The Precepts of Pythagoras
August 28, 2011 § Leave a comment
(Plato’s ghost instructs the poet Milton, by William Blake,1816)
The precepts of Pythagoras are a collection of short instructions or commandments on various activities, intended to act as a guide to proper and judicious conduct for the members of the Pythagorean brotherhood. They are expressed in symbolic terms, and must be interpreted to be correctly understood. The number of these precepts varies from collection to collection. I have used the collection of the French writer M. Dacier, found in his book The Life of Pythagoras, with his Symbols and Golden Verses, together with the Life of Hierocles and his Commentary upon the Verses (London edition of 1707).
Dacier presented seventy-five precepts, which he chose to call symbols. I have not adopted this term since it is bound to confuse modern readers. Many of the precepts are open to more than one interpretation, and some are difficult to fathom. The explanations should be received as a guide to their understanding, not as a final statement of their meaning.
Concerning these concise instructions, Dacier wrote:
Symbols are short Sentences, and as it were Riddles, which under the Cover of plain and natural Expressions, represent to the Understanding the Analogical Truths we would teach it. These sorts of Symbols were, as I may say, the Infancy of Morals; for not having need, any more than Proverbs, either of Definition or Reasoning, and going directly to inculcate the Precept, they were very proper to instruct Mankind, especially at a time when Morals had not yet been methodically treated. Thus you see why they were so much in use, not only in Egypt, but in Judea, and In Arabia, as we see by the Proverbs of Solomon, which are full of them; by the Story of the Queen of Sheba, who went to prove the Wisdom of that Prince with these sorts of Riddles; and by the Story of Samson: And they were yet more proper for Pythagoras, who after the Example of the Egyptians, endeavour’d to teach his Doctrine without divulging it and without hiding it.
Many if not all of the precepts appear to be common folk sayings from the period in which Pythagoras lived. He adopted these saying for his own, and gave each of them an esoteric interpretation with moral and spiritual significance. In this way his followers could say one thing, and be understood by the average person on the common level, yet at the same moment say quite another thing with a much more subtle and complex meaning for those who had been initiated into the Pythagorean teachings.
The precepts have much the same effect on the mind as the Zen koans – brief, enigmatic sayings designed to spur transcendent thought. They were probably discussed and debated at great length between Pythagorean brothers.
They could be spoken openly before the uninitiated, but their inner meanings were sacred mysteries within the sect, and in consequence no complete explanation has come down to us. It is said of Tamycha, the wife of the Pythagorean Mullias, that she bit off her own tongue and spat it into the face of the tyrant Dionysius rather than be forced by him to reveal the esoteric meanings of the precepts.
Although the precepts are to be understood symbolically, they were followed in a literal sense by Pythagoreans. For example, one of the most famous is “abstain from beans.” The followers of the sage took this so much to heart, they would rather allow themselves to be killed than walk across a bean field.
Go not beyond the balance.
The balance or scale was the ancient symbol of justice. It represented a just measure of worth, and hence by extension both lawful and honorable dealings. The aphorism is a warning not to exceed the bounds of the just laws of the nation. It is not a prohibition against violating arbitrary edicts that are unfair but are enforced only by the threat of punishment; rather, it warns against disgracing the dictates of the goddess Justice, whose laws are always based on fairness and truth.
Sit not down on the bushel.
Dacier observed that the bushel, or choenix, was the measure of grain given to each slave for his sustenance. A bushel basket is most easily used for a seat when it is inverted, and in this condition cannot be filled. To sit on the bushel basket is to be slothful, and the consequence is deprivation. Honest work is the way to provide for the necessities of life.
A bushel basket can also form a seat when it is filled, if we rest upon its contents. Another possible interpretation is that we should not be content with the measure of a slave – that is, should not merely accept what is given us, but should strive to better our lot in life by working beyond the degree that is required for mere survival. A familiar saying that expresses somewhat the same idea is “Do not rest on your laurels.”
Tear not the crown to pieces.
It was the custom in ancient times to wear wreaths of flowers about the head during banquets. Dacier suggests three possible interpretations: that we should not spoil celebrations by displays of worry or grief; that we should not transgress the laws of the state, which are its crowning glory; that we should not speak ill of princes, that is to say, of those in positions of power.
