Having handed my thoughts over to harmony

one morning, I made out a manner of music

springing from the smoke and light of a smithy.

Imagining an instrument that could illustrate

the symmetry and heavenly spirit of song –

in the custom of a compass, or the bearing of a balance –

here was the hammer on iron and anvil,

here was the ring and the resonance of number,

here the gods were given greasy faces

in labor and the lifted arm, the lassitude and resilience.

I hurried to the smith and had at his hammers

and after he taught me with his tools

I knew when numbers were one with noise

and I repeated the ratios he revealed to me,

until order and octave found their object.

We flow into the world as if on our way to a fair,

and where multitudes meet, there are many motives:

some set up a stall to deal and sell,

some to show off their status and honor,

but we philosophers reject mere renown and riches,

we reject reputation and the earning of wealth for no reason.

We philosophers better ourselves to better see beauty,

we have no ambition but mastery of the mind.

We secure our urge in scrutiny and fascination.

Among the parents of Pythagoras, there was no Apollo.

I am the son of a simple man, a Samian,

who gave me over to the gods at my earliest vigor.

He died young in years and left me with a yearning

to set off for the sake of sanctity and a sharpness of sense;

for while my father was called inferior –

just another generic gem-cutter –

his travels took him to the great temples

and his piety to the Pythia, even if he was prevented

the gift of giving his whole life to the gods.

That was my lot, the labor of endless learning.

The twenty-two years I spent in the temples of Egypt

sealed my spirit for the holy sciences,

and by the time I brought myself to Babylon,

a fleck of dirt on my finger was euphonious,

and this our modest sphere swarmed and seemed so full.

After some time spent back in Samos

my great fame grew beyond its own good,

and finally I fled swiftly to Italy.

My community and I came to Croton

and very soon I was surrounded by a small society

whose days were directed to discussion.

Predictably, people compared me to the Hyperborean Apollo

or proclaimed there were gods, and there were passing men, and then Pythagoras;

I’ll only say that “long-haired Samian” was the legend I loved.

Abstinence and silence did not spring from me

and nor did respect for the dead or erudition,

or refusing the food which the flesh of animals offers.

I am no mountain, only a man, only a mirror,

and the one who gives you your gods over again

need not be marveled at: I have merely meddled, and imagined.

See to it that the gods receive cedar and cypress

and leave for them laurel and myrtle and celebration.

In hours called sacred keep from cutting your hair

or opening the palm to pare your nails –

give the day to the gods and not even to grooming.

Lift your eyes when offering libations:

the gods are not shy or shameful about the sacred.

When you hear thunder, think of the creation of all things.


Here is a riddle – really an illustration – I was reared on:

my father found an infant on the earth’s floor

and from its mouth a narrow reed rose up

and drops of morning dew descended for him to drink,

since he lay, quite luckily, under the light of limb and leaf.

From the collective drops the cradled child learned to count

and from the sound of each splash and how they were spaced

he found warmth and volume and rhythm.

What an early lesson gleaned from looking up,

of seeing so soon the measure of star and sphere.

If my pupils suppress their everyday passions

these drives are often directed inside

and create in their core what I call culture,

the regeneration of our original gentleness.

Culture is not what we create but what we come upon a second time,

after the vanity of victory has vanished.

All is inquiry, all is question upon question

over the graceful and the good, the godly and the ground,

our souls and the sky and the stars.

When we wake with the sun we rise and walk

among the trees or a temple or anywhere for tranquility.

The morning was not made for comment and remark

or for the turbulence of too much toil.

Only after do we meet and discuss discipline and doctrine

or race or wrestle or go for oratory,

or begin to bring bread and the bees’ work into our bodies.

Only following this are libations laid out:

we arrange spices and incense into the shapes of animals

and amid that scented smoke we eat a supper

of boiled herbs and bread, and watch the sun brought down.

Why might the gods mock millet and fumigation

but slake up corpses and sick smoke?

Why can’t the gods accept cakes and honeycombs

and refuse the remains of roasted gore?

What finer fragrance is there than fired herbs?

Is it so odd to dismiss the cause of indigestion and distraction?

Is it so rebellious to offer the gods reverence without ripping other creatures,

without binding our own bodies to brutality?

War increases slaughter, strengthens slaughter, and is slaughter.

Is it perhaps a surprise that our politics is so perverse

or that as humans we can’t help but love hostility

when we pretend that piety is found in such pyres,

in smoking mounds of stripped meat?

Who can maintain that music is not a medicine,

that reveries and rhythms aren’t restorative to our spirits?

Who can call it a lie when the lyre is such an alleviation

and the modulated voice is a method for inmost harmony?

Who has not sensed from these sounds an intimacy in the spheres,

between heavenly bodies and every human being?

Many are lifted from lamentation and are liberated;

even the hexameters of Homer and Hesiod are a help

to replace the passions with peace.

Yes I’ve said the air and sky are suffused with souls,

though only some of us can see how they swarm and surround.

How else to understand dreams or disease except by these daimones;

or how we are suddenly happy or harried, except from these heroes,

lower than the gods but more lifted up than the living

who still hover and harass, who heal us or hand us visions?

