The Schools of Pythagoras - Pt. II

Masonic Articles and Essays

The Schools of Pythagoras - Pt. II

W. J. Colville

Date Published: 5/1/2024                        

In the second half of Colville's disquisition of the Pythagoprean mysteries we learn the importance of the gymnasium and the degree system by which the Mysteries were revealed to the Initiate. 

Before we can reasonably hope to make any real progress in spiritual or ethical directions we must lay a firm foundation in physical and mental culture. The gymnasium, according to Pythagorean philosophy, is a valuable vestibule to the inner temple in which profound instruction is given pertaining to mind and spirit; but as during a soul's terrestrial embodiment it needs to operate through a physical instrument, the part of reason is to provide as perfect an instrument as possible, and keep that vehicle in excellent working order. In the system of Pythagoras there is consistently maintained, from first to last, the idea of perfect equilibrium. Here is to be found neither voluptuous indulgence nor harsh asceticism. The body is not treated as though it were the foe of the spirit, but it is never allowed to usurp any throne of mastery.

In this matchless school of ancient Greece every principle of virtue and nobility was inculcated and exemplified which the foremost educators of to-day are endeavoring to impress upon the gradually awakening consciousness of colleges and churches, and it must prove somewhat humiliating to the haughty heads of Christian seats of learning to find that a "Pagan" philosopher, several centuries before the Christian era, had carried out successfully a scheme of discipline which excluded all objectionable features, such as stupid, and often brutal, wrestling while it afforded vigorous young athletes ample opportunity and encouragement to cultivate their muscles to the utmost within the reasonable bounds of healthy exercise and good behavior. On the question of friendly feelings between fellow students, Pythagoras took uncomprimising ground. True friendship can never exist in company with brutality, nor can real courage be developed by cultivating envy or catering to unrighteous pride. Hatred makes us inferior to those we hate, precisely as terror puts us in the power of what we dread. Heroes are developed in schools where honest mutual esteem is cultivated to the utmost, and should it ever be necessary for a hero to fight he could do so with great courage and ability, but without a shade of fury. The Pythagorean method was both simple and conclusive. Fresh arrivals at the college were encouraged to express their own views freely among their new acquaintances, and as no restriction was placed upon the expression of their sentiments, they soon registered themselves as suitable or unsuitable for admission into the classes.

If any new applicant proved himself intelligently appreciative of the high standard in vogue among the Initiates, he was cordially welcomed; but if he evinced a preference for the cruder standard of the popular gymnasia of the towns, he properly drifted thither. While a new candidate was expressing his sentiments without restraint, the teachers were taking note of all he said, and it never took them long to ascertain whether he showed fitness for admission or otherwise. Pythagoras himself would often appear unexpectedly in the presence of the stranger, and study his words and gestures, in estimating which he was never at fault; he paid particular attention to gait and laughter, which are always faithful indexes of character; he had also made so profound a study of the human face that he read dispositions at a glance. Pythagoras introduced some of the Egyptian tests into his system, but the severer among these he wisely modified. After a few months of preliminary training, the candidate was submitted to an ordeal intended to test his bravery and prove his spirit.

One of these tests consisted in spending a night in a cave which had the reputation of being haunted with mysterious elementals who appeared to the aspirant in gruesome shapes. If his courage withstood this ordeal, he was accounted worthy to pass on to higher initiations, but if he shrank in terror from this external test he was considered too irresolute to be eligible for advancement. Being accepted for the preliminary degree, it was usually not long before the candidate was put through moral trials accompanied by severe tests of intellectual character.  Among these the ready solution of intricate mathematical problems held prominent place. For example, a teacher would call upon a student without warning to explain the meaning of a triangle within a circle, or to answer such a question as, Why is the dodecahedron, contained within a sphere, the symbol of the universe? When passing these tests, the student was required to spend twelve consecutive hours in his cell, during which time he might partake of bread and water, but no other food was allowed him. To young men of sybaritic temperament, such discipline might seem excessively severe, but to those of frugal tastes and sincerely bent on study, this was only healthy mental exercise. Lichen these twelve hours were ended the youth was taken into a company of assembled novices, who were allowed to ridicule him to test his metal; if he withstood all jibes and sneers complacently, he was regarded by the teachers as truly an embryonic philosopher, but if he became angry and resentful, Pythagoras would inform him that such lack of self-control demonstrated ineligibility for advancement.

