The Basics of Buddhism

standing Buddha statue with draped garmet and haloStanding Buddha statue at the Tokyo National Museum

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

Buddhist philosophy originates with Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. The Buddha’s life itself weaves an interesting philosophic narrative. According to tradition, he was born the son of a king in the Magda empire of Ancient India or present-day Nepal. He was raised a prince but eventually turned away from the life of politics that his father had envisaged for him in order to pursue a life of spirituality. Specifically, according to legend, his father attempted to shield him from seeing the troubles of the world. But on various occasions, the young Siddhartha left the princely castle and escaped into the streets of the city where he saw those who were ill, who grew old, who died, and finally a monk. Seeing this suffering Siddhartha felt compelled to seek a spiritual life. He then left his home to join wandering mendicants and try to achieve spiritual enlightenment.

The sixth century was a tumultuous time, with many religious reformers who were dissatisfied with traditional Hinduism. Buddha, not himself a member of the priestly class or the Brahmin, joined these reformers, questioning the focus on the priestly class within Hinduism and more generally its strong caste system. In his search for enlightenment, Siddhartha initially engaged in strict asceticism, denying himself many of his bodily needs. But he is thought by adherents to eventually have achieved Enlightenment, after having long meditated under a Bodi tree.

The Middle Way

One of his first proclaimed truths was the importance of “the Middle Way,” which states that it is not the life of excess (such as he enjoyed as prince) nor the life of ascetic denial (which he attempted in his early spiritual search) that leads to enlightenment. Rather, it is the middle path that neither indulges nor denies basic human needs. Buddha presented some of his basic teachings in his first sermon, to monks with whom he had practiced asceticism but who were drawn to him after believing he achieved enlightenment. In that talk, known as the Deer Park Sermon, besides describing the Middle Way, Siddhartha (who now was given the honorific title of the Buddha, the awakened one) also presented his views of the four noble truths and the eightfold path, two of the most fundamental teachings of Buddhism, accepted by all Buddhist practitioners.

The four noble truths

The four noble truths outlined in this sermon are 1) that life is fundamentally characterized by suffering (dukkha); 2) that the cause of that suffering is attachment or craving (tanha); 3) that suffering can be overcome by the elimination of craving; and 4) that there is an eightfold path that makes it possible for us to eliminate this craving and thus eliminate suffering.

The eightfold path

This eightfold path consists of 1) right understanding; 2) right thought; 3) right speech; 4) right action; 5) right livelihood; 6) right effort; 7) right mindfulness; 8) right concentration. It is through the cultivation of a disciplined spiritual, ethical practice that one is relieved of attachment and one overcomes suffering. These various components of thought, behavior and concentration work in concert to allow individual liberation.

The three marks of existence

Metaphysically, Buddha also went a different path that his Hindu forebearers. While the Hindu thinkers emphasized the unity of all things in Brahman, a world substance that many of them thought to be permanent and unchanging, Buddha proposed a view of reality that continues to change and along with it a view of “no-self.” Where the Hindus focused on a unified “being” that encompassed all things, Buddha focussed on emptiness and non-being. All things, he emphasized, were in a state of constant change. The self, too, then is not “Atman” (Self, with a capital “S” or world soul) but “Anatman” (no-self).

As some Western philosophers have expressed this idea: If an object changes from moment A to moment B, then how can that object be characterized as the same object at those two times? Is it not rather two different ones? Buddha himself highlights how at any given moment the mind is aware of a sensation, a thought, a feeling, etc. These he views as “aggregates.” Where is the self behind all of these? The awareness we have is not of a self, but rather of one of these aggregates. With considerations like these, Buddha develops a considerably different metaphysics than one finds in the Hindu worldview that he grew up with. He speaks of three marks of existence that set his views apart from traditional Hindu thought: impermanence, no-self, and suffering.

Some common questions

Buddhism too raises numerous philosophical questions: For example, if the doctrine of the “no-self” is true, then what sense do moral commands to individuals have? Who is to carry them out? Who is responsible if there is no-self. And how are we to make sense of the goal of liberation or enlightenment if there is no self to be liberated or enlightened?

Buddhists, of course, have ways of addressing such concerns. Buddhists will, of course, acknowledge that as a practical matter, we will continue to refer to the self, use the words that reference the self, like “I,” “me,”  “mine.” Yet this self is not thought to have ultimacy. This language, while needed for practical life, does not, for that, indicate that there is a permanent or separate self.

