The School of Pythagoras at Crotona1
by Dr. Arnaldo Cervesato (Rome, Italy)
Theosophical Forum, November, 1916
One of the greatest glories of ancient Italian thought was the School that Pythagoras, leaving the isle of Samos, his mother-country, founded at Crotona, about the year 530 B.C., after his lengthy sojourn in Egypt and at Babylon. Few ruins now remain of this famous city of Magna Graecia. Crotona was built at the western extremity of the Gulf of Taranto, near the Lacinian promontory, and facing the open sea. Together with Sybaris, Crotona was one of the two most flourishing cities of southern Italy, renowned for its temples, for its Doric constitution, for its athletes victorious in the Olympic Games, for its medical schools whose alumni rivaled the Asclepiads. The Sybarites owed their immortality to their reputation for luxury and effeminacy; but the Crotoniates, on the other hand, so rich in moral qualities, would perhaps have been forgotten, if it had not been for the asylum which they had the glory of having offered to the great school of esoteric philosophy known under the name of the Pythagoric Sodality. This School not only may be considered as the mother of the later Platonic School, but also as the archetype of all idealistic fraternities that followed it; yet, however illustrious these latter may have been, they never attained to the greatness of their Mother.
The situation was magnificent: an undulating country; numerous groves of fruitful olives; luxuriant vegetation; and all around in an immense semi-circle, the palpitating waters of the Ionian Sea, across which passed the white-colored triremes.
Pythagoras, upon his arrival at Crotona (perhaps accompanied by numerous disciples who followed him from Samos, as Professor Gianola suggests), began publicly to announce his teachings in discourses such as won for him the immediate sympathy of his hearers, who assembled in crowds to listen to his inspired words; for he taught truths that had never before been heard in that region. Received with marked deference by the people and by the aristocratic party as well, which latter at that time held in its hands the power of the government, his admirers, moved by the enthusiasm aroused by his teaching, erected an ample edifice in white marble—a homakoeion, or “common hall”—in which he would be able to set forth his doctrines with dignity, and in which they might assemble to live under his direction. The tradition (as we find it in Iamblichus and in Porphyry) adds other particulars: Pythagoras entering the gymnasium, is said to have so conversed with the young men there exercising as to have excited their profound admiration; and this fact coming to the notice of the magistrates and senators of the city, these latter also are said to have determined to hear him for themselves. Pythagoras, invited to speak before the Council of the Thousand, obtained such emphatic approbation that he was further invited to make his teaching public: upon which multitudes flocked to hear him, moved by the fame of the austerity of countenance, by the sweetness of discourse, and by the exceeding novelty of the reasoning of the foreigner. His authority, by rapid stages, so grew that finally he exercised in the city an actual moral dictatorship; then it extended its influence, spreading over the neighboring countries of Magna Graecia, as far as Paestum and Sicily; it was very strong in Sybaris, Tarentum, Rhegium, Catana, Himera, and at Agrigentum; disciples of the one and of the other sex came to him from the Greek colonies, as well as from the Italic tribes of the Lucani, the Peucetii, the Messapii, and even from the Romans; while the most celebrated legislators of that part of the world: Zaleucus, Charondas, Numa and others, are said to have had Pythagoras for their preceptor. It may therefore be truly said that by his sole influence and merit there were everywhere established order, liberty, morals and laws. In this fashion, says Lenormant, “he was enabled to realize the ideal of a Magna Graecia wedded into a national union, under the hegemony of Crotona, and notwithstanding the differences of race of the Italiot Hellenes”—but this is inexact, since, as we shall see, the design of Pythagoras was in his teaching and action neither political nor national, but purely human. Perhaps (another writer adds) another person was not stranger to the reception that the great philosopher met with, and to the success obtained by him—another person whom Pythagoras must have met when he was at Samos: the celebrated physician Democedes. But without doubt, the approbation that Pythagoras met with in Crotona and the enthusiasm excited by him throughout all Magna Graecia, were rather the result, on the one hand, of the intrinsic qualities of his teachings and his doctrines; and on the other of the disposition of the peoples among whom he was, to understand and appreciate him—than of merely personal acquaintances. We know that mysticism and every idealistic impulse always found among them general and prompt recognition and large numbers of followers, and this, not only in ancient times, but also during the Middle Ages, and in modern times. It is in this attitude of the peoples of the Southlands that lies the reason for the rapid diffusion of the Pythagoric doctrines, which were accepted almost universally; so much so that many, seized with admiration for the profound science of the Master, allied themselves with him, and, desirous of penetrating further into the deeps of his philosophic system (of which they perceived and sensed the vastness and wide sweep), came few by few to live with him, drawn into his orbit of action and of thought by that spontaneous sympathy which the really great apostles of Humanity have always exercised over others.
