BMCR 2007.02.43

Measuring Heaven: Pythagoras and his Influence on Thought and Art in Antiquity and the Middle Ages

, Measuring heaven : Pythagoras and his influence on thought and art in antiquity and the Middle Ages. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006. xii, 359 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm. ISBN 0801443962. $45.00.

Table of Contents

“I set problems of numbers; I drew figures on the pavement with charcoal, and with the figure before me, I demonstrated the different qualities of the obtuse, and acute, and the right angle, and also of the square. Often I watched out the nocturnal horoscope through winter nights. Often I strung my harp that I might perceive the different sounds.” (121)

Thus does Hugh of St. Victor account for some of his time in the 12th century. Doing mathematical problems and proving geometrical theorems, watching the constellations through long cold nights, and listening to harmonies, all were evidently part of this rational/mystical theologian’s spiritual exercise program. And all these activities can trace their genealogies back some 1800 years to find a point of coincidence in the teachings of the enigmatic rational/mystical philosopher Pythagoras.

Christiane Joost-Gaugier (hereafter CJG) in this far-ranging book attempts to trace the nature and influence of Pythagoras’ teachings throughout that long stretch of time. Concentrating her efforts mainly on the extended European community and mentioning Islamic culture only rarely and in passing, CJG argues that Pythagoras is a primary source for philosophers, religious thinkers, scientists, cultists, temple and cathedral architects, and ordinary folk seeking a path to enlightenment for almost 2 millennia. In fact CJG argues that Pythagoras is the only philosopher of Greek antiquity whose influence extends in an unbroken line from his lifetime through the high Middle Ages and into modernity. While the manuscripts of Plato and Aristotle were widely unavailable for centuries, the Pythagorean oral and written traditions never vanished from the relatively public sphere of intellectual and popular culture. Thus Pythagoras is not only “a father of Western thought comparable to Plato and Aristotle”, he is also “at the very foundation of contemporary culture” (1).

Since a running theme of the book is number mysticism, we observe that the work is itself divided into an appropriately Pythagorean 3 parts: Part I (having 4 chapters) deals with “a biography of Pythagoras’ reputation” (7) in antiquity and the Middle Ages; part II is a 3-chapter history of Pythagorean ideas; and part III having 5 chapters applies all the preceding to Pythagorean influences sought in art and architecture from classical coins through Gothic cathedrals. The total number of chapters equaling the auspicious number 12 is a felicitous result perhaps not entirely accidental.

The reputation-biography of Part I is the strongest section of the book. CJG marshals sources well and constructs a composite portrait, not of Pythagoras himself as a historical person, but of the images others formed of him. This enables CJG to avoid the pea-soup fogs of biographical indeterminacy which surround the more elusive figures of antiquity. Instead of worrying about whether Pythagoras really traveled to Egypt, or was really a lifelong vegetarian, CJG spends her efforts on the motley collection of public views about Pythagoras, including urban legends alongside more provable and factual material. For (she argues) it was this eclectic mix that fueled the continued slow fire of interest in “Pythagoras” over the centuries.

Pythagoras the man to his contemporaries and to the immediately following generations was a puzzle. He founded a school whose teachings were partly secret, yet he was quite publicly known to be a mathematical thinker of a high order of sophistication. He was both pious and heretical in his religious beliefs, advocating stringent spiritual discipline while seeming to maintain monotheism in the face of Greek popular polytheism. His social ideas had certain democratic tendencies but the communities which were modeled upon these ideas became rigidly elitist and fomented rebellions.

In the centuries following his death, Pythagoras’ memory and reputation grew in several definable directions. He became associated with the use of music to effect spiritual transformation and healing. He sprouted links to the divine through legends of divine birth, actual personal divinity, wonder-working powers, and the possession of a golden thigh. His putative contacts with other wisdom traditions multiplied with stories of supposed studies with mages and wizards throughout the Mediterranean world in a rash of impossible Pythagorean Elvis-sightings. An ever-growing number of written works are ascribed to him.

