Twenty-five centuries ago the island of Samos was one of the garden spots of Ionia. Colonized hundreds of years before by a group of Arcadians under the leadership of the “great soul” Ancæus, it had now become the “voluptuous isle” where the Tyrant Polycrates spent his days and nights listening to the languishing odes of the poet Anacreon.
Down in the city beneath the Tyrant’s palace there lived a wealthy merchant named Mnesarchus. In the first quarter of the sixth century B.C. he and his wife Parthenis went to Delphi to consult the Oracle, who told Parthenis that she would bear a son who would surpass all men in wisdom and virtue. When Mnesarchus and Parthenis reached Sidon in Phoenicia on their way back to Samos, their son Pythagoras was born.
From Iamblichus we learn that even in childhood Pythagoras astonished all who knew him by the profundity of his wisdom. By the time he had reached the age of eighteen, he had already exhausted the cultural possibilities of his island home. Having heard of Thales and Anaximander, he set sail for the mainland on the first lap of a journey which lasted for almost forty years and took him into every country in the then known world. As soon as Thales conversed with Pythagoras he recognized the superior quality of his mind and advised him to go to Egypt to study with the wise men who had been his own instructors. Leaving Miletus, Pythagoras went first to Sidon, where he was initiated into the Mysteries of Tyre and Byblos. Then he proceeded to Egypt, making the journey with some Egyptian sailors who believed that a god had taken passage on their ship. On his arrival in Egypt Pythagoras at once put himself under the instruction of the teachers of Thales. He spent the next twenty-two years perfecting himself in mathematics, astronomy and music, and was finally initiated into the Egyptian Mysteries.
When Cambyses invaded Egypt, he made Pythagoras his prisoner and sent him to Babylon. Pythagoras utilized this seeming misfortune as an opportunity for growth, and for the next twelve years he studied with the Magi and was initiated into the Chaldean Mysteries. Leaving Babylon, he made his way through Persia into India, where he continued his education under the Brachmanes and imbibed the wisdom of the East at its original source.
At that time India was still feeling the effects of the great spiritual revival brought about by Gautama the Buddha. Although Pythagoras arrived in India too late to come into personal contact with the Buddha, he was greatly influenced by his teachings. Indeed, there is such a close and intimate relationship between the Buddhistic and the Pythagorean systems that the one cannot be fully understood without an acquaintance with the other. Although Pythagoras went to India as a student, he left it as a Teacher. Even to this day he is known in that country as Yavanâchârya, the “Ionian Teacher.”
Pythagoras was fifty-six years old when he finally returned to his native land. Thirty-eight of those years he had spent in foreign lands, fitting himself by study and discipline for his future work. When he arrived in Samos he found the island crushed and ruined, its temples and schools closed, its wise men fleeing from the tyranny and persecution of the great Persian conqueror.
Instead of being welcomed by his countrymen, Pythagoras found them indifferent to the wisdom he was so eager to impart. Despite his best efforts, he was unable to procure a single pupil. One day he saw a poorly dressed young man playing ball in the Gymnasium. Entering into conversation with him, Pythagoras offered to support him if he would consent to receive instruction in geometry. The youth accepted the offer, began his study, and received three oboli from Pythagoras for every problem solved. At last the young man became so interested in mathematics that he offered to study without financial remuneration. Taking the name of Pythagoras for his own, this student became his teacher’s most devoted disciple.
By this time Pythagoras had realized that the island of Samos offered him no opportunity for the development of his educational scheme. Accompanied by his one disciple, he went to southern Italy, settling in Crotona, a town situated on the Gulf of Tarentum. He chose this town because of the freedom of its constitution and the liberal-mindedness of its inhabitants, and also because Pythagoras hoped that his residence in Italy would enable him to spread his teachings throughout the whole of Greece.
Shortly after his arrival in Crotona, Pythagoras visited the Gymnasium, where he was soon surrounded by a group of young men. He reminded them of the solidarity which should exist between students, warned them of the self-control which must be cultivated during the years of adolescence, and urged them to acquire the philosophical knowledge necessary to good citizenship.