Of the three, I am inclined to believe that Pythagoras intended the first meaning. The crown of flowers worn at feasts represented a union of its members. Each flower symbolized one of the celebrants, and the chain of stems, the good cheer that bound them together. To rend this crown by nervously picking at its petals, as undoubted many a worried guest must have done while revelry went on all around him, is to break this sacred union of happiness with a display of discontent. No one is more resented by party-goers than a melancholy individual who inhibits their enjoyment. It is a display of bad manners that can have unfortunate social consequences.
Eat not the heart.
The popular expression “eat your heart out” has an ancient lineage. Homer used this expression of Bellerophon, saying that he was “eating his own heart” with despair. This precept cautions us not to give in to discontent over our condition in life. Prolonged brooding and melancholy are self-destructive and accomplish no useful end.
Stir not up the fire with a sword.
Do not inflame to violence the anger of others by your words or deeds. It is to “add fuel to the fire” and to “pour oil upon the flames,” to use two more familiar expressions. Fire symbolizes anger, the sword symbolizes strife or conflict.
There are two interpretations as to how this stirring up to violence takes place. Either the Pythagorean precept cautions against opposing or contradicting an angry person, lest that anger be turned against you; or it cautions against encouraging anger by giving counsels of violent action. I believe that Pythagoras intended the second meaning. To incite to violence those who are enraged is a despicable act of which Pythagoras would have strongly disapproved.
When you are arrived on the frontiers, desire not to return back.
Dacier interpreted this to mean that when we reach the appointed time of death, we should not timorously cling to life. However, “frontier” can be viewed more generally as any challenge that confronts us. If we accept this broader meaning of the term, then the message is that when we accept a difficult task or a hardship, we should not try to back out of it at the last minute. It is a caution against getting “cold feet” in the face of opposition.
Go not in the public way.
This is a counsel to avoid the easy avenue of popular opinion in favor of the narrow path of independent thought. It is particularly applicable in occult or spiritual studies. Those who accept popular opinion about difficult questions will never attain an informed understanding of the matter. They must seek their own unique way to the truth if it is to acquire meaning in their lives. It is the difference between truism and living truth, between the unexamined life and knowing oneself.
Suffer no swallows about your house.
Swallows are proverbial for their incessant twittering. Silence is necessary for a philosophical way of life. This is a caution against engaging in idle conversation for its own sake, merely as a type of social interaction. It is specifically condemned around the home. It is one thing for an enlightened man or woman to indulge in casual talk while in society, where silence might be misinterpreted as rudeness, but it is another thing to bring this noise home, into what should be a haven of stillness and reflection.
Wear not the image of God upon your ring.
Hands commit all manner of actions, base and noble, coarse and refined. A divine image should always be treated with respect. This is not possible when it is worn on the person as an article of jewelry. To avoid profanation, it should not be worn. Pythagoras would probably not have approved of the wearing of the cross by Christians, for this reason. It too easily lapses from a reminder of the divine to a mere fashion accessory.
In ancient times, rings were often used as seals for legal documents. A more symbolic interpretation is that we should not invoke the name of God to justify our personal, selfish actions.
Help men to burden, but not to unburden themselves.
It is no act of kindness to help others live easy, slothful, unexamined lives. The human spirit thrives on challenges that must be overcome by an application of effort and ingenuity. It sickens where all needs are met without work. In the absence of doubt there can be no learning. The true spiritual teacher is one who knocks out the underpinnings of conventional thought and leaves the student bewildered and confused, because then he is forced to think and act for himself. Questions are the wealth of the soul.
Shake not hands easily with any man.
A handshake is a bond of trust. It represents an accord or agreement. Do not pledge your support or compliance to anyone unless you are sure they merit your respect.
Another interpretation is that you should not make hollow displays of camaraderie toward those to whom you do not feel genuine affection and trust.
Leave not the least mark of the pot upon the ashes.
A bubbling pot represents a quarrel, and a fire represents anger. When the fire has burned itself out and the pot has ceased to bubble, make no reference to the original cause of the dispute.
Sow mallows, but never eat them.
The mallow is a flowering plant related to Venus, goddess of love. Its juice was used to treat bruises, stings, swelling, redness and irritation of the skin. It is a soothing balm. To sow mallows means to be gentle toward others and forgive their errors. Never to eat them means to be more critical of your own mistakes and transgressions, so that you may improve your own nature.
Wipe not out the place of the torch.
The torch symbolizes the light of the spirit. Even when that light has temporarily been extinguished by base thoughts or evil actions, do not wipe away the memory of its purifying radiance from your mind, for by remembering the occasions on which you acted with honor you may be able to reignite it at some future time.
