The Pythagorean Education

Our western world is so filled with Pythagorean concepts that we often forget the specific notions which Pythagoras had given us in Antiquity. The purpose of this article is to recall them.


In antiquity, the Pythagorean teaching had two fields: one for knowledge, the other of meditation. These two areas, which often intermingled and enriched each other, can be compared to two levels and Porphyry in his Life of Pythagoras (§ § 46-49) tells us:

It also reflects a way of life so specific that the Pythagoreans were recognized as such by their social behavior rather than by specific concepts taught in their schools, especially for the most part, these notions should be kept secret, because the first seekers as both mystics and mathematicians thought that the untimely and clumsy use of the sacred laws organizing the world could lead to a serious upheaval in the universe.

The Pythagorean Way of Life

PYTHAGORAS PBUSTheir lifestyle corresponded to the daily updating of the essential qualities taught and described in the Golden Verses, advice which is still perfectly useful in our day.

The desire for justice (dikaïosunê) was expressed with uncompromising courage (andreia) but with serenity (sophrosunê), the Pythagoreans did not accept to get angry and lose control of their actions and their speech. They wanted to live in harmony (harmonia) and act only in a balanced way at the right time (kairos). The Pythagoreans showed themselves in such a reserved attitude that their behavior contrasted deeply with the rest of the population which was rather exuberant and acted with gesticulations and verbal emphases.

Their feeling of brotherhood (philia) exceeded the members of their restricted group; which reflected a deep compassion in the helping of all human beings, including animals, – which resulted in a vegetarian diet as strict as possible, and their refusal to participate in offerings resulting from bloody sacrifices.

Their divine conception was henotheistic, divinity in its original aspects, totally depersonalized, manifested by the laws of mathematics and harmonies. The deities of the Greek pantheon and myths associated with them were for them as blankets, representing in symbolic imagery the mathematical laws of the order of the universe. The “kosmos” (from kosmios, which means in good order, and properly arranged) was the term always used by Pythagoras to show precisely that the laws of the universe did not come from the desires and whims of gods, as some myths suggested. They participated in the diverse cults of the day, and by their presence gave these religions a vaster and deeper dimension.

Their belief in the reincarnation of the soul led them to consider the possible emergence in the memory, some knowledge from a sometimes distant past. Reincarnation was sometimes done in animal form, without it being a punishment, but the desire was to become a Pythagorean philanthropotatos daimon, a spirit guide who is no longer required to incarnate and, although free from the ether, chooses remain in the orbit of the moon and earth to help mankind.

The Pythagoreans had to first cleanse their mind, by eliminating the hasty and erroneous understandings in a deliberate personal view to be as objective as possible, and to practice a daily psychostasia for an adjustment of their behavior: increasing the actions that were good and decreasing the quantity and number of bad actions, – and without a triumphant narcissism or sterile guilt.

In the Pythagorean groups, there was room for both women and for men, but this was sometimes quite specific and related to the culture of the time. However, we cannot ignore that at least on two occasions, the 4th and 5th centuries CE, the order was directed by a woman, Hypatia in Alexandria Egypt (who was cruelly stoned to death and dismembered by the Christians) and Asclepigenia (she was the last to know the sacred Egyptian sounds, – she was the daughter of Plutarchus and initiator of Proclus).

Outside their community, the measured behavior of the disciples of Pythagoras engendered respect and admiration for some, distrust and rejection from others. Pythagoreanism, while being harmoniously and active in society, was thus a movement that had its own specific requirements. Most of these rules of life were subsequently adopted by many people, even until our present time, without necessarily knowing that they were from our ancient tradition.

The Mathematical approach and the Sacred Cosmos

“Once the mind-intellect was cleansed”, there was an ability to reach the “immutable” Truths (Porphyre, §46), that is to approach validly the study of the creative archetypes of the organized cosmos. In other words, the psychê having abandoned its personal influence stemming from its drives and physical desires, it is the noûs which became accessible to the understanding. Now there was for them a perfect harmony, even a real identity, between the noûs of Zeus, that of the individual man and all the laws which organized the cosmos.

