BMCR 2005.10.27

Pythagoras. His Life, Teaching, and Influence. Originally published as Pythagoras. Leben, Lehre, Nachwirkung (München: C.H. Beck, 2002). Translated from the German by Steven Rendall

, Pythagoras : his life, teaching, and influence. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005. 1 online resource (xi, 184 pages) : illustrations, 1 map. ISBN 9780801464843. $29.95.

[Note from the editors (Jan. 2012): Christoph Riedweg has asked us to link to this list of corrigenda for the first edition of the book, reviewed here. A second, corrected, edition was published in 2008: Christoph Riedweg, Pythagoras: His Life, Teaching, and Influence. Translated by Steven Rendall, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008).]

R’s book attempts to reconstruct the historical Pythagoras and to give an outline of his teachings and their influence. This aim is sabotaged by the very inadequate English translation and the unconscionably careless production of this book. These problems exacerbate the difficulties of reading an argument that too frequently shows signs of having been prepared in haste.

These difficulties are greatly to be regretted, since R. has useful and interesting things to say. Most important is his refusal to succumb to the idea that we can’t know anything about Pythagoras. His examination of the ancient sources must be said, at the very least, to show that more food for thought is available than we usually admit. R. creates a surprisingly vivid picture of his philosopher, and although many will argue (as I also argue) that R. sometimes presses conclusions his evidence cannot support, R’s determination to examine all the evidence seriously and to adapt his methods to the diversity of the evidence is most laudable.

R’s methodological versatility leads him to ask original and important questions. R. goes through the evidence in chronological order, pausing over matters that can bring out the very various character of his subject. He asks, for instance, about the role of Pythagoras’ putative charisma. Can Pythagoras be called a guru? Can we understand the Pythagoreans as a sect in the modern sense of the word? (R. comes down in the affirmative on both questions.) His analyses, which cite and analyze as much ancient evidence as is available, also often deploy contributions from a variety of sociological and anthropological studies. Though I missed in-depth explanation of the applicability of these studies to R’s questions and to the particular nature of each kind of evidence, R. often achieves thought-provoking results that well repay his refusal to capitulate to the difficulty of the evidence.

In sum, R. demonstrates a refreshing openness to and enthusiasm for all aspects of Pythagoras’ character. On pages 73ff. he makes a convincing argument about the lack of solid underpinnings for the rather narrow views of Pythagoras that now prevail. The objects of his criticism include Walter Burkert, to whom the book is dedicated, and whose influence is everywhere apparent. This is not to say that R. is dominated by Burkert’s concerns. His presentation of Pythagoras’ political activities balances out his focus on the prominent religious element of Pythagorean culture. His explanations of Pythagorean doctrine (for example, the section on the Pythagorean view of the relation between number and reality) seemed to me to be the most attractive and carefully written part of the book. Finally, his discussion of the tradition on Pythagoras is strongest for the Hellenistic and neo-Platonic sources.

These virtues, alas, are not able to compensate for the flawed form of the whole. The errors in this book are shockingly basic and pose problems throughout.

I will cite one paragraph from page 126 for the reader’s examination.

Numenius of Apamea (on the Orontes in Syria) (second century C.E.) is also frequently counted among the Neopythagoreans. Since in his works, to judge by the extant fragments, neither Pythagorean number theory nor the Pythagorean way of life seems to play a major role (however, a book On Numbers has been lost), and because his philosophy is based chiefly on Plato, he might better be called a “Pythagorizing Platonist” rather than a “Platonizing (neo-) Pythagorean” (in antiquity Numenius was described both as a Pythagorean and as a Platonist; this wavering confirms the basic proximity of the two philosophical tendencies). In fragments 24 (in a general respect) and 52 des Places (concerning the theory of principles), Numenius stresses — not unlike Aristotle — the Pythagorean component in Plato’s philosophy, but at the same time notes a difference in style: Plato, Numenius says, occupies a middle position between the excessively august Pythagoras and the all too playful Socrates (according to Numenius, Socrates is secretly also a Pythagorean).