Wear not a straight ring.
A plain iron ring was the emblem of a slave in ancient times. You should not allow others to constrict your speech and control your thoughts through the promise of favor or the threat of punishment, but should always think freely and act according to your own conscience.
Feed not the animals that have crooked claws.
It is dangerous to offer help or shelter to those who are by nature thankless and unfaithful. Crooked claws are the weapons of predatory beasts.
Abstain from beans.
This is the most famous and most obscure of all the Pythagorean precepts. One popular ancient interpretation was that it means to abstain from politics, because it was the custom in the days of Pythagoras to choose officials by casting white and black beans in a vote.
The answer may be more simple. Beans are universally known to produce flatulence. For this reason the Egyptian priests abhorred them and would not eat them. Pythagoras is supposed to have acquired some of his wisdom from the Egyptians, so it is not unlikely that he also adopted a number of their customs. In a general sense, this precept means that you should avoid those things that generate corruption and foulness, even though they seem palatable in the beginning.
Eat not fish whose tails are black.
To eat is to symbolically accept something within yourself, and to make that thing a part of your very nature. The tail of a fish is its motivator, the means for its actions. Thus, we are cautioned not to accept into our hearts those who have winning smiles and pleasant words, but first to look to their deeds and the purpose behind those deeds to determine their true worth.
Never eat the gurnet.
The reference here is to the red sea-mullet, or gurnard (erythinum), a red fish with a large, spiny head. Dacier asserts that this fish is the “Emblem of Blood,” presumably due to its coloration. The term “gurnet” also signifies the pomegranate and the garnet stone, both bright red in color, both symbols of blood, but it is the red fish that was intended by Pythagoras.
We may interpret this precept as a prohibition against eating blood, in a poetic sense – that is, against seeking the blood of others through acts of revenge.
Eat not the matrix of animals.
The matrix is the womb, and here represents sexual passion. Animals symbolize the brute nature in mankind. To eat the matrix is to indulge in sex only for physical gratification. Pythagoras is cautioning his followers not to allow themselves to be consumed by erotic desires.
Abstain from the flesh of beasts that die of themselves.
Beasts that had died of sickness or other causes were not considered fit offerings to the gods, because their vital energy was less than beasts that were sacrificed while still living. The gods fed on the spiritual vitality (pneuma or spiritus) present in the blood of the sacrifices.
By directing that his disciples eat what the gods eat, Pythagoras implied that in order to awaken their divine nature, his followers should nourish themselves on life rather than on death.
Abstain from eating animals.
Animals represent the lower nature. Eating is a process of taking into the self and making one with the self. The meaning is, do not accept and emulate the arguments or habits of irrational human beings.
Always put salt upon the table.
Dacier recorded the saying of Pythagoras that “Salt was the Emblem of Justice; for as Salt preserves all things, and prevents Corruption, so Justice preserves whatever it animates, and without it all is corrupted.” If we understand the table to symbolize the place of business transactions or bargaining, as indeed it does today, then the meaning of this precept is to always use justice in business dealings.
Never break the bread.
This can only be understood fully when we know that both the Greeks and Romans used to divide their bread into four parts by impressed lines into the dough before it went into the oven.
Many interpreters have found this saying of Pythagoras obscure, since obviously bread is made to be broken when eaten. Some have compared the bread to human life, presumably on the basis that bread is called the staff of life, and believe the saying cautions against tearing your life to pieces by pursuing conflicting purposes; others that it commands concord toward those with whom we have dealings.
Dacier has come close to the most likely meaning when he asserts that the saying signifies we should not be stinting in our displays of charity – that is, we should give the whole loaf rather than breaking it up into parts. However, I do not think Pythagoras referred to charity so much as hospitality towards friends and guests.
In my view, the meaning is that when we share our house and table with others, we should give them the entire loaf, even if we go hungry as a result, because by dividing the loaf, neither we nor our guests will have enough, but by giving all to our guests we can at least insure that their needs are satisfied.
Spill not oil upon the seat.
The “seat” is the place of power, because rulers, law-givers and officials pronounce their judgments while sitting down. Hence the saying the “seat of government.” To spill oil upon the seat is to pay bribes in order to get unjust considerations. It is similar to the saying “grease the palms” and also to the saying “grease the wheels of justice.”