Co-dependent arising

This is tied to the Buddhist idea of “co-dependent arising.” That teaching, as we might express it in relationship to certain ecological ideas today, emphasizes the interconnection of all the conventionally understood self with an entire world. For example, though we might think of the boundaries of our skin as the boundaries of our self, in fact, we breathe in the air continually. We need the resources of water and food. Cut off from those things, the self disappears.

So, we might wonder, can we adequately consider the self as cut off from the world around it? Without the oxygen, produced by the plants, we will expire. Without water for several days, we also die. The self is tied into and co-dependent upon these other things. So we might think of those things too as only conventionally existent. For they, too are dependent on other things, which undergo change from moment to moment and do not retain a permanent existence. What we have, though, is always only the happening of each moment, itself continually undergoing change.

Some similarities between Hindu and Buddhist thought

In some general way, philosophers of the Hindu and the Buddhist traditions that we have discussed here display similarities. Both emphasize an interconnection between things. Yet, while Hindu philosophers speak of the individual self as part of a larger “Self,” a kind of Superorganism in which each individual is like a cell, Buddhists question that there is some overarching “Self.” They emphasize instead that all processes are undergoing change. They emphasize emptiness and nothingness rather than “Being.”

Yet other elements of these systems of thought are similar. Both traditions emphasize the need for adherence to a quite similar moral code and the need for a set of spiritual practices in order to achieve an intuitive awareness of metaphysical truths. They both generally accept the idea of reincarnation, and that the form of one’s reincarnation is dependent on how one has lived in previous lives — that is, they accept the reality of karma. Finally, they both accept the goal of enlightenment, even if they think that enlightened individuals understand the ultimate reality differently in these two traditions.

This conversation is only hinting at some of the philosophical issues at play in Hindu philosophy and Buddhism. Various concepts described here are also understood in other ways. And it is important to bear in mind that these worldviews are not static or uniform. In fact, we find various Hindu and Buddhist philosophers, all with subtle differences in how they understand their own traditions. These are rich thoughtful systems of thought, which each contain thinkers who debate issues with each other and with the traditional bodies of knowledge acknowledged by their traditions.

Some basic questions

Questions of course abound. Many of those posed when discussing Hinduism apply to Buddhism. Some of the following apply to both worldviews:

  • Why should we accept that there is anyone who can be fully enlightened and that enlightenment comes through a spiritual practice rather than analytical thinking?
  • If there is karma, why do so many good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people?
  • Is the evidence that this is somehow related to past lives in any way convincing, or does it function as an ideological foil?
  • Are these spiritual systems too focused on individual mental liberation and do they short social justice concerns?
  • Are these systems ultimately overly pessimistic? Is individual life so oppressive and disappointing that we ought desire to escape the cycle of existence?
  • Finally are basic elements of these systems of thought self-contradictory?

Hindu Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Ethics

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© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

Metaphysics of Advaita Vedanta

Metaphysics studies the type of things that exist and includes reflections on ultimate reality. In the presentation of ideas so far, the views of Brahman and the self in Hinduism and the marks of existence in Buddhism, as well as related discussions of the five aggregates are all part of the subject matter of metaphysics. Reincarnation and karma also can be included in this area of philosophy, as they concern processes to which existent things are subject.

The discussion of the self in Advaita Vedanta offered earlier was incomplete. So far, besides discussing the self as we normally understand it — a given individual, named Sarah, for example — we discussed Atman, the world soul of which Sarah would be an expression. Beyond that, however, the Hindus speak of self in a further sense called jiva. Jiva is an individual soul, separate from the world soul, but also not identical with a specific person. The jiva undergoes reincarnation, passing through various reincarnations as specific individuals until it achieves Moksa, the full awareness that ultimate reality is one unified whole. While Sarah is the individual in a particular lifetime, the jiva is the soul that transmigrates from one life to another. Sarah in this life may become Shiela in the next. A typical analogy is that of water which can be poured from one container to another, taking on the form of whatever container it is in.