Why should space not be loaded with souls

to remind us or ruin us or regale us

with the past, with possibility, with poetry?


Our lives may be likened to leaving on the sea:

the storms we face (and their force) are the result of Fortune,

our progress and preservation on the water are the result of Providence,

while getting aboard, or departing elsewhere, is our decision.

Different from these is Fate, most firm of our final end.

Yet studying these more shrewdly one might see

how deficient these definitions are and how they devour each other.

Our lives may be likened to this dilemma as well.

There are practices – some say punishments – used up by my people

and they were developed to deal with the various diseases of daily life:

some have a passion for possessions that can only be put right

by owning nothing; nearer to my own misnamed need

are those who suppress the urge to speak incessantly.

I’ve mentioned spurning animal meat

and withdrawing oneself from the want of wine,

but others forgo food, or try to forget sleep.

For others I simply put forward the force of friendship.

There are inspections of every new initiate:

How do they laugh or listen or like their leisure?

How do they speak and how serene are they in silence?

What is their regular gait, how do they get up and go, how do they grieve?

Are they averse to honor and do they avoid all vanity?

Some students are rejected, and after their removal a grave is raised to them.

Those are the people who’ve repeated my teachings publicly;

such is the depravity of anyone not drowning in discipline.

Some believe our souls are buried in our bodies,

are punished and imprisoned and only purified by philosophy;

but philosophy must meet the flesh, the two fixed and going forward.

So please leave aside the pursuit of total purity:

I have never suggested such a state should be sought.

Contrasting elements comingle and complement:

there is no first fire or earliest earth,

there is no air alone or flawless water to find

just as there is no stainless spirit.

That the perverse participates with the good is not a problem

because there is yet balance – balance, not blamelessness.

Moderation and the middle is the way to measure.

Do not mindlessly misconstrue me here.

A priest of Hyperborean Apollo appeared in Croton

and declared I was identical with the divinity he devoted himself to.

I didn’t go along with that glory but did reveal my golden thigh to him

and described in detail the distant temple he was devoted to

and made it known that men could slip marshes and mountains.

But I only showed this splendid sign to him

to teach him true theology

and a form of divination not dependent upon the death of an animal

but upon number and sum and amount.

Could I predict a pestilence and then expel it?

Did I have an excellent ear for earthquakes?

Did the savage sea really settle at my word?

What of the suggestion that I was seen in two cities –

Metapontum in Italy and Sicily’s Tauromenium –

during the same day, despite impossible distances?

What should I say, when the sea separates these places?

Perhaps a day or a distance is different for me,

maybe those men in their holy mania were mistaken.

Perhaps no response will appease.

Not only is it our nature to enter new lives after death

but there are certain events that repeat like a round,

there are echoes of other events everywhere,

there are rhythms in nature that remain,

so that our own lives can be likened to a lyre

whose patterns – with variations – continually repeat.

Knowledge is exercise of thought, not excess or luxury.

It is kinship across categories and time.

Death is only a dilemma when we try to evade it.

Even learning will not allow you to escape it,

nor will similar insights save you from suffering.

It can put an end to inner pain and perturbation, yes,

but on certain days it will seem that the sinful

are happier and held in higher esteem

than every devotee of discipline and discernment.

I have no answer, no solution or insulting denial.


Once while walking near the waves

I found the nets of a few fishermen

and to save the lives they’d stolen for their stomachs

I told the men I could tell them – to the number –

how many fish had found themselves in those confines.

If my prediction was true I promised to pay them

the full amount which offering the fish for sale would bring,

Of course this is what occurred, and I returned to Croton

after bringing those creatures back to the blue.

No pronouncement is more perverse than doing what you please

and leaving your interior space without inspection.

Animals are unaware; we only know.

Some creatures can’t help the corruption

but Pythagoras and his people prepare themselves hourly.

What is meant by the mind if the most it does is demand?

What is hinted at by a heart only held up by wild feeling?

So much is superfluous, and nothing more so than food;

the sheer variety cannot but lead to vice and diversion.

I do not protest pleasure, but any impulse

that bends one toward imbalance and aberrance.

Do not be intimated when I tell you the soul is a tetragon with right angles;

that is one way of using words without wearing them out.

All people who treat each other pleasantly I would call Pythagoreans,

who are unafraid of affliction and seek final comfort –

they are perfect Pythagoreans without having pursued me.

Such is the power I’ve placed upon friendship, upon fellowship,

without which all other subjects are sought in solitude.

Lack my learning if you like, but at least learn with another.

No, the gods did not drown a man who divulged my secrets;

I also never proposed despising one’s parents –

I only let out that limning how to live well

is a concern that supersedes all others.

The dodecahedron will endure, no matter who disseminates its misunderstanding.

When it comes to poets, approach them with prudence,

when it comes to their stories, listen as if they were liars

and follow their fables only so far.

Through their desire to divert they make our divinities ridiculous

or from the motive to amuse they make them immoral;

some, simply from ego and great genius, make themselves the gods,

as if the most worthy use of words can equal one worldly object.

