Heraclitus, Fragment 25 (D 129)


“Pythagoras, son of Mnesarchus, devoted himself to investigation more than all other men, and after he had made a selection of these writing [scil. probably: the writings of other people] he devised his own wisdom: much learning, evil artifice.” (LM D26)

“Pythagoras son of Mnesarchus pursued inquiry further than all other men and, choosing what he liked from these compositions, made a wisdom of his own: much learning, artful knavery.” (Kahn 25, DM 129)

“Pythagoras, son of Mnesarchus, practiced inquiry more than all people, and choosing from these writing he made a wisdom of his own–much learning, fraudulent dealing” (S 129).

Despite Heraclitus’ panpsychism, he expresses little love for most traditional or much new religious thinking of Ancient Greece. Pythagoras was among the most celebrated philosophers of the Antique period. He is attributed both with being “the first to bring to the Greeks philosophy in general” (Isocrates, Ausiris 14.4; qtd in L&M 4.25) and with being the first to use the term ‘philosophy’ and to call himself a ‘philosopher'” (Diogenese Laertes, L&M, 4.107). His teaching focused on mathematics and rational inquiry, yet was thoroughly esoteric.

He is said to have traveled very broadly and to have incorporated teaching from everywhere he went. It is said that he met with and learned from Thales, as well as Anaximander. Though Thales is said to have imparted “all the knowledge he could” (L&M 4.23), Pythagoras is also said, together with Thales, to have studied with Pherecydes in Syros (L&M 4.23). It is maintained that he studied geometry with the Egyptians. He gained knowledge of ethics at Delphi (DL 14.3; in L&M 4.25). He is said to have learned Orphic mysteries from Aglaophamus (Proclus, Platonic Theology; qtd. in L&M 25); and he was initiated into mysteries of Egyptian religion (qtd. in L&M 4.27).

He clearly made advancements to human understanding, yet he was steeped in ideas that appeared quite suspect to Heraclitus. It was claimed that he had descended into Hades. It was maintained that he remembered his earlier lives, indeed that his soul had wandered and could remember “all the plants and animals it had been in and everything that his soul had experienced in Hades and that other souls there endure” (L&M, 43). He was a miracle worker (L&M 49). He was even worshiped as a god (Justin, 14.13; qtd. in L&M 4.57).

The school that he founded, which is said to have lasted ten generations, was a sect devoted to theoretical learning, moral training, but also a strong indoctrination. There were levels of initiation. Learners who joined the school would initially be silent for five years. After being tested they would then belong to the “household” (Diogenes Laertius, in L&M 69). In the Pythagorean school, students were prohibited from eating animals, except for those that were allowed for sacrifices. Those were the animals into which the human soul does not migrate (Iambl. VP 71; in D&M 64f.). Pythagoreans were “to abstain from beans as though from human flesh…and from almost all creatures of the sea” (Porph. Abst. 1.26 L&M 4.63).

In a story surely apocryphal given its poetic (in)justice, Pythagoras is said to have died after the house where he was visiting Milo the Wrestler was set afire. He fled, but the jealous people who set the house ablaze caught up with him at a bean field when he refused to cross it. They there slit his throat (L&M 4.51ff). We might assume the tale is meant to sarcastically point out the absurdity of not eating beans, which were not consumed because they looked “like testicles or the gates of Hades” (L&M 4.123). Further Freudian takes on that, I will leave aside for now.

We see then side by side in Pythagoras and his students great learning and great dogmatism. Hippasus, who is said to have revealed how to draw the dodecahedron, was killed by the Pythagoreans, cast to sea (Iamblichus, On General mathematical Science 18.4; qtd. in L&M 4.131). Heraclitus here acknowledges the great learning, but points out the ill ends to which he sees the knowledge being put to use. Heraclitus, not less than the Pythagoreans, wants to connect knowledge and a virtuous good life. He sees philosophy not as an abstract theory but also as useful for orienting one’s life. But he here expresses a great skepticism of the direction that such a teaching can take in the hands of those willing to use that knowledge for “fraudulent dealing” or “knavery.” The term Heraclitus uses here, kakotechneiē, is noted by Kahn as being coined by Heraclitus, as the technē or art of doing evil (Kahn, p. 39). The point is that knowledge can be acquired and used within a system for multiple purposes. The goal of a sage, or true philosopher, is to use it in ways that are virtuous. The knave finds other purposes.

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