So in one life, the water is in the form of a cup (Sarah), in another it takes the form of a pot (Shiela). Another analogy is that of a pillow and a pillowcase. The jiva is the pillow, in one life slipped in one pillowcase (Sarah), in another slipped into another one (Shiela). This is supposed to happen until jiva (non-named since it always takes on the name of its present incarnation) learns the lessons it should and awakens to the deep truth of the fundamental unity of everything through a practice of yoga. That knowledge is sufficient to end the cycle of births and rebirths. The individual soul at that point simply disappears again into the primordial unity of Brahman. To return to our water analogy, the water is then returned to the ocean, where it simply exists in unity, losing its individual features.

Epistemology in Advaita Vedanta and Beyond

One of the great difficulties with any of these religious-philosophical systems concerns how we are to know these difficult metaphysical truths — about the self and ultimate reality — that they expound.

Generally, we accept that we gain knowledge through reflection on our sense experience and logical deductions. But the spiritual systems propose metaphysical truths about which we have no sense experience. Generally, the religious systemizers will maintain that a type of internal sense, an internal sight, or insight, is possible that allows us to understand the metaphysical truths that are expounded. These Eastern systems, in particular, are less dogmatic than the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) tend to be.

Hinduism does have many sacred texts that are formative for all in the tradition, but it largely does not understand itself as a dogmatic belief system but as a living system. Gurus are thought to have the insights and to be able to guide others to have these as well. This requires the practice of various forms of yoga, which eventually should allow the insights among the practitioners. It is this kind of intuition that should lead individuals to accept the truth of the ideas of Brahman, Atman, reincarnation, and so on.

There are five general types of yoga: 1) Hatha yoga is the type of yoga most people are familiar with through yoga centers in the U.S. and Europe. In this form of yoga … one assumes asanas (or postures), engaging in physical practices that are to reform the mind, leading to Moksa. 2) Bhakti yoga is the yoga of devotion. 3) Karma yoga is the yoga of service. 4) Raja yoga is the yoga of meditation. 5) Jnana yoga is the yoga of theoretical learning.

In Hinduism, the practice of these forms of yoga is related both to epistemology and ethics. Each of these practices should lead individuals to understand their ultimate unity with one another in Atman and Brahman. Knowing this, these individuals will also lose the egoism that drives selfish and immoral behavior. So, it is such practices, along with the adherence to a moral regime, that lead to insight about metaphysical truths.

Of course, it has to be acknowledged that only very few individuals will indeed have had such deep insight. But in the most charitable reading, one might note that few understand relativity theory or string theory either. But the assumption accepted is that with enough work they would be able to understand it. In these religious systems, the vast majority have some faith that they could, one day with enough practice, understand the truths that they now largely accept on faith.

Should we trust our cultivated inner perception?

A problem with such arguments about an inner perception is that there seems to be little agreement among those who maintain they have one (whether in the Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Muslim or other traditions). Most of these worldviews maintain that some such insight is available, at least to some. Yet the fundamental descriptions of the metaphysical reality across these traditions are not in agreement, unlike the descriptions of relativity theorists, for example, in diverse places such as China, Germany, the U.S. and so on.

Reincarnation is also a process that practitioners of these Eastern systems maintain one might also have an inner perception of. Deja vu experiences, dreams, and the like are the general reports used in support of veracity of such views. The question for those considering such views is whether those experiences are best explained as indicating the reality of reincarnation and as lending sometimes support for the mechanism of karma, or whether some other explanation might be more compelling.

Indeed, given the lack of agreement among the various religious systems in the world about what that inner perception is — regarding views of God, the self, the afterlife — how reliable of a guide is it? …

The Basics of Hinduism

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© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

The German philosopher Karl Jaspers has characterized the period of the 6th to the 2nd century BCE (before the common era) as the Axial Age. This is a period of the establishment and flourishing of new worldviews that began to replace the polytheistic religious views that were dominant before that time. Many significant figures for the development of worldviews that were determinant for two thousand years lived at this time. In Greece, we see the early natural philosophers, as well as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (who for their part go on, along with the Old Testament prophets of this period, to strongly affect Christianity). In India, we see the formulation of the philosophical ideas in the Bhagavad Gita that serve as the foundation for the later developed Advaita Vedanta. We also see Buddha challenge the Hindu ideas that he inherited. In China, Loazi (the founder of Taoism) and Confucius (the founder of Confucianism) begin to develop their philosophical systems …

Advaita Vedanta

… Here we will only survey some basic ideas of the school of Indian philosophy known as Advaita Vedanta. This philosophical school was developed by the philosopher Shankara in the eighth century of the common era. Yet it draws on ideas in the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita, sacred texts within the Hindu tradition, the latter of which was developed in the Axial Age. Advaita Vedanta is particularly important for its clear expression of pantheism, the idea that there is one thing and that thing is God. Hindus view everything in the world as ultimately an expression of one underlying godhead.

