Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.12.01

Johan C. Thom, The Pythagorean Golden Verses. Leiden: Brill, 1995. Pp. xv + 277; with Introduction and Commentary. ISBN 90-04-10105-5.

Reviewed by John Bussanich, Philosophy, University of New Mexico (

Most contemporary readers do not react as strongly to the anonymous Pythagorean Golden Verses (GV) as did August Nauck, who in 1884 characterized it as an incoherent work and many of its seventy-one verses as incomprehensible, puerile, and inane. (In antiquity Gregory Nazianzus dubbed them the "leaden Verses.") Even Delatte (1915), who took a more favorable view and was not "nauseated" as was his predecessor, considered it generally prosaic and vulgar. Thom aims, first of all, to rehabilitate the GV's reputation, and, secondly, because it is so little known today, to rescue it from relative obscurity. The GV will not soon be working its way into classical curricula as a result of Thom's labors. However, its importance derives from its modest position within the varied tapestry of ancient Pythagorean writings. Thom's work is successful since it enhances our ability to recognize its role in the ancient tradition. Certainly, he cannot be faulted for slighting any philological or doctrinal feature of the poem. By reason of its sheer comprehensiveness, then, and also owing to the generally sober judgments that Thom applies to the interpretive questions concerning the text this edition will actually be used -- by classicists, historians of ancient religion and the like.

Besides the brief section containing the text of the work and a useful English translation, Thom provides nearly 100 pages of introductory material covering Forschungsberichte, the hotly debated date of the GV, its composition, content and historical value. The heart of the book is an 130-page commentary, which includes nearly 600 footnotes. This is lavish attention indeed, even by classicist standards, a point I will come back to.

Thom's major claims are that the GV does possess structural coherence and thematic unity and, more strikingly, that we should assign it a terminus ante quem of 300 B.C. at the latest. Whether one in the end agrees with the first judgment, no one will dispute that Thom makes a forceful case -- certainly the best so far -- in favor of thematic coherence and against the 'atomizers', those who have broken down the GV into discrete sayings of varying provenance. (Thom is especially critical of Delatte, Thesleff and others who consider the GV a repository of fragments of a putative Pythagorean Hieros Logos.) Thematically, Thom believes, the purpose of the work determines its structure. Following I. Hadot he is convinced that the GV was used by spiritual guides as a propaedeutic both for philosophical study and moral purification by Hellenistic Pythagorean communities and also by the Neoplatonists beginning with Iamblichus. Naturally, this is impossible to demonstrate, but it is a plausible and attractive hypothesis nonetheless. Whether or not the work became the self-help handbook every Pythagorean had on hand, Thom is right to claim that the GV as a whole aims at inculcating insight: the first part (lines 1-49) focuses on the moral precepts appropriate for living the Pythagorean bios, the second part (lines 50-71) articulates the ultimate, metaphysical ends the committed Pythagorean should contemplate. The larger, practical section offers a brief but clearly arranged gnomic account of practicing and attaining the cardinal virtues. The shorter "metaphysical" section even more briefly sketches the nature of divine providence, the causes of human suffering, and the promise of immortal bliss for those who practice Pythagorean moral precepts. The difference in perspective between these two "parts of the poem" is, however, less marked than the terms moral and metaphysical imply. Thom rightly notes that the moral precepts are presented in the form of imperatives, whereas the ultimate ends are explicated in the second part by means of indicatives. However, as he carefully notes, this section comprises promises, warnings, a prayer, a consolation and final commands (177). The essence of the concluding part of the GV, therefore, is not to discuss any metaphysical ideas, but instead to hold out the promise of attaining knowledge of reality if one practices the relevant moral precepts. In other words, the last section of the GV is also practical. On this issue of the practical orientation of the GV as a whole, it should be pointed out that Thom himself argues that it "expresses a much more moderate and rational view of life than may be discerned from the akousmata" (87). On the other hand, the writer(s) of the GV show considerably less interest in mathematics or scientific studies than the mathematikoi. Thus, Thom's detailed commentary underscores the predominantly practical orientation of the GV, leaving little reason for labeling the second part of the poem as "metaphysical." Without it he still has a strong argument for structural coherence.

On the knotty question of dating Thom controversially places the GV in the fourth century B.C., against the more popular alternatives of the later Hellenistic era or early Roman empire. My own view is that determining the date for a text of this sort is -- in the present state of our knowledge -- impossible. Thom notes but ultimately discounts the best reasons for remaining agnostic: "since the greater part of the Golden Verses is expressed in a simple, rather unsophisticated manner we find very little technical terminology that would help us to pinpoint a terminus. The greater part of the poem is based on popular wisdom traditions, which of their very nature are of an indeterminate age, since they do not reflect a particular philosophical position" (46). Complicating the picture is the fact that the first reference to the GV by name was made by Alciphron in the third century AD (a fact consistent with the complete absence of Neoplatonic ideas from the GV); before this its verses were simply ascribed to Pythagoras or unnamed Pythagoreans. On dating the GV well into the Christian era Thom argues, correctly I think, that too much as been made by Nauck and others of the presence of hiatus and other stylistic irregularities as supportive of a later rather than earlier date. However, his case for the second half of the fourth century B.C. rests on shaky ground: GV 54 is quoted by Chrysippus and close textual parallels exist between portions of the GV and Cleanthes' Hymn to Zeus. To employ this as determinate evidence Thom has to maintain, of course, (i) that the verse quoted by Chrysippus was not added to the work later on and (ii) that the Hymn to Zeus could not be the original of the passages in the GV -- both of which points are virtually impossible to establish, in my view. Nevertheless, Thom's arguments are worthy of serious consideration and some of them will undoubtedly convince more adventurous scholars.

For the sprawling character of the commentary itself Thom gives a familiar justification: "what is offered in the poem is only the tip of an iceberg: the poem is based on, and refers to moral topics and philosophical doctrines that are either assumed as widely known, or promised as insights to come. Both these factors make for lengthy discussions: ... the scholar needs to dig deep beneath the surface of the poem to reveal the roots or foundations of ideas with which the original readers would have been familiar" (ix-x). In practice this policy means that the first four lines of the GV receive sixteen pages of attention:

Honor the immortal gods first, in the order appointed by custom,
and revere your oath. Pay reverence next to the noble heroes
and the spirits of the dead by performing the prescribed rites.
Honor your parents as well as their closest relatives.
Thom's expansive approach is exemplified in his offering mini-essays on the topic of 'honoring the gods' and on daimones. Moreover, he puts each word and topic into its proper place in the various stages of the Pythagorean tradition. In this respect the commentary, which includes massive documentation of ancient literary references to Pythagorean ideas, functions almost as an introduction to the history of Pythagoreanism. Not that Thom states this as the purpose of his edition; he is fully aware that this task has been admirably fulfilled by Burkert's Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism (Eng. tr. 1972). Nevertheless, the greatest value of Thom's book might lie precisely as a supplement to Burkert: it reviews much of the material in Burkert, especially what is connected to the more practical concerns of the GV, but with the advantage of supplying updated bibliography.