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Charles R. Gibson

Before the Time of Christ

The first man to adopt the title of Philosopher was an illustrious Greek named Pythagoras, who lived about six hundred years before Christ. The title of Philosopher, which means "Lover of Wisdom," seems more modest than the earlier title of "wise men" which had been adopted by the sages.

We may look upon Pythagoras as the first man to consider things in a really scientific spirit. Of course, there were the "seven wise men" who lived before Pythagoras, but we know very little about them. The one whose name is best known is Thales, but he left no writings. All we know of him is through quotations of his sayings made by later Greek writers; but what concerns us at present is that we know absolutely nothing of his life.

We know many interesting facts about Pythagoras, but as neither he nor his disciples have left any record concerning their own lives, we have to depend upon the writings of others who lived many centuries later. I mention this fact because we know how stories are apt to grow if they are handed on from one to another without being definitely recorded. It may be unconsciously that the imagination adds little details, or that some one makes a suggestion which is later on accepted as an actual fact. Then some of the biographers of Pythagoras have been very careless. I was amused to find one biographer, who wrote in 1707 a most interesting account of the work of Pythagoras, stating that this illustrious philosopher met no less a personage than Moses when in Egypt. The mistake is very apparent, as Moses lived one thousand years before Pythagoras. The contemporaries of Pythagoras would be Daniel and Ezekiel, but there is no record of his having met these prophets.

Although there are very many stories concerning Pythagoras that we are bound to treat as mere fables, the main facts concerning his life are doubtless known. But why should we, in these modern times, be interested in this Greek Philosopher who lived about two thousand five hundred years ago? It is surely of general interest that this far-distant sage declared that this Earth was not the centre of the universe, around which all the other heavenly bodies danced attendance, but that our world is travelling round and round the Sun.

Even now it is difficult to realise that we are on the surface of a great planet flying through space with a speed a thousand times greater than that of an express train. It is not quite so difficult to realise the daily turning round of the Earth, although when we watch the Sun rise in the East, mount the sky, and set in the West, we feel that we cannot blame the Ancients for believing that the Sun was travelling around the Earth.

Of the men who set the Earth in motion, there is no doubt that the name of Galileo stands out most prominently. We shall see in a later chapter the very important part which he played, but here we have a man living two thousand years before Galileo, and teaching the same great truth, There seems little doubt that this theory of Pythagoras was accepted not only by his immediate disciples, but by the great line of astronomers who followed in several succeeding centuries.

One of the pupils of Pythagoras taught that the Earth was spinning round upon her own axis, making one revolution each day. It does seem strange that for century after century men should abandon these ideas, and that the revival of these old theories a few centuries ago should have caused such an uproar as we shall see later. But our present interest lies in the life of this early Greek Philosopher.


Models of the Sun and Planets
These models show the comparative sizes of the Sun and Planets. Reading from left to right we see the Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, the Earth, the Asteroids, (minor planets), Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Pythagoras was a native of the little island of Samos in the Aegean Sea (now the Archipelago). This island was a place of considerable importance in the time of Pythagoras. When a youth of about eighteen years of age, Pythagoras left his island home to go in search of further knowledge. His travels took him to Egypt, where he settled for many years. There seems to be little doubt that Pythagoras remained there about twenty-five years, and during that time he acquired a great deal of knowledge.

Some historians tell us that Pythagoras believed in the transmigration of souls; that he believed he himself had distinct recollections of having existed previously in other forms. There is a story told of how on one occasion when he saw a dog beaten, and hearing him howl, he bade the striker desist, saying, "It is the soul of a friend of mine, whom I recognise by his voice."

Racier, writing more than two hundred years ago, refers to a number of passages in the works of Pythagoras which seem to discredit his supposed belief in the transmigration of souls, and Dacier suggests that it was some of the later Pythagoreans who adopted this creed in order to assist them in their reformation of the people. However, one need not be very much surprised if Pythagoras himself did hold such views in those far-off pre-Christian days. Do we not see ideas equally ridiculous being supported by intelligent people to-day, and after all these ages of enlightenment?

