Pythagoras: The Heroic Ideal & Self-Reform
PYTHAGORAS: THE HEROIC IDEAL & SELF-REFORM
For our subject to be fruitful we might have to overcome a peculiarly limiting roadblock in the modern mind. That roadblock is our naïve belief that what is modern is necessarily more enlightening and useful to us than anything the ancient world might have to offer. If this deeply-rooted, unconscious bias is true, then the luminous sages, seers and prophets of past civilizations have nothing to teach us. They are mere anachronisms, mere historical curiosities but quite out of touch with the needs of our present age.
Such a modern attitude is crippling and, what is more, it is false. How, for example, could there have been a European Renaissance or a rebirth of the human spirit unless men and women in the 14th Century had not re-discovered the fertile but forgotten teachings of ancient Greece and Rome? The eternal truths that Renaissance thinkers retrieved from ancient manuscripts proved to be so luminous and so vital that they literally electrified the minds and hearts of thinkers for the next two centuries. In reality, ancient Greek and Roman teachings helped to rescue European man from the mental, moral and spiritual darkness of the Middle Ages.
Given this historical example, we moderns, living as we do in a bewildering world, could certainly benefit from doing an about-face from our soul-consuming materialistic values and our childish fascination with technology. We could, if we so chose, consciously set aside the unthinking belief that what is ancient is not instructive, inspiring or therapeutic. Rather, as true learners, we could refuse to be bound by time, by history, by geography or by current social conditions. With the right mental posture, we could learn from the wise men and women of the past. We could, in fact, “commune” with the magnanimous minds of past eras by cultivating a childlike simplicity of trust and openness.
For example, when the true devotee of Jesus turns daily to the New Testament to replenish his spirit, he is declaring that Jesus is living, vital and present in the words and images of his teachings. Such an earnest devotee is not only rising above time and culture, but, more importantly, he is rising above the gravitational pull of his own cultural mind-set. For a while, he or she is bringing Jesus forward into the present moment, into his or her own mental world and letting Jesus’ teachings shed their revelatory light on the complex labyrinth of daily duties. Millions of dedicated devotees of the world’s diverse religions experience this daily even though they might not consciously think of it in this exact way.
How, we might ask, is this quasi-mystical experience possible, i.e. of minds awakening minds and inspiring hearts across cultures and historical epochs? This intriguing phenomenon is possible because divine Wisdom is both omni-present and transcendent. It is omni-present because it exists at all times, in all cultures and is potentially accessible to any and all human beings. It is transcendent because spiritual wisdom cannot be fully embodied in any particular religion, philosophy or science. It cannot be limited to any particular historical period. It is not the exclusive inheritance of any nation. It favors no particular race. Rather, wisdom occupies an entirely different dimension of mind-awareness such that it is beyond the vagaries of time and place, culture and conditioning. Wisdom is therefore always contemporary — if only we are open to it and seek it earnestly.
Let us then mentally sit at the feet of that noble luminary, Pythagoras, a wise teacher and magnanimous Sage.
Pythagoras was a widely revered spiritual teacher who lived in ancient Greece in the Sixth Century, BCE. He gave us the word “philosophy” which in Greek means, ‘the love of wisdom’. The essential characteristic of wisdom is that of harmony. Wisdom reveals to us the laws that creatively harmonize our relationships with God, Nature and man. If this is so, then wisdom-realization brings about brotherhood and true happiness — or “flourishing” as the ancient Greeks called it. By contrast, we can easily understand how excessive loneliness, isolation and separation from God, Nature and man eventually leads to unhappiness, violence and spiritual poverty. This is the result of unwisdom, or spiritual ignorance.
To Pythagoras, God, like the radiant sun, is self-luminous. As such, every human being is an immortal ray of that divine intelligence and is involved in a vast journey over multiple lifetimes in order to realize the full splendor and joy of a conscious life in Deity (or God).
