July 6th, 2003

This morning we feature part sixteen of our series on the global brain from an important book by Howard Bloom. See: 1) Biology, Evolution and the Global Brain, 2) Creative Nets in the Precambrian Age, 3) Networking in Paleontology’s “Dark Ages”, 4) The Embryonic Meme, 5) Why Birds and Humans Flock Together, 6) Mammals and the Further Rise of Mind, 7) Tools of Perception and the Construction of Reality, 8) Reality is a Shared Hallucination, 9) The Conformity Police, 10) The Huddle and the Squabble, 11) Ice and Fire, 12) The Dance of Attractors and Repulsors, 13) The Birth of Boundary Breakers, 14) The Guesswork of Collective Mind, 15) The Pluralism Hypothesis—Athens. Reposted from Telepolis.


Pythagoras, Subcultures, and Psycho-Bio-Circuitry (570-399 BC)

Howard Bloom

There had been little room for a sensitive, vulnerable, and inward-looking male in a tribal community. Should he be sufficiently determined, he might become a shaman. If he was shy to the point of panic and had the rare luck to be in a tribe which allowed such a thing, he might seek refuge as a berdache1 , a man/woman who dresses like a female and becomes a wife. However if he was in a tribe like Brazil’s Yanomamo, he’d end up shunned for his cowardice, have no wives, and hence no progeny. As a result, his genes would disappear from his group entirely.


“All the world is queer save me and thee; and sometimes I think thee is a little queer.”
Attributed to a Quaker, speaking to his wife


“My school yard was like something out of Lord of the Flies. The bully ruled.”
Reed Konsler


“I’ll probably regret saying this, but… for me kin have always been bad news. Warmth and hope came from strangers as they became friends, mentors, allies etc. while family is the shared trait of those who diminish my happiness and augment my griefs. I know in my bones that blood is not thicker than water.”
David Berreby


“People who were suffering silently found that they were not suffering alone.”
Melody Beattie

But there was a new slogan in the urban fifth century b.c.: “know thyself.” 2 On the surface, it seemed to imply rugged self-sufficiency. However its subtext preached a hunt for connectivity. “Somewhere,” it whispered between the words, “is a subculture into which you fit. Seek it and adopt it as a home for your identity.” Fugitives from the normal, driven by off-kilter brain settings and the disdain of others, had what researchers call “low stakes in conformity.” 3 They could ferret out a freakish idea, then use it to declare their independence from those who had rejected them. What the folks you’d grown up with had called weirdness could be your entry card to a brotherhood of strangers who shared your “insane” sensibilities.

In the interurban web, you could for the first time choose a group which fit the contours of your neurology. But while the culture which had spat you out was probably local, the new form of subculture which sucked you in was probably a vortex of transnationality. To see these psychobiological currents spiralling in the greatest number we’ll have to find the right city. And Athens was the rightest one in sight. Foreigners like Zeno – who laid out what would be recognized for thousands of years as the three basic areas of philosophy – logic, ethics, and physics – arrived in Athens from Italy’s Elea4 carrying the seeds of an intellectual sport for thrill-seeking underexcitables, those whose perpetually parched limbic systems thirsted for neural pandemonium. This was the mental rough-and-tumble Aristotle – a century or so later – called the Dialectic.5 Zeno’s gift was later given a local twist as the Socratic method6 within whose social confines some convention-piercers found abode. Meanwhile other cosmopolites wafted into town from the Italian colonies carrying Pythagoreanism,7 a refuge for limbically bruisable introverts and others of the contemplative sort.

Athens’ haven for extrovert daredevils came from the Sophists, who peddled swash-buckling in politics, the law, in public duels of rhetoric, and in the hornswoggling of international diplomacy. (Sophists also offered the best all-around education of their day. But that’s a matter for another time and day…or better yet, for the endnotes.)8 The word sophist actually meant a knowledge carrier, 9 and was equivalent to our “professor.” Adepts like the Abderan travelling-seminar-inventor Protagoras and the touring Leontinian lecturer Gorgias charged tidy sums for their public presentations, but would also make themselves available to visit your home and give you private lessons for a mere $100,000 or so.10 They equipped you to argue your case persuasively before audiences which would have made an introvert cringe. Then there were the homeboys – Athenian-born Cynics, magnets for those drawn to self-denial, pain, and the desolate caverns of the soul. Like most bands of social rejects, the Cynics offered a belief system with which their followers could turn the tables on their tormentors, 11 damning the high-and-mighty who had mocked their childhood sensibilities. They preached purgation from the “deformations” of the preppies’ modern state and urged return to nature’s purity.