We do not know what creed Pythagoras taught, for the religious part of his teaching was not made public, but it is evident that the teaching was of high moral tone, and there are many references which show that his disciples were devoted to their master and to one another. I give one story, just as it was translated by Dacier in his old book:—

"A Pythagorean went from home on a long journey, and falling sick in an Inn, spent all that he had. His Disease growing more stubborn and dangerous, his Landlord, who by good luck was charitably inclined, continued to take the same Care of him as when his money lasted, and furnished all the Expellee out of his own pocket. The sick Man grew worse and worse, and being very sorry not to have wherewith to satisfy his Benefactor, he asked him Pen, Ink and Paper, writes his Story in a few Words, puts at the bottom of it a Symbol of Pythagoras, to show he was a Pythagorean, and recommends to his Host to post up that Paper in some public Place as soon as he had buried him. He dies the next day, and when he was laid in the ground, the Landlord, who expected no great matters from the bill, posted it up nevertheless at the Gate of a Temple. Some Months passed away, and nothing came of it. At length a Disciple of Pythagoras passing that way, read the Paper, sees by the Symbol 'twas written by one of the Fraternity, goes immediately to the Landlord, reimburses him all his expences, and gives him a reward besides for his civility."

These Symbols of Pythagoras were sentences which meant more than appeared on the surface. One might describe them as disguised proverbs. Here are a few examples, with their hidden meanings:—

(1) "Eat not fish whose tails are black." (Frequent not the company of infamous men, who have had their reputations blackened by ill actions.)

(2) "Stir not up the Fire with a Sword." (We ought not to inflame persons who are already at odds.)

(3) "Go not in the Public Way." (We ought not to follow the opinions of the people, but the counsels of the wise.)

(4) "Sow Mallows, but never eat them." (Pardon all things in others, but nothing in yourself.)

In these days, when the question of Women Suffrage is in evidence, it is interesting to note that Pythagoras was the first of the sages to emphasise the importance of women, and to admit them to his public lectures. Several women became philosophers in the time of Pythagoras. Among these was his own wife, and possibly her influence may have assisted the novel movement. So we see that the modern problem of "Women's Rights" was existent two thousand five hundred years ago.

Pythagoras must have been a very strong disciplinarian. It is stated that his pupils had to serve an apprenticeship of five years' silence, during which time they were "only to hear, without daring to start the least question, or propose the least doubt." I quote these instructions because some writers seem to suppose that the five years were solitary confinement. This mistaken idea may have arisen through a wrong translation. But it is quite evident that during this period of silence the pupils received constant instruction, for even when the period was reduced in some cases to two years, the pupils were said to be "initiated in the Sciences."

The feeling of brotherhood among this sect was emphasised by their having one common purse. No matter how large a fortune any member might have, it had to be thrown in along with the others. This common treasury was looked after by a number of chosen men called "Economists." Their business capacity must have been good, for if any member desired to retire he received more than his original contribution. If a member retired through lack of interest, a tombstone was erected to his memory, for he was counted as good as dead, having lost a desire for wisdom.

The daily life of the students began with music in the morning. Pythagoras was a great believer in the good influence of music. Then Pythagoras led them abroad to walk a while in some delightful places. After that they spent a quiet time in the Temple. When they came from the Temple "they used a little Exercise for the sake of their Health, and then din'd on a little Bread and Honey, without Wine; when Dinner was over they minded the Publick." Later they attended Lectures, then more plain food, and so on.

One of the earlier biographers states that Pythagoras believed "the Air was full of the Spirits he called Demons and Heroes, whom he regarded as the Ministers of the Supreme God; it was these Spirits or Genii that sent to Men, nay even to Animals, their Dreams, their Diseases,.and their Health." We can hardly suggest that this was a prophecy of the modern discovery of Microbes, although these much-maligned members of society were existent, of course, in those far-off days.