Thus was formed the Sodality, whose doors were opened to all of good repute—men and women; and to his philosophical followers the Master gave the same rule that he had seen in operation in the schools of the Orient and of Egypt, in which, as it has been hinted, he himself had received knowledge of the Mysteries. The institution founded by Pythagoras became in time an educational society, a scientific academy, and a model city in miniature, under the direction of a true initiate. It was through theory combined with practice, and through the sciences working with the arts, that the students slowly arrived at the comprehension of that Science of sciences, at that magical harmony of the soul and of the intellect with the universe which the Pythagorics considered as the arcanum of philosophy and religion. The Pythagoric School has great interest for us, because it was the most noteworthy attempt to establish a popular initiation: a synthesis by anticipation of Hellenism and of Christianity, it grafted the fruit of science on the tree of life, and thence drew knowledge of that interior and living operation of Truth which alone awakes a living faith.
The situation of the Pythagoric School was a beautiful one. Shining in the sunlight at the summit of a hill, among the cypresses and the olives, as one coasted along the seashore its porticos, gardens and gymnasium caught and held the eye. The Temple of the Muses towered over the two wings of the edifice with its graceful colonnade, giving an impression of beauty and lightness that was almost aerial. From the terrace of its outer gardens, one looked down upon the Prytaneum, the harbor, and the forum of the city; in the distance the gulf melted away along the sharp coast-lines, as in a huge agate bowl, and the Ionian Sea swept the horizon with its line of blue. At times might be seen women clad in robes of shining color leaving the left wing of the edifice, and descending in long files to the sea, through the cypresses: they go to their rites in the Temple of Ceres. Frequently, too, from the right wing, might be seen men clothed in pure white, ascending to Apollo’s fane. And certainly, the charm of it all over the curious imagination of the youth was not diminished by the thought that the school of the initiates was placed under the protection of those two divinities, of whom one, the Great Goddess, enwrapped within herself the profound mysteries of Womanhood and of the Earth; and the other, the Sun God, revealed those of Man and of the Heaven.
Thus it lay, mystically smiling in the sunlight, the little city of the Elect, outside of and above populous Crotona. Its tranquil serenity attracted the cultured classes of the youth; but nothing was seen of what went on within; it was alone known that it was difficult to enter therein for residence. A simple hedge of living plants was the only defense against intrusion into the gardens belonging to the institution of Pythagoras, and the entrance-gate remained open during the day. But close by the gate there stood a statue of Hermes, and on its plinth was engraved the following legend: Eschate bebeloi!: “Away, ye profane!” And all respected this solemn commandment of the Mysteries.
Those of the youth who desired to enter into the Society were obliged to submit to a period of probation and trial. Presented by their parents or by one of their teachers, such were readily admitted into the gymnasium, where the novices were seen absorbed in games according to their respective ages. The newcomer would have noticed at the first glance that this gymnasium was much unlike the gymnasium of the city: there were no violent cries, no noisy groups, no horse-play, no vain show of strength on the part of the athletes on the ground challenging one another in turn, and closing, naked muscle against naked muscle; but groups of affable and courteous youths, who, two by two, were walking in the porticos or exercising in the arena. The newcomer was immediately invited to join in the conversation, as if he had been one of themselves, for there was none of that offensive eyeing of the latest comer, accompanied with suspicious or malicious smiles, that we know so well. Others in the arena were exercising themselves in the course, by throwing the javelin and the discus, or were arrayed in sham battles under the form of Doric dances, for Pythagoras had utterly banished from his Institution body-to-body wrestling, saying it was not only superfluous but dangerous to develop pride and hate together with strength and agility; that men destined to practise the virtues of friendship should not begin by falling to the ground together nor by rolling in the dust like ferocious beasts; that a true hero would always fight with courage, but without fury; and that hate renders us inferior to any adversary we may have. The newcomer heard these maxims of the Master repeated by the novices, who were more than glad to communicate to him their precocious wisdom. At the same time, the novices invited the stranger to contradict them freely, if he so desired, and as freely to express his own opinions. Encouraged by these invitations, the ingenuous aspirant very soon showed openly his real nature; happy at being listened to and, as he thought, admired, he perorated at his ease, and swelled with pride. But meanwhile the teachers were observing him from nearby without interrupting him; and Pythagoras himself, coming unobserved, studied his gestures and words, observing with particular attention his manner of walking and of laughing. The laugh, he used to say, manifested the character in indubitable fashion, and no dissimulation can render beautiful the smile of an evil man.
