Phoenician, Egyptian and Persian wisdom: Iamblichos of Chalkis on Pythagoras (fourth century CE)

Author: Iamblichos, Pythagorean Life 3-4 (link to Greek text; link to full translation)

Comments: Iamblichos (fourth century CE) relates legends regarding Pythagoras’ journeys (supposedly sixth century BCE) in pursuit of wisdom, presenting this philosopher as learning from wise men in Phoenicia, Egypt, and Babylonia.

Source of the translation: K. S. Guthrie, Iamblichus: The Life of Pythagoras (Platonist Press: Alpin, NJ, 1919), public domain, with adaptations by Harland.

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[Pythagoras’ lifestyle]

(3) Pythagoras had benefited by the instruction of Thales in many respects, but his greatest lesson had been to learn the value of saving time, which led him to abstain entirely from wine and animal food, avoiding greediness, confining himself to nutriments of easy preparation and digestion. As a result, his sleep was short, his soul pure and vigilant, and the general health of his body was invariable.

[Phoenician wise men]

Enjoying such advantages, therefore, he sailed to Sidon, which he knew to be his native country, and because it was on his way to Egypt. In Phoenicia he conversed with the prophets who were the descendants of Mochos the physiologist, and with many others, as well as with the local hierophants [revealers of sacred things]. He was also initiated into all the mysteries of Byblos and Tyre, and in the sacred functions performed in many parts of Syria. He was led to all this not from any desire for superstition as might easily be supposed, but rather from a desire of and love for contemplation, and from an anxiety about not missing anything about the mysteries of the deities which deserved to be learned.

[Trip to Egypt]

After gaining all he could from the Phoenician mysteries, he found that they had originated from the sacred rites of Egypt, forming as it were an Egyptian colony. This led him to hope that in Egypt itself he might find monuments of erudition still more genuine, beautiful, and sacred. Therefore following the advice of his teacher Thales, he left, as soon as possible, through the agency of some Egyptian sailors, who very opportunely happened to land on the Phoenician coast under Mount Carmel, in the temple on the peak of which Pythagoras for the most part dwelt in solitude. He was gladly received by the sailors who intended to make a great profit by selling him into slavery. But they changed their mind in his favour during the voyage, when they perceived the chastened venerability of the mode of life he had undertaken. They began to reflect that there was something supernatural in the youth’s modesty, and in the manner in which he had unexpectedly appeared to them on their landing. For he leisurely descended from the summit of Mount Carmel (which they know to be more sacred than other mountains and quite inaccessible to the vulgar) without looking back and he avoided any delay from precipices or difficult rocks. When he came to the boat, he said nothing more than, “Are you bound for Egypt?” Furthermore, on their answering affirmatively, he had got aboard and, during the whole trip, he had sat silent where he would be least likely to inconvenience them at their tasks. For two nights and three days Pythagoras had remained in the same unmoved position, without food, drink, or sleep, except that, unnoticed by the sailors, he might have dozed while sitting upright. Moreover, the sailors considered that, contrary to their expectations, their voyage had proceeded without interruptions, as if some deity had been on board. From all these circumstances they concluded that a deity had passed over with them from Syria into Egypt. Addressing Pythagoras and each other with a gentleness and propriety that was unusual, they completed the remainder of their voyage through a calm sea, and at length happily landed on the Egyptian coast. Reverently the sailors here assisted him to disembark. After they had seen him safe onto a firm beach, they set up a temporary altar in front of him, heaped on it the now abundant fruits of trees, as if these were the first-fruits of their freight, presented them to him and departed hastily to their destination. Pythagoras, however, whose body had become emaciated through the severity of so long a fast, did not refuse the sailors’ help in landing, and as soon as they had left ate as much of the fruit as was needed to restore his physical vigor. Then he went inland, in entire safety preserving his calm tranquility and modesty.

[Egyptian wise priests and prophets and Babylonian Magians]

(4) Here in Egypt he frequented all the temples with the greatest diligence, and most studious research, during which time he won the esteem and admiration of all the priests and prophets with whom he associated. Having most carefully familiarized himself with every detail, he did not, nevertheless, neglect any contemporary celebrity, whether sage renowned for wisdom, or peculiarly performed mystery. He did not fail to visit any place where he thought he might discover something worth-while. That is how he visited all of the Egyptian priests, acquiring all the wisdom each possessed. He thus passed twenty-two years in the sanctuaries of temples, studying astronomy and geometry, and being initiated in no casual or superficial manner in all the mysteries of the deities.

At length, however, he was taken captive by the soldiers of Cambyses, and carried off to Babylon. Here he was overjoyed to associate with the Magians (magoi), who instructed him in their venerable knowledge, and in the most perfect worship of deities. Through their assistance, likewise, he studied and completed arithmetic, music, and all the other sciences. After twelve years, about the fifty-sixth year of his age, he returned to Samos.

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