There is no very clear record of the fate of Pythagoras, but there is no doubt that all the Pythagorean schools were willfully destroyed by fire, and that many of his followers perished in the flames. Some say that Pythagoras himself was burned to death in this way, but this seems to be mere conjecture. Most historians believe these acts to have been brought about by the Pythagoreans meddling in political affairs; but Dacier (1707) makes no mention of political trouble. He tells of a young man, Cylon, who belonged to a rich and proud family, having applied to Pythagoras to be received as a disciple, and being refused, the young man determined on revenge. He spread such evil reports that there was a general rising against the Pythagoreans throughout the country, the movement ending in the burning of the schools by the mob. Dacier states also that Pythagoras was starved to death at the age of between eighty and ninety.

The Pythagorean schools did not disappear with their master. Some of these schools of learning were in existence at the time of Alexander the Great, nearly three centuries after the time of Pythagoras.

There was another Greek philosopher who lived shortly after Pythagoras, and whose name—Anaxagoras—is not well known, but who ought to be of interest to us. This early Scientist declared that all matter existed originally in the condition of atoms, and that order was produced out of this chaos of minute atoms by the influence and operation of an Eternal Intelligence. Remember that this Philosopher lived before the time of Christ!

It is of interest, also, in these days of modern Science to find that Anaxagoras declared that all known substances were simply aggregations of these atoms, and, moreover, that every substance was composed of inconceivably minute particles of the same material. This statement is of special interest because it is so similar to our latest discovery of electrons, or inconceivably minute particles of negative electricity, which constitute the atoms when grouped together in miniature solar systems, all the variety of atoms being merely different aggregations of identical electrons, with an equivalent of positive electricity.

Anaxagoras belonged to a very wealthy family, but he did not trouble about the fortune which could have been his; he preferred seeking knowledge. When he was still a young man he went to Athens, and became a great teacher. It is interesting to know that the great Socrates was one of his pupils in Athens, although the name of Socrates will not be included in our list of Heroes, for he did not believe in Science.

Anaxagoras was imprisoned for stating that the, Sun was a large ball of fire, and that it might be perhaps as big as Greece. But it is clear that Anaxagoras did not think of a ball of incandescent gas as we do now. He pictured the heavens as a solid vault, while the stars were composed of burning stones thrown up by the Earth. It was when those stones reached the upper regions of the heavens that they were made to burn by their contact with the surrounding ether.

It was because the beliefs of Anaxagoras clashed with the religious ideas of his time that he was imprisoned. He "contravened the dogmas of religion," for Apollo, the favourite god, was connected with the Sun. However, it is evident that Anaxagoras was held in high esteem. On his deathbed he was asked by the Magistrates of the town what funeral honours he desired. The old man's reply was, "Give the boys a holiday," and for several centuries this annual holiday was held in the schools.

The next great name that interests us is that of Aristotle, whose influence we shall find extending through the twenty centuries separating him from Galileo. Aristotle was the founder of most of the Sciences. But what do we know about the man himself? We are fortunate in having a better biography than in the case of Pythagoras, whose case, again, is even better than that of most Greek philosophers; indeed, in many cases their biographies are entire blanks.

Aristotle was born, in the year 384 B.C., in a Greek colony on the frontier of Macedonia, where his ancestors had lived for many generations. His father was physician to Amyntas II, King of Macedonia, and the boy Aristotle became intimate with the King's son Philip. But Aristotle's father died when our hero was seventeen years of age. To most young men of that age there would be danger in inheriting a large fortune. It is quite evident that Aristotle was not ruined by his wealth, although some critics of modern times have tried to add scandal to his great name.

Aristotle, the wealthy youth, went to Athens, the brain and heart of Greece, his chief object being to enter the school of Plato, who was by far the most famous figure of that day. It seems strange to us, who can consult daily papers as to the movements of great personages, to find that Aristotle, on arriving at Athens, discovered that Plato was absent. Aristotle had to wait three years for Plato's return. Many young men would have found this a grand excuse for passing the time in amusement. But Aristotle spent his time in hunting for useful books and making an earnest study of them. The obtaining of books in those days was something very different from our experience. Aristotle had to pay as much as seven hundred pounds for the works of one author.

