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

Be Smart, Don’t Fart: The Pythagorean Prohibition of Beans

Cicero, de Divinatione 1.30:

“Plato therefore encourages people to go to sleep with their bodies thus disposed that there be nothing which could introduce any wandering from or disturbance of sleep. From which it is thought that the Pythagoreans prohibited the consumption of beans, because that food causes a great flatulence which is contrary to the tranquility of a mind seeking the truth.”

Iubet igitur Plato sic ad somnum proficisci corporibus adfectis, ut nihil sit, quod errorem animis perturbationemque adferat. Ex quo etiam Pythagoreis interdictum putatur, ne faba vescerentur, quod habet infiationem magnam is cibus tranquillitati mentis quaerenti vera contrariam.

 

Distrusting Pythagoreans

Aristophon, fr.9 (The Pythagorean, from Athenaeus, 4.161f)

“Dear Gods! Do we believe that the ancient Pythagoreans,
–the real Pythagoreans, I mean–were willingly filthy,
that they happily wore rough robes?
I don’t think that any of this is true.
Instead, because they had nothing, by necessity
they discovered a noble pretext for their poverty
and established rules suitable for poor men.
But if you offer them fish or meat
And they don’t nearly eat their fingers too,
I’ll let you hang me ten times.”

πρὸς τῶν θεῶν, οἰόμεθα τοὺς πάλαι ποτὲ
τοὺς Πυθαγοριστὰς γινομένους ὄντως ῥυπᾶν
ἑκόντας ἢ φορεῖν τρίβωνας ἡδέως;
οὐκ ἔστι τούτων οὐδέν, ὡς ἐμοὶ δοκεῖ·
ἀλλ’ ἐξ ἀνάγκης, οὐκ ἔχοντες οὐδὲ ἕν,
τῆς εὐτελείας πρόφασιν εὑρόντες καλὴν
ὅρους ἔπηξαν τοῖς πένησι χρησίμους.
ἐπεὶ παράθες αὐτοῖσιν ἰχθῦς ἢ κρέας,
κἂν μὴ κατεσθίωσι καὶ τοὺς δακτύλους,
ἐθέλω κρέμασθαι δεκάκις.

Aristophon the Comic poet (late 4th BCE), not to be confused with the earlierAttic orator from Azenia or the painter from Thasos.

 

Diogenes Laertius, 8.21 (Lives of the Sophists)

“Hieronymos says that when Pythagoras went down into Hades he saw the ghost of Hesiod bound to a bronze pillar, squeaking, and that Homer’s ghost was hanging from a tree surrounded by snakes. They were being punished for the things they said about the gods. And in addition he saw men who were not willing to have sex with their own wives. This is the reason, that Pythagoras was honored by the inhabitants of Croton. Aristippos of Cyrene in his work Peri Physiologoi says that Pythagoras was given his name because he spoke the truth publically [agoreuô] no less than the Pythian oracle.”

φησὶ δ’ ῾Ιερώνυμος (Hiller xxii) κατελθόντα αὐτὸν εἰς ᾅδου τὴν μὲν ῾Ησιόδου ψυχὴν ἰδεῖν πρὸς κίονι χαλκῷ δεδεμένην καὶ τρίζουσαν, τὴν δ’ ῾Ομήρου κρεμαμένην ἀπὸ δένδρου καὶ ὄφεις περὶ αὐτὴν ἀνθ’ ὧν εἶπον περὶ θεῶν, κολαζομένους δὲ καὶ τοὺς μὴ θέλοντας συνεῖναι ταῖς ἑαυτῶν γυναιξί· καὶ δὴ καὶ διὰ τοῦτο τιμηθῆναι  ὑπὸ τῶν ἐν Κρότωνι. φησὶ δ’ ᾿Αρίστιππος ὁ Κυρηναῖος ἐν τῷ Περὶ φυσιολόγων Πυθαγόραν αὐτὸν ὀνομασθῆναι ὅτι τὴν ἀλήθειαν ἠγόρευεν οὐχ ἧττον τοῦ Πυθίου.

