BMCR 2022.05.18

La notion de daïmôn dans le pythagorisme ancien: de la pensée religieuse à la pensée philosophique

, , La notion de daïmôn dans le pythagorisme ancien: de la pensée religieuse à la pensée philosophique. Anagôgé, 14. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2021. Pp. 204. ISBN 9782251451305 €29,00.

As the title suggests, Marcel Detienne’s book La notion de Daïmon dans le pythagorisme ancien is about the development of demonology in ancient Pythagoreanism, from the end of the sixth to the middle of the fourth century BC. Among the multiplicity of Pythagorean themes that were successful in later periods, the notion of daimon enjoyed great acclaim. The term daimon took on various meanings in the spheres of both religion and philosophy, due to the equivocal and almost elusive nature of the notion. In their religious aspect, daimones are scarcely distinguished from gods, whilst in their philosophical aspect, they are established as intermediary beings. Thus, by studying the notion of daimon in ancient Pythagoreanism, Detienne aims to highlight the transformation of religious thought into philosophical thought. The present volume expresses the desire of Detienne and his editor to republish a new, ne varietur, copy of the original book of 1963. While it is not expressly given, the rationale behind this reprint may be to recall a fundamental contribution made to studies on Pythagoreanism and its demonology, albeit with theses that are not accepted by all scholars today.

The book does not intend to resolve the ambiguity of the term daimon, but rather to document it in the ancient Pythagorean school, which is considered by the author to be the first and most valid source for the later developments of the notion. As opposed to Heinze and Reverdin[1], Detienne believes that the philosophical study of the demonology did not start with Xenocrates in the Old Academy, but with the ancient Pythagoreans. That later philosophical traditions were influenced by the Pythagoreans seems clear. Nevertheless, this claim requires some caution. As Jean-Pierre Vernant points out in the ‘Préface’, Detienne’s enquiry features a twofold challenge. First, it is virtually impossible to attain the thought of the early Pythagorean school directly, and the necessary recourse to later testimonia poses delicate problems of interpretation with varying levels of reliability. Secondly, the diverse historical periods and, within the same period, the many levels of thought, shaped the meaning of the notion, making it difficult to resolve the ambiguity and to provide a unique definition of daimon at any given point of time.

Detienne establishes his methodology as a mixture between diachronic and synchronic perspectives which he justifies by attempting to situate the polyvalent meaning of daimon in religious experience under the unambiguous new philosophical language of the Pythagoreans. Even though the combined diachronic-synchronic perspective encourages vertical and horizontal explorations of Pythagoreanism, the book often favours a synchronic perspective, to the detriment of the diachronic. The enquiry follows the development of the term daimon from the polysemic to the univocal, from early religious and Pythagorean representations to Old Academic thought. The content is structured into three parts, each of which is divided into chapters, followed by a short conclusion and a useful appendix with a selection of Pythagorean fragments on demons (163).

The first part of the book, ‘Prolégomènes’, which encompasses the first three chapters, presents a summary of the testimonia. According to Detienne, they are sufficient to provide a basis for research into the notion of the daimon in ancient Pythagoreanism (e.g., Aristotle’s Περὶ τῶν Πυθαγορείων, Apuleius’ De Deo Socratis, and Heraclides of Pontus’ Abaris in the De Vita Pythagorica of Iamblichus), although he sometimes fails to exercise proper historiographical caution in reading them. Originally, the word daimon covered a wide variety of meanings, which are situated at different levels of social and religious thought. Detienne leads the reader on an in-depth investigation of these different representations, in order to provide the religious background for the passage from mythos to logos taken by the idea of daimon in Pythagoreanism. The texts chosen and commented on by the author focus on demons and the agricultural community, the cult of demons, demons and dreams, demons and diseases, demons and vengeance, and the demon of bronze. Hence, daimon may be defined as “un certain état des choses humaines où s’atteste une puissance religieuse” (52), a definition whose ambiguity might not be considered satisfactory to everyone.

The second section, entitled ‘Les significations de δαίμων dans le système de la pensée religieuse du pythagorisme ancien’, constitutes the very core of Detienne’s contribution and is devoted to an investigation on what the Pythagoreans referred to as the “demonic” nature of the soul, alongside an enquiry into the eschatological meaning of daimon from Hesiod to early Pythagoreanism. Following Cicero, De divinatione 1.30 and Photius, Bibliotheca, 439A, Detienne posits the Pythagorean idea of a separable soul, considered as a vital force. Indeed, the soul is buried in the body as a punishment for a certain fault (ἁμάρτημα), as Philolaus allegedly states (Philolaus 44 B14 DK = Detienne fr. 24). In this regard, Detienne concludes that for Pythagoreanism daimon is identified with the soul, and this notion is no longer a matter of religious experience, but it designates the portion of the divine that human beings carry within them (88).