But we’re getting ahead of our tale. In our previous chapter, we glimpsed the manner in which the diversity generator cranks out neurological extremes. Now it’s time to see how the conformity enforcer hooks together the resulting irregularities – creating networks whose connecting pins punch through the housing of the ancient polis or the modern state.

At heart is the fact that like is attracted to like – which amounts to a good deal more than common sense. Thanks to the findings of mid and late 20th century science, it is now apparent that our itch to be with those who seem simpatico goes far back in evolutionary time. For example, it shows up in sponges, creatures which first arose roughly 550 million years ago. Sponge cells, like most organisms, live in structured communities. Normally the amoeba-like creatures hunk together indivisibly. But run a sea-fresh sponge through a sieve into a bucket of water, and you jolt the inhabitants from their fastenings, forcing them to wander homeless and alone. Despite this drastic dislocation, the animalcules will clump together again. Now sieve one red sponge and another of a yellow hue into the same bucket. The differently colored refugees will spurn desegregation and frantically seek out others of their kind. Bigoted red cells will shun yellow and vice versa. Within three days, the reds will have reassembled with their fellow ruddies in one clump and the yellows with their lemony sisters in another.12

We too are steered by this microorganismic legacy. Put cells from the eye and the liver in water. The liver cells will gang up with other liver cells, the eye cells will chill with others from the eye.13 Bodies continue to operate in this “ethnocentric” manner even when they’re not purÈed. In the growing brain of an embryo, neurons reach for partners with whom they’ll spend a lifetime in embrace. Each scouts out those which share its electrical rhythms, then taps into a clique which pulsates to its clannish beat.14 (Reggae fans in one corner, please, rappers, rockers, and classical fogies in another.) And so it goes on up the bio-chain. Little as exterior pigmentation means to the muscle-power, swiftness, or brainpower of a cichlid fish, the color-conscious swimmers congregate according to their tone of physio-body-paint.15 Chimp mothers raising youngsters clot with other toddler-moms, and adult males hang out with other male adults.16 Sapient humans still follow this primitive rule. A Detroit survey of 1013 men showed that whites chose whites as best friends, Protestants chose Protestants, Catholics chose Catholics, Republicans chose Republicans, and working class chose working class.17

Individuals, especially those with temperaments which defy the norm, are pulled together by two handles of similarity – their emotional wiring and an important byproduct, the extent to which they see things eye to eye. Experiments show that humans are drawn to those who share their attitudes on religion, politics, parents, children, drugs, music, ethnicity,18 and even clothes.19 They’ll do everything from standing closer to their brethren-in-belief20 to marrying21 them in preference to someone current gene-theory tags as a more likely target for matrimony.22

Attitudes are not just rallying flags, but symbols of emotionality. Misery wants company. Social psychologist Stanley Schachter told one group of college girls they’d receive a painful shock. He explained to another how enjoyable the electrical surge would be. Then he gave the girls a choice of spending the time before their voltage-dose in a waiting room with a bunch of other young women about to undergo the same amps and watts or in a room by themselves. Twice as many of those who thought they were about to be tortured wanted to nestle in the comfort of a sympathetic gathering.23

We mammals are uncannily good at gravitating toward those who share our hidden joys and woes. This talent for emotional homing crops up among beavers, wolves, and even deer24 . In the rhesus monkeys Harry Harlow studied, it’s particularly astonishing. When it came to mating, those who’d been raised in isolation fell for others brought up in quarantine. Those who’d spent their days in cages made woo to other victims of captivity. Now here’s the topper. Some of the rhesus had been lobectomized. Though none were handed pictures of each others brains, those with similar neurosurgery managed to sniff each other out. So subtle were the differences detected by the simians that even researchers couldn’t spot without a careful study of medical and rearing charts.25