 

Scholia to Sophocles’ Elektra

“Pythagoras confined himself in an underground hole and told his mother to tell people that he had died. When he reappeared, he told a lot of marvelous tales about resurrection and the things which happen in the underworld, and, to the living he related a full account of all the companions he happened to meet in the underworld; from this arose the belief that he was Aithalides son of Hermes before the Trojan War, then Euphorbus, then Hermotimus, then Pyrrhus the Delian, and then finally Pythagoras. Sophocles seems to be hinting at this story. Some assert, though unpersuasively, that the lines are aimed at Odysseus. But this is unconvincing, because Odysseus never did anything of the sort.”

ἤδη γὰρ εἶδον πολλάκις Πυθαγόρας καθείρξας ἑαυτὸν ἐν ὑπογείῳ λογοποιεῖν ἐκέλευσε τὴν μητέρα ὡς ἄρα τεθνηκὼς εἴη καὶ μετὰ ταῦτα ἐπιφανεὶς περὶ παλιγγενεσίας καὶ τῶν καθ’ ῞Αιδου τινὰ ἐτερατεύετο διηγούμενος πρὸς τοὺς ζῶντας περὶ τῶν οἰκείων οἷς ἐν ῞Αιδου συντετυχηκέναι ἔλεγεν ἐξ ὧν τοιαύτην ἑαυτῷ δόξαν περιέθηκεν ὡς πρὸ μὲν τῶν Τρωικῶν Αἰθαλίδης ὢν ὁ ῾Ερμοῦ, εἶτα Εὔφορβος, εἶτα ῾Ερμότιμος, εἶτα Πύρρος ὁ Δήλιος, εἶτα ἐπὶ πᾶσι Πυθαγόρας· εἰς τοῦτο  οὖν ἔοικεν ἀποτείνεσθαι ὁ Σοφοκλῆς· ἔνιοι δὲ οἴονται ἀπιθάνως εἰς ᾿Οδυσσέα ἀποτείνεσθαι· οὐ γὰρ πέπρακταί τι τοιοῦτον ᾿Οδυσσεῖ·

Be Smart, Don’t Fart: The Pythagorean Prohibition of Beans

“Plato therefore encourages people to go to sleep with their bodies thus disposed that there be nothing which could introduce any wandering from or disturbance of sleep. From which it is thought that the Pythagoreans prohibited the consumption of beans, because that food causes a great flatulence which is contrary to the tranquility of a mind seeking the truth.”

Iubet igitur Plato sic ad somnum proficisci corporibus adfectis, ut nihil sit, quod errorem animis perturbationemque adferat. Ex quo etiam Pythagoreis interdictum putatur, ne faba vescerentur, quod habet infiationem magnam is cibus tranquillitati mentis quaerenti vera contrariam.

-Cicero, de Divinatione 1.30

Pythagoras the Con-Artist

 

“Pythagoras confined himself in an underground hole and told his mother to tell people that he had died. When he reappeared, he told a lot of marvelous tales about resurrection and the things which happen in the underworld, and, to the living he related a full account of all the companions he happened to meet in the underworld; from this arose the belief that he was Aithalides son of Hermes before the Trojan War, then Euphorbus, then Hermotimus, then Pyrrhus the Delian, and then finally Pythagoras. Sophocles seems to be hinting at this story. Some assert, though unpersuasively, that the lines are aimed at Odysseus. But this is unconvincing, because Odysseus never did anything of the sort.”