Dacier believed that this precept meant that we should not flatter great men. This is a plausible interpretation. Flattery is a kind of bribe. However, I believe the meaning encompasses both bribes of flattering words and bribes of gifts or money. The reason we should not bribe officials is that even though we may gain victory in our immediate dispute, through bribery we both dishonor ourselves, and also corrupt an institution that is required for the healthy functioning of the state.
Put not meat into a foul vessel.
Specifically the Greek word amis, a chamber-pot, is used. Do not pour nourishment into a chamber-pot, which is by its inherent nature designed only to receive wastes. Do not cast away your time and energy giving good advice to those who are unfit to benefit from it.
Feed the cock but sacrifice him not, for he is sacred to the sun and to the moon.
The cock is the watchful herald of the dawn. The sun and moon are the eyes of heaven. You should support those who are vigilant about moral and ethical behavior, and should not condemn them even when their observations inconvenience your own wishes, because their words support the voice of your conscience.
Break not the teeth.
Both Greeks and Romans used the expression “to break the teeth” when talking about satirizing or reviling someone. This is a caution not to publicly mock others.
Keep the vinegar cruet far from you.
This precept is somewhat similar to the previous one, but whereas the one above cautions against using humor and wit to tear down the character of another person, this precept forbids the use of sour, vicious words for the same purpose. We should not use bitterness and malice when talking about others.
Spit upon the parings of your nails, and the clippings of your hair.
The hair and nails are the dead products of the physical body. They were considered unclean by those who sought to exalt their lives spiritually. This is why Egyptian priests, and indeed many ancient priest casts, shaved the entire body. Pythagoras is saying, leave your old, dead life in the flesh behind you and take up a new life in the spirit.
There may also be an occult meaning. By spitting on the hair and nail clippings, we repudiate them and separate them from us. This makes them less effective for use in works of black magic directed against us.
Make not water against the sun.
The sun here represents daylight, the public view. You should turn your back to the sun, which is to say, conceal your actions in shadow, when you urinate. In a more general sense, Pythagoras is counseling modest behavior. In his day public toilets were a rarity, and most urination and defecation were done in the open. To expose the sexual organs was to risk provoking erotic feelings in others. This was contrary to a spiritual life. Dacier noted that it had been said that no one ever saw Pythagoras urinate, which, if true, indicates a high degree of modesty.
Speak not in the face of the sun.
We should not reveal our innermost beliefs and feelings in public, but should preserve them to share with those who merit our trust. It is wise to remain silent in social gatherings or public places, and to listen while others talk. One who does not speak cannot betray himself.
We ought not to sleep at noon.
This saying can be taken in a literal sense to mean that we should not be slothful, but should be up and about in daylight hours doing the work that needs to be done.
Why, though, did Pythagoras specify noon rather than daybreak or daylight? Noon is the height of brightness, when everything is most clearly exposed and illuminated. Perhaps Pythagoras is saying that we should not close our eyes to the obvious, when it is staring us in the face, but should accept truths even when they may be inconvenient, or may be matters we do not wish to see.
Stir up the bed as soon as you are risen, and leave in it no print of your body.
The straightforward sense is that we should make up our bed as soon as we rise, so that we are not tempted to lie down in it again in the same place.
More abstractly, we should wipe out the memories of what we did and the things we enjoyed while lost in a physical life, so that having turned toward a spiritual life, we are not tempted to resume old habits. This can best be done by changing our behavior so that little things we do each day do not remind us of destructive desires and urges.
Never sing but to the harp.
Pythagoras rejected all musical instruments other than the harp as unfit to accompany songs of praise to the gods and heroes. The meaning is that we should devote our thoughts and words to higher matters of the spirit, not waste them on trivial, everyday affairs of no importance.
Always keep your things ready packed up.
Keep your affairs in good order, because you never know when disaster or death may strike. Maintain a state of preparation every day that is the same as the condition you would strive to attain if you knew that your death was imminent. Leave no necessary task undone. View each day as the day you will leave your home in the physical body and take up a new home in the spiritual body.
Quit not your post without the order of your general.
This is a condemnation of suicide, a practice that was looked upon as acceptable, and even noble, by most men and women in the ancient world. Pythagoras asserts that you have been placed in this life by a higher power, and that it is your duty to fulfill the term of your life, even if it is fraught with difficulties, just as it is the duty of a soldier to stand his post regardless of his personal inclinations.
Cut not wood in the way.
Iamblichus believed this meant that we should not divide the truth for our convenience. Dacier suggests that it means we should not lower ourselves to functions that are beneath us. I am more inclined to think that it signifies we should not use up and destroy the provisions and blessings of life that will be needed by those who follow after us.
