BMCR 2020.10.43

Aristoxenus of Tarentum. The Pythagorean precepts (how to live a Pythagorean life)

, Aristoxenus of Tarentum. The Pythagorean precepts (how to live a Pythagorean life): an edition of and commentary on the fragments with an introduction. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. xii, 636. ISBN 9781108425315 $170.00.

The present volume continues the justly celebrated work of Carl Huffman, whose two previous works on Pythagoreans of the late 5th and early 4th centuries—Philolaus of Croton. Pythagorean and Presocratic (Cambridge, 1993) and Archytas of Tarentum. Pythagorean, Philosopher and Mathematician King (Cambridge, 2005)—made widely accessible the writings of two foundational figures in the early history of ancient Greek philosophy.

Aristoxenus (c. 370-300) of Tarentum was not an idler. According to the Suda, he authored some 453 works. Alas, only two of these survive, fragments of Rhythmics and the Elementa Harmonica. Unquestionably, Aristoxenus was a formidable musical and mathematical theoretician. He is also known as the pupil of Aristotle who preserved a bit of Aristotle’s account of Plato’s famous Lecture on the Good. This account was notably and unfairly dismissed by Harold Cherniss on the insubstantial grounds that Aristoxenus was not above also recounting tidbits of gossip about his teacher. The Pythagorean Precepts is a work, painstakingly reconstructed and reassembled by Huffman, that purports to be a digest of Pythagorean ethical ideas from, roughly, the latter half of the 5th and the first part of the 4th centuries BCE. As Huffman explains, the 5th-century anthologist Stobaeus evidently copied swatches of this digest in his collection of ancient wisdom for the edification of his son. In addition, Iamblichus in his Pythagorean Way of Life apparently preserves some other portions of the work, including enough that overlaps with Stobaeus to confidently attribute it to Aristoxenus’s digest, even though it is not called that by Iamblichus. Indeed, he does not even mention his name. Huffman’s edition has rescued Aristoxenus’s Precepts from an ever-deepening obscurity, since the only two substantial treatments of it, dissertations done in Germany in 1904 and 1922, are both in Latin.

Huffman’s introduction to the text, translation of, and commentary on Pythagorean Precepts provides considerable detail regarding the title of the work, its structure, the technical details of the sources of Stobaeus and Iamblichus, the relation of the work to other works that Aristoxenus apparently wrote about Pythagoreans, the influence of the Precepts on the later tradition, and the scholarship on that work. In the last two sections of the introduction, Huffman turns to a defense of the claim that the obscurity of this work is not in fact justified. He argues masterfully against those who saw it as a sort of Platonic-Aristotelian pastiche dishonestly attributed to Pythagoreans of Tarentum and elsewhere in the two generations or so before Aristoxenus. In fact, as Huffman shows, there is very little or no evidence in the fragments to indicate dependence on Plato or Aristotle. He then proceeds to expose the ethical system of the Pythagorean Precepts, situating it within a pre-Socratic context and setting it apart from the new path in ethical theory apparently taken by Socrates. If for no other reason, this book is a valuable study of a rather rare yet substantial example of ancient philosophical thinking: non-Academic, non-Peripatetic, mid-4th century ethical theory. The bulk of the book (pp.151-557) is taken up with a translation of the reconstructed text of the 11 fragments (according to Huffman’s counting) and a commentary thereon. There are three important appendixes collecting and commenting on some supplementary fragments that may or may not belong to the Precepts, but in all likelihood belong to Aristoxenus and provide additional insights into the nature of that work. The commentary contains a wealth of philological detail concerning the Greek language in the late 5th and 4th centuries, as well as an extensive treatment of cultural, political, and philosophical issues.