What was the real inner working of the School?
Two classes of pupils were known: the first consisting of those who were admitted to a grade of initiation (genuine or familiar disciples), the second consisting of the novices, or simple “hearers” or “Pythagorists”; to the former class, itself divided into various grades, perhaps in correspondence with the different degrees (Pythagorics, Pythagorei, Physici, Sebastici), which class were the direct disciples of the Master, was given the esoteric or secret doctrine; the other class could attend only the exoteric or open lectures. These latter lectures were essentially moral in character. The second class were never admitted to the presence of Pythagoras, but, as says the tradition, they heard him only, speaking behind a screen which hid him from their eyes.
Before obtaining admission, not merely to the grades of initiation but even to the ranks of the novices, the candidate had to undergo proofs and examinations of the most rigorous kind, for, as Pythagoras said, “Not every piece of wood was fit to become a statue of Hermes”; before everything, as Aulus Gellius relates, there took place a physiognomic study of the candidate which was supposed to give evidence of his moral disposition and intellectual aptitudes; if this examination was favorable and if the knowledge procured concerning his personal conduct and former life was satisfactory, he was admitted without more ado, and there was prescribed for him a determined period of silence (echeniythia), which varied, according to the individuals, from two to five years. During this period of probation it was lawful for him only to listen to what was said by others, nor was he permitted to ask for explanations or to make observations of any sort. This was called the “novitiate” (paraskeue), which also comprised the long periods of meditation and the rigorous and severe discipline of the passions and desires, a discipline which was enforced by means of trials of no small difficulty. They who passed successfully through this period, learning in it the two most difficult things: to listen and to keep silence, were admitted among the number of the Mathematics (mathematici); and then only were they allowed to speak and to ask and even to write on what they had heard, freely expressing their thoughts. Learning to increase the power of their interior faculties, their understanding became step by step more elevated and more extended, even reaching communion with the absolute Being immanent in the universe and in man, He who reached this stage, which was the highest summit of the philosophical training, and which marked the end of all the esoteric teaching, obtained the title corresponding to this initiation, which is that of Perfect (teleios) and of Venerable (sebastikos); or, perhaps he called himself simply and pithily, Man.
The first conditions that were demanded of the initiates were those of silence and secrecy in their association with all others, without exception of parents or friends. So rigidly was this principle adhered to, that if any one of the initiated had let drop from his mouth or hand anything whatsoever concerning the mystic secrets to one not an initiate, he was expelled as unworthy of belonging to the Society, and was considered as dead by the others, who raised to his memory a cenotaph in the grounds of the Institution. The unwavering firmness with which the Pythagorics guarded all that appertained to the secret things of the School was not only well known, but passed into a proverb. After the same rule was he also considered as dead, who, after having given good hopes of himself and his spiritual possibilities, ultimately showed himself as inferior to the conception of his capacity which he had at first aroused in others. Such cases as this last, however (and it is well to signify the fact) were very rare, since the length of time of probation which preceded the passage from one grade to another had as one of its main objects to render impossible, or to reduce to a minimum, all mistakes or delusion of the kind.
