Goethe and the Modern Age: Pythagoras

8 Apr

The most striking of the theories of Pythagoras is the doctrine of rebirth. Herodotus wrongly believed that this doctrine came from the Egyptians.  “Unfortunately, it is extremely doubtful,” observes Rawlinson,

whether the Egyptians did actually believe in transmigration, and it is probable the Greeks were mislead by the paintings on the tombs depicting the tribunal of Osiris, which they did not properly understand.   It is more likely that Pythagoras was influenced by India than by Egypt.  Almost all the theories, religious, philosophical, and mathematical, taught by the Pythagoreans, were known in India in the sixth century B.C.


Xenophanes has preserved for us a verse in which we are told that Pythagorus once recognized in the howl of a dog the voice of a departed friend and entreated the dog’s master not to beat it:

Once he was passing by an ill-used pup,
And pitied it, and said (or so they tell),
“Stop, do not thrash it! ’tis a dear friend’s soul:
I recognized it when I heard it yell.”

Pythagoras believed that the soul has to pass through the cycle of births in order to realize its own higher nature.  It is a doctrine of the Hindus that metempsychosis is for the sake of release: mokshayate samsarah.  The followers of Pythagoras constituted a religious fraternity, admission to which was by initiation, Purification of the soul and its illumination were the principal features of the Pythagorean discipline. For Pythagoras, theoria or pure contemplation of the divine reality is the end of man.  To the question, What are we born for? he replied: “To gaze upon the heavens.”


Goethe and the Modern Age; The International Convocation at Aspen, Colorado 1949;  Edited by Arnold Bergstraesser (Henry Regnery Company, Chicago ©1950) p. 288.


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