Nevertheless, the Pythagorean meaning of daimon cannot be correctly understood without taking into account its eschatological aspect. In the next chapter, Detienne identifies the “bons démons” of the Hesiodic Golden Age with the lunar ἀγαθοὶ καὶ φιλανθρωπότατοι demons, among whom the Pythagoreans counted their master Pythagoras (e.g., Iamblichus, VP 30, 18.1 ff. Deubner = Aristotle fr. 192 Rose = Detienne fr. 34). These demons, inhabitants of the moon, are a Pythagorean transposition of Hesiodic belief, according to which the humans of the Golden Age become demons. In Pythagorean terms, the Golden Age is located on the moon. Referring to Theano’s words in Plutarch’s De Genio Socratis (593A-E), Detienne argues that virtuous souls become lunar demons in Pythagorean thought, which is the same as saying that virtuous souls become Hesiodic demons who are good and full of love, or the heroes of the Isle of the Blessed of the Hesiodic golden race.[2] Although the import of the passage from Hesiod to the Pythagoreans might be not entirely clear, Detienne nonetheless relates the representation of the soul to the Pythagorean theory of knowledge. He claims that in the Pythagorean transposition, the Hesiodic golden age would have been the βίος Πυθαγορικός, which is the discipline capable of ensuring that everyone becomes a daimon (107). Hence, he concludes that it is no longer a question of merely having a good daimon, but – through the practice of the right lifestyle, virtue, and through the acquisition of Pythagorean knowledge (σοφία)—of being a daimon, either whilst living or after death. To summarize, as the case of Pythagoras demonstrates, becoming a philosopher means being eudaimôn. The condition of being eudaimôn means realizing one’s own daimon as a philosopher, through the knowledge of the highest Pythagorean sciences and the practice of virtues (111).

After presenting the eschatological features of the Pythagorean notion of daimon, Detienne finally turns to its objectification, in the third part of his book, ‘La mutation de δαίμων. D’une pensée mythique à une pensée rationnelle’. Detienne begins by addressing the difficulty of the process of objectification of the daimon. The ancient Pythagoreans progressed from the notion of eudaimonia, in which someone has a good daimon, to the notion of the individuated daimon, in which someone is a good daimon, as exemplified by Pythagoras. However, the key notion still retains its original ambiguity. The Old Academy builds on this Pythagorean image of personal daimon by locating demons in time and space to fix them as intermediary beings. After a discussion on some theories on lunar demons (e.g., Aristotle, De Generatione Animalium, 3.11, 761b8-23; Plato, Phaedo 111a-c) and on their practical features, such as age and nutrition, the focus shifts to their contemplation of the cosmic order (150).[3] Here, works by Old Academics (e.g., the Epinomis) and Plutarch (e.g., De Musica; De Genio Socratis) illustrate many features of the lunar demons. Despite many good insights on the Old Academy, Detienne goes too far, and I found the discussion about the evidence concerning the Pythagorean influence for lunar demons difficult to follow. Detienne affirms that the qualities of the lunar demons in these later authors from different traditions must be traced back to a single demonological tradition, i.e., the Pythagorean (153). Meanwhile, according to Detienne, the heirs of Plato could not have defined demons as intermediate beings without the previous Pythagorean tradition of lunar demons.

In closing, Detienne demonstrates that Pythagoreanism developed a representation of the soul separated from the body. Now, if the soul is a daimon, it follows that purifying the soul means realizing the daimon through true Pythagorean knowledge. Since the idea of soul is related to the theory of knowledge, the purification of the soul entails the whole of Pythagorean sophia, as well as the purification of the daimon from the body. In making this argument, Detienne highlights the notion of daimon as a symbol of the passage in Pythagoreanism from religious thought to philosophical thought. Correspondingly, daimon ceases to be an unclear category of divine beings, becoming instead a specific intermediary being, as the description of Pythagoras as a lunar demon shows (162). The term daimon eventually emerges as an exterior object in the cosmos that falls under the categories of space and time.

I have learned much from this work, but I have some reservations about the Pythagorean reading of later demonologies. Some of the evidence used in the book—e.g., the works of Plutarch and Plato—cannot be taken at face value as a genuine expression of early Pythagoreanism, even though they reproduce some features of historical Pythagoreanism. Nonetheless, all the parts of the book are effectively interwoven; the work is comprehensive in its scope; and it asks questions that were original and novel for its time. The volume still has the potential to stimulate further debates about Pythagoreanism and its demonology.


[1] R. Heinze, Xenocrates (Leipzig, 1892); O. Reverdin, La religion de la cité platonicienne (Paris: 1945).

[2] It has to be said that other scholars have challenged the positivistic approach to the evidence used by Detienne, such as C. Huffman, Philolaus of Croton: Pythagorean and Presocratic (Cambridge, 1993), 402-5, who considers Philolaus fr. 14 spurious, and D. M. Dutsch, Pythagorean Women Philosophers (Oxford, 2020), 217-23 who thinks that quotations of Theano in Plutarch only go back to the Hellenistic era.

[3] See K. Mheallaigh, The Moon in the Greek and Roman Imagination (Cambridge, 2020), 116-26 on a Pythagorean astrobiological account where the Moon was the temporary domicile of souls after death and it was inhabited by daimones. In addition, “some Pythagoreans, including the astronomer Philolaus, postulated that the Moon was a sort of celestial Earth inhabited by flora and fauna larger and more beautiful than their earthly counterparts” (116).