Pythagoras and the Recurrence of the Tragic
Nietzsche briefly refers to Pythagoras in The Birth of Tragedy, as one of the exemplars, prior to Aeschylus (himself attributed by Cicero in Tusculanae Quaestiones to be a follower of Pythagoras) of tragic sixth century Greece. The pregnancy of this reference seems, however, to have been lost on Biebuyck, Praet and Vanden Poel in their important essay, ‘Cults and Migrations: Nietzsche’s Meditations on Orphism, Pythagoreanism, and the Greek Mysteries’. For, while it is clear that Nietzsche savagely castigates Pythagoras (and Orphicism) as a precursor to Plato and as a proto-Christian, the Pythagorean doctrine of transmigration could, from the perspective of The Birth of Tragedy, be interpreted as a variant of tragic pessimism, which abides, at its heart, an affirmation of the eternal recurrence of the All. In this light, the significance of Pythagorean philosophy could be seen under a radically different aspect, the basic features of which have not been questioned since Guthrie’s monumental History of Greek Philosophy in the 1960’s. The work of Guthrie, while he to a significant extent merely repeats the ascetic picture of Pythagoras, served to begin to undermine basic features of the dominant interpretation, such as that of Cornford (and of Nietzsche himself), which had sought to quarantine the mathematical, ‘scientific’ aspects of Pythagorean philosophy from its dispensable and baroque ‘mystical’ shell. Radicalizing the work of Guthrie, the present interpretation will seek to re-contextualize the status and place of mathematics and science in Pythagorean philosophy (and philosophy as such), as aspects that participate (though do not dominate), alongside art, music and practical techniques of the self, in the articulation and the sheltering of an esoteric teaching. In this instance, the teaching is that of the tragic myth– just as mathematical limit intimates and reflects the deeper ultimacy of tragic fate, of the mortal singularity and limits of existence.
To read the rest of this piece, please visit Pythagoras and the Doctrine of Transmigration – Introduction.