Don’t Mix a Fire With a Knife: Some Pythagorean Sayings

Diogenes Laertius, Pythagoras 17–18

“These are the sayings attributed to Pythagoras: don’t mix a fire with a knife; don’t step over a balance beam; don’t sit on a bushel; don’t eat your heart; don’t help with a burden but put it on; always make your bed; don’t put a god’s image on a ring; don’t leave the outline of a pan in ashes; don’t wipe up a mess with a torch; don’t piss towards the sun; don’t walk on the highway; don’t offer your right hand too easily; don’t share your roof with swallows; don’t keep clawed birds; don’t piss or stand on your cut nails and hair; turn sharp blades away from you; when abroad, don’t turn back at the border

This is what these sayings mean: “don’t mix a fire with a knife” means not inciting the rage or swollen anger of people in power. “Don’t step over a balance beam” means don’t transgress equality and justice. “Don’t sit on a bushel” means keep both today and the future in mind since a bushel is a daily ration. “Don’t eat your heart” clearly means not wearing away your mind with troubles and grief. By saying “Don’t turn around when going abroad” Pythagoras advises people when they are leaving life not to cling to it desperately nor to be overcome by its pleasures. The logic of the rest of the sayings are similar to this and would take a while to go through.”

Ἦν δ᾿ αὐτῷ τὰ σύμβολα τάδε· πῦρ μαχαίρᾳ μὴ σκαλεύειν, ζυγὸν μὴ ὑπερβαίνειν, ἐπὶ χοίνικος μὴ καθίζειν, καρδίην μὴ ἐσθίειν, φορτίον μὴ συγκαθαιρεῖν, ουνεπιτιθέναι δέ, τὰ στρώματα ἀεὶ συνδεδεμένα ἔχειν, ἐν δακτυλίῳ εἰκόνα θεοῦ μὴ περιφέρειν, χύτρας ἴχνος συγχεῖν ἐν τῇ τέφρᾳ, δᾳδίῳ θᾶκον μὴ ὀμόργνυσθαι, πρὸς ἥλιον τετραμμένον μὴ ὀμίχειν, τὰς λεωφόρους μὴ βαδίζειν, μὴ ῥᾳδίως δεξιὰν ἐμβάλλειν, ὁμωροφίους χελιδόνας μὴ ἔχειν, γαμψώνυχα μὴ τρέφειν, ἀπονυχίσμασι καὶ κουραῖς μὴ ἐπουρεῖν μηδὲ ἐφίστασθαι, ὀξεῖαν μάχαιραν ἀποστρέφειν, ἀποδημοῦντα ἐπὶ τοῖς ὅροις ἀνεπιστρεπτεῖν.

Ἤθελε δ᾿ αὐτῷ τὸ μὲν πῦρ μαχαίρᾳ μὴ σκαλεύειν δυναστῶν ὀργὴν καὶ οἰδοῦντα θυμὸν μὴ κινεῖν. τὸ δὲ ζυγὸν μὴ ὑπερβαίνειν, τουτέστι τὸ ἴσον καὶ δίκαιον μὴ ὑπερβαίνειν. ἐπί τε χοίνικος μὴ καθίζειν ἐν ἴσῳ τοῦ ἐνεστῶτος φροντίδα ποιεῖσθαι καὶ τοῦ μέλλοντος· ἡ γὰρ χοῖνιξ ἡμερησία τροφή. διὰ δὲ τοῦ καρδίαν μὴ ἐσθίειν ἐδήλου μὴ τὴν ψυχὴν ἀνίαις καὶ λύπαις κατατήκειν. διὰ δὲ τοῦ εἰς ἀποδημίαν βαδίζοντα μὴ ἐπιστρέφεσθαι παρῄνει τοῖς ἀπαλλαττομένοις τοῦ βίου μὴ ἐπιθυμητικῶς ἔχειν τοῦ ζῆν μηδ᾿ ὑπὸ τῶν ἐνταῦθα ἡδονῶν ἐπάγεσθαι. καὶ τὰ ἄλλα πρὸς ταῦτα λοιπόν ἐστιν ἐκλαμβάνειν, ἵνα μὴ παρέλκωμεν.

File:Pythagoras with tablet of ratios.jpg
From Raphael’s School of Athens

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