In ancient times roads were usually walked. The better roads were lined with trees to provide shelter from the sun and wind. It was a constant temptation of travelers to break off branches from those trees for their cooking fires, since they were conveniently close, but in doing so they deprived travelers who followed after them of shade, since such depravations eventually killed the trees.
Pythagoras is cautioning us not to let considerations of our own convenience destroy the blessings that would otherwise descend upon our children after we have passed on.
Roast not that which is boiled.
According to Athenaeus it was the custom of the Athenians to sacrifice to the Seasons with boiled meat, because they were seeking moderate weather, and the flavor of boiled meat is softer and milder than roast meat.
Hence, to roast what is boiled is to make hard and sharp what is mild and soft. Do not respond to a gentle approach with harshness; do not repay charity with selfishness; do not express anger when receiving an apology. Rather, repay mildness with mildness.
Athenaeus put another interpretation on this precept. He believed it meant that when we have enough simple fare for our basic needs, we should not seek luxury and stimulation of the senses. This may well have been the common understanding in the time of Athenaeus, but I believe the better interpretation is that we should not respond with hardness when treated with softness, as I have indicated above.
Avoid the two-edged sword.
The two-edges sword is the symbol for slander. This is a caution not to have any dealings with slanderers, and also a prohibition against slander. You should not speak ill of others, lest others speak ill of you.
Pick not up what is fallen from the table.
In ancient times, what fell from the dining table became the food for slaves and beggars. Food falling from the table was looked upon as a type of divine intervention, and having touched the floor, it became unclean and could not be replaced on the table, which was regarded as sacred.
The meaning is that you should be charitable toward those who are in need of help, and not seek to deprive them of what little blessing has fallen their way.
Abstain even from a cypress chest.
Cypress wood was used for the best coffins because it tended to preserve the corpses laid in them. Pythagoras directs that you should not devote wealth and care on the bodies of the dead, because they have no part of the souls that have departed from them. They are vacated husks and should not be accorded more importance than this. A common theme of the lowness and unimportance of the flesh, particularly flesh that is dead, runs through several of the precepts.
Sacrifice an odd number to the celestial gods, and to the infernal an even.
Odd numbers represent concord and harmony because they cannot be divided into two equal parts that are composed of whole numbers; even numbers stand for division and discord because they can be equally divided into two parts. The celestial gods were considered harmonious, the infernal gods disordered. The overt or exoteric meaning is that when you make a sacrifice, you should sacrifice an odd number of things to the celestial deities but an even number of things to the infernal deities – for example, three white fowls to Athena but two black fowls to Hades.
Dacier had a very good insight about the esoteric significance of this precept. He believed that the inner meaning of Pythagoras was that when sacrificing to the infernal gods we should offer material sacrifices – that is, things that can be divided because they are physical. When sacrificing to the celestial gods, we should offer only spiritual sacrifices – that is, things that cannot be divided because they are not material in nature. I believe he is correct in his interpretation.
Offer not to the gods the wine of an unpruned vine.
Wine made from the grapes of a cultivated vine is more concentrated and better in flavor than wine from a wild vine, because the wild shoots of the vine, when left untrimmed, sap the goodness from the grapes
Commentators on the writings of Plutarch thought this percept meant that we should not offer bloody sacrifice to the gods. However, Plutarch himself believed it was the intention of Pythagoras to exalt agriculture as a holy activity, by saying that we should only offer fruits of the land that had been cultivated. In my view both of these interpretations are incorrect.
I believe the explanation is that offerings should not be made to the gods by those who are uncultured in spiritual discipline. Pythagoras is saying that the sacrifice of a person who has practiced austerities and has curbed his wild, animal passions is more pleasing to the gods than the sacrifice of a person still tormented by the urges and needs of the flesh. Indeed, he seems to go so far as to indicate that it is unfit for a man who is spiritual untutored to offer anything to the gods, that it is a kind of profanation.
Never sacrifice without meal.
It was the custom of the ancient Greeks to sprinkle barley-meal, or barley mixed with salt, upon the heads of their sacrifices before they were killed. The obvious interpretation is that no sacrifice should be made to the gods without the use of barley to consecrate the victim.
In a more general sense, Pythagoras may have been saying that sacrifices to the gods should not be one-sided or unbalanced, that they should consist both of flesh and grain in order to render them more temperate.
