1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Neopythagoreanism

NEOPYTHAGOREANISM, a Graeco-Alexandrian school of philosophy, which became prominent in the 1st century A.D. Very little is known about the members of this school, and there has been much discussion as to whether the Pythagorean literature which was widely published at the time in Alexandria was the original work of 1st-century writers or merely reproductions of and commentaries on the older Pythagorean writings. The only well-known members of the school were Apollonius of Tyana and Moderatus of Gades. In the previous century Cicero's learned friend P. Nigidius Figulus (d. 45 B.C.) had made an attempt to revive Pythagorean doctrines, but he cannot be described as a member of the school. Further, it is necessary to distinguish from the Neopythagoreans a number of Eclectic Platonists, who, during the 1st century of our era, maintained views which had a similar tendency (e.g. Apuleius of Madaura, Plutarch of Chaeronea and, later, Numenius of Apamea).

Neopythagoreanism was the first product of an age in which abstract philosophy had begun to pall, The Stoics discovered that their “perfect man” was not to be found in the luxurious, often morbid society of the Graeco-Roman world; that something more than dialectic ethics was needed to reawaken a sense of responsibility. A degenerate society cared nothing for syllogisms grown threadbare by repetition. Neopythagoreanism was an attempt to introduce a religious element into pagan philosophy in place of what had come to be regarded as an arid formalism. The founders of the school sought to invest their doctrines with the halo of tradition by ascribing them to Pythagoras and Plato, and there is no reason to accuse them of insincerity. They went back to the later period of Plato's thought, the period when Plato endeavoured to combine his doctrine of Ideas with the Pythagorean number-theory, and identified the Good with the One, the source of the duality of the Infinite and the Measured (τὸ ἄπειρον and πέρας) with the resultant scale of realities from the One down to the objects of the material world. They emphasized the fundamental distinction between the Soul and the Body. God must be worshipped spiritually by prayer and the will to be good, not in outward action. The soul must be freed from its material surrounding, the “muddy vesture of decay,” by an ascetic habit of life. Bodily pleasures and all sensuous impulses must be abandoned as detrimental to the spiritual purity of the soul. God is the principle of good; Matter (ὕλη) the groundwork of Evil. In this system we distinguish not only the asceticism of Pythagoras and the later mysticism of Plato, but also the influence of the Orphic mysteries and of Oriental philosophy. The Ideas of Plato are no longer self-subsistent entities; they are the elements which constitute the content of spiritual activity. The Soul is no longer an appanage of οὐσία, it is οὐσία itself: the non-material universe is regarded as the sphere of mind or spirit.

Thus Neopythagoreanism is a link in the chain between the old and the new in pagan philosophy. It connects the teaching of Plato with the doctrines of Neoplatonism and brings it into line with the later Stoicism and with the ascetic system of the Essenes. A comparison between the Essenes and the Neopythagoreans shows a parallel so striking as to warrant the theory that the Essenes were profoundly influenced by Neopythagoreanism. Lastly Neopythagoreanism furnished Neoplatonism with the weapons with which pagan philosophy made its last stand against Christianity.

See Pythagoras, Neoplatonism, Essenes; and Zeller's Philosophie d. Griechen. For members of the school see Apollonius of Tyana and Moderatus of Gades.