Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.09.23

Luc Brisson, Alain Philippe Segonds (ed.), Jamblique, Vie de Pythagore. 2e tirage revu et corrigé. (First Edition Published 1996). La roue à livres 29.   Paris:  Les Belles Lettres, 2011.  Pp. lxxvii, 247.  ISBN 9782251339542.  €25.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Phillip Sidney Horky, Durham University (

Quite possibly the most important – and most enigmatic – piece of evidence on Pythagoras and early Pythagoreanism is Iamblichus of Chalcis’ On the Life of Pythagoras, a multifaceted text likely composed in the late 3rd century CE to stand at the head of Iamblichus’ ten-volume Compendium of the Pythagorean Doctrines.1 The importance of this super-biography has not gone unnoticed in the past fifty years: since Michael von Albrecht’s monumental German translation of 1963, it has been rendered in English, Italian, and Polish. 2 A modern French translation was lacking until 1996, when Luc Brisson and Alain Philippe Segonds produced the first edition of their translation and commentary, keeping stride with the excellent translations into English by John Dillon and Jackson Hershbell and into Italian by Maurizio Giangiulio, both published in 1991. A second edition of Brisson and Segonds’ translation, “revu et corrigé”, has now been published by Les Belles Lettres, making available an improved version of their fine work.

Anglophone readers of Brisson and Segonds’ useful introduction may find themselves comparing its style, organization, and content with those of Dillon and Hershbell. Immediately, a reader will be struck by the crucial difference: Brisson and Segonds seek to emphasize the biographical aspect of Iamblichus’ work, on the assumption that the importance of the exemplary “life” of a philosopher is reflected in its placement at the head of the collected works.3 This emphasis is evident in the structure of the introduction: they foreground the narrative of the life of Pythagoras (xvi-xxxvi) before shifting to interpretation of the historical and social conditions in which Pythagoras and his followers lived (xxxvi-l). It is only in two useful appendices to the introduction that Brisson and Segonds examine in detail source criticism, language, and repetitions within the text (lxi-lxxvii). This structure has its own protreptic effect, leading “nouveaux lecteurs” (lix) from a more accessible (if speculative) narrative towards critical problems that attend the exegesis and use of the text. The focus on Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans over interpretive problems is also prevalent in the notes provided for the introduction and translation at the end of the text, where contextualization with the immediate cultural and intellectual environment of the Pythagoreans receives more space than analysis of the troublesome quandaries of Quellenforschung. In addition to gaining access to a plausible narrative concerning the life and activities of Pythagoras, a reader will learn a great deal about Iamblichus’ approach to philosophy from this book, and the discussion of the synthesis of Platonic, Pythagorean, and Orphic ideas in VP (l-lviii) represents a significant contribution to our understanding of Neoplatonic theology.

The translation into French is crisp and clear, obtaining an almost Ciceronian balance and rhetorical flare that reflects parts of the Greek original, a flare sometimes absent in the English translation of Dillon and Hershbell. While Dillon and Hershbell often break up long Greek sentences into paratactic statements, especially where participial phrases and relative clauses occur, Brisson and Segonds fully exploit rhetorical devices to produce a more fluid translation. 4 Whereas Dillon and Hershbell tend to preserve the ambiguity of Iamblichus’ language in their translation, Brisson and Segonds favor coherence and symmetry, sometimes choosing to make Iamblichus’ meaning seem more determinate than it appears in Greek.5 From time to time, too, they emend the text, departing from Klein’s revision of Deubner’s Teubner edition.6 While Brisson and Segonds do not print the facing Greek text, as do Dillon and Hershbell and Giangiulio in their editions, they discuss their textual choices in the notes at the back, which the reader will find to be replete with useful contextual information and philological insight.

The extensive seventy-page introduction, as I have discussed above, is both thoroughly informative and well structured. While the authors are generally judicious in their assessment of the history of Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism, their presentation sometimes conceals contentious issues. In particular, Brisson and Segonds’ analysis of some major topics – especially the nature of Pythagorean social and political organization – may seem to some readers still too sanguine. In particular, their discussion of the various Pythagorean groups elides the diverse historiographical traditions underlying these groups’ appellations.7 Their approach to the historical question of the social organization(s) of the early Pythagoreans, which focuses on religious castes, symbols, and unspoken precepts, closely follows Walter Burkert’s intrepid analysis and resonates with Peter Kingsley’s somewhat eccentric monograph on Empedocles and Pythagoreanism.8 But Burkert’s analysis has been vigorously challenged by Leonid Zhmud in Wissenschaft, Philosophie und Religion im frühen Pythagoreismus (Berlin, 1997), recently updated and translated into English under the title Pythagoras and the Early Pythagoreans (Oxford, 2012).9 Notably, Zhmud rejects Burkert’s anthropological synthesis of the messy historiographical evidence, in which a focus on key terms and practices leads to an evolutionary understanding of early Pythagoreanism. To be fair, every scholar of early Pythagoreanism has to pick his poison, and Zhmud’s reading, which substitutes the technology of mathematics for anthropology, has not been received without resistance; but to leave it out of the picture, as Brisson and Segonds do here, is unbefitting of the stimulating debate that Zhmud’s erudite analysis continues to provoke.