The young men listened respectfully to Pythagoras’ words, and when they returned home that evening they repeated his conversation to their parents. A few days later Pythagoras was invited to speak before the Senate of Crotona. On this occasion he advised the Senators to build a Temple to the Muses, whose harmony and interdependence should be a constant reminder of the primary virtues necessary to good government. He also spoke to them of the sanctity of marriage and of those simple family duties which, if faithfully performed, would give them experience for the larger duties of state. He reminded them also of the solidarity which must exist among those who are at the head of the government, stressed the necessity of being able to both give and receive advice and instruction, and gave them a standard of action which, if applied, would bring happiness into their personal lives and success to the country they served.
The Senators of Crotona were so impressed with the wisdom of Pythagoras that they decided to build him an Institute which would serve the several purposes of a school of philosophy and moral training, an academy of science, and a small model city. The School was situated on the top of a high hill overlooking the town, with a glimpse of the Gulf beyond. Although it was understood that it would be patterned after the Mystery Schools, there was nothing about the place suggesting secrecy save a statue of Hermes at the door of the inner school with the words on the pedestal: Let no profane enter here.
Students entered the Pythagorean School first as probationers, and for three years they were closely watched by Pythagoras without being aware of the fact. While they exercised in the Gymnasium Pythagoras would walk among them, carefully observing their natural movements, their facial expressions, and especially their laughter. For, as Pythagoras said, “Laughter is an infallible index to character, and no amount of dissimulation can render agreeable the laugh of an ill-disposed man.” (There are no known writings of Pythagoras. All statements attributed to him are from later accounts of his ideas.) The students exercised with quoits, javelins, and by racing. Pythagoras was opposed to wrestling, saying that men who intended to practice the virtues of friendship should not begin by throwing one another on the sand and rolling about like wild beasts. Such actions, he said, tend to develop hatred, which makes a man inferior to any opponent.
The moral nature of the student was then tested. Sometimes he would be highly praised, to see if pride arose. At other times he would be humiliated before his fellow-students, and his reactions carefully noted. During those early years every thread of the disciple’s moral fibre was tested and strengthened, for Pythagoras taught that true knowledge cannot be acquired until the lower nature is under control. He spoke disparagingly of those teachers who “infuse theorems and divine doctrines into confused and turbid natures, just as if some one should pour pure and clear water into a deep well filled with mud.” The probationary period in Pythagoras’ School, therefore, was closely patterned after the discipline of purification in the Lesser Mysteries.
The student next was tested along intellectual lines. Every mental capacity was carefully noted — the rapidity of his thought, the accuracy of his memory, his power of concentration, and particularly his intuition.
After three years of this probationary discipline, the students who had passed these preliminary tests were admitted into the first degree of the School, becoming known as “listeners.” The purpose of this degree, according to Iamblichus, was that they “should exercise themselves in hearing, in order that they might be able to speak.” For five years, therefore, the students observed silence. Pythagoras knew the power of sound. He taught that the Universe evolves from Sound, and that man creates a universe of his own through the mighty power of his own words. In this degree the students learned to subjugate their tongues, “that being the most difficult of all victories, as those have unfolded to us who instituted the Mysteries.”
The students in this degree were not permitted to ask questions. Questions were propounded by the teachers, but were not answered, every student being obliged to seek the answer within himself. These questions were usually on some abstract subject, such as: What is Harmony? What is the most powerful thing in the world? What is the most difficult thing in the world? Happy the student whose intuition told him that the most difficult thing in the world is for a man to know himself.
These five years of silence accomplished two things. First, they trained the student’s powers of self-reliance and intuition. Second, they gave him training in the secrecy obligatory for the higher degrees, wherein some of the secrets of the Mysteries were disclosed. Upon initiation every student was warned that “it is not lawful to extend to the casual person things which were obtained with such great labors and such diligent assiduity, nor to divulge the Mysteries of Eleusinia to the profane.”
