Phoenician, Egyptian and Babylonian wisdom: Porphyry of Tyre on Pythagoras (third century CE)

Author: Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras 6-9 (link to full translation)

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

Source of the translation: Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie, Pythagorean Source Book and Library (Grand Rapid, MI: Phanes Press, 1987 [1920 original]), public domain, with adaptations.

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[Pythagoras instructed by Egyptian, Chaldean and Phoenician wise men]

(6) Concerning his teaching, it is said that he learned the mathematical sciences from the Egyptians, Chaldeans and Phoenicians. For since antiquity, the Egyptians excelled in geometry, the Phoenicians in numbers and proportions, and the Chaldeans in astronomy and astrology. He received and learned other secrets concerning rites and worship of the gods and concerning the course of life from the Magians. (7) These accomplishments are generally known, but the rest are less noticed. Moreover, Eudoxos, in the second book of his Description of the Earth, writes that Pythagoras used the greatest purity and was shocked at all bloodshed and killing. Eudoxos writes that Pythagoras not only abstained from animal food, but never in any way approached butchers or hunters.

In his book on illustrious Virtuous Men, Antiphon praises his perseverance while he was in Egypt, saying, “Pythagoras, desiring to become acquainted with the institutions of Egyptian priests and diligently endeavoring to participate in them, requested the tyrant Polykrates [of Samos] to write to his friend and former host Amasis, the king of Egypt, to request that he be trained. Coming to Amasis, he received letters to the priests of Heliopolis, who sent him on to the priests of Memphis, on the pretense that they were the more ancient. On the same pretense, he was sent on from Memphis to Diospolis. (8) From fear of the king, the latter priests dared not make excuses. Thinking that he would give up his aim as a result of great difficulties, they required very hard precepts entirely different from the the Greek way of life. These he performed so readily that he won their admiration, and they permitted him to sacrifice to the gods, and to acquaint himself with all their knowledge, a favour never granted to a foreigner before this.”

(9) Returning to Ionia, he opened a school in his own country, a school which is even now called Pythagoras’s Semicircles, in which the Samians meet to deliberate about matters of common interest. . .

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