Dacier speculates that it was the philosopher’s intention to covertly indicate that no bloody sacrifice should ever be made, but that meal cakes should be shaped into the images of sacrificial beasts and offered to the gods.
Adore the gods and sacrifice barefoot.
To go without shoes is a sign of humility. The shoe elevates the heel from the ground. An elevated heel has always been a symbol of divinity, which is why high-heeled shoes are so popular today – they exalt the wearer. In general terms Pythagoras advises that we should approach the gods in a spirit of humility, aware of our moral failings and shortcomings. In adoring the gods, we present an offering from the lower to the higher. Adoration cannot be done in a spirit of pride or arrogance.
Turn round when you worship.
Plutarch thought this precept was Pythagoras’ way of telling his followers that they should imitate the motion of the universe during worship, by rotating their bodies. Dacier believed that the meaning was that worshippers should adore the immensity of God by imitating the turning motion of the celestial spheres.
It seems to me that a more occult interpretation may be applied. Turning the body creates a vortex of esoteric energy that opens a channel between the divine and the mundane. The whirling dervishes rely upon this channel to send their prayers to heaven, by spinning their bodies in a spiral dance. In Western magic, circumambulation around the magic circle at the beginning of rituals serves much the same purpose.
Dacier observed that ancient temples always opened toward the east. Pythagoras may have been saying that we should not worship the idols of the gods, but should turn and worship the light of the sun shining in through the open doorways of the temples, that illuminates all of the natural world. Pythagoras would not intend this in a literal sense, that his followers turn their backs on the temple statues of the gods, but rather that they should turn their hearts to the larger universe when adoring before those statues, and should not mistake the statues of the gods for the gods themselves.
Sit down when you worship.
Dacier remarked that in the time of Pythagoras, prayers were offered either standing or sitting. The practice of kneeling during prayer had not yet been invented.
His interpretation is that we should not rush through our devotions, but should only pray when we have the time to do it properly, with a tranquil mind. If the mind is impatient, constantly turning to other affairs, the prayer will not be effective, and will be an insult to the deity to which it is offered. There is merit in this view.
I might add that sitting emulates the posture of a king, who is always associated with the throne, the seat of power. The king was understood in ancient times to be the highest member of a society, the one nearest the gods who acted as their agent by passing on their decrees to lesser men and women. Pythagoras would not have intended that we merely adopt the physical posture of a king, but that we also strive to assume the dignity and honor of a king, so that we might be worthy of higher communication with the gods.
Pare not your nails during the sacrifice.
Hesiod made much the same comment when he wrote: “During the festival of the gods, cut not off with iron from the part that has five branches, the dry from the wet.” The five branches is the hand, the dry from the wet is the dead nail from the quick.
Iamblichus likened the nails of the hand to distant relatives of the family, and interpreted the saying to mean that a good householder should not fail to invite even the poorest and least respected member of the family to the feast that followed the sacrifice.
The simpler interpretation is that when we are engaged with holy things, we should not perform mundane duties. Our minds should remain turned to matters of the spirit.
When it thunders, touch the ground.
Thunder was taken to be an outburst of displeasure from the gods. By touching the ground, we express humility, and turn away this divine wrath.
Even on the purely practical level, it is not a bad idea to touch the ground during thunder storms, since a person standing is more likely to be struck by lightning than a person crouching.
Regard not yourself in the looking-glass by the light of a torch.
We should assess our own worth in a true light, not use excuses and hypocrisy to attempt to paint over our defects, merely because this false image of our own nature is less painful to us.
Dacier commented that by the Monad Pythagoras represented God, and by the Duad the natural universe. His interpretation was that we should know God first, and nature second. While this is an admirable sentiment, it is not possible – we gain an understanding of the divine only by acquiring experience with nature.
My own view of the meaning is that all things emanate from the Monad. It might equally well be expressed, “from the One, all duality.” I can almost see a Pythagorean pointing his finger to heaven as he utters the first word of this precept, then pointing to earth as he speaks the second.
Honor the marks of dignity, the throne and the ternary.
According to Dacier, Iamblichus thought Pythagoras meant to imply that the Italic sect of philosophers should be preferred over the Ionic, on the grounds that the Italic sect was wholly incorporeal whereas the Ionic sect was confined to the body.
Several Christian interpreters believed that by the ternary Pythagoras intended the Holy Trinity. Dacier pointed out that the Holy Trinity was unknown in the time of the sage.