While the main forms of Hinduism are pantheistic, Hinduism generally also accepts that one can speak of a plurality of gods. Hinduism generally acknowledges hundreds of thousands, or some say even millions, of gods. Yet the entire Hindu pantheon can all be viewed as expressions of the same underlying godhead, Brahman. Hindus believe that one can worship any of them as a vehicle for Moksa, or enlightenment. Brahman can work through the varying guises.

Given that Hinduism generally accepts that one can worship any of the various manifestations of the Godhead, Hinduism is also known as henotheism. Henotheism identifies all particular deities ultimately with one ultimate reality and accepts that one may worship whichever manifestation one wants. As a rule, the proponents of Advaita Vedanta focus on seeing this philosophically, however, and emphasize Brahman.

While this is already complicated, in fact, the discussion of ultimate reality in Advaita Vedanta is more complicated still: Just as that pantheon can be identified with the one Godhead, Brahman, so all different people and things in the world can ultimately be viewed as expressions of a single world soul, known as Atman. This world soul is the true Self underlying many apparently separate visages of individuals. So you and I and all others are actually expressions of this world-soul comparable to how the manifold gods are really expressions of one basic godhead, Brahman.

Ultimately, in fact, yoga (in any of its multiple forms that allow a binding of the individual to the Godhead) will unveil that Brahman and Atman are also really unified. In other words, those forms identified with transcendent Brahman (the pantheon of gods) and the individuals of the world (viewed as expressions of Atman) are themselves really one thing. This too is called Brahman. Rightly understood, the transcendent and the immanent aspects of the Godhead are seen as unified: Brahman and Atman are the self-same. Advaita Vedanta also … has well-known views about the soul and its possible reincarnation and posits laws that control the transmigration of the soul–karma. These ideas will be expanded on later, as we also consider philosophical conundrums of pantheism.

One of the most serious questions involves ethics: For example, if all individuals are really an expression of the one Godhead, of Brahman, then what ultimate importance do moral ideas possess? If they slayer and the slain are one and the same, as is famously said in the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, then how do we really make sense of moral command not to kill? (Shankara’s commentary on some of the Upanishads can be found online.)

Other questions concern what evidence is really sufficient for showing that there really is only one substance, Brahman and that our sense of individual existent entities is ultimately illusory? What evidence, too, is strong enough that we might believe that there is a soul and that reincarnation really occurs? Other questions of the afterlife also present themselves: Sri Aurobindo, a premier Indian philosopher of the 20th century and the developer of Integral Yoga, has asked what real consolation a belief in reincarnation provides for individuals given that it is not the individual self as we normally understand it who is reincarnated. If a man named John in one life is reincarnated as Leslie in a future life, there is in some sense no more John. Leslie will not generally have memories of having been John. John’s body will not exist, etc.

Of course, the discussion here of this as “Hindu philosophy” is oversimplified. There are minority positions within Hindu philosophy, like the Dvaita Vedanta, that are not monistic, … Proponents of Dvaita Vedanta are dualists who maintain that in fact the Godhead, the world, and the individuals in the world exist as separate substances. They focus also on the personal worship of Vishnu.

A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 8 – Hope and Meaning

continued from a previous entry

  1. What I Hope For

What then should we hope for? The objects of my hopes are vague and indeterminate. I hope that something better will emerge in the course of cosmic evolution, that things will work out for the best, that truth, goodness, beauty, justice, and love are real, that my life and universal life are meaningful, that somehow it all makes sense, that life is not in vain, and that things ultimately matter. These are my most fervent hopes and having them gives me a reason to live.

Stating these hopes also sheds light on how they differ from what most people mean by faith. Faith typically has religious connotations and involves believing certain propositions—God made the world, Jesus died for our sins, the Koran is the word of Allah, etc. So, with the exception of fideism, religious faith has cognitive content whereas the objects of my hopes are amorphous or nonspecific. (However, my conception of hope has some things in common with more sophisticated religious ideas about faith—such as the idea of faith as ultimate concern.)