Reception among the number of the novices, or even the passing the gates of initiation, in no wise obligated the individual to follow the cenobitic life. On the contrary, many, whether from their social condition or because they found themselves unable wholly to renounce the world, or yet from other reasons, continued their ordinary life, shaping this last, nevertheless, according to the principles of morals and the knowledge which they had acquired; thus actually diffusing around themselves, by practice and word, the good which it was the object of the teaching to instil. The last were the active members, of whom we know something from literary matter that has come down to us; on the other hand, the others, the Speculators (observers, meditants, students) lived in the Institution, where, in perfect accord with all the other practices and laws of the Institution itself, which had for object to destroy all forms of selfishness and individual pride, there was observed full community of goods. And it is not at all wonderful, nor something to be denied as possible offhand, that men whose lives were given to meditation and study on philosophical and religious grounds, and to moral practices, and who lived together for a single purpose, should put into a common fund their goods in order to forward the teaching and the diffusion of their ideas. What reasonable cause would hinder the disciples within the Institution, no longer held by the chains of the world, from entering into this community of material goods? And as to those of the Society who were not the inner students, but the outer, is it not natural to think that springing from the principles of brotherhood and love they found in their common doctrines, motives of their own impelled them spontaneously to give not only their worldly substance, but indeed, themselves to the common end? And to their brothers? We know that the Pythagorics used particular signs of recognition, such as the pentagon and gnomon, cut on their tesserae (tickets, signs), or a characteristic form of salutation; all of which they employed as means of mutual recognition, or as calls for aid in the common pursuits, or to establish their identity as fellow-members of the Sodality in places distant from Crotona; for there were schools, similar to the one we know of at Crotona, in many places both of Magna Graecia and of the East.
The life led by the inner students, i.e. those permanently established in the Institution, is sufficiently known to us from the narratives of the Neo-Pythagorics, and from the notices scattered here and there in the works of the most ancient authors. All was governed by precise regulations that no one ever transgressed; and this is easily understood by reflecting that each one of these regulations had its justification in reason, and that, excepting a few which were rigorously prescribed, they were given more in the form of rules of conduct or as counsels than as actual commands.
Early in the morning, after the rising of the sun, the inmates rose and spent some time walking up and down in tranquil and silent places, among temples and through groves, without speaking to anyone before they had well prepared the soul with meditation and self-recollection. Then they united together in the temples or similar places, to learn and to teach—because every inmate was both teacher and learner—while they continually practised especial inner exercises in order to acquire mastery of the passions and command over the senses, developing within themselves in special effort will-power, memory, and the higher and more recondite faculties of the spirit. But there was no vain effort to mortify the flesh, or forced and obligatory renunciation of the normal and innocent pleasures of life, nor other similar aberrations from good sense, of the monastic or conventual type: Pythagoras only desired that each one should endeavor to subject the body to the spirit, in order that this latter might be free in its operations and in its inner unfolding; yet the body should be kept healthy and strong and beautiful, because in it the spirit should possess, if possible, a perfect instrument.
To this last end were also instituted the gymnastic exercises of all classes in the open air, and the minute prescriptions regarding hygiene, and more especially regarding food and drink. In general, the meals were very frugal, reduced to what was strictly necessary, and all that could becloud the spirit and prevent the serene workings of it, or that might overload the stomach, was eliminated. Bread and honey in the morning; vegetables cooked or raw, very little or no meat at all, and if taken, then only of specified parts and of certain animals; rarely fish, and no wine, or extremely little, in the evening, during the second meal. This meal must be ended before sunset, and it was preceded by walks, in this case not solitary, but taken by students in groups of two or three; and by the bath. The supper finished, the companions reunited around the tables in groups of ten or less, and conversed quietly with each other, or read those works which the eldest of themselves might prescribe—poetry or prose; or listened to soft music, which disposed their souls to joy and tuned them to a sweet interior harmony. For “Music, by which all the parts of the body are composed into a ceaseless unity of vigor, is also a method of intellectual and moral hygiene, and therefore completes its work in the perfectly disciplined soul of each Pythagoric.” Nor were there lacking, finally, during the day, a few simple ceremonies of a religious character, or, to speak more precisely, of a symbolical character, which served to maintain always living and present in each one the thought of and the reverence for that Essence from Which emanated and to Which must return—according to the mystical doctrine of the Master—the spiritual and substantial principle of every human being.