Here, and in too many other places, the author’s haste and a vastly inadequate English translation conspire to produce an almost unreadable text. Much of the information presented in the many topics and opaque parentheses of such paragraphs belongs in properly extensive footnotes. The author has been too hasty in dividing his material into that which belongs in the argument and that which does not, or more probably he has reintegrated original footnotes into the text in order to make the book long enough. The whole second part of this paragraph bears signs, in its information and in its formatting errors, that it was once a footnote. The endnotes included in this book confine themselves almost exclusively to providing references to primary and secondary literature.

The translation itself is extraordinarily bad. The translator apparently can handle no aspect of the English language: adverbs, subject-verb agreement, nothing. An example: “Also natural events could therefore conversely be explained in mythical terms. Pythagoras is thus reported to have interpreted earthquakes as a result of “a gathering of the dead,” and considered the “sounds which often intrudes upon the ears” (tinnitus) as “the voices of higher powers,” that is, probably as divinatory signs” (75). Or decipher this: “A solution begins to emerge from the akousma cited, according to which the only animals into which the soul does not enter are those that may be sacrificed” (69).

Formatting, punctuation, and typographical errors are everywhere. This is obviously going to happen if the translator cannot write in English in the first place, but many of the errors are due to simple carelessness. Some sentences have two periods (104, 111), others clearly have incorrect final punctuation (72, 77, 86). Nearly all full sentences included in parentheses are incorrectly punctuated.

These punctuation errors are themselves exacerbated by frequent errors of formatting. Incorrectly formatted and punctuated quotations are especially frequent, and a typographical demon seems to have cast a spell on the concluding chronological index, which displays an astonishing confusion of headings, italics, indentations, bold type, bullets, and capital letters. Yet the reader is told how to read the formatting of this index (135): a formatting logic for the index is announced, but never realized.

But the most egregious errors, in my mind, occurred in the translation of the ancient sources. This book uses translations from many different sources, and never provides the original Greek or Latin — already a questionable practice, once again revealing signs of haste. Even the borrowed translations, however, are like manna from heaven compared to the translator’s efforts.

A translation of a sentence from Cicero’s Timaeus provides an example: “Finally, it is my view that after those noble Pythagoreans whose teaching has more or less died out after having flourished for a long time in Italy and in Sicily, this [man] appeared to revive that [teaching]” (123). Such severe stylistic difficulties reflect not only a lack of language skills, but also a lack of understanding. Thus on page 77 we find that the Greek saying philotes isotes is translated “Friendship is equality.” This is both grammatically and philosophically incorrect. A final example: on page 54 we find an enigmatic translation of Empedocles:

There was however among them a man of outstanding knowledge,/ who indeed had acquired greatest riches in his thinking organs,/ most [of all] a ruler over many and diverse wise activities. For when he stretched himself with all his thinking organs,/ he easily saw every one of all the things that are …

The amusement we may derive from such amateurishness (in the last case the translator has translated the German word “Denkorgane” with “thinking organs”) is short lived compared to the embarrassment we must feel that such attempts reach publication. First of all this book is supposed to be an explanation of philosophy. These translations make the original philosophical ideas inaccessible. Second, translations of ancient sources are supposed to be translations of ancient sources, not translations of someone’s German translation of an ancient source.

These are invented translations, masquerading as the real thing. R. should have prohibited any such disgrace from inhabiting the pages of his book. Furthermore, the hodgepodge of borrowed and invented translations of the ancient sources introduces incoherence into an already difficult presentation. It is hard to know what one should say about this accumulation of errors and problems, particularly as the author, Christoph Riedweg, claims to have assisted the translator, Steven Rendall, and also to have enlisted the help of a third translator, Andreas Schatzmann. Surely one of them ought to have proofread the text? Or should one fault Cornell University Press for this embarrassing display of incompetence? Editors, these days, take the hands off approach. But should they take the eyes off approach, as well? Readers want to be able to make their way through the books they are trying to learn from. Cornell should beware of its reputation.

As I said at the beginning, it is a great pity that these problems make this book so inaccessible. R’s attempt to construct a comprehensive view of Pythagoras is noteworthy and impressive. Himself adhering to the principles of the pre-Socratic philosophers, R. labors to forge a unity from vast amounts of disparate and difficult information. His efforts may at times seem strained (on this see Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.02.28) but his questions are important and deserve a better setting.