  1. The Source of Hope

I don’t know the exact source of my hopes, but I feel them with an ineffable passion. My attitudinal hope probably emanates from biology and culture. Our biological drives to survive and reproduce, combined with the emergence of consciousness and culture, prompt the acting and hoping that aided our ancestor’s survival—we descended from those who had hope.

As for wishful hoping, its source may be some cosmic longing within me or perhaps it’s the expression of the wish that, at the heart of reality, there is some good principle to which I’m ultimately connected and with which I can commune. Note again that this is a wish, and I won’t disguise my ignorance by calling what I wish for Apollo, Zeus, Vishnu, Jehovah, Allah, or God. Thus we return to our previous themes—connection with something more than ourselves and to the desire for a fully meaningful reality.

      27. Ignorance and of Hope

Our ignorance provides another justification for our hope. As we have seen, we don’t know if there is one or an infinite number of universes, if we live in a simulation, if we will become as gods or if they already exist among the stars. We don’t know the nature of ultimate reality or if it is or will ever become meaningful. What this implies, at the very least, is that we not be arrogantly dogmatic about the nature of reality.

Now if we knew that life was absurd and meaningless, intellectual honesty would demand that we accept that truth. But we don’t know this, anymore than we know that life is meaningful. So our ignorance provides a space for the possibility that ultimate reality may be intelligible and meaningful in ways we simply cannot now even imagine. Thus we can hope while maintaining our intellectual integrity. If you despair, remember that you don’t know life is meaningless anymore than you know the opposite.

    28. Hope and Meaning

No, I don’t know if life is or will become fully meaningful; if truth, beauty, goodness, and justice matter; if there is any recompense for our efforts to bring about justice; if suffering can be ameliorated; if cosmic evolution leads to higher levels of being and consciousness; or if anything matters at all. I don’t know if my wishes will be fulfilled or my hopeful attitude can be sustained. But I see no value in giving into despair, at least not yet. If the time comes when I judge my life no longer valuable, then I hope to have the option to end it. For now, though, I still have attitudinal hope and still engage in wishful hoping. And when I can no longer hope, I hope that others will carry on.

    29. Losing Hope

Still, any of us can lose our hope and give in to despair because hope and despair exist in a dialectical relationship. We can respond to despair with hope, and within hope, there is always the possibility of despair. To despair is to say that nothing is worthwhile; to hope is to affirm that your concern, your action, your love, and your life, all matter.

Yet, it is easy from the safety of my study, and with an adequate supply of life’s necessities, to opine about the value of hope. No doubt some people are in hopeless situations—starving, fleeing violence, in unremitting pain, serving life in prison, being tortured by solitary confinement, etc. For them hope is no salve and their lives perhaps no longer worth living. These hopeless situations should make us all weep as they make a mockery of what human life should be.

      30. What Hope Recommends

But, for those of us lucky enough not to be in hopeless situations, hope demands that we forgo acceptance and resignation and to try to improve the world. Be sympathetic, but act! We may not succeed, but we can try. And, even if the abyss awaits, its best to live honestly and courageously. As James Fitzjames Stephens taught me long ago:

We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. … If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.

    31. Is Hope Enough?

We have discovered that people find meaning in life, and that meaning can be plausibly connected to a meaning of life. We could play a significant and valuable part in a grand cosmic narrative. But we have also found that humility and honesty demand skepticism about the reality of our dreams. In response, we can buttress our resolve with attitudinal and wishful hope. Still, of any proposed solutions about life and meaning, we can always ask whether it’s enough.

But then, what would count as enough? The problem is that nothing would be enough if we expect definitive answers to our questions about life and meaning. If our expectations are too high they will be dashed. Our questions simply don’t allow for the precision of mathematics or physics—the best we can do is to adumbrate. But if there is a voluntary component here, if we have a modicum of free will, then we can be optimistic, we can hope. And while this isn’t an answer, being optimistic and having hope helps us live well.

Of course, some will still not be satisfied. They imagine that Apollo lives on Mt. Olympus and gives life meaning or they accept some other childish nonsense. Many prefer having the void as purpose rather than being devoid of purpose. They are so forlorn that the bromides of popular religion, philosophy, and politics appeal to them.