Humans are much the same.26 Children whose gifts or disabilities make them seem bizarre, for example, manage to find each other and to congregate.27 Among our kind it’s called validation. Without others on our wavelength the strangeness of our feelings can make us feel we’re going insane. Jerome Bruner explains one of the prime reasons we despair.28 Some cultures, he says, forbid discussion of experiences which others wallow in quite heartily.29 Should we be stranded in a milieu which taboos the moods we live from day to day, our essence is expelled from permissible reality. Those like us can offer a nest of others who will finally make us feel worthwhile. But more goes on than mere emotional rescue. Once gathered, those of us who are akin escalate our similarities, aping each other until we’ve feedback-looped our common thread into an insignia of our group’s superiority.30 Drop these psychosocial filaments into the solvent of a multi-urban stew – et voila, you have the formula for a boundary-breaking subculture-glue.

The big fastener-fest hit in roughly 600 b.c., when prophets and philosophers took advantage of the new trans-territorial fluidities. Until then otherworldly notions like religion had been used to demonstrate who was related to whom and who was a member of which gene-based tribe.31 The house of Jacob in the valley of the Jordan had shown its solidarity by worshipping Jehovah, while the clans of archaic Athens had flaunted their affiliation through fealty to Athena. But, the users of the new mucilage epoxied together trans-continental circuits of humanity with the relics of these old divinities. Their clans were based on neurohormonal fraternity – a solidarity of sensibilities. Among the large-scale-integrated patch-makers were figures like Confucius and Lao-Tzu in China (both were active around 525 b.c.), Zoroaster in Persia (628-551 b.c.), the Judaean visionaries who added their own messages (545-500 b.c.) to the words of Isaiah (742-701 b.c,), and Plato in, where else?, Greece (428-348 b.c.). More on Plato in later chapters, since some of the switchworks he set in train spell trouble for the 21st century.

The eminence grise behind Plato, his modern followers and their adversaries was an arch cementer of trans-national subculture. Today we associate him with a trivial theorem, but this future-shaking figure was Pythagoras.

Faustians and Flockers – a Tale from the Crypt of Psychobiology

Introverts are often tossed outside the locked gates of conventional society. The quirks produced by their cerebral oversensitivities turn them into “geeks” – round pegs excluded from the square holes of acceptability. Even when they’re toddlers, pre-school teachers shudder at their strangeness, stigmatizing them with terms like “negative” and “loner.”32 Other kids and adults catapult them from their presence or refuse to look their way.33 Meanwhile extroverts are grabbed in warm embrace. As hard as introverts may campaign for leadership, it’s the extroverts who are handed the top slots.34 The hormonal fuels of power propel extroverts to take out their aggression on those beneath them. And oversensitives become their punching bags. Among lower primates, the savageness of these attacks is particularly visible.35 Then things go from bad to worse. Introverts are stuck with aiming their aggression at themselves.36 Among those extroverts who bask in popularity, the wonder-hormone serotonin banishes depression and produces a sense of confidence and mastery. However serotonin backfires in exiles from the favor of society. It slams introverts into nail-biting and timidity. 37 One of the few strategies for overcoming this conundrum is to bail out and find a group or build a philosophy in which you’re no longer pushed to the periphery.38 No one was more in need of an emotional home than were the introverts of the age of urban interface: the free-floating rejects of the Greek city-states.

Introverts break down into two types – the flock-bound and the Faustians. Faustians cross the boundaries of the system39 and wrestle with forbidden mysteries.40 Flockers bury themselves in a bevy of others like themselves41 and follow the certainties preached by an authority. 42 Faustians take off on odysseys, 43 occasionally returning with fresh visions,44 the Promethean fire around which to shape subcultural societies.45 Flockers crowd into the warmth provided by the Faustians’ discoveries.