His own view was that the “marks of dignity” represent the officials of the state, the “throne” the ruler of the state, and the “ternary” the three hierarchies of the gods, angels and heroes.
Dacier was probably near the correct view of this precept. However, “marks of dignity” may stand for the symbols of the state rather than state officials.
Another explanation occurs to me. This may be a reference to the various parts of the tetractys, a symbol venerated by Pythagoreans above all others. Perhaps the “marks of dignity” are the ten dots that make up this figure, the “throne” is the bottom row of four dots that constitutes its base, and the “ternary” is a reference to its triangular shape.
Of course, all these parts of the tetractys have their own symbolic meanings. The ten dots are the numbers from one to ten that Pythagoreans believed to give substance to the entire universe; the four dots at the base may have signified the realm of earth and physical matter; the three sides of the triangle may have stood for the perfection of heaven.
When the winds blow, adore Echo.
Echo was a nymph punished by Hera for helping Zeus commit infidelities. She was condemned not to speak, but to inhabit the wild places and only to repeat the words of others.
The meaning suggested by Iamblichus was that we should honor and love the resemblance or image of the divine essences and powers. This seems unsatisfactory.
Dacier put forth a very clever interpretation after that of Lilius Geraldus, saying that the winds signify wars and seditions, and Echo stands for uninhabited rural places. The meaning would be that when warfare or civil unrest threaten the state, the followers of Pythagoras should return to the countryside and wait it out.
Eat not in the chariot.
This is taken to mean that we should not be concerned with our bellies when more important matters of the spirit call for attention. It is a caution to remain vigilant.
Within us a war is constantly being fought between the urge to satisfy our physical desires, and the necessity to deny them that we may attain to higher purposes. The charioteer is the will that guides, the chariot is the body, and the horses are the passions that urge the body along. It is the task of the will to rein in the passions in order that the body be conducted through life in the most fitting manner. If the horses are allowed to run free, disaster is inevitable.
Put on your right shoe first, and wash your left foot first.
The right side of the body is active, the left side passive. Putting on the shoes represents industry and action; washing the feet stands for luxury and ease. My interpretation of this precept is that we should do everything in its proper season – we should be energetic and endure hardship where endurance is required, but we should take care of our needs when we have the opportunity to do so. It is folly to continue to deny ourselves the necessities of our comfort when there is nothing to be gained by such denial.
Eat not the brain.
A theme similar to that above is continued here. We should not consume our mind with an excess of study and deep thought, without from time to time refreshing it with rest.
Plant not the palm tree.
Dacier remarked out of Plutarch that the palm tree becomes useless when it has been transplanted, and gives only a wild kind of fruit that is unfit to eat. Perhaps this precept might better read “transplant not the palm.”
The meaning is that we should not engage in unprofitable works based on an airy fantasy of gain, but should focus our efforts on those tasks that are really necessary and sure to yield good results.
Make the libations to the gods by the ear.
A libation by the ear is music. The meaning is that the gods should be honored not only with sacrifices and prayers, but with songs of praise. Pythagoras was the first in the ancient world to recognize the therapeutic value of music, and also its value in evoking a reverent frame of mind in those who listened to it.
Never eat the cuttlefish.
The cuttlefish is a squid-like creature. It is the habit of the cuttlefish when threatened with danger to excrete a black ink that obscures the waters all around it, by which it makes its escape.
To “eat the cuttlefish” is to accept its habits. Hence, we are warned not to have anything to do with false persons, because they will only lie and abandon us in times of difficulty, and will say or do anything to save themselves.
Stop not at the threshold.
Do not go through life always hesitating, or wavering back and forth, but choose your path and boldly follow it. No good ever comes from delaying a task we know must be done. A doorway is not a place for standing, but for passing through.
Give way to a flock that goes by.
A more modern expression that means much the same thing is “go with the flow.” It is unproductive to oppose popular opinion when it is at its height. You will merely exhaust your energies and achieve nothing. A better course is to bide your time until opinion begins to change, and then add the force of your argument to the opposite swing of the pendulum.
Avoid the weasel.
Dacier states that anciently it was believed weasels gave birth to their young through the mouth. For this reason the weasel became the symbol for speech, which is born from the mouth. This false belief about the weasel came into being because this animal was often seen carrying its young from place to place in its mouth.
The weasel is also proverbial for its treacherousness and viciousness. The precept warns against having any dealings with those who speak falsely and are not to be trusted.