Pythagoras founded in Crotona, Italy a mini-community of three hundred men and women who voluntarily consecrated their lives and their fortunes to the pursuit of wisdom through the practice of the highest intellectual and moral virtues. The foundational principle of Pythagoras’ community was, naturally enough, harmony or cooperative fellowship. (By-the-way, Pythagoras was the first to found a community in which women were admitted as the equals of men in terms of their intellectual, moral and spiritual potential.)
All members of Pythagoras’ community took solemn oaths to live by certain moral and intellectual disciplines. Moral disciplines included respect for elders, sharing communal responsibilities, vegetarianism and periods of silence in which one cultivated the supernal quality of reverence. Intellectual disciplines included the study of mathematics, astronomy, music and philosophy. Beyond these disciplines and studies all were expected to engage in daily meditation and self-study (or the “nightly review”).
There are various forms of meditation, but students of Pythagoras meditated principally on his profound teachings, some of which can be found in a document entitled, Hieros Logos or “The Golden Verses”. In addition, students were encouraged to meditate (or mentally focus) on the magnificent qualities of spiritual heroes. Spiritual heroes are those intrepid individuals who are “full of goodness and light”. They have conquered their powerful passions of gluttony, slothfulness, lust and anger. Simultaneously, they have cultivated the wholesome virtues of fearlessness, justice, generosity, charitableness, responsibility and compassion.
Pythagoras believed that by meditating on the finest characteristics of heroic exemplars of right living, we purify our minds and, in time, grow into becoming more like those very heroes. In a sense, true meditation is about self-gestation, about germinating the finest qualities of the divine that pulsates within the depths of our own minds and hearts. Such self-cultivation expands the perimeter of Self-awareness and fosters a deep feeling of kinship with all others.
To Pythagoras, what was critical to all study and daily meditation was the mind-transforming element of reverence. Reverence made mental and spiritual alchemy possible. “To revere” is not the same as “to idolize”. The latter has to do with putting someone on a pedestal. People on a pedestal are distant and quite different from us. With reverential meditation, however, we are engaged in such profound, wholesome admiration that we feel inspired to emulate the heroic individuals that we are contemplating.
Finally, members of the Pythagorean Community were asked to review their daily actions each night before going to sleep. They were asked to scan their actions not once, not twice but three times. Examining their daily choices in light of the heroic ideal, increased their powers of discretion – their ability to actively sift the true from the false, good from evil, right from wrong, courage from cowardice, sincerity from hypocrisy.
We might well imagine that some of the questions raised in the “nightly review” of Pythagoreans were: “Did I meet my responsibilities today? Did I control my temper when I was sorely tempted? Did I treat others fairly? Was I generous or selfish? Was I patient or impatient? Was I truthful or disingenuous? Did I act courageously when it was called for or not?”
In our own challenging times, we should ask ourselves similar questions. If we ask questions in light of the spiritually heroic ideal, it could well lead to positive self-discovery. Honest self-appraisal of our daily actions and responses would reveal not only our weaknesses and limitations but reveal previously hidden strengths and virtues, too. We would gain confidence in our power to learn, to persist and to help others effectively. Furthermore, when we recognize moral mistakes, instead of wallowing in guilt or shame, self-correction would be the appropriate, healing balm. We could then consciously re-true ourselves to our adopted ideal and fearlessly make amends to friends and foes alike for any serious moral lapses, errors in judgment and the like. As Gandhi showed, genuine self-correction involves creative suffering, and the latter eventually increases wisdom-in-action and helps restore communal harmony.
Finally, the nightly review complements meditation because it makes us vitally aware of the virtues and potentials of others – of those within our own immediate familial and social orbits. Authentic moral learning occurs and we forget ourselves in saluting and celebrating the good we perceive in those we are privileged to know.
To sum up, Pythagoras taught that the immortal soul of man is a center of infinite wisdom which, once awakened, can guide us to a more wholesome relationship with God, Nature and man. To awaken our innate wisdom, we must engage in meditation, self-study and right action. The more we practice these three-fold activities the more they become as natural as breathing. And, in such soul-breathing, we become vibrant and proud contributors to collective good, to communal harmony and to the diffusion of happiness.
A Theosophical student
Printed by permission of the author.