One of the pacesetting researchers into introversion and extroversion, Hans Eysenck, paved the way as far back as 193946 for the discovery of the Faustians, introverts who in spite of their inhibitions are surprisingly good adventurers. The vast majority of pilots are extroverts. And many introverts freeze at the idea of rudder-and-sticking an aircraft. However Eysenck’s followers discovered a pocket of introverts whose success in pilot training outdid that of every other group. 47 These were introverts Eysenck had previously called “stable.” Their opposites he’d dubbed “neurotics.” 48 As research progressed, the Faustian nature of the “stable” types emerged. The clincher came in 1972, when Jeff B. Bryson and Michael Driver found that some introverts shy away from complexity and others dive into it. 49 Or it would have been the clincher, if someone had been looking. In 1998, I subjected 60 years of research on these topics to reanalysis and finally unearthed the footprints of Faustianism. See if you notice the emergence of their outline.

The star players on China’s championship women’s volleyball teams have been, surprise, surprise, introverts,50 achieving a glory their extrovert teammates envied. Extroverts lust the most fervently for money, status, and power, 51 but it’s the less-materialistic introverts, of all the ironies, who make the best businessmen and entrepreneurs. 52 Both these callings involve not only risk, but the building of mini-cultures. Entrepreneurs, in particular, have to craft micro-societies of employees who champ at the bit to challenge giants…and who can pull it off. There are good reasons complexity-seeking introverts make such potent social engineers. First off, they dive eagerly into theory, penetrating the surface to root out cause and effect. 53 They also have a flair for left-field solutions to problems which stump the more conventional. 54 And they tend to think with both mind and emotionality. Imaging of their brains shows that when they’re pondering, the cerebral web of feeling called the striatum lights up55 like Tokyo’s [External Link] Ginza district at midnight.

Their opposites, extroverts, tend to flee emotion, barricading themselves into the left-brain’s abstractions and externalities.56 By freezing consciousness out of their emotional right hemisphere, extroverts blind themselves to the unusual. They turn their backs on exploratory reconnoitering.57 The extroverts’ left-cortical tyranny – which strengthened its hold via the cultural innovations of fourth century Greece58 – throttles59 access to areas which house emotional60 and hunch-based abilities. But it’s the wedding of the non-rational with the intellect which modern studies show produces the most accurate anticipation of upcoming traps and openings.61

What’s more, complexity-seeking introverts embrace those potentially useful strangers62 whose alien nature tosses their fellow citizens into a tizzy. They can also calm the rhythms of their brain at times when others panic63 – a gift that puts them among those charismatic heroes who keep their heads when all others about them are losing theirs.64 But the bottom line of complexity-seeking introverts’ success is probably their tenacity. Extroverts jump into diversions glittering with excitement, run through them quickly and make a slew of mistakes. Introverts are slow and steady. They take on long and monotonous tasks, but make few missteps and plow through to the bitter (or sweet) end.65 Studies show persistence is the raw stuff of greatness.66 And greatness is something Faustian introverts achieve.67

Pythagoras – the Faustian

Pythagoras (560-480 b.c) was the ultimate Faustian. His father was a gem-engraver68 in a day when artisans were near the pinnacle of society.69 Like most introverts, Pytharogas did not feel particularly welcome in his home island of Samos. One reason may have been a common introvert trait – he was a bookworm70 in a city where single-minded intellectuals were, at best, an oddity.71 Another may have been that as a child Pythagoras was admired by adults for his precocity72 – a form of attention which can make you highly unpopular among your merely normal peers.

   
     