After the meditative preparation, then began the exercises which were essentially focused on the Numbers and the Proportions considered as divine emanations and allowing the sudden intuitive understanding of the original laws and to a beneficial ecstasy. The return to those meditative moments (theôrêmata), it was necessary to organize the contents carefully, if possibly, mathematically (mathêmata). They discovered the secrets of the organization of the world which they considered as perfectly harmonious; the myths hid these secrets while giving keys to understand them.

During successive meditations, and according to the degree of development of the psyche and the opening in the noûs, the reflections of these small groups sometimes plunged them into such a confusion that they required absolute secrecy. Such was the drama of the discovery that the root of 2 was an irrational number, not representable numerically: would there be thus faults in the harmonious organization of the cosmos? Hence the agonizing interpretation of the Akousma “ONE, TWO”, also corresponding to the problem posed of the duplication of the surface of the altar at Delphi, – calculating numerically the transition that would bring the root of 2.

We also notice that this mathematical field, at once and at the same time, scientific and artistic, developed and gave inspiration to a number of scholars and artists. We see Kepler, a Pythagorean, thought that it was from the five Platonic solids that we could find the law which governs distances, speeds, and the planets. A work of art should reflect these divine proportions, and, although the “Golden number” was defined clearly over the centuries, it only became part of a number of works from the Renaissance until our time, as for example, in the paintings of Salvador Dali.

The Religious, Meditative and Ecstatic Search

Access to the Divine as the dynamic organizer of the cosmos and to the archetypes buried within our noûs, was achieved by ecstatic meditations that were based on these structures “at the border of the bodies and the immaterial” (Porphyre, §47), that is to say, after the purification of the intellect. Pythagoreans met regularly in places with sacred harmony (Temples, or, during the Christian persecutions who desecrated the antique Temples, in natural places close to a pure source (spring water) to protect in their deep meditations the adequate peace allowing for Divine inspiration.

Numbers as the Proportions were once and at the same time, mathematical elements and divine emanations. To reveal them without reserve or precaution represented not only a kind of desecration of the sacred, but also a danger according to the fact what an ill-intentioned hearer would have been able to do with this knowledge. (Disintegration of the cosmos!)

The Pythagoreans had a very broad, non-dogmatic respect of religious paths, but they saw “beyond these religious paths”, as Plutarch said clearly in his text (§ 21) on the “E” of Delphi: “Those who hold that Apollo and the sun are the same, it is right and proper that we welcome and love for their goodness of heart in placing their concept of the god in that thing which they honor most of all the things that they know and yearn for. But, as though they were now having a sleepy vision of the god amid the loveliest of dreams, let us wake them and urge them to proceed to loftier heights and to contemplate the waking vision of him, and what he truly is, but to pay honor also to this imagery of him in the sun and to revere the creative power associated with it, in so far as it is possible by what is perceived through the senses to gain an image of what is conceived in the mind, and by that which is ever in motion an image of that which moves not, an image that in some way or other transmits some gleans reflecting and mirroring his kindness and blessedness.”[1]

This Pythagorean approach has remained during the centuries, and until our day. Was not Dante guided by the Pythagorean Virgil to cross the dark winding paths of hell and purgatory (to free his primitive impulses, to pacify his emotions, and to cleanse hi intellect) to arrive at the ultimate goal and enjoy in the ecstasy of paradise, this time guided by Beatrice, that is to say, by the ecstatic “bliss”, to discover the luminous Rose representing the superior Divinity?

In our time also, in our European Pythagorean groups, next to the very numerous members who profess no religion, and with the coexistence of Christians, Jews, Sufis, Hindus, Buddhists, and spiritualists, who were opened to the spiritual path living in our rites, allowed them to live in a different way, non-dogmatic, the religion of the origin of all.

Let appreciate this Pythagorean tradition which is opened to us and let us try to radiate around us its characteristics of spirit, intelligence and spiritual opening, without having to say that this is Pythagoreanism.

Is not the main goal which drives us is to raise the ethical and spiritual level of people that could find a greater happiness on our path, and then by their radiance, to give to those around them this higher level of being, creating a more harmonious society?

[1] The translation comes from the Loeb Classical Library, Plutarch – Moralia – Volume V, “The E at Delphi”. (De E Apud Delphos)


Written by:  Dr. Jean Dierkens

Reprinted with the kind permission of

the Instituto Neo-Pitagorico – A Lampada

Ano LXXX No 281-284 – Janeiro – Dezembro 2011