the Great Year is also Saturn’s cycle, because while the cycles of the other six planets take place in a shorter time, Saturn completes its own course in thirty years. For Jupiter ends its cycle in 12 years, Mars in two, the Sun in a year; Mercury and Venus are the same speed as the sun, and the Moon is closest to the earth and goes through the shortest cycle, in a month.

That Pythagoras was the first to call the heavens ‘cosmos’, because they are perfect and ornamented (kekosmēsthai) with all living beings and beautiful things.

<The soul>

That Plato, he says, and Aristotle likewise said that the soul is immortal, albeit some who have not grasped Aristotle’s meaning believe he said that it was mortal.

<The human microcosm>

That the human being is called a microcosm not because it consists of the four elements – for every living being does, even the lowliest –, but because it has all the powers of the cosmos. For in the cosmos, there are gods, there are also the four elements, there are the irrational animals, and there are plants; and the human being has all these powers. For it has a divine power, the rational faculty, it has the power of the elements, […] and it has the faculty of nourishment (threptikḗ), of growth (auxētikḗ), and of producing (gennētikḗ) something like itself. In each of them, it is behind: as a pentathlete who has all the powers of the sports is inferior in each one to an expert in it, so the human being, which has all the powers, is behind in each. For we have a lesser rational faculty than the gods; and likewise, less in the properties of the elements than the elements themselves; and a deficient spiritedness (thymós) and desire (epithymía) compared to those in the irrational beings; and lesser faculties of nourishment, growth and reproduction than those in plants. Therefore, being composed of various powers, we have a defective life; for each of the other beings is governed by one nature, but we are drawn in different directions by the different powers, as we are sometimes led to better things by the divine, sometimes to worse things, when the animalistic prevails, and likewise with the other powers. Now, when one serves the divine within us, as if it were a charioteer urging us on and a wise ruler, then one will be able to use each of the other powers as they ought to, I mean through a mixture of the elements and of spiritedness, desire and conation.

<Know Yourself!>

That ‘Know yourself!’, although it appears to be easy, is the most difficult thing of all; he says that it is the Pythian Apollon’s saying, even if they ascribe the saying to Chilon, one of the Seven Sages. He commands us to understand our own power; and to know oneself is nothing else than to know the nature of the whole cosmos, and this is impossible without philosophizing. So this is what the god commands.

<Knowledge and learning>

That there are eight instruments of knowledge (gnṓsis): perception (aísthēsis), imagination (phantasía), skill (tékhnē), opinion (dóxa), good judgment (phrónēsis), knowledge (epistḗmē), wisdom (sophía) and intellect (noûs). Of these, we share skill, good judgment, knowledge, [wisdom] and intellect with the divine beings, perception and imagination with the irrational beings; opinion is ours alone. Perception is false knowledge of the body, imagination is motion of the soul, skill is creative disposition according to reason – ‘reason’ is added because the spider also creates, but not with reason –, good judgment is a disposition purposive of correctness in practical matters, knowledge is grasp of the things that are always self-similar and the same, wisdom is the knowledge of the first causes, intellect is the origin and source of all good things.

That there are three parts of learning: memory, cleverness and shrewdness. Now, memory is the preservation of what one has learned, cleverness the quickness of thought, and shrewdness is when one learns from those things which one did not set out to learn.


That ‘heaven’ (ouranós) is said in three senses, one, the fixed sphere itself, second, the space from the fixed sphere to the moon, third, the whole cosmos, I mean both heaven and earth.

<Activity and rest>

That he says both the most perfect and the lowest beings are always active; these are deity and plants. For the god is always active through thought and reason, and the things near him as well, and the plants likewise are always active, because they grow at night as well as during the day. But the human being is not always active, nor are the irrational animals, because nearly half of the time they lie down and rest.

<A chauvinistic claim of Greek superiority>

That the Greeks are always better in their customs than the barbarians, because they live in a well-tempered climate. The Scythians and Ethiopians were allotted an intemperate climate; the former are vexed by the cold, the latter by the heat, so that they are diminished in bodily appearance and take in too much of the hot and the cold. So, those who live in these places come to be bold and reckless. Accordingly, those who are closer to the middle and the high points partake in the mixture of what lies to either side of them. And consequently, as Plato says, the Greeks improve whatever learning they take from the barbarians, and among all the Greeks, especially the Athenians. Thus, they have been adept at strategy from the beginning, and were inventors of writing and all crafts and warfare, as well as of teachings in language and mathematics. And thus, culture did not need to be imported, so to speak, but exists in Athens by nature, because the air is so extraordinarily dry and pure that it not only thins out the earth – for which reason Attica has such thin soil –, but also the souls of humans; for while thin air harms the soil, it is good for souls.

<Etesian Winds and the Nile flood>

That the Etesian winds blow during the time of highest summer, for the following reason. When the sun moves higher and more to the north, away from the southern regions, it dissolves the waters in the northern regions; when they are dissolved, they become air; when they have become air, they turn into vapors, and from these, the Etesian winds arise: they arise from the vapors stemming from the dissolution of the northern waters. Then they are carried into the contrary places, in the south. When they reach there, they fall on the highest mountains of Ethiopia, and in their mass and suddenness, they cause rains; and from these rains, the Nile floods in the summer, although it flows forth from the dry southern regions. Aristotle wrote about this topic; for he was disposed to come to his conclusions by deed, and decided to send Alexander of Macedon to those places and to observe the cause of the Nile’s swelling with his own eyes. Therefore he says that this is no longer a puzzle, since it has been clearly seen that it swells due to rain. And this is marvellous, that in the driest places of Ethiopia, where there is neither winter nor water, the heaviest rain occurs in the summer.