Came across this wonderful quote by Iamblichus on the doctrines of Pythagoras, explaining the use of symbols, etc., by the great philosophers.

“The mode however of teaching through symbols, was considered by Pythagoras as most necessary. For this form of erudition was cultivated by nearly all the Greeks, as being most ancient. But it was transcendently honored by the Egyptians, and adopted by them in the most diversified manner. Conformably to this, therefore, it will be found, that great attention was paid to it by Pythagoras, if any one clearly unfolds the significations and arcane conceptions of the Pythagoric symbols, and thus develops the great rectitude and truth they contain, and liberates them from their enigmatic form. For they are adapted according to a simple and uniform doctrine, to the great geniuses of these philosophers, and deify in a manner which surpasses human conception. For those who came from this school ... all these adopted this mode of teaching, in their discourses with each other, and in their commentaries and annotations. Their writings also, and all the books which they published, were not composed by them in a popular and vulgar diction, and in a manner usual with all other writers, so as to be immediately understood, but in such a way as not to be easily apprehended by those that read them. For they adopted that taciturnity which was instituted by Pythagoras as a law, in concealing after an arcane mode, divine mysteries from the uninitiated, and obscuring their writings and conferences with each other. Hence he who selecting these symbols does not unfold their meaning by an apposite exposition, will cause those who may happen to meet with them to consider them as ridiculous and inane, and as full of nugacity and garrulity. When, however, they are unfolded in a way conformable to these symbols, and become obvious and clear even to the multitude, instead of being obscure and dark, then they will be found to be analogous to prophetic sayings. They will then also exhibit an admirable meaning, and will produce a divine afflatus in those who unite intellect with erudition.”—Iamblichus, on the Life of Pythagoras, or Pythagorean Life

Views: 92

 Reply to This

Upload Files

Follow – Email me when people reply

Replies to This Discussion


Thanks Nicholas. Yes, following this statement in the Life of Pythagoras, Iamblichus lists a few examples, and then, in the following chapters there's a good deal of "symbolism" in the explanation of Pythagoras's use of music. Fascinating subjects.


Iamby's stock has been on the rise recently - a good sign...


I've also noticed a very recent upsurge in scholarship on Pythagoras. Check out some of the links we've added here:

Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism, by Walter Burkert (1972)

Pythagoras and the Early Pythagoreans, by Leonid Zhmud (2012)

Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans: A Brief History, by Charles H. Kahn (2001)

Pythagoras: His Life, Teaching, and Influence, by Christoph Riedweg (2005)

Plato and Pythagoreanism, by Phillip Sidney Horky (2013)

Measuring Heaven: Pythagoras and his Influence on Thought and Art i..., Christiane Joost-Gaugier (2007)


Cool - nice to see things picking up after a rather lengthy drought - Burkert is always interesting - I like Kahn quite a bit... Fideler's Pythagorean Sourcebook is nice, as well...

Most of the few complete works that have come down to us by Iamblichus are part of his 10-volume Pythagorean encyclopedia - 3 of which have survived - the biography, the exhortation to philosophy, and a book on arithmetic.