ἤδη γὰρ εἶδον πολλάκις Πυθαγόρας καθείρξας ἑαυτὸν ἐν ὑπογείῳ λογοποιεῖν ἐκέλευσε τὴν μητέρα ὡς ἄρα τεθνηκὼς εἴη καὶ μετὰ ταῦτα ἐπιφανεὶς περὶ παλιγγενεσίας καὶ τῶν καθ’ ῞Αιδου τινὰ ἐτερατεύετο διηγούμενος πρὸς τοὺς ζῶντας περὶ τῶν οἰκείων οἷς ἐν ῞Αιδου συντετυχηκέναι ἔλεγεν ἐξ ὧν τοιαύτην ἑαυτῷ δόξαν περιέθηκεν ὡς πρὸ μὲν τῶν Τρωικῶν Αἰθαλίδης ὢν ὁ ῾Ερμοῦ, εἶτα Εὔφορβος, εἶτα ῾Ερμότιμος, εἶτα Πύρρος ὁ Δήλιος, εἶτα ἐπὶ πᾶσι Πυθαγόρας· εἰς τοῦτο  οὖν ἔοικεν ἀποτείνεσθαι ὁ Σοφοκλῆς· ἔνιοι δὲ οἴονται ἀπιθάνως εἰς ᾿Οδυσσέα ἀποτείνεσθαι· οὐ γὰρ πέπρακταί τι τοιοῦτον ᾿Οδυσσεῖ·

 

This account is from the scholiast on Sophocles’ Electra, explaining lines 62-64:

“I know that many times wise men have died in report only. Then, when they return home, they receive a greater portion of honor.”

ἤδη γὰρ εἶδον πολλάκις καὶ τοὺς σοφοὺς

λόγῳ μάτην θνῄσκοντας· εἶθ’, ὅταν δόμους

ἔλθωσιν αὖθις, ἐκτετίμηνται πλέον·

This account can also be found in Diogenes Laertius, 8.40, where it is attributed to Hermippus:

“Hermippus says that when Pythagoras came to Italy, he made himself a little dwelling underground and told his mother to write events which she had noticed on a tablet and make a note of the time, and send it down to him until he should come back up. His mother did just this. After a time, Pythagoras came back up withered and dried out, he went to the public assembly and said that he had just returned from the underworld. He related to them all that had happened there. The people, won over by the stories, cried and wailed and believed that Pythagoras was some sort of divine character, such that they even gave their women to him to learn something of what he had to say, and these women were then called ‘Pythagorikai.’ Thus the story from Hermippus.”

φησὶν ὁ ῞Ερμιππος· λέγει γὰρ ὡς γενόμενος ἐν ᾿Ιταλίᾳ κατὰ γῆς οἰκίσκον

ποιήσαι καὶ τῇ μητρὶ ἐντείλαιτο τὰ γινόμενα εἰς δέλτον γράφειν σημειουμένην

καὶ τὸν χρόνον, ἔπειτα καθιέναι αὐτῷ ἔστ’ ἂν ἀνέλθῃ. τοῦτο ποιῆσαι τὴν

μητέρα. τὸν δὲ Πυθαγόραν μετὰ χρόνον ἀνελθεῖν ἰσχνὸν καὶ κατεσκελε-

τευμένον, εἰσελθόντα τ’ εἰς τὴν ἐκκλησίαν φάσκειν ὡς ἀφῖκται ἐξ ῞Αιδου.

καὶ δὴ καὶ ἀνεγίνωσκεν αὐτοῖς τὰ συμβεβηκότα. οἱ δὲ σαινόμενοι τοῖς λεγο-

μένοις ἐδάκρυόν τε καὶ ᾤμωζον καὶ ἐπίστευον εἶναι τὸν Πυθαγόραν θεῖόν

τινα, ὥστε καὶ τὰς γυναῖκας αὐτῷ παραδοῦναι ὡς καὶ μαθησομένας τι τῶν

Earth : Sky :: Europe : Asia — Varro, On the Latin Language, Book V, 31

“Just as all of nature is divided between the heaven and the earth, so too, reflecting the regions of the sky, the earth is divided into Asia and Europe. Asia is situated near the midday sun and the south wind; Europe lies west near the Dipper and the north wind. Asia is named for the nymph whom the tradition makes the mother of Prometheus with Iapetos. Europe is named for Europa the daughter of Agenor whom, as Manlius writes, a bull forced to emigrate from Phoenicia. There’s an outstanding sculpture in bronze of these two at Tarentum by Pythagoras*”

Ut omnis natura in caelum et terram divisa est, sic caeli regionibus terra in Asiam et Europam. Asia enim iacet ad meridiem et austrum, Europa ad septemtriones et aquilonem. Asia dicta ab nympha, a qua et Iapeto traditur Prometheus. Europa ab Europa Agenoris, quam ex Phoenice, Manlius scribit taurum exportasse, quorum egregiam imaginem ex aere Pythagoras Tarenti

*Not Pythagoras of Samos the Philosopher, but Pythagoras of Rhegium.