It was only in extreme cases of misconduct, how ever, that this thoroughly equitable master expelled students from his school, and when he did so he always addressed them calmly and graciously, explaining to them that it could be of no use to them to attempt to continue their studies when they were quite out of harmony with the requirements and discipline of the college. These tests of temper proved conclusively the degree of self-control already attained by the young men who wished to become renowned in future as philosophers. Rejected candidates would sometimes inveigh bitterly against the college and its head; among these was the fanatical Cylon, who never forgave the college for his dismissal, and finally excited the populace to bring about its downfall. Those who bore everything with firmness were welcomed into the novitiate and received enthusiastic congratulations from their new companions.

The First Degree was called Preparation. This lasted from two to five years. Novices were called Listeners; during lessons they were subject to the rule of complete silence. They were not permitted to offer objections or to enter into discussions, for they must absorb the teaching before they could be prepared to discuss it intelligently. The Second Degree was called Purification. During this process of study the novice was welcomed into the house of Pythagoras and numbered among his disciples; real initiation now began. A rational exposition of occult doctrine was now given, which consisted especially in a study of the Science of Numbers, the esoteric meaning of which was concealed from the people at large, and only communicated to students who had proven their worth. A great distinction was made between sacred and secular mathematics; the latter alone are known to European savants, but the knowledge of the former has always been carefully preserved in the East.

The number One necessarily is all-including, as perfect white contains all colors; but as we cannot conceive of the Absolute Unmanifest with our finite intellects, all expressions of Divinity must be dual, consequently the Dyad reveals the Monad. Here we find another link between the Pythagorean and the Jewish conception of Divinity, as set forth in the opening chapters of the Pentateuch. Man and Woman hold equal rank in all ancient philosophies, but the feminine is always regarded as interior, while the masculine is external; therefore it often happens that short-sighted or unreflecting students imagine that the masculine is more sacred than the feminine, according to the teaching of ancient and Oriental philosophies. During the traiping of the Initiate in the Second Degree, the student was instructed in a doctrine very similar to much of the teaching with which we are familiar through the epistles of S. Paul, who was undoubtedly familiar with Greek philosophy as well as with Hebrew and Roman law. In the scheme of Pythagoras the number 7 (compoundof square and triangle) signifies the union of Man and Divinity. It is the figure of all great Initiates, who understand that there are 7 degrees in involution and evolution. The number 10 represented completeness; it is called the perfect number in the highest sense, for it represents all principles of divinity evolved and reunited in a new unity.

We have all heard of the 9 Muses personifying the sciences, grouped 3 by 3, presiding over the triple ternary evolved in 9 worlds, which together with Hestia, Guardian of the Primordial Fire, constitute the sacred Decad.

The Third Degree was called Perfection, as among the Essenes. In this degree psychology and cosmogony were the leading studies. While the lessons in the earlier degrees were given in daylight, often in the full blaze of the outdoor sun, these deeper teachings were usually given during the night season in the open air by the seaside, or sometimes in the crypts of the temple which were gently illuminated by lamps of naphtha. It was at these times that clairvoyance asserted itself, and the inner faculties of the students began to enable them to personally verify by their own experience that which the teachers taught. It cannot be doubted by any who have studied deeply the records of ancient esoteric teaching that the old astronomical glyph, which everywhere presents itself, was chiefly a veil thrown over the secret teaching, which related far more to the evolution of the human soul than to the movements of the literal planets. Ancient astrology was something very different from the misguided substitute with which in these days we are often made disagreeably familiar. In sacred astrology there are no "malific" planets or "evil" aspects, though it is very clearly taught that one star does indeed differ greatly from another; but as members of one family may be persons of widely different temperament, occupation and appearance, and yet all be good and useful, so in a family of worlds like our solar system the different planets may be spoken of as brothers and sisters, the sun being the parent of them all.