The regime which came into power when Pythagoras turned eighteen wanted to beef up what Thucydides called “a powerful navy” so it could trounce the Persians and “reduce many an island.”73 Pythagoras left town, certain “that under such a government his studies might be impeded, as they engrossed his whole person.”74 Those studies would have been more than just impeded if Pythagoras had been drafted to man an oar in a battle galley. So the young thinker began a 37-year journey in search of fellow knowledge addicts, including two citizens of Miletus who took a shine to him, Anaximander, father of astronomy, and our old friend Thales,75 known today as the father of a nameless discipline to which Pythagoras would later give a title – philosophia.76 If Pythagoras resembled the crosscountry hitchhikers of the mid-20th century scrutinized by psychologist Stephen L. Franzoi,77 he was intuitive, emotionally open, impulsive, independent, enjoyed complexity and change, and had a strong interest in diving into others’ souls: the perfect type to dredge the essence from the sages of faraway lands. Like a 1960s hitchhiker, Pythagoras is said to have spent nearly four decades travelling the width of the Mediterranean from Gaul to Phoenicia78 sucking knowledge from mystics and from priests. He touched on the African realm of Egypt – famed for the secret knowledge of its sacerdotes – then dove into the shamanic realms of Asia,79 hitting Persia (and its magi), Arabia, and ultimately India80 – the country where the founder of Jainism, Vardhamana, was piecing together a new monastic religion that abjured violence toward animals, where Goshala Maskariputra was piecing together the self-denying Ajivika sect, where two new Upanishads81 had just been “discovered” in the forests, and where Buddha, 20 years younger than Pythagoras,82 was, like the Greek tourist, soaking up the zeitgeist. Both the founder of a religion which would someday permeate the East and the visitor whose ideas would saturate the West drank deeply of Brahminic83 mysticism, reincarnation, vegetarianism, asceticism, and, in Pythagoras’ case, political elitism.

When he returned to his hometown at 56 with an almost fully-developed philosophy, Pythagoras’ old fans among the elders gathered eagerly to hear his exploits. However, says Iamblichus, “Not one proved genuinely desirous of those mathematical disciplines which he was so anxious to introduce among the Greeks.” In fact, the folks back home absolutely refused “to learn” the lessons with which the intellectual adventurer had returned.84 So Pythagoras took off for religion-saturated Delos and for authoritarian Sparta “to learn their laws.”85 Then he went back to Samos and demonstrated the depth of his introspective propensities. According to Iamblichus, “He fashioned a cave…in which he spent the greater part of the day and night, ever busied with scientific research, and meditating” until he had “unfolded a complete science of the celestial orbs, founding it on arithmetical and geometric demonstrations.”86 Still, no one would listen. His townsmen ignored his theories and sent him off on diplomatic missions or buried him in bureaucratic natterings.87 So once again the master of the hidden worlds which introverts best know escaped his mother-polis. “Disgusted at the Samians’ scorn for education,” says Iamblichus,88 Pythagoras set down roots in the Italian Greek colony of Croton, where he hung out his shingle as a guru and soon attracted roughly 600 dedicated disciples and another 2,000 devotees who attended his orations in the city’s auditorium.89

Pythagoras turned his school into exactly what flock-seeking introverts most need – the haven of a tyranny. Ambiguity is a tension-provoker90 – and the sheep among the introverts go bonkers at the strain. Indecisive grays savage the flockers’ limbic systems, so they desperately need the tranquillizer of a world spelled out in black and white.91 Pythagoras’ cult was a cleaver slicing ebony from ivory. It severed those who were in from out with the axe of a loyalty oath.92 It sheared away uncertainty and squabbles over internal status through the sharing of all earthly goods, the wearing of clonish clothes, the adoption of an unvarying manner (“never yielding to laughter,”93 among other things), and a monastic prohibition against consuming meat, wine, eggs or beans.94 To enter, one endured an initiation ritual of purification via abstinence, massive study, and best of all for those who needed to deactivate their overexcitability, five years of silent obedience to every command, no matter how seemingly ridiculous.95 Once this half-decade of self-smothering was ended, one could enter the inner sanctum of “esoterica” – students permitted to sup “the secret wisdom of the Master himself.”96 Ironically, for a sheepish introvert this final headlock in the fold is exactly what it takes to make her formerly-smothered sense of freedom and achievement bloom.97

   
     

Pythagoras’ philosophy is frequently tossed into the same vat as Greek mystery religions and the occult practices surrounding Egyptian gods.98 Classical historian Michael Grant calls Pythagoreanism “weird,” “occultist,” “irrational,” and just plain “crack-brained.”99 Socrates, the favorite of historians like Grant, was the Athenian alternative – a magnet for extroverts whose thoughts were disconnected from introspective emotionality. One of the most famous of Socrates’ followers (and possibly lovers)100 was Alcibiades, a thrill seeker (meaning an underexcitable extrovert) to the nth degree. He was known for breaking what Will Durant swears was “a hundred laws” and injuring “a hundred men,”101 for pursuing every pleasure one could wring from the pool of Athenian excess, for his stable of Olympian-race-winning horses,102 his house stacked high with luxuries, his overdrawn finances, his unparalleled popularity among Athens’ high-priced prostitutes, and for his wisecracks to men of power. (An example: Athens’ preeminent man of political command, Pericles, tried to put Alcibiades in his place by remarking that he, too, had been able to roll supposedly witty remarks off his tongue when he was young. Snapped back the unchastened youth, “Too bad I couldn’t have known you when your brain was at its best.”)103