Refuse the weapons a woman offers you.
Women were considered unsuited to ancient warfare because of the relative weakness of their bodies. When they employed weapons in myth or folklore, it was usually in a vengeful or vindictive manner against those who were caught unawares and unable to defend themselves. Hence, the weapons offered by a woman signify weapons of revenge or treachery, which we should decline to accept. In a more general sense, we should always decline to enter into treacherous or vengeful dealings.
Kill not the serpent that chances to fall within your walls.
The serpent signifies a foe. A serpent within your walls is a foe who has fallen under your power. You should always deal mercifully with your enemies when you have them in your power, particularly if they are dependent upon you for the necessities of life.
It is a crime to throw stones into the fountains.
Those who are a source of benefit to others should not be abused. A fountain of clear water refreshes the entire community. It should never be stirred up or blocked. By the same token, good men and women should never be mocked or frustrated.
Feed not yourself with your left hand.
The left is the sinister side of the body, which is to say, the side associated with evil doings. This precept teaches us that we should always earn our daily bread honestly; more than this, that it is better we starve than obtain food in a dishonest manner.
It is a horrible crime to wipe off the sweat with iron.
Do not take by force or the threat of violence what another has earned with his labors.
Iron is the metal of Mars, the god of warfare and strife. Sweat often represents bread, because in past times agriculture required hard physical work. To “wipe off the sweat with iron” is to steal bread at the edge of a blade.
Stick not iron into the footprints of a man.
Despite Dacier’s strenuous assertions that this precept has no connection with the magical practice of pressing iron nails into the footprints of a man or horse to cause them to become lame, it seems to me that the literal interpretation must be understood as a prohibition against this specific type of black magic.
However, the precept also has a broader and more abstract interpretation which is equally valid. A footprint is the trace of one who has passed on, and in this sense represents the dead. To thrust iron into the footprint of a human being is symbolically to kill his reputation, which remains vulnerable to injury even after death.
Sleep not upon a grave.
Again, a folk superstition becomes the instrument for conveying a moral message. We do not sleep upon graves because we do not wish to contract death by some magical contagion. But more broadly, this is a prohibition against living in ease and sloth upon the earnings of our departed parents and relations, who have provided for us an inheritance.
Lay not the whole faggot on the fire.
If a campfire is built using only the projecting ends of sticks, it will burn more slowly than one in which the sticks are stacked one on top of another. As the ends of the sticks burn down, they can be progressively shoved further into the fire.
The meaning is that we should conserve our resources, and not squander them all in a brief span of time to make a bright display of wealth.
Leap not from the chariot with your feet close together.
If you do so while the chariot is still moving, you will quite probably fall over. Instead, you should prepare yourself for your landing by bending your knees and spreading your feet to make a stable support.
This precept conveys the necessity of preparing ourselves before we leap into any new situation. We must look before we leap, and more than this, must use the knowledge we gain from that preview to make ourselves ready for the change we are about to make in our lives.
Threaten not the stars.
I understand this precept as a caution against arrogance and vanity. We should not presume to make threats or demands of those greater than ourselves, who have done nothing to injure us, or we risk having them turn their displeasure upon us with terrible consequences. Specifically, we should not seek to intimidate those who have been set over us in a lawful capacity to regulate aspects of our lives.
For the ancients, the stars were the regulators of life on the earth. Everything proceeded according to the angles of their rays, and nothing happened without their concord. To threaten the stars is to threaten the gods who control our fate. It is the worst sort of hubris. At best, it is to be no better than a small dog yapping at the heels of a horse – at worst, it may provoke an impatient kick.
Place not the candle against the wall.
A wall in impenetrable to light. In order to illuminate a room most effectively, a light source should be placed in the center, so that its radiance can expand equally on all sides. Lighting is less efficient when sources of illumination are set in corners or against flat surfaces.
Symbolically, a candle flame represents enlightenment, knowledge. A wall represents thickness, stupidity.
The meaning is that we should not seek to instruct those who obstinately refuse to learn. We should not waste the light of our knowledge on persons unfit to make optimum use of it, but should devote our resources to teaching those who can best benefit from the instruction.
Write not in the snow.
Snow quickly melts, and whatever may have been inscribed on its surface soon passes away. We should not seek to impress our teachings on shallow, flighty minds incapable of retaining it, since it will quickly be forgotten.
In a more general sense, do not devote your labors to impermanent things. Concentrate the limited energies available during your lifetime upon matters that will endure.