One of my all-time favorites, Pythagoras is in my personal view the key to understanding the metaphysical tradition of ancient Greece. While I don’t think I would have been one of his followers if I had known him (he was an ascetic and required performing all sorts of purification rituals to detach us from this earthly world), I can’t get enough of thinking about him.
Pythagoras was from Samos, an island off the coast of Miletus. But he left Samos due to his rebellion against a tyrannical government there and fled to southern Italy. In the Greek settlement of Croton, at the age of 40, he gathered a large number of followers and for most of the rest of his life, they were political rulers in the area.
For many years, the teachings of Pythagoras were a secret. But what was reported later was that he held certain doctrines: 1) the soul is immortal; 2) it migrates to other kinds of animals; 3) that the same events are repeated in cycles, nothing being new; 4) all things with souls should be regarded as akin. These doctrines are either original to Pythagoras or he learned of them in his travels to the East, but scholars agree that he was the one who introduced them to the Greek world.
Pythagoras’ belief that the soul is immortal is a massive claim. To most ancient Greeks, only the gods of Olympus are immortal. So, to say that the human soul is immortal is a daring position to hold. It became defining for subsequent Greek philosophers, however. From Socrates to Plato, and then Aristotle who says: “
We ought not to obey those who tell us that a man should think a man’s thoughts, and a mortal the thoughts of a mortal. On the contrary, we should endeavor as far as possible to become immortal, and to do all that we can to live in accordance with what is highest in us. (Nicomachean Ethics, X.7.1177 b 32)
The soul being immortal also introduces the mind body problem: if the soul is immortal, and the body is mortal, then how do they relate? How do they connect with each other? We saw a precursor to this issue when Hesiod suggested that Love entered the world in an egg: Love is immaterial (not material) whereas an egg is material. How do they even connect? How do you get Love in an egg? Similarly, how do you get an immortal soul in a body? This is one of the most important issues in philosophy even today. Contemporary neuroscience will maintain that all human experiences, even things like prayer or love, are all actually results of brain chemistry. That is to say they are physical, and all appearance of something beyond the physical is a misunderstanding or mistake. From the 8th century B.C. to the present, it is always an issue to explain how immaterial things and material things connect, and it is always a temptation to explain the problem away by claiming that all things are actually material.
I’m going to take a pause here from Pythagoras to apply these reflections to motherhood. What if I were to say to you, “Your love for your child is just hormones and brain chemistry. When your toddler fell off the jungle gym at the park, and when your teenager lost the point on the basketball court, you felt love and empathy for your child—so you think. You imagine that you have maternal experiences that are real love. You scooped up your child and coddled him and soothed him as he cried. After the game, you took her out for a milkshake and told her that everyone misses shots sometimes, even Michael Jordan. You give your heart and pour it out for your child out of love. This relates to the two principles I mentioned: A) the value of your child as a human being, his or her infinite worth; and B) the importance of your child thriving, being able to recover from hurts and setbacks and continue seeking to become the fullness of who he or she is capable of becoming.
The question is: Is this a mirage? Is this an illusion? Is it really just chemicals in the brain? Survival of the fittest? Is it a chemical reaction that we call “love,” but that is just giving a metaphysical name to a physical event? This is a huge question, a really important question. If you are following this, and see all that rests on the answer, then you are well into a metaphysical inquiry.
How does Pythagoras explain how the soul is united to the body? He says, “For the sake of punishment the soul is yoked to the body and buried in it as a tomb.” (Philolaus). The Pythagorean view is that the body and soul do not belong together, are of totally different orders of reality, and are joined only for a short time but the association is fleeting.
The way to live, then according to Pythagoras, is to always remember what is divine in us, and seek to detach from what is earthly and inferior. He believed in the transmigration of souls, or otherwise put, reincarnation. The goal is to live this current life so detached from the body that one is finally released from the cycle of reincarnation and remain in the divine realm of immaterial divinity forever.