There was one curious figure in Athens in the time of Aristotle, and it may be of interest to remark upon this eccentric character in passing. He was Diogenes the Cynic, who dressed himself in the coarsest wear, lived in the plainest fashion, and ultimately took up his residence in a tub. He was the son of a banker who was convicted of debasing coin. Diogenes was supposed to be implicated in the fraud, and he fled to Athens. Reduced from affluence to poverty, he said that "the magnificence of poverty attracted him." He told the people that wealth prompted him to vice, and that poverty would aid him to virtue. Of course, he was poor by necessity, but being poor he made himself ostentatiously poor.

The position which Diogenes held may be realised in the following incident. While on a visit to Greece Alexander the Great was evidently curious to see this eccentric character. The King accosted Diogenes in his tub. "I am Alexander," said the King. "I am Di genes," said the Cynic. "Can I do anything to serve you?" said the King. "Yes! Stand out from between me and the Sun," said the Cynic; upon which the King turned away, saying, "If I were not Alexander I would be Diogenes."

It will be understood that these few remarks about Diogenes do not claim for him the title of a hero of Science; he is merely of interest to us here because of his living in Athens at the same time as Aristotle. Another noted figure in Athens at that time would be the great orator Demosthenes, who, it will be remembered, overcame a bad stammer in his speech by practising with pebbles in his mouth. There were many Philosophers in Athens in Aristotle's time, but their names are not so familiar to the general reader.

For seventeen years Aristotle remained with Plato, and during that time the pupil became master in many branches of knowledge. Aristotle's independence of mind led him into a different system from that of Plato, so that at Plato's death he was not chosen as his successor. Having been twenty years in Athens, Aristotle left when Plato died, and took up his abode in Asia Minor with Hermias, an enlightened prince. This man's life had been somewhat romantic. He had begun life as a slave, then, rising to be vizier, he ultimately became ruler himself. He, too, had been a pupil of Plato at Athens. Aristotle married a niece of Hermias. This prince, not long afterwards, met a cruel death at the hands of a Greek officer, who was in the service of the Persians. Aristotle and his young wife went to Mytilene, then the cradle of literature. But his wife died while there.

Aristotle's old playmate Philip had now become King of Macedonia, and having a son Alexander, then about fourteen years of age, he asked Aristotle to become tutor to the boy. And so we find Aristotle acting as private tutor to Alexander the Great. Aristotle remained in this post until the assassination of his friend the King brought Alexander to the throne.

Aristotle then returned to Athens. He is said to have received from Alexander the Great as much as two hundred thousand pounds to spend in his researches, but no doubt the sum stated is an exaggeration. Aristotle opened a school, which became a rival of that of his old master Plato. The disciples of Aristotle became known as "Peripatetic Philosophers." It is very often stated that this title peripatetic was derived from the fact that Aristotle walked to and fro while lecturing. But this was by no means an uncommon custom, as the schools were held out of doors in shady groves. The garden or "gymnasium" in which Aristotle taught was named "Peripatos," signifying covered walks, and there is not the least doubt that it was this name of the school which gave to his disciples the title of peripatetic. In similar fashion we find that Plato lectured in a grove, belonging to one Academies, and therefore named Academia, from which we have our name Academy.

For thirteen years Aristotle lectured in his school, and it was probably during this time that he did most of his writing, having the assistance of his pupils. His stay in Athens was brought to an abrupt end through the unexpected death of Alexander the Great at the early age of thirty-two. The feeling in Athens was against Macedonia, and as Aristotle was a well-known friend of the King of Macedonia, his position was a difficult one. He was accused of blasphemy, evidently on the ridiculous complaint that he had raised statues to the memory of his friend Hermias and to his young wife. Aristotle very wisely got out of Athens before the crowd passed sentence of death upon him, but he did not live long in his retirement, passing away at the age of sixty-two.

The great German Philosopher Hegel has said of Aristotle: "He penetrated the whole universe of things and to him the greater number of the philosophical sciences owe their origin."