Although the “listeners” were not allowed to discuss their instructions with their teachers or their fellow-students, they were encouraged to associate with one another, especially with older students. In this degree the Unity of all things was stressed: the fundamental Unity lying behind all the diversity of nature; the underlying unity of all religions; the unity and friendship which should exist among all men.
He unfolded the friendship of all things toward all. Indeed he delivered such an admirable friendship to his associates that even now [300 A.D.] those who are benevolent in the extreme towards each other are said to belong to the Pythagoreans. (Iamblichus.)
The story is told of a certain member of the School who fell ill at a wayside inn, and died without being able to pay his bill. Before his death, he asked the inn-keeper to place a certain symbol on the road outside the inn. Months later another Pythagorean passed that way, saw the symbol and discharged the debt of his unknown friend. So did the Pythagoreans understand friendship, not as a matter of personal affection, but as that invisible bond which unites all who study the occult sciences and practice the disciplines of the ancient school.
The daily life of a student at Crotona followed a definite schedule. Rising with the sun, his first thoughts were given to meditation. After pronouncing a mantram on a certain tone, he carefully reviewed all his actions of the previous day and planned the coming day in full detail. After breakfast he took a solitary walk, as Pythagoras did not think it proper to converse with others until one had “rendered his soul sedate, and harmonized his reasoning powers.” The student then repaired to the Gymnasium for his daily exercise, for he had learned that the body is the temple of the soul, and should always be kept in a condition worthy of its divine occupant. The rest of the morning was spent in study. At noon the students dined together in small groups, their meal consisting mainly of bread and honey. Pythagoras himself was a strict vegetarian and the members of his esoteric school were not allowed to eat meat. He was not so strict, however, with the probationers who had not yet commenced their study of practical Occultism. These were permitted to eat the flesh of certain animals, excluding, however, the brain and heart.
The moral discipline of the Pythagorean student steadily increased in intensity, and the line of discrimination between right and wrong became finer with every passing year. Disciples were warned not to be surprised by anything that might happen and trained to meet the greatest shocks with an equal mind. Anger was considered as one of the deadly sins and every student was cautioned not to make a decision or rebuke a servant while under the influence of this passion. The Pythagorean idea of duty might well have been taken from The Bhagavad Gita. Iamblichus gives it thus:
We should never do anything with a view to pleasure as an end.
We should perform what is right, because it is right to do so.
After a frugal lunch, the students received their relatives and friends in the gardens of the School. This was followed by another walk, this time in the company of others. At the close of the day they supped together and read aloud. Before retiring each student again engaged in meditation, following the instructions of Pythagoras found in the Golden Verses:
Never suffer sleep to close thy eyelids, after thy going to bed, till thou hast examined by thy reason all thy actions for the day. Wherein have I done amiss? What have I omitted that I ought to have done? If in this examination thou findest that thou hast done amiss, reprimand thyself severely for it. And if thou hast done any good, rejoice.
After this review, the student chanted his evening mantram, and in the peace and quiet of the soft Italian night he fell asleep.
During the first eight years of probationary discipline the student received no instruction from Pythagoras himself, nor was he permitted to mention the Teacher by name. Those who were unable to stand the discipline left the school and went out again into the world. Even in the higher degrees some occasionally failed by breaking their pledge of secrecy or some other rule which bound them. These were expelled from the School, and a tomb bearing their name was erected in the garden. If a loyal Pythagorean met one of these failures on the street, he did not greet him nor in any way indicate that he had once known him, for Pythagoras taught that such a man is dead. “His body appears among men,” he said, “but his soul is dead. Let us weep for it!”
The great and compassionate heart of Pythagoras ached with helpless pity for those weak souls who had strayed from the Path. But he rejoiced for those who were strengthened by the discipline, who trod the thorny path of discipleship without faltering. These were admitted to the higher section of the School, which corresponded to the Greater Mysteries. During the first eight years of probation, the students were known as Exoterics. Those who entered the higher sections were known as Esoterics.