But if we accept our ignorance in this infinite and to us mostly unknown universe and if we reject illusory nonsense, then we can begin to better understand how we might play a meaningful part in a cosmic drama that leads, hopefully, onward and upward to higher levels of being and consciousness. We may really be as links in that golden chain.

So let us reject pain, death, and destruction and try to create a better and more meaningful reality. We must grow up and take our destiny into our own hands. For we are responsible for the truth and lies, the beauty and the ugliness, the love and the hate. And we can find meaning in life by playing our small role in making life increasing meaningful. Surveying our long past and indefinite future I’ll end by echoing the poetry of the great biologist Julian Huxley:

I turn the handle and the story starts:
Reel after reel is all astronomy,
Till life, enkindled in a niche of sky,
Leaps on the stage to play a million parts.

Life leaves the slime and through the oceans darts;
She conquers earth, and raises wings to fly;
Then spirit blooms, and learns how not to die,
Nesting beyond the grave in others’ hearts.

I turn the handle; other men like me
Have made the film; and now I sit and look
In quiet, privileged like Divinity
To read the roaring world as in a book.

If this thy past, where shall thy future climb,
O Spirit, built of Elements and Time!

The Presocratics – Pythagoras

Marble bust of a man with a long, pointed beard, wearing a tainia, a kind of ancient Greek headcovering in this case resembling a turban. The face is somewhat gaunt and has prominent, but thin, eyebrows, which seem halfway fixed into a scowl. The ends of his mustache are long a trail halfway down the length of his beard to about where the bottom of his chin would be if we could see it. None of the hair on his head is visible, since it is completely covered by the tainia.Bust of Pythagoras of Samos in the Capitoline MuseumsRome.

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

Pythagoras was among the most celebrated philosophers of the Antique period. He supposedly was “the first to bring to the Greeks philosophy in general”  and was the first to use the term ‘philosophy’ and to call himself a ‘philosopher.” His teaching focused on mathematics and rational inquiry, yet was thoroughly esoteric.

He is said to have traveled very broadly and to have incorporated teaching from everywhere he went. It is said that he met with and learned from Thales, as well as Anaximander. He is also thought to have studied geometry with the Egyptians and to have gained knowledge of ethics at Delphi. His esoteric teaching would have been particularly influenced by learning of the Orphic mysteries from Aglaophamus and to his initiation into the mysteries of Egyptian religion.

There are many myths surrounding Pythagoras’ life. One myth was that he had descended into Hades. Another was that he remembered his earlier lives, indeed that his soul had wandered and could remember “all the plants and animals it had been in and everything that his soul had experienced in Hades and that other souls there endure.” There are myths of him being a miracle worker. Some even worshiped him as a god.

The school that he founded, which is said to have lasted ten generations, was a sect devoted to theoretical learning, moral training, but also a strong indoctrination. There were levels to the initiation. Learners who joined the school would initially be silent for five years. After being tested they would then belong to the “household.” In the Pythagorean school, students were prohibited from eating animals, except for those that were allowed for sacrifices. Those were the animals into which the human soul does not migrate. Pythagoreans were “to abstain from beans as though from human flesh…and from almost all creatures of the sea.”

In a story surely apocryphal given its poetic (in)justice, Pythagoras is said to have died after the house where he was visiting Milo the Wrestler was set afire. He fled, but the jealous people who set the house ablaze caught up with him at a bean field when he refused to cross it. They there slit his throat. We might assume the tale is meant to sarcastically point out the absurdity of not eating beans, which were not consumed because they looked “like testicles or the gates of Hades.”

Despite the strangeness of the apocryphal stories surrounding Pythagoras and his school, we see in him great learning. He viewed the reality as numerical. He formalized the Pythagorean theorem, named after him. He and his students also came to understand the ratio character of musical scales. Along with Parmenides and the Eleatics he represents an epistemological orientation that is important in the development of Western thought — the focus of his thought being not primarily on sense experience but on concepts and logic. His focus, in particular, was on mathematical knowledge. With this focus, along with Parmenides, he was a was influence on Plato.

Side by side with great learning, however, Pythagoras and his students also displayed great dogmatism. Hippasus, who is said to have revealed how to draw the dodecahedron (and is thought by some to have developed the idea irrational numbers and thereby undermined the Pythagorean view of the rationality of the universe), was killed by the Pythagoreans, cast to sea.