No one has perhaps had such a large impact on the utopian imagination as the mystical philosopher, Pythagoras. This obscure figure, who, lived in the early 6th century, and the brotherhood he founded, were a major source of inspiration for Plato and the utopian visions he crafted. The Pythagorean idea of basing society on the principle of friendship was the basis of Thomas Moore’s modern re-creation of imagined ideal societies, an idea which Moore picked up through a work – The Adages- by his great friend, the satirist, and humanist Erasmus. The figure of Pythagoras was a source of the early modern revival of mysticism such as that of the Kabala, and influential secret societies such as the Freemasons, and Rosicrucians.
Likewise, the name of Pythagoras was called upon like a lost god by the revolutionaries in France and beyond during the early stages of the democratic movement that rippled out from America starting in the late 1700s.
Above all, Pythagoras was the lode star for a revolution in human existence that would supersede in its impact all of the thoughts of philosophy and the entirety of the political revolutions that have marked the modern age. Pythagoras was a major figure in the scientific utopias, notably Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis that helped spark a revolution in knowledge. Pythagoras was a kind of background figure for many of the giants of that revolution.
We live in a technological society based on the idea of progress. It is a self-evident truth for us that we known more than our ancestors. This, however, is a novel idea. Many of the initiators of the scientific revolution of the 17th century did not believe they were discovering anything new. Rather, they thought their project was to discover ancient wisdom- sapientia antique.
The men who made the scientific revolution could not sever their connection from ancient knowledge having only recently emerged out of a dark age in which the few works of the past that had survived seemed a like a thin tether to precarious civilization. Of those works that did survive none were as comprehensive as those of the encyclopedic Aristotle.
This philosopher ruled over the late Medieval and early Modern Western mind. This became problematic as the empiricism of the early moderns started to poke holes in the Aristotelian edifice. Aristotle said there was nothing special about mathematics and that it offered no true window into nature, he said the sun, planets, and stars revolved around the earth, that the heavens were pure and unchanging, that objects fell or rose according to their nature.
The early moderns thought the new math borrowed from the Arabs might be an effective tool of explanation, they discovered that the heavens were not as Aristotle described, that objects in motion did not act as he predicted.
What gave them confidence and drove their anti-Aristotelian crusade was their belief that another ancient philosopher had contradicted the great Aristotle. Pythagoras, and his largely lost philosophy, became the wedge between the ancient and the new by which the modern world was born.
What the early moderns found in the fragments of the Pythagoreans that survived the end of antiquity were like clues to a wholly different view of the world. In the works of the followers of Pythagoras could be found the incredible idea that numbers represent the fundamental order of the world, that the solar system was not centered around the earth, but a “central fire”- a half-way house to a heliocentric view of the solar system. In the works of the Pythagoreans could be found the idea of the continuity of animal and even plant life with humanity.
The society founded by Pythagoras was fond of secrecy, and it was this occult idea of knowledge that drove early moderns such as Kepler and Newton to try to rediscover the hidden key to the universe which they sincerely believed Pythagoras and his followers had known. Nature for Pythagoras was a type of cryptogram which could be decoded once the proper corresponding numerical relationship was found. For science, even up until our own day, nature retains this cryptographic quality. Think of the search for DNA, the Human Genome, and the quest for a unified theory of physics that is the purpose of massive experimental apparatus such as CERN.
Pythagoras’ seemingly inconsequential epiphany that the world is number, arrived at when he noticed that the by the plucking of strings varied proportionally with the length of the string, has ultimately proven more revolutionary than the most profound utopian or religious texts. The models by which we now understand the world are built out of numbers. Our world is run and managed by machines whose thinking is composed of advanced forms of calculation. Indeed even the self seems to be merging, perhaps disappearing, into mathematics with movements such as The Quantified Self. We are all, for better, and for worse, Pythagoreans now.