We do not have much that we know for sure Pythagoras wrote. But what we have present us with the key ideas upon which Pythagoras had established his school in southern Italy roughly twenty-six centuries ago.
Pythagoras’s ideas rested on the unity of the Creator of the universe. And from that flowed three streams of thought.
One, that that unity is a oneness which could not be understood through the means available to the human mind, irrespective of how spiritually or intellectually advanced that mind be.
Two, that this inability to understand necessitates moving from the essence of the Creator to the manifestations of that essence.
And three, that these manifestations are emanations – as in, aspects that are unfolded from that essence .. each unfoldment gives rise to a further unfoldment .. one layer after another through which the emanation process grows bigger .. a dot of immense concentration unfolds into geometrical shapes .. but the shapes are essentially materialisations of the potential that was in the original dot. Crucially, these unfoldments do not exhaust the potential of the origin.
In this image the movement inherent in the unfoldment is tempo-spatial but not moral. Meaning: the unfoldment creates the time-space that we observe around us; and this creates the universe we are in. But the unfoldments, one after another, do not necessarily mean that those closer to the origin are ‘better’ than those that came later. And so for Pythagoras, the unfoldment of the Divine essence is reflected in the universe, but the various reflections are not to be graded in terms of superiority, subject to their closeness to the origin in the way we understand closeness in the time-space we live in.
It follows that, through these unfoldments, we are able to experience the Divine in the observable universe – but only partially. For in this thinking the observable universe is totally of the source, but is not the totality of the source - whose unfoldment continues almost certainly in other domains apart from the time-space that we observe.
Many have arrived at more or less the same belief. Pythagoras’s achievement, however, was understanding that there are tangible ways of coming closer to these manifestations in the tempo-special sphere in which the human mind and body live. And for Pythagoras, music and geometry are two of the most important of these tangibles.
Music is essentially harmonious expressions of frequency on predetermined scales. And since Pythagoras thought (and we now know) that frequency (and so vibrations) underpins all existence in the universe, it follows that the most harmonious form of frequencies to our minds (music), is a route to understanding some of the divine manifestations around us.
This is important, for many cultures had arrived before Pythagoras at the conclusion that music is a way of getting closer to the source, to the Creator. Pythagoras wanted to get close, but he also wanted to understand. This is why his school not only institutionalised singing and chanting, but also founded the first systematic way we know of in human history to study music and figure out its rules.
Geometry is a means to delve into the rules of formation in our world. The importance of this is obvious. But to Pythagoras the rules of formation go far beyond the observed expressions that geometry expounds. They involve non-observable expressions – particularly numerical ones that carry aspects of these divine manifestations. Put another way, these numerical expressions (the intangibles inherent in geometry) link the aspects of the divine that manifested in our world with the rules governing that world.
This idea gives rise to two observations. The first is that the rules of formation that we study (the tangibles in geometry) are a part of the Divine manifestation in form (the universe we observe). But they are not the whole of that manifestation. The second is that, the intangibles in geometry – Pythagoras’s understanding of numerology – are themselves a manifestation of the Divine that govern the tangibles. And so the former is a way to understand form; the latter is a way to understand the Divine Will that governs form.
Pythagoras was a believer. But, again, his key achievement was that, unlike many traditions of believing in a Creator, that were satisfied with feeling and internalising their comprehension of the Creator-created relationship, Pythagoras wanted his comprehension to go beyond feelings and internalisation into true comprehension. And so while many traditions wanted to get a sense of the Divine Will, Pythagoras wanted to get a rationalisation of the functioning of this Will.
Pythagoras’s way of explaining his rationalisation was also quite rare. Unlike many philosophers throughout history, Pythagoras did not write much about his comprehension; rather he put it in abstract rules – the rules that he thought were the aspects of the Divine Will that govern the Divine manifestations. His music foundations were one such aspect. His numerology were another.
In this view, the number one carries elements of the unity of the Creator. Two entails the division that gave rise to Creation. Three was the first aspect in the world of formation. This is why Pythagoras’s studies of the triangle were considered by the schools that emerged from his cloak – most notably that of Plato – to be studies of the essential basis of material existence. For if the number one is an expression of the divine and two an expression of the split into duality (the separation) that underpins the creation, then in this thinking, indeed the number three (and its representation into the shape of the triangle) is the first number of this world, and so is the basis of matter (the universe we see and live in).
The notion of form is paramount here. Pythagoras echoed the idea, which became key to monotheistic religions later, that “man was created in the shape of God”. But to Pythagoras – and here he is strongly influenced by Ancient Egypt – both “man” and “nature” were created in the shape of God.
This is a bit different from the simplistic understanding of the idea that God is All, which equates the Divine with the “universe”. Here, the essence of God is, again, beyond human comprehension; and both the universe (nature) and man are created in “the shape of the Divine”, which means, each of them reflects the Divine.
Each – the universe and man (in its male and female form) - reflects the Divine. Yet, here there is a question that Pythagoras’s views on are unclear. Did he see the universe (nature) and man as reflections of aspects of the Divine, independently from each other? Or do these reflections compliment each other, and so together form an emanation of the Divine?
I’m tempted to think that Pythagoras was inclined to the latter idea. This is because Pythagoras repeatedly emphasised the centrality of harmony, as opposed to anarchy, in his view of the Divine reflections in the universe - which is to be expected from someone who believed that music (with its rules of harmony) is a key tangible in the Divine rules governing form. And so if harmony is an integral feature of creation, then the two most prominent features of creation – nature and man – ought to have harmony between their existences, and in their reflection of the Creator.
Pythagoras, we are told, emphasised the triangle of Soul, Mind, and Body. And in the community he had founded in Italy, we are told, he instituted rules to govern living .. rules that he believed allowed for a harmonious connection between these three human constituents. The ultimate objective was to transcend the limitations of form and to rise to a spiritual union with the Divine. From what we have of his writings, we do not know what Pythagoras understood that to be. But I think he saw that as the ultimate harmony between the Divine, nature, and man.