Then there was Alcibiades’ most infamous act of hooliganism – knocking the noses,104 ears, and prominently-displayed penises off of nearly every sacred statue of Hermes in town, and completing the entire deed in just one night. As Alcibiades grew older, he grew bolder. He and his sidekicks started a war with Syracuse…which Athens promptly lost.105 The national humiliation got Alcibiades tossed out of town. So he signed up as a military leader for Athens’ arch-enemy, Sparta, and made the citizens back home tear their hair out by the roots.106 They also eventually tore out the root some felt had caused this whole fiasco – the old philosopher Socrates himself. This was one of the main reasons the quizzical codger was hemlocked into the afterlife.107

   
     

St. Augustine managed to nail down the difference between Socrates and Pythagoras when he wrote: “wisdom consists in action and contemplation…Socrates is said to have excelled in the active part of that study, while Pythagoras gave more attention to its contemplative part….”108 Pythagoras was a magnet for introverts who melded sense-beyond-reason with the intellect. He focused on obsessions with which introverts are blessed – theory, mystery, study,109 and creativity.110 While Socrates’ centered his attention on left-brain hair-splitting, 111 Pythagoras’ specialized in such right cortical gifts as music, 112 on whose study he left indelible marks. Musical talent comes, in part, from those abnormal prenatal ablutions in which some the foetuses of future introverts are bathed113 – pre-natal hormones which produce men and women who don’t fit the standard gender molds. 114 These are the very sorts of personalities which conformity-enforcing normals pummel to the outskirts of society. And they are the kinds of introverts who, with “low stakes in conformity” and a good education, seek out the sympathetic pocket of a culture-bucking mini-society. 115

In fact, if Iamblichus is correct, Pythagoras administered a virtual personality test to make sure his followers were introverts. He “was much more anxious that they should be silent than that they should speak.” In other words, he sought shyness116 – the major hallmark of introversion. He also looked for an overexcitable limbic-alarm which would render his followers “astonished by the energies of any immoderate desire or passion,” and which would spark an instant aversion to such qualities of thrill-seeking under-excitables as “ferocity,” “intemperance,” and “savage manners.” What’s more, Pythagoras wanted a swift but unrebellious mind able to grasp his teachings readily. In short he demanded high IQ accompanied by the prime flock-seeking-introvert qualities of “gentleness and mildness”117 – to wit, an absolute docility. 118 His followers didn’t question his commandments, but tranquillized their wills with a phrase borrowed from slaves: “autos epha ipse dixit,” 119 generally translated as “he himself has said it.” In other words, “it’s true because Pythagoras said so.”

In blinding white robe and Asian trousers,120 Pythagoras preached reincarnation121 – the Indian reason for avoiding meat (swallowing an ancestor might prove deleterious to the soul) 122 and for another Indian-style proscription, never killing an animal unless it posed a danger to one’s fellow man. Pythagoras’ sect had the additional appeal of opening its doors to women – a rarity in the Greece of that day, and reportedly downright illegal in Croton. Yet Timon of Athens called Pythagoras a fisher of men, a phrase that would take on a powerful resonance later on in history.

The syllabus at Pythagoras’ spiritual boot-camp seems sound enough: mathematics, astronomy, and music. But geometry and arithmetic were used as yet more means of regimenting minds – by giving them Spartan calisthenics in discerning the dictatorial forms beneath the surface of reality. If a single Greek ever designed a philosophical hideout for those attempting to flee the painful spikes of exterior corporeality, it was Pythagoras. Little wonder that he’s credited with inventing the word “kosmos,” whose derivative, cosmic, would become popular with those seeking refuge from externality in the 20th century.