The fascinating account provided by Huffman of the ethical theory contained in the Precepts clearly sets it apart from anything that can be called “Socratic” or “Platonic” except in the most anodyne sense. The Precepts shows neither any special concern with happiness (eudaimonia) nor with virtue (aretē) nor with the relevance of the latter to the former. The fundamental assumption of the work is the natural disorderliness of human beings. One must suppose that a Pythagorean “Cradle Argument” would, like the Cradle Arguments in Stoicism and Epicureanism, be taken to indicate a path for education and for life in general. But unlike the more famous versions, the Pythagorean Cradle Argument would be understood to be conclusive evidence for the need for suppression or regimentation of all natural human inclinations by law, both human and divine. As Huffman points out, the Precepts has more in common with the ethical point of view of Thucydides than it does with that of Socrates or Plato or Aristotle. One of the fragments (fr. 5) draws the conclusion that a human being, suitably restrained, will require very little by way of material goods. It arrives an Epicurean observation via an entirely different starting-point. As Huffman further argues, there are good grounds for thinking that the Pythagoreans who are the direct source of the Precepts believed themselves to be transmitting the wisdom of the founder, Pythagoras himself.

The need for law to restrain unbridled human nature provides at least some of the background for understanding the quaint and sometimes bizarre Pythagorean practical prescriptions regarding diet, clothing, and sex. Huffman is no doubt correct in point out that the Precepts manifests a lack of explicit interest in the mathematics that used to be thought to be characteristic of Pythagoreanism in general. Nevertheless, it is not too difficult to see that understanding mathematics as primarily a science of order rather than specifically a science of number—as the Pythagoreanizing Plato did—makes the connection between ethics and mathematics rather clearer. The Pythagorean strictures on the personal and the public can be seen as various ways of imposing a limit on the unlimited. This is, as Huffman so clearly showed in his previous book on Philolaus, the central Pythagorean lesson that, according to Aristotle’s testimony, Plato embraced. In Plato’s Philebus, for example, the good life requires the imposition of orderly intelligence on unlimited feelings of pleasure. Aristoxenus evidently derives a similar view not from Plato but from his Pythagorean teachers in Tarentum. It is also worth noting that, perhaps surprisingly, the Precepts does not contain any observations or pronouncements that rely upon the assumption of the immortality of the soul. It completely ignores the Platonic (but supposedly Pythagorean-inspired) idea of philosophy as preparation for dying and for death.

Does the Precepts belie the judgment of most scholars of ancient philosophy that in fact Socrates was “the founder of classical Greek moral theory?” Huffman gives a nuanced answer of “no” to this question. For though the Pythagoreans did derive their practical precepts from general principles, they were evidently not especially concerned with providing arguments for these. For them, the appeal to authority—ultimately the authority of the founder—took precedence over a dialectical approach to ethics. Viewed from a slightly different perspective, what Socrates did was try to provide a philosophical basis for intuitions he shared with many others, including Pythagoreans.

Through the course of Huffman’s meticulous commentary are to be found generally brief but content-laden studies of particular philosophical and cultural issues that come up in the text. Perhaps it will be useful for me here to mention some of more prominent of these: the theory of the ages of human life (pp. 168-179), the Pythagorean account of desire (pp. 192-195), the Pythagorean concept of luck and its relation to Plato and Aristotle (pp. 239-253), Pythagorean views on the generation of children and on sex (pp. 379-393), Pythagoreans on kairos (appropriateness) and the ethical, medical, and rhetorical traditions (pp. 470-496), and friendship (538-551).

Along with Huffman’s two previous works, the present study might round out the list of primary reading material for a splendid graduate course in ancient philosophy. Before Walter Burkert’s monumental book, Weisheit und Wissenschaft: Studien zu Pythagoras, Philolaus und Platon (1962), and Holger Thesleff’s The Pythagorean Texts of the Hellenistic Period (1965), scholarship on the Pythagoreanism that really mattered to 4th-century philosophy was at a primitive stage. Between Burkert and Huffman a good deal of progress was certainly made. Now, we have readily available the material needed for attaining a better understanding of Aristotle’s somewhat casual but consequential remarks on Plato’s Pythagorean inspiration.