One possible reason that Zhmud’s works are overlooked in the introduction, commentary, and bibliography is that many of them have appeared after the publication of Brisson and Segonds’ first edition in 1996. As there is no new preface explaining the changes introduced in the second edition, it is not obvious what improvements it offers. Certainly, the absence of typographical errors (I detect none) demonstrates the effort of careful revision, and some new bibliography – notably, translations into Italian by Francesco Romano and Giangiulio, a German commentary by Gregor Staab, Christoph Riedweg’s 2002 monograph (translated into English as Pythagoras: His Life, Teaching, and Influence [Ithaca, 2005]), and Alberto Bernabé’s editions of the Fragmenta Orphica – has been judiciously taken into account. But the absences are lamentable: of major studies, little or nothing has been said about Carl Huffman’s new edition of the fragments of Archytas of Tarentum (Cambridge, 2005), John Finamore and John Dillon’s edition, translation, and commentary of Iamblichus’ De Anima (Leiden, 2002), Charles Kahn’s Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans: A Brief History (Indianapolis, 2001), or Andrew Barker’s Harmonics in Classical Greece (Cambridge, 2007). It might be argued that these works do not deal extensively with Iamblichus’ VP itself, but their role in shaping Iamblichean and Pythagorean studies of the present and future should not, I think, be omitted from the discussion.

These quibbles aside, it is clear that Brisson and Segonds’ second edition of On the Life of Pythagoras stands on strong footing, as it has been built up from the robust foundation of their first edition.10 We can say with confidence that theirs the most important treatment of Iamblichus’ VP available to a French-speaking readership, and it should be considered fundamental reading for all scholars of Pythagoreanism and Neoplatonism, more generally.


1.   Or, alternatively, On the Pythagorean Way of Life. Brisson and Segonds (xviii) prefer the former, by contextualization with the Lives of Plotinus and Plato that were assumed to be placed at the head of the editions of the Enneads and Dialogues, respectively. Hereafter I will abbreviate the title of Iamblichus’ work as VP.
2.   For a list of translations, see Brisson and Segonds 2011: lviii-lix.
3.   It might be argued, however, that the differences between the titles of the various Lives are as telling as the similarities: by contrast with Porphyry’s biography of Plotinus, which is always rendered as some version of plôtinou bios, the name puthagorou bios is never attested for Iamblichus’ text (as, for example, it is for Aristoxenus [F 11b and 14 Wehrli]), but rather puthagorikos bios or puthagoreios bios. Compare, for example, their respective translations of the Aristoxenian passage at Iambl. VP 182: “Les Pythagoriciens affirmaient que, partout, le principe est l’une des choses les plus importantes, aussi bien en science que dans l’expérience ou que dans la génération, ou encore dans une maison, dans une cité, dans une armée ou dans tous les ensembles que l’on vient de mentionner la nature du principe est difficile à voir et considérer. En effect, dans les sciences, il n’est pas au pouvoir de n’importe quel esprit, après avoir porté son regard sur les diverses parties de la discipline, de comprendre et de juger correctement laquelle d’entre elles est le principe.” (Brisson and Segonds 2011: 100-101); “They asserted that a ‘first principle’ is in everything one of the things most honorable, equally in knowledge and experience, in generation, and also in a household, a city, an army, and in all such organizations. But the nature of ‘principle’ is difficult to discern and survey in all the areas mentioned. For in the sciences, when looking at the parts of a study, it is a task for no ordinary intellect to understand and to form a right judgment as to what the ‘principle’ of these is.” (Dillon and Hershbell 1991: 189-191).
4.   See, for example, translations of the term sunoikismos in the Apollonian historical account of the democratic Pythagorean revolution in Croton (Iambl. VP 255): “Néanmoins, tant qu’ils occupèrent leur pays et que Pythagore vécut là, la vieille constitution établie après le synoecisme, resta en vigeur, bien que le peuple fût mécontent et qu’il cherchât une occasion de changement.” (Brisson and Segonds 2011: 136); “However, so long as they (the Crotoniates) possessed only their own land and Pythagoras remained among them, the constitution, continuing from the foundation of the city, stood firm, through there was displeasure with it, and opportunity to find change was sought.” (Dillon and Hershbell 1991: 247). Dillon and Hershbell’s “foundation of the city” (cf. Plu. Rom. 9) is less committed than Brisson and Segonds’ “synoecisme”, which has a special technical meaning not necessarily warranted by the text. Brisson and Segonds, to be sure, do provide an explanatory note on this term (2011: 216).
5.   This trend in Brisson’s translations of Plotinus has been noted in the past by, inter alia, Wilson Shearin (BMCR 2010.07.43).
6.   Emendations at VP 60 (paideutikon for analytikon), 155 (eklogizomenos for eklogizomenon), and 181 (epi kalogathiai echonta for epi kalogathias hêkonta) make better sense in the contexts of the argument of Iamblichus’ work and the Pseudo-Pythagorean textual traditions from which he often drew inspiration.
7.   Brisson and Segonds 2011: xxxvi-l. Discussion of the troublesome terminology for the various sects of Pythagoreans (acousmatic or mathematical/esoteric or exoteric/etc.) might be thought insufficient for the conclusions drawn in the historical analysis of what sorts of Pythagoreans there were in the mid-5th Century BCE (xlii). When Brisson and Segonds do discuss the historiographical traditions, in the first appendix (lxi- lxx), they do not explicitly connect this discussion with the terminological analysis that precedes it.
8.   Peter Kingsley, Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic: Empedocles and the Pythagorean Tradition (Oxford, 1995). See Brisson and Segonds 2011: xxxvi, where alongside citation of Burkert the editors refer to the sociologist Bryan R. Wilson and Arnaldo Momigliano. Also cf. Kingsley 1995: 329-330. It would also be useful to know whether Brisson and Segonds think Pythagorean secrecy ought to be located in the context of the 5th Century BCE or 3rd Century CE sociology of religion, or both (xliii-l).
9.   Now see Zhmud 2012: 169-206.
10.   Reviews or book notes for the first edition include Édouard Des Places in Bulletin de l’Association Guillaume Budé (1997), pp. 51-52; André Laks in Revue de métaphysique et de morale 102.4 (1997), pp. 568- 569, and José Molina in Nova Tellus 14 (1996), pp. 271-274.

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