We can only understand the famous saying quoted by present-day astrologers of the better type, "The wise man rules his stars, the fool obeys them," when we contemplate the significance of the personal pronoun in the sentence, for no man, however wise, can regulate the motions of the stars, but we can learn to regulate their correspondences within his own nature. Pythagorean astrology is founded upon the acknowledgment of universally diffused intelligence, which is now coming to be largely recognized by Western as well as Eastern philosophers, and indeed the whole scientific world of to-day is coming very near to an acceptance of that ancient esoteric teaching which alone accounts intelligently for the behavior of all forms of existence observable under the microscope. The celestial history of Psyche formed the climax of the instruction given by Pythagoras to his disciples. What is the human soul ? he asked. "A portion of the mighty soul of the world, a spark of Divine Spirit, an immortal Monad. Still, through its possible future opens out into the    unfathomable splendors of Divine consciousness, its mysterious dawn dates back to the origin of organized matter. To become what it is in present-day humanity, it must have passed through all the reigns of nature, the whole scale of beings gradually developing through a series of innumerable existences. The spirit which fashions the worlds and condenses cosmic matter into enormous masses manifests itself with varying intensity and an ever greater concentration in the successive reigns of nature.

A blind and confused force in the mineral, individualized in the plant, polarized in the sensation-and instincts of animals, it stretches towards the conscious monad in this slow elaboration; and the elementary monad is visible in the most inferior of animals.

The animal and spiritual element accordingly exists in every kingdom, though only in infinitesimal quantities in the lower kingdoms. The souls which exist in the state of germs in the lower kingdoms stay there without moving away for immense periods of time, and it is only after great cosmic revolutions that, in changing planets, they pass to a higher reign. All they can do during a planet's period of life is to mount a few degrees. Where does the Monad begin? As well ask at what hour a nebula was formed or a sun shone for the first time.

Anyhow, what constitutes the essence of any man must have evolved for millions of years through a chain of lower planets and kingdoms, keeping through all these existences an individual principle which follows it everywhere. This obscure but indestructible individuality constitutes the Divine seal of the Monad in which God wills to manifest Himself through consciousness.

The higher one ascends in the series of organisms, the more the Monad develops the principles latent in it. Polarized force becomes capable of sensation capacity of sensation becomes instinct, and instinct becomes intelligence. In proportion as the flickering flame of consciousness is lit, this soul becomes more independent of the body, more capable of existing freely. The fluid, non-polarized soul of minerals and vegetables is bound to the elements of earth. That of animals, strongly attracted by terrestrial fire, stays there for some time after living in the body, and then returns to the surface of the globe to reincarnate in its species without ever having the possibility of leaving the lower layers of the air. These are peopled with elementals or animal souls which play their part in atmospheric life and have a great occult influence over man. The human soul alone comes from the sky and returns there after death. At what period of its long cosmic existence has the elementary become the human soul ? Through what incandescent crucible, what ethereal flame has it passed? The transformation has been possible in an interplanetary period only by the meeting of human souls already fully formed which have developed in the elementary soul, its spiritual principle, and have impressed their Divine prototype like a seal of fire in its plastic substance." (Quoted from J. Rothwell's Translation.) According to the esoteric traditions of India and Egypt, we began our human existence on other planets where matter is far less dense than here. Human bodies were then almost vaporous, and it was quite easy for the soul to accomplish incarnation. Here we note a close resemblance between the teaching of Pythagoras and that profound Oriental doctrine which we have summarized in the section of this volume dealing especially with Hindu doctrine and tradition.