However once he’d enclosed a mass of members in his social cocoon Pythagoras set out to impose his totalitarian system on the entire Croton state. Iamblichus claims the sage “liberated…Croton, Sybaris, Catanes, Rhegium, Himaera, Agrigentum, [and] Tauromenas,” establishing “laws which caused the cities to flourish” while rooting out “partisanship, discord and sedition [in other words, disagreement]…from all the Italian and Sicilian lands.”123 Some say Pythagoras and his disciples managed to hi-jack all of Southern Italy. Unfortunately (or perhaps very fortunately indeed), Pythagoras picked the losing side in a battle between Croton’s aristocrats and the adherents of a relatively new movement124 called democracy. The democrats rioted, burned down the headquarters in which Pythagoras’ disciples were hived, murdered a few, then chased the rest beyond the city’s walls. Pythagoras himself soon perished, though whether at the hands of angry citizens or by starving himself to death is a matter of uncertainty. However his movement lived on vigorously, for Pythagoras had pioneered many things of critical importance, among them a subculture supplantable to any society.

Despite the looting of Pythagoras’ personal command center, communities and brotherhoods dedicated to the Master’s teachings continued cropping up in Greek territory for the next 300 years, first in southern Italy, then in Athens,125 Thebes and Phlious. Pythagorean trailblazers developed advanced mathematical and scientific concepts based on those which Pythagoras had introduced – the notions of odd and even numbers, prime numbers, an early algebra, a round earth, an eclipse which occurs because the earth slides between the moon and sun,126 and many more foundation stones for those who would later conquer the outer world by withdrawing from it: scientists. Aristotle reports that Pythagoreans like Philolaus, through a path of dubious reasoning, even concluded, among other things, that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa. 127

Pythagoras’ Faustian followers were renowned as social and political leaders throughout the Mediterranean and the Aegean. Pausanias, in his Description of Greece, describes how the battle-turning third century b.c. Theban leader Epaminondas was sent to study with “Lysis, a Tarentine by descent, learned in the philosophy of Pythagoras the Samian.” 128 Herodotus felt that the Lacedaemonia custom of not wearing wool in the temples or using it in burial ceremonies had been borrowed from the Egyptians and the Pythagoreans. 129 The Greek historian Diodorus130 refers in passing to Prorus of Cyrene as a Pythagorean. The stamp of Pythagoreanism is all over Euclid’s geometry131 (written in the Alexandria of roughly 300 b.c.). Plutarch attributes many of the ideas of Rome’s second king, Numa Pompilius (circa 700 b.c.) to the Pythagoreans. 132 And the Pythagorean politician Archytas (whom we shall meet again in our next chapter) was elected “strategos” (dictator) of Taras seven-times running. Despite the dedication with which he handled his political duties, 133 Archytas also found time, according to Will Durant, to write in depth treatises on Pythagorean philosophy, on the mathematical underpinnings of music, on mechanics, and (according to Aristotle) to invent two devices which would change humans’ ability to engineer their world – the pulley and the screw. No wonder Diodorus praises the Pythagoreans as “the cause of so great blessings” not just to a few, but to all “the states of Greece.” 134

Finally there came the series of stepping stones which would lead to the Pythagoreans of modernity. Pythagoreanism revived in the Roman Empire during the second to fifth century a.d.,135 popped up afresh during the Renaissance, wound its way through everything from Montaigne, Shakespeare, Milton and current literature to modern mathematics, 136 and thrives in the form of philosophical, religious, and “pagan-revival” movements at the street level, in the academy, and even on the Internet today. 137

Some have considered Pythagoras a mystic sage, others a founding father of secular inquiry. Copernicus swore his solar-centric system was sturdily planted in Pythagorean tradition (it was).138 Galileo was called a Pythagorean by his fellow Italians. And Leibniz openly dubbed himself a devotee of the Pythagorean heritage.

But Pythagoreanism’s most important contributions to the 20th and 21st century would be: its impact on Plato and through him on a religion called Christianity; and the barb in an otherwise brilliant heritage – Pythagoras’ creation of a method for indoctrinating those of many lands into a cult of absolute authority.  

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