The Elements of Life Are Not Unlike The Elements of Language (Varro, On the Latin Language, Book V, 11-12)

 

Pythagoras of Samos claims that the basic elements of all things are paired—finite and infinite; good and bad; alive and dead, day and night. For this reason, then, two basic elements are motion and set-position; and both split into four parts: what is still or is moved is a body; where it is moved is a place; while it is moved, is a time; what is the character of the movement, an action. The four-part split will be more obvious like this: the body is something like a runner; the stadium is where he runs; the hour is his time; and the running is the action.

For this reason, then, all things can be divided into four parts and these are eternal—since there is never time unless there is motion—even an interruption of motion needs time; nor is there motion without place and body, since the former is the thing that moves and the latter is where it moves; nor is there a lack of action where the body moves. Therefore, location, body, time and action are the four-horse chariot of etymological foundations.

Pythagoras Samius ait omnium rerum initia esse bina ut finitum et infinitum, bonum et malum, vitam et mortem, diem et noctem. Quare item duo status et motus, utrumque quadripertitum: quod stat aut agitatur, corpus, ubi agitatur, locus, dum agitatur, tempus, quod est in agitatu, actio. Quadripertitio magis sic apparebit: corpus est ut cursor, locus stadium qua currit, tempus hora qua currit, actio cursio.

Quare fit, ut ideo fere omnia sint quadripertita et ea aeterna, quod neque unquam tempus, quin fuerit motus: eius enim intervallum tempus; neque motus, ubi non locus et corpus, quod alterum est quod movetur, alterum ubi; neque ubi is agitatus, non actio ibi. Igitur initiorum quadrigae locus et corpus, tempus et action.

A Consumerist Approach to Education Isn’t a NewThing: Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 1.9.8-9

“After our friend Taurus said these things about Pythagoras, he added, “Today, these people who turn to philosophy on whim and without washed feet [i.e. without preparation for the study], for them it isn’t enough that they are “completely without logic, without education, and without mathematical training”; no, they give the orders about how they should learn philosophy. One says “teach me this first”; another says “I’d like to learn this, but not that.” One is burning to start with Plato’s Symposium because of the appearance of Alcibiades; a different one wants the Phaedrus because of Lysias’ oration. By Jupiter! One even asks to read Plato not for the sake of improving his life, but only to decorate his speech and oratory—not so that it may be more appropriate, but in order to make it fancier.”

Haec eadem super Pythagora noster Taurus cum dixisset: “nunc autem” inquit “isti, qui repente pedibus inlotis ad philosophos devertunt, non est hoc satis, quod sunt omnino ἀθεώτεροι, ἄμουσοι, ἀγεωμέτρητοι, sed legem etiam dant, qua philosophari discant. 9 Alius ait “hoc me primum doce”, item alius “hoc volo” inquit “discere, istud nolo”; hic a symposio Platonis incipere gestit propter Alcibiadae comisationem, ille a Phaedro propter Lysiae orationem. 10 Est etiam,” inquit “pro Iuppiter! qui Platonem legere postulet non vitae ornandae, sed linguae orationisque comendae gratia, nec ut modestior fiat, sed ut lepidior.”

The Best Things The Gods Gave Us (Aelian, Varia Historia 12.59)

“Pythagoras said that man received these two finest things from the gods: to tell the truth and to do good deeds. And he added that both of these things resemble the works of the gods.”

Πυθαγόρας ἔλεγε δύο ταῦτα ἐκ τῶν θεῶν τοῖς ἀνθρώποις δεδόσθαι κάλλιστα, τό τε ἀληθεύειν καὶ τὸ εὐεργετεῖν· καὶ προσετίθει ὅτι καὶ ἔοικε τοῖς θεῶν ἔργοις ἑκάτερον.