Aulus Gellius-About Pythagorean Education
Engraving: Tome VI frontispiece of Sylvain Marechal’s ‘Les voyages de Pythagore.1799.
Today’s sharing from the Blue House of Hygeia is chapter 9 from book 1 of Aulus Gellius’s ‘The Attic Nights’ about Pythagorean Education. Loeb Edition, English translation by John C. Rolfe.
What the method and what the order of the Pythagorean training was, and the amount of time which was prescribed and accepted as the period for learning and at the same time keeping silence.
It is said that the order and method followed by Pythagoras, and afterwards by his school and his successors, in admitting and training their pupils were as follows:
At the very outset he “physiognomized” the young men who presented themselves for instruction. That word means to inquire into the character and dispositions of men by an inference drawn from their facial appearance and expression, and from the form and bearing of their whole body. Then, when he had thus examined a man and found him suitable, he at once gave orders that he should be admitted to the school and should keep silence for a fixed period of time; this was not the same for all, but differed according to his estimate of the man’s capacity for learning quickly. But the one who kept silent listened to what was said by others; he was, however, religiously forbidden to ask questions, if he had not fully understood, or to remark upon what he had heard. Now, no one kept silence for less than two years, and during the entire period of silent listening they were called ἀκουστικοί or “auditors.” But when they had learned what is of all things the most difficult, to keep quiet and listen, and had finally begun to be adepts in that silence which is called ἐχεμυθία or “continence in words,” they were then allowed to speak, to ask questions, and to write down what they had heard, and to express their own opinions. During this stage they were called μαθηματικοί or “students of science,” evidently from those branches of knowledge which they had now begun to learn and practice; for the ancient Greeks called geometry, gnomonics, music and other higher studies μαθήματα or “sciences”; but the common people apply the term mathematici to those who ought to be called by their ethnic name, Chaldaeans. Finally, equipped with this scientific training, they advanced to the investigation of the phenomena of the universe and the laws of nature, and then, and not till then, they were called φυσικοί or “natural philosophers.”
Having thus expressed himself about Pythagoras, my friend Taurus continued:
“But nowadays these fellows who turn to philosophy on a sudden with unwashed feet, not content with being wholly ‘without purpose, without learning, and without scientific training,’ even lay down the law as to how they are to be taught philosophy. One says, ‘first teach me this,’ another chimes in, “I want to learn this, I don’t want to learn that’; one is eager to begin with the Symposium of Plato because of the revel of Alcibiades, another with the Phaedrus on account of the speech of Lysias. By Jupiter!” said he, “one man actually asks to read Plato, not in order to better his life, but to deck out his diction and style, not to gain in discretion, but in prettiness.”
That is what Taurus used to say, in comparing the modern students of philosophy with the Pythagoreans of old.
But I must not omit this fact either — that all of them, as soon as they had been admitted by Pythagoras into that band of disciples, at once devoted to the common use whatever estate and property they had, and an inseparable fellowship was formed, like the old-time association which in Roman legal parlance was termed an “undivided inheritance.”