This was a book that I was slow to delve into, due to the stress and change of an upheaval moving house – but once I did start to read it and engage, I was annoyed I spent so long procrastinating!
‘Pythagoras’ is a name among the ancients that most of us have heard. We know his name, we can invariably reference his ‘theorem’ and we often re-discover memories of school mathematics and triangles.
However, the sheer influence of some of his initial “insights” and “formulations”, often without direct source or attribution, lost in the mists of time, are strangely without equal. Never has such an indistinct figure half of light and shadow influenced thought so very much.
We have no words of Pythagoras, and no received official doctrine we can infallibly attribute directly to him. That said, due to the communities and traditions that developed from the base of his work and teaching in antiquity, we can get some indistinct, perhaps deceptively malleable impressions of what he taught and uncovered.
His two most abiding influences, aside from the well known geometric and mathematical endeavours, has to be the idea of the human being containing a spark of the divine unhappily divorced from the divine in its earthy form, and the idea of musical and celestial harmonies – absolutely inherent and sacrosanct in his “mysticism” of numbers.
Some of the ideas we have inherited by tradition are received through Plato, and much of this is neo-Pythagorean, or neo-Platonic. The idea of the soul being “imprisoned” in the body, this books suggests, seemingly so Christian with the idea of exile and original sin, was actually prior to this Christian age a concept already developed in the traditions of antiquity.
The theory of Metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls, is interesting (and dismissed by Plato) though not unknown in other cultures.
The idea that there is a harmony to the universe, just as there are harmonies in music is a mathematical analogy or illumination. I myself, quite separately in one of my musing reveries latched onto an idea of “harmonic tension” resounding throughout reality – though this idea of Pythagoras is far more detailed in its abstract nature, and much more an analogy injected with vital clarity to sustain it. For the harmonies of music are balanced and determined by mathematical gaps in the notes or sounds on a string. Certain gaps, certain distances, certain tensions produce certain notes. Therefore, in an analogical frame of mind, the Universe must be constructed in much the same way by a mind of harmonic splendour – divinity – to produce the harmonies and unities it does. They took unities as a given.
Leading on from this, we have perhaps one of the most influential and poetic religious ideas the West has seen. The famous ‘Music of the Spheres’. Pythagoras himself, reputedly so devoted in virtue that he was, was the only human ever to hear this divine music of the spheres moving through space. Because these spheres moved, these planets or heavenly bodies must make a sound, and if the divine cosmos by virtue of being divinely ordered is harmonic, these movements must create a heavenly harmonic sound and structure decipherable only by the most attuned minds. Therefore, it is vital we grasp the laws of mathematics and harmony.
This idea lived and lived, through the ages after Pythagoras right through the Middle Ages of the Christian Church. Even once people moved away from it as a literal understanding, it continued to hold sway as a poetic metaphor – and this is understandable because it is a truly beautiful conception. Even Aristotle, who often scorned this tradition, admitted that though it was wrong it was beautifully and ‘ingeniously conceived.’ A later Pythagorean, one whom we know by extant fragments, was called Philolaus and his interesting explanation as to why human beings cannot hear this celestial music is because we were born after its inception – therefore we have no silence to compare it to – it is like a singing unheard context that by definition of our very birth we cannot hear but only intuit in thought, speculation and celestial observation.
I think you’ll agree, its a beautiful conception.
As time passed, as a literal conception it lost its power. However, the really interesting thing is that due to this inherited metaphysical ideal of harmony and cosmic harmony – rightly or wrongly generations of intellects inside and outside of the Church were moved to seek an analogical equivalent in observable reality. So all the astronomers and thinkers pondering the movements of the stars, were trying to find ways to extrapolate harmonies, meanings, order and unity. There must be a design or structure to uncover, there must some footprint of divinity to glimpse. Right or wrongly this was a huge motivation, and without making the initial assumption that the structure of reality was analogical to the structures of thought, we might never have arrived at the discoveries we did – even if over time the literal basis of the original tradition was undone.
Astronomical observers from Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo were all thinking and trying to square inherited thought-conceptions to an observable reality.
I don’t know how this book by Kitty Ferguson stands in relation to others. It has had reasonable online reviews, and tends to score 3.9/5 on most online pages. I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it hugely stimulating. And I certainly want to read more about antiquity, Pythagoras and the Neo-Platonic philosophers.