Porphyry and Iamblichus give large bumps to the wonder-quotient of Pythagoras’ legacy. Porphyry tells of Pythagoras curing illness by singing and persuading an ox to cease bean-eating by whispering in its ear, banishing pestilence and calming stormy seas (50). Iamblichus attributes “encyclopedic” writings to Pythagoras covering physics, logic, and ethics (55). In addition, Iamblichus affirms Pythagoras’ divinity and identifies him as a personification of the god Apollo. Gradually we begin to discern a curious confusion in the ancient sources, a confusion of which CJG is also sometimes guilty: the ascription to Pythagoras of an invention which surely predated him by centuries: a homely example is the tripod stool. Iamblichus suggests that this ubiquitous piece of furniture is based on the sacred number 3 and intended to suggest (Pythagoreans are said to have maintained) the god Apollo. Later CJG credits Pythagoras with the invention of number itself (257), and by that time we are not surprised.

What happens between the promising beginning section of this book and its fantastical conclusion is disappointing. CJG gradually appropriates such vast areas of human intellectual and spiritual experience under the banner of Pythagoreanism, and creates a roll-call of “Pythagoreans” so extensive, as to sacrifice her argument’s credibility. While I for one was well-prepared by the careful mosaic work of part I to attribute wider influence to Pythagorean teachings than I’d done previously, I could not follow the author very far into Part II without growing increasingly wary, skeptical, and finally exasperated. CJG’s list of out and out card-carrying Pythagoreans includes: Sappho, Pindar, Parmenides, Philolaus, Democritus, Plato, Philo, Plotinus, Boethius, Macrobius, Emperors Hadrian and Julian, and numerous medieval philosophers and cathedral architects. One searches in vain for a description of what it means to be a Pythagorean; an astonishing flaw in a work of this scope. Sometimes it appears to suffice for this ascription that an individual had a serious interest in both music and mathematics, or in both spiritual discipline and logic, or merely made a special worship of the god Apollo. The roster of Pythagoreans is constructed here rather by zeal than by concrete reasoning. The case is even worse with the supposed intellectual influence of Pythagoreanism; here proprietarily Pythagorean topics include the belief that mathematics is of spiritual importance, the vision of an ordered cosmos, numerology, fondness for spheres, the practice of wearing white linen in religious ritual, underground and cave cults, and lustral waters. In short, the most significant flaw of this book is its undefined but dizzily acquisitive view of what counts as Pythagorean. The ideas themselves appear to have interest and utility only as name-brand bearing items. It is as if the wearing of blue-jeans in today’s world were to be attributed entirely to a cult of the personae of Levi and Strauss, with no reference to the comfort and practicality of the garment.

This syndrome finds its most concrete manifestation in the concluding chapters which discuss ideas in art, temple design, and cathedral siting and architecture as “Pythagorean”. Here we find that the east-west orientation of the great European cathedrals of the high Middle Ages can only be due to Pythagoras’ exclusive worship of Apollo. Rose windows symbolize an orderly cosmos that can only be Pythagorean. Pythagorean Druids prepared the sacred site of Chartres Cathedral and it in turn incorporated Pythagorean structural design elements. The list goes on, until by a strange inversion, the cathedral-proud Abbot Suger is gently chastised because he “failed to credit” Pythagoreanism as one of his design influences (240).

It would not have been a difficult thing for an editor at Cornell University Press to suggest, early on in this project, that a definition of “Pythagorean” might have been in order for this book. Its value would have been greatly enhanced thereby, though the grandiosity of its claims for Pythagorean influence might have had to be reduced. Yet such basic thoughts are ultimately the author’s responsibility and that CJG utterly fails in this crucial juncture is surprising. Long before the reader reaches the credibility-straining Pythagorean Druids, the meaning of the adjective has been all but lost.

The book is handsomely prepared and illustrated, and almost without typographical error, with one exception (“Plato” should read “Apollo” p. 46 line 13). It gathers many little-known sources under a broad heading and illuminates many of them in the course of its long journey. CJG is to be applauded for bringing philosophy, theology, and the arts together within one book’s covers, a conjunction seldom attempted in our hyper-specialized era. It can be hoped that this enthusiastic treatise gives birth to future studies of Pythagorean themes and their long life, which will be as energetic but more cautious in their approach, and thus more persuasive in their conclusions.