There was a time when I came to cross over to Crete

and learn from one of the lean men who lives there in isolation.

I lay down at dawn by the sand

and when evening arrived I reclined by the river

and the priest wound my head with a woolen wreath.

I descended into the Idaean cave, and stayed twenty-seven days in that dark,

there where Zeus was hidden from his zealous father

and where his foster-mother Amalthea fed the infant full with goat’s milk.

I cannot tell what came to me there in that cave,

but in appreciation, Pythagoras did leave an epigram on the wall.

Prefer the puzzling out of the most arcane problems

to the sloth of easy of sleep

or the lazy inertia and languor of a long meal

or – even worse – the wear put on the soul from wine.

The most immediate mark of life is moderation:

disease and discord and dull wits are eradicated

only through the teaching of temperance.

Unlike depraved riches, erudition does not diminish in the delivery.

Consider your words to be small seeds, and speak sparingly;

or think of words as waves which can wash over the whole world.

While it is a lie that I like to avoid lamentation,

it’s true that I no longer stumble on mourning as I might have formerly –

and the same with attitudes of anger or ambition or anxiety.

Who is my daughter that I should decline to educate her?

Who is my wife that I should ignore her wisdom?

Should I spuriously suppose they cannot assimilate the sciences?

Putting men into the public and women the private worlds

is not a commitment my community needs to make

The good, the graceful and the godly are our goals

and the world will not record the who of these attainments, only the what.

It’s popular to say Pythagoras favored puzzles,

that my discussions on the divine involved a strange diction,

but having heard me you see how this is only half true.

What ends up in writing is already worn out

and the scribblings of spurned former-students more so.

By the air which I breathe, I will not be blamed for these words.

By the water which I drink, if you write this down

I refuse to be reproached when they lead to a quarrel

or when men misunderstand or mangle what I’ve meant.

Even the smartest are spectators at a sport,

and beyond my community I claim nothing but continual contemplation.

The wider immature world is still waging its wars

so that we might settle here in silence.

The price for one to simply ponder is always paid by someone else,

a fact I am fortunate to never forget.


Sometimes I remember my first student:

for a pupil, I began to pay a poor boy

the smallest sum for every subject he started –

arithmetic on the abacus, geometry more generally,

logic at most length, and the holy zeal they all lead to.

Soon, I said, I could no longer subsidize his studies –

I only pretended poverty in order to provoke him –

and I redoubled my devotion to the gods

when he proclaimed himself too captivated to capitulate, even if penniless.

What could be higher that hearing that harmony is the result of contraries;

what could be deeper than discipline arising from agreement among discordance?

What is more underlying than the unity of many, an understanding emerging from the uproar?

There is no essence more eternal than what may be entered through numbers;

no understanding of nature or universe or holiness, beyond numbers;

no gods or lesser daimones that can be reckoned outside numbers.

Even the formless is found there, at the fringes of thought.

Even the structure of the unsteady and sporadic is seen there,

and all that cannot be elucidated or elaborated –

even the uncertain number has serenity.

On my deathbed I will decree that they adore the rising sun,

an injunction as ancient as my earliest notion.

They shall call me That Man from then on

and only rarely nod aloud to my name,

since naming should be saved for those still sparked with life,

and “Pythagoras” will only be an interruption from the prudence they seek.

Suspicion finally soured the world against our supposed secrets

and crowds came to Croton and crushed us;

former students forced to leave were euphoric at the flames.

The Pythagoreans are proof – as if more proof were imperative –

that a small minority in a world of millions will still be a menace

even when they wage no war

and even when they revile violence itself

and want to penetrate into a world of peace and painstaking thought.

My remaining students were scattered to places even more solitary

and it was uncommon for them to take acolytes;

those who found the fortune of family

passed down my precepts to keep them from perishing

while still safeguarding them within the spiral

of spouse and sons, of daughters and private devotions.

Yet I cannot hold back from blackest bereavement

when I remember the remains of my ranks rotting on the ground,

broken beneath brick or burnt by fire

or savaged by the strength of the mob’s spleen

and the blows from their bare hands,

to see in death the shape of those devoted to discipline,

to see the hardship they suffered for harmony,

to see them poured out and piled and made pathetic,

these men and women I spent mornings with amid music and meaning,

now mountains of limbs with no memory.

But the body of one boy –

proved the persistence of my people:

his eyes were still open to the observance and obedience of the sky,

and the tears that came together there

told me he still took in our truth,

that the music of the spheres still subsists and deserves our reverence.

And his eyes seemed to say, someday we will all separate from the body and soar into the aether,

someday we will be restored to our imperishable center,

someday we will adopt our disappeared divinity,

someday we won’t mourn the mortality we’ve misplaced.

But until then, discipline and discernment,

until then, silence and science, prayer and piety.

Tim Miller’s most recent book is the essay collection Notes from the Grid. His other books include the poetry collection Bone Antler Stone, and the long narrative poem, To the House of the Sun. He is online at, and he talks poetry, mythology, and creativity on the podcast Human Voices Wake Us.

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