We must refer our readers to the fine work of Edouard Schure, from which we have already quoted freely, for further dissertation on this exhaustless theme, and pass on to a mere mention of the teaching of the Fourth Degree, called Epiphany, meaning vision from above. The initiation of intelligence must be followed by that of will, the most difficult of all. The disciple must become deeply imbued with truth in his inmost being, and must put the high teachings into practice in daily life. To attain this ideal, one must unite three kinds of perfection, called respectively realization of truth in intellect; virtue in soul; purity in body. The astral body participates in all the acts of the physical; it does indeed give effect to them. A doctrine of regeneration, which Pythagoras expounded very clearly, teaches how a second nature must replace the first, and finally the intellect must reach wisdom beyond mere knowledge till it can distinguish good from evil in every department of existence, and behold a revelation of God in the smallest of creatures, as well as in universal immensities.

On reaching this altitude, man becomes an adept, and enters into conscious possession of new faculties and powers; the inner senses of the soul expand and the physical senses are dominated by radiant will. Bodily magnetism, penetrated by the potency of the astral soul, electrified by will, acquires force apparently miraculous. Among the accepted Initiates, many healed the sick by their simple presence, though others resorted to the laying on of hands. Clairvoyance, like that of Apollonius of Tyana in one age and of Swedenborg in another, was frequently exhibited; indeed, all the wonders recorded of saints and seers throughout the literature of the ages seem to have been demonstrated in the school of this mighty master whose name to-day is being pronounced with ever increasing reverence. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity, so much misunderstood, because so deeply veiled in mystery, was rendered far more intelligible by Pythagoras six hundred years before the beginning of the Christian era than by those controversial Fathers of the Church who rejected the Divine Feminine, and therefore made quite unintelligible the original doctrine of the procession of the Logos. Father, Mother and Child we can understand; but Father, Son and Holy Spirit is an unintelligible phrase until we know that the Holy Spirit originally stood for the Divine Feminine. The Pythagorean Trinity is described as Spirit, Soul, and Heart of the Living Universe. The life of Pythagoras was extremely beautiful, and in the truest sense both spiritual and natural.

When sixty years of age he married one of his pupils, a maiden of great beauty and singular intelligence. This noble woman, Theano, entered so thoroughly into her husband's thought and life that after he had passed from earth she became the centre of the Pythagorean Order.

Two sons and one daughter were the result of this union, and the whole family offered a high model for all other families to follow. On all political questions Pythagoras was as highly enlightened as in the transcendent domain of directly spiritual philosophy, for he was a reformer in the widest and highest acceptance of the term. The system of government which he advocated united the best elements of democracy and aristocracy, and it will be well indeed if those who are wrestling with modern legislative problems investigate more deeply the wise   teachings of those true Initiates of old, who, while loving the whole people devotedly, and desiring in every way to promote the common interest, wisely realized that only the most intelligent and in every way enlightened among the people were competent to represent the multitudes as governors or legislators.

Cylon, the inveterate persecutor of the Pythagorean school, from which he had been expelled, was a fair sample of the unscrupulous modern demagogue. Tradition asserts that one evening, when forty of the principal members of the Order had assembled, this outrageous man, who was then a tribune, surrounded the house with an enraged crowd and set fire to the buildings. Thirty-eight of the disciples, together with Pythagoras himself, were either burned to death or massacred by their assailants, but the Order did not die; it was only dispersed, and continued for two hundred and fifty years to exert a benign, regenerating influence wherever it was established. Many of the predictions of Pythagoras were literally fulfilled, and this fact in itself inclined many to investigate the sublime doctrines of an Order which had had for its founder a sage and seer of such wonderful graces and lucidity. Truly has it been said that Pythagoras was an Adept and Initiate of the highest type; he enjoyed a direct spiritual vision, and had found the key to the occult sciences and to the spiritual world. He drew supplies of  knowledge from the primal fount of truth, and united with a wondrous intellect a high moral nature, which commanded the respect and love of all capable of appreciating real nobility. The philosophic edifice he reared was never destroyed. Plato took from Pythagoras his entire system of metaphysics. The closing words of Edouard Schure's magnificent french treatise may be translated thus: "The school of Alexandria occupied the upper stories of the edifice, while modern science has possessed itself of the ground floor and strengthened its foundations. Many philosophical schools and mystical or religious sects have dwelt within its numerous chambers. No philosophy, however, has yet embraced it in its harmonious entirety."

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