MAY 2009 – NO. 33
The death of Pythagoras — if he ever lived
Sadly, it is now almost universally assumed by classical scholars that Pythagoras never existed. It seems that there was a group of people in southern Italy called Pythagoreans who invented a "Founder" for their beliefs who, accordingly, lived and died in a manner consistent with those beliefs. But let's not allow Pythagoras' mere non-existence to deter us, as the stories that surround him are so compelling. They are also illustrative of the wider point that disciples of a thinker will often simply invent stories and anecdotes that illustrate the life of the master in whom they want to believe. Perhaps we should be suspicious of this desire for a master.
Be that as it may, Pythagorean doctrines were bound by an oath of secrecy, so we know very little prior to the version of them that appears in Plato. These include a belief in the immortality and transmigration of the soul and the view that the ultimate reality of the universe consists in number. Pythagoreans regarded even numbers as female and odd numbers as male. The number five was called "marriage" because it was the product of the first even (two) and odd (three) numbers (the ancient Greeks considered the number one a unit and not a proper number, which had to express a multiplicity). Pythagoreans also believed that their master had established the ratios that underlie music. This had huge influence in the notion of musica universalis or music of the spheres, where the entire cosmos was the expression of a musical harmony whose key was given in mathematics.
However, the Pythagoreans also observed a number of other, more worldly doctrines, involving food in particular. They abstained from meat and fish. For some reason red mullet is singled out for especial prohibition, and Plutarch notes that they considered the egg taboo, too. Pythagoras and his followers also inherited from the Egyptians a strong revulsion to beans, because of their apparent resemblance to the genitalia. Apparently, "bean" may have been a slang term for "testicle." But there are many other possible reasons for this dislike of beans.
There are some fascinating remarks in the Philosophumena [Philosophizings] or the Refutation of All Heresies by the Christian Bishop Hippolytus written around AD 220. According to him, if beans are chewed and left in the sun, they emit the smell of semen. Even worse, if one takes the bean in flower and buries it in the earth and in a few days digs it up, then, "We shall see it at first having the form of a woman's pudenda and afterwards on close examination a child's head growing with it." Of course, as many of us know to our cost, beans should be avoided, as they produce terrible flatulence. Oddly, it was because of beans that Pythagoras is alleged to have met his end. But I am getting ahead of myself.
So the legend goes Pythagoras left his native Samos, an island off the Ionian coast, because of a dislike of the policies of the tyrant Polycrates. He fled with his followers to Croton in southern Italy and extended considerable influence and power in the region of present-day Calabria. Porphyry, in his Life of Pythagoras, relates how a certain Cylo, a rich and powerful local figure, felt slighted by the haughtiness with which Pythagoras treated him. As a consequence, Cylo and his retinue burnt down the house in which Pythagoras and his followers were gathered. The master only escaped because his followers bridged the fire with their own bodies. He got as far as a field of beans, where he stopped and declared that he would rather be killed than cross it. This enabled his pursuers to catch up with him and cut his throat.
Yet, there is another story, related by Hermippus, that when the cities of Agrigentum and Syracuse were at war, the Pythagoreans sided with the Agrigentines. Unbelievably, Pythagoras was killed by the Syracusans as he was trying to avoid a bean field. Thirty-five of his followers were subsequently burnt at the stake for treachery.
Diogenes Laertius devotes possibly the worst of his verses to this incident, which begins thus: "Woe! Woe! Whence, Pythagoras, this deep reverence for beans?" The wonderful second-century satirist Lucian depicts Pythagoras in Hades in dialogue with the cynic Menippus, in which Pythagoras is pestering Menippus for food.
Pythagoras: Let me see if there's anything to eat in your wallet.
Menippus: Beans, my good fellow — something you mustn't eat.
Pythagoras: Just give me some. Doctrines are different among the dead.
From The Book of Dead Philosophers, out now from Vintage Books (2009).
Back to Top