Other records tell us of total abstention from the chase, and of the use of pure white garments; and that the hair was allowed to grow long. As regards the question of celibacy being obligatory, as Zeller says, not only is this not endorsed by any record, but it is also contrary to the many records which speak of Theano, the wife of Pythagoras, by whom he is said to have had sons, and also contrary to others wherein are set forth the rules regarding the best times for conjugal relations; it is contrary also—and this is more important—to the spirit of the doctrine of the Philosopher, for whom the Family was sacred, and the duties belonging thereto were indicated with much precision and accuracy, extraordinarily so with regard to the teachings given to the women. But, on the other hand, celibacy was practised by a certain number of the most fervent disciples, who, entirely devoted to the philosophical doctrines of the Sage, probably thought that the chains and occupations of family life would form an obstacle hindering them from the exercise of completest liberty in their studies.
Such are, in brief, the notices that have come down to us of the external history of the Institution of Pythagoras and of its interior conduct. As regards more particularly the teaching, we have seen above that it was dual: and that to be admitted into the closed or secret portion of it, it was necessary to have demonstrated, through long years of trial, that the aspirant was worthy, and that he had all the required aptitudes for receiving it. He who gave, or rather who could give, no such guaranties, might enjoy only the exoteric or common teaching, without recondite symbolism, and within the reach of all, and withal of a character essentially ethical. We have also noted that the esoterics were initiated gradually into forms of knowledge theoretic and practical—growing by regular degrees more difficult and more abstruse, which were hidden under the veil of especial symbolic formulae, easy to remember and of a schematic type. This method had the advantage that even if these formulae became known to the profane, they revealed nothing of their secret and metaphorical sense. By this method it was hoped to avoid the peril that knowledge of a superior order might fall into the possession of minds incapable of understanding it, minds which, precisely for that reason, would divulge it with restrictions of sense, with limitations, and with imperfections derived from inadequate intelligence; a possible consequence of which would be that discredit and ridicule might be cast upon not only the fundamental doctrines, but also upon the entire teaching. The criterion used in imparting this knowledge was that “it is not permitted to tell all to everyone,” and such a criterion—aristocratic in the larger and finer sense of the word—i.e., the imparting the knowledge in proportions proper for the individual’s capacity, certainly cannot be called illogical, or considered as a sign of vain ostentation or of intellectual pride. As a matter of fact, is it not true that doctrines intrinsically good have, through too great diffusion, lost little by little a large part of their primal perfection; and have ended either by becoming clothed in all sorts of disguises and defilements, or by losing entirely their real or substantial character, retaining only the outward signs or formal marks of this last? In the second place, the individual never being asked for more than what his natural faculties and his real instruction could bear, and the development of these faculties themselves proceeding according to that scale which Nature herself laid down for their unfoldment, and according to the different grades of their relative superiority in the ordered and harmonious inner economy of the human being, it never happened that the inner equilibrium was disturbed—that equilibrium in which we see duly balanced in perfect harmony the various aptitudes of everyone. Consequently, there was born for the individual and in himself a peace undisturbed, and a faith in himself which utterly closed all the avenues whereby discouragement or distress might have entered into his soul. All one’s life was placed under the guidance of a systematic and continual education; and those who had passed further onwards than others, made a diligent, conscientious and unceasing study of the aptitudes of each individual in the Institution.
Love was considered to be the supreme law and guide for the initiated as regards association among themselves; and this applied with equal force to their relations with all other men. Love, in fact, reigned sovereign in their souls, avid only of good, and desirous of bringing into actuality in this life that ideal of justice which is, in all ages, the undying aspiration of all upright men.
The Institution had various trials to meet, even during the life of Pythagoras. New political factions, formed in Crotona, opposed him and his work, and the Master was obliged to endure not a few vicissitudes of this kind, and even persecutions.
But his example lives on: Among the ruins of Crotona there still speaks to us from out of the dust and the wreck a mighty Word, which, from the earliest, taught men the true sense of these three grand things: Religion, Brotherhood, Theosophy.
1. This was the ancient city of Magna Graecia, Italy, and has no reference to modern places of that name.