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Neo-Pythagorean Philosophy

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The ethico-religious society founded by Pythagoras, which flourished especially in Magna Græcia in the fifth century B.C., disappears completely from history during the fourth century, when philosophy reached the zenith of its perfection at Athens. Here and there, however, there appears a philosopher who reverts to the Pythagorean doctrine of numbers, and in a general way manifests the tendency of the school towards religious ethics and the practices of asceticism. Beginning with the middle of the first century B.C., a more systematic attempt was made to restore the speculative philosophy of the Pythagoreans and combine it with the practice of astrology and sorcery. The first of these systematic neo-Pythagoreans was Figulus, a Roman philosopher who lived at Alexandria about the middle of the first century B.C., and was a friend of Cicero. Other Romans also contributed to the movement, the chief of whom were Vatinius and the Sextians. It was, however, at Alexandria that the most influential of the neo-Pythagoreans taught. In the second and third centuries of the Christian era, the philosophers of the school became, so to speak, apostles of the cult, and travelled throughout the Roman Empire. The names most prominently associated with this active philosophical campaign are those of Moderatus of Gades, Apollonius of Tyana, Nicomachus of Gerasa, Numenius, and Philostratus. Like the neo-Platonists (see NEO-PLATONISM), the neo-Pythagoreans definitely placed their philosophy at the disposal of the pagan opponents of Christianity. Their original aim — to save the pagan world from moral and social ruin by the introduction of the religious element into philosophy and into conduct — was, of course, conceived without any reference to the claims of Christianity. But as soon as the Christian religion came to be recognized as a factor in the intellectual and political life of the Roman Empire, philosophy, in the form of Neo-Pythagoreanism, made active campaign against the Christians, proclaimed its own system of spiritual regeneration, and set up in opposition to Christ and the Saints the heroes of philosophical tradition and legend, especially Pythagoras and Apollonius of Tyana.

Speculative system

The neo-Pythagoreans were methodical eclectics, They admitted into their speculative system not only the traditional teachings of the Pythagorean school but also elements of Platonism, Aristoteleanism, and Stoicism. Besides, they derived from Oriental religions with which they were in contact at Rome as well as at Alexandria, a highly spiritual notion of God. There was, naturally, very little coherence in a system developed from principles so divergent. Neither was there agreement in the school even in respect of fundamental tenets. Nevertheless, it may, in general, be said that the school placed God, the supremely spiritual One, at the head of all reality. This, of course, was Oriental in its origin. Next, they interpreted the Pythagorean doctrine in a Platonic sense, when they taught that numbers are the thoughts of God. Thirdly, borrowing from Stoicism, they went onto maintain that numbers, emanating as forces from the divine thoughts, are, not indeed the substance of things, but the forms according to which things are fashioned. From Aristotle they borrowed the doctrine that the world is eternal and that there is a distinction between terrestrial and celestial matter. Their cosmology, in spite of this Aristotelean influence, is dominated to a great extent by the belief that the stars are deities and that the powers of air, earth, and sky are demons.

Ethics and religion

In their theory of conduct the neo-Pythagoreans attach great importance to personal asceticism, contemplation, and the worship of a purely spiritual deity. At the same time, it is an essential part of their ethical system that freedom from the trammels of matter and final union with God are to be obtained only by invoking the aid of friendly spirits and God-sent men and by thwarting the efforts of malign demons. This latter principle led to the practice of magic and sorcery and eventually to a good deal of charlatanry. The principle that the friendly spirits and the souls of God's special messengers aid men in the struggle for spiritual perfection led to the practice of honouring and even deifying the heroes of antiquity and the representatives of wisdom such as Pythagoras and Apollonius. With this purpose in view the philosophers of this school wrote "Lives" of Pythagoras which are full of fabulous tales, stories in which more than natural wisdom, skill, and sanctity are attributed to the hero. They did not hesitate to invent where exaggeration failed to accomplish their aim, so that they gave only too much justification to the modern critic's description of their biographical activity as representing the "Golden Age of Apocryphal literature". In this spirit and with this purpose in view Philostratus, about the year A.D. 220, wrote a "Life of Apollonius" which is of special importance because, while it is not a professed imitation of the Gospels, it was evidently written with a view of rivalling the gospel narrative. Apollonius was born at Tyana in Cappadocia four years before the Christian era. At an early age he devoted himself under various masters, to the study of philosophy and the practice of asceticism. After the five years of silence imposed by the rule of Pythagoras, he began his journeys. Throughout Asia Minor he travelled from city to city teaching the doctrines of the sect. Then he journeyed to the far East in search of the wisdom of the magi and the brahmans, and, after his return, took up once more the task of teaching. Later he went to Greece, and thence to Rome, where he lived for a time under the emperor Nero. In 69 be was at Alexandria, where he attracted the attention of Vespasian. Summoned to Rome by Domitian, he was cast into prison, but escaped to Greece, and died two years later. The place of his death is variously given as Ephesus, Rhodes, and Crete. Into the framework of these facts Philostratus weaves a tissue of alleged miraculous events, prophecies, visions, and prodigies of various kinds. It is important to remark in criticism of Philostratus's narrative, that he lived one hundred years after the events which he describes. Moreover, according to Philostratus's own account, Apollonius did not lay claim to divine prerogatives. He believed that the "virtue" which he possessed was to be attributed to his knowledge of Pythagorean philosophy and his observance of its prescriptions. He held as a general principle that anyone who attained the same degree of wisdom and asceticism could acquire the same power. The parallel, therefore, which was drawn between his extraordinary deeds and the miracles narrated in the Gospels does not stand the verdict of criticism. Our Lord claimed to be God, and appealed to His miracles as a proof of His divinity. Apollonius regarded his own powers as natural. Finally, it should be remembered that the Pythagorean biographers openly acknowledged "the principle of permitting exaggeration and deceit in the cause of philosophy" (Newman). The "Lives" of Pythagoras and Apollonius are to be judged by the standards of fiction and not by the canons of historical criticism. Among those who, overlooking this distinction, have tried to make capital against Christianity out of this class of Pythagorean literature are Lord Herbert and Blount, mentioned in Newman's essay on Apollonius, and Jean de Castillon, who was instigated by Frederick the Great.


Philostratus's Life of Apollonius, and the Letters ascribed to the latter were published in PHILOSTRATUS, Opera Omnia (Leipzig, ed. OLEARIUS, 1709); Ibid. (ed. KAYSER, 1870-71); the works of NICOMACHUS OF GERASA are included in IAMBLICHUS, Theologumena Arithmeticæ (ed. AST, Leipzig, 1817); ZELLER, Philosophie der Griechen, III, 2 (3rd ed., Leipzig, 1881), 79 ff.; NEWMAN, Historical Sketches, I (London, 1882), 301 ff.; TURNER, History of Philosophy (Boston, 1903), 204 ff.

About this page

APA citation. Turner, W. (1911). Neo-Pythagorean Philosophy. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Turner, William. "Neo-Pythagorean Philosophy." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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