Pythagoras and Socrates
Today, we think of Pythagoras entirely differently than people did in his time.
In his time, he was a traitor and outlaw. For most of his life, he was a wanted man. He had to travel incognito and meet with others in secret to avoid being caught.
Eventually, the authorities caught up with him. He was executed by a particularly brutal method: He had traveled to the town of Croton, in southern Italy and was meeting people for a lecture. The authorities considered him and everyone he associated with him to be dangerous. They decided to get rid of them all. They blocked the doors and windows to the building where the meeting was taking place and set it on fire, killing everyone inside. This included the man that may have been the greatest thinker the world has ever seen.
This is the way Pythagoras died.
It is the same Pythagoras you learned about in school. His achievements are all over the map and in nearly every field of human endeavor.
If you focused your studies on hard sciences, or math, you learned he was responsible for basically all initial work that formed the foundation of these fields. It was his idea to build mathematics on something we now call the ‘number line’ and to visualize numbers as lengths on this line. He also was responsible for showing the difference between ‘rational numbers’ and ‘irrational numbers,’ meaning he essentially showed us what a ‘number’ was. He was the one who proved the number line was infinitely dense (a key finding that forms the foundation for all higher math), and for proving that irrational numbers were real numbers (they really existed and their values could be calculated).
All engineers and designers in the world use the theorem named after him almost daily. But this is only one of the proven theorems he gave us that form the foundation of virtually the entire field of engineering today. He is noted for the beauty of his geometric proofs: he proved his most famous theorem (that the area of a square drawn on the hypotenuse of a right triangle is exactly equal to the sum of the areas of squares drawn on the other two sides) using nothing but a pencil, ruler, and geometricians compass.
His many, many proofs provide the foundation for the field of logic: He explained what conditions would have to be met to show that a premise has been ‘proven.’ He also explained what common fallacies appear to show proof, but actually don’t. (If you listen to politicians, you will see endless examples of these fallacies: they claim they are saying something that makes sense, but their arguments really don’t prove anything. Most people haven’t studied Pythagorean analysis and don’t realize they are being tricked.)
If you were more into the liberal arts, you probably learned about Pythagoras in music class He invented the ‘Pythagorean interval,’ also called the ‘perfect fifth.’ He showed why it is ‘perfect,’ with the frequency of the tones having a perfect mathematical relationship to each other. He created the ‘circle of fifths’ that gives us the 13 note ‘chromatic scale.’ This is the foundation for all western music. (The 13 notes are the 13 black and white keys of the piano.) He also showed that there is a simpler 8 note ‘octave’ scale that lies inside of the more complex 13 note scale. (The 8 notes of the key of ‘C’ are the white keys of the piano.) He invented the idea of a musical ‘key’ and showed how to make different ‘chords,’ (major, minor, diminished, ect.) in different keys that created different moods and feelings in listeners. The great majority of the musical instruments in use now were designed using the mathematical relationships between the notes that he presented to the world more than 2,500 years ago. If you like any (western) music, and it lifts your spirits or brings you closer to nature, you owe a debt of gratitude to Pythagoras.
His musical studies led to the findings of a field called ‘harmonics,’ which study the interactions between various waves. (Sound is waves of moving air; these waves interact to create peaks and valleys; our ears recognize so many sounds, even when mixed together, by identifying the harmonic relationships.) The harmonic relationships he explained are important in optics and the studies of lasers and other high-energy beams. The field of quantum mechanics is built on the wave theories that come from Pythagoras. (Look up ‘The physics of music’ on the internet for many illustrations of his contributions.)
This is what we remember Pythagoras for today.
In his own time, he was notorious for his anti-establishment views. He felt the society he lived in was unsound. It was dangerous, violent, aggressive, destructive and totally illogical. Anyone could see that this type of society wasn’t capable of meeting the needs of the human race as a whole.
Of course, they can be forgiven for this: they were not intended to advance the interests of the human race as a whole. They were intended to help the people who ran specific countries organize them so that they could give better for the people of that country.
But Pythagoras noted that they couldn’t even really do this: Most of the time, the endless wars and competition didn’t do anything but impoverish the people on both sides and create misery and hardship. Then as now, the great majority of the people (the proverbial ‘99%) lived lives of drudgery and servitude, often getting up before they were fully awake and then working until they were too tired to work anymore, for barely enough to keep them alive. The world is bountiful and there is plenty everywhere. The rich get richer and the governments of the world waste enough money to make everyone prosperous on war every year. These systems not only don’t benefit the human race as a whole, they don’t even benefit the people that they are supposed to benefit.
Pythagoras claimed something better was possible.
But it couldn’t be built on the same foundation that supports the system he lived in. To have a better system, we would have to accept that that a lot of the beliefs we were raised to accept about the way society works and the wonderfulness of the type of society we have, were not true. We have to realize that the quality we call ‘patriotism’ is not a virtue that can make the world better, it is a toxin that poisons any attempt to solve the most dangerous problems of the world. We have to accept that the entities called ‘countries’ are only not worth destroying the world over, they are not even real things: if we stopped believing in them. They would stop existing: they are therefore only figments of our imaginations. If we want sound societies, we have to understand that the people who we are trusting to run our systems are not on our side. They don’t want better societies. We have to accept that the system that elevates these people to positions of power is flawed. We have to find ways to get around their authority and work to build a better world ourselves.
Pythagoras made sense.
This made him dangerous. People listened to him and stopped respecting the people they were told their entire lives they were supposed to respect. They stopped thinking of the rules that required them to hate the enemy of the day (whoever the people who called themselves the ‘leaders of country’ decided to fight) were nonsense and dangerous. Pythagoras was a threat. Not just to the leaders of the country where he was born or where he was physically located at any given time (he traveled a great deal), he was a threat everyone who depended on respect for the establishment for the things they wanted.
When the authorities killed Pythagoras, they hoped to kill is ideas too. But this didn’t happen. Pythagoras had realized that the authorities didn’t want the things he said to be heard. He kept his discussions away from the public eye. He traveled a lot. In each area, he had a group of like minded people. They wanted something better. They discussed what had to be done. But they didn’t advertise or use the public forums for this. They kept their discussions private, among people that they knew would be tolerant before they let them join. The group was active in many parts of Europe, Asia, and North Africa; Pythagoras spent time in many places and talked to a lot of people.
We don’t know a lot about this organization. We just know it was large and had a lot of members. It lasted a long time. (Some say it is still around, active in the anti-establishmentarian movements that you find in the graffiti marked parts of major cities around the world.) We know it had rituals that members could use to identify other members as they traveled. We know it used symbols, the most common of which was the geometrician’s compass (to reflect the greatest achievements of Pythagoras, which involved his geometric proofs). We know it inspired Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Alexander the Great: The emblem of the Pythagoreans was carved above the doors on Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, and above the doors of the libraries that Alexander the Great built all around Persia, North Africa, Asia, and the parts of Europe closest to Macedonia, where Alexander was born. (All of these3 buildings and all the documents they contained were destroyed, intentionally, in the book burnings and attempts to destroy knowledge that followed over the next 600 years; We will look at the reasons this was done later.)
We know that the work of Pythagoras inspired Socrates and most of the information we have about the ideas Pythagoras had about world came to the world through Socrates.
Socrates was born one century after Pythagoras, in the year 470 bce. He was raised by his grandfather. We don’t know much about him, we only know that he was a Pythagorean. Socrates grandfather had visitors who talked about the ideas of the great thinker. I can imagine Socrates falling to sleep listening to these discussions.
Socrates grew up a believer. Better societies were possible. But there are some things we don’t talk about in public. People wouldn’t understand. They loved their countries. They expected everyone to feel the same love. They hated the people they had been raised to believe where their enemies. They expected everyone to feel the same hate. They focused their lives on these feelings. People who didn’t feel the same were dangerous. They didn’t know what think about them. If they don’t hate the enemies, maybe they sympathize with the enemies. Maybe they wanted the enemies to win and crush the wonderful systems their leaders and teachers represented. When they started to feel this way, they might report them to the authorities and have them investigated. Sometimes, the authorities are more afraid than the people themselves. They don’t want to take chances with security risks. They remove them from society, often by removing them from life itself.
There are some things that cautious people don’t talk about.
But a lot of time had passed since Pythagoras had been put to death. Socrates felt that the world had changed. They were foolish and ignorant back in the olden days (a century before Socrates had been born). Now, they had sciences and did research. They weren’t perfect. But they were a lot smarter than a century ago. Pythagoras was ahead of his time. But that was a long time ago. Times had changed. Socrates thought that they were ready now. He wanted to bring these ideas to the world.
Most of the ideas in the books of the Possible Societies series come from the arguments presented as direct quotes from Socrates in the socratic dialogues. Although all of his own personal writings were destroyed after he was executed for sedition (‘corrupting’ the minds of young people with his ideas) and treason (not feeling the love he was supposed to feel for his country and the other things he was supposed to love and not feeling the hatred h e was supposed to feel for the people his leaders called ‘enemies’), his ideas were reconstructed by Pythagoreans and we have enough to understand what was important to him. , including Plato, Aristotle, and Alexander of Macedon (also known as Alexander the Great, discussed in later chapters).
Before I describe this message, I want to take a little detour to show how it was received and how, exactly, the name of Socrates came to be such an important one in history.
Socrates told people that the leaders, experts, and other people who ran society didn’t have any idea how to build a sound society.
They didn’t even have any interest in this.
They knew about and cared about war.
War is organized and planned mass murder and destruction. It wasn’t a logical thing. It could not be a foundational element of a sane, sound, and logical society where people take the best advantage of the skills and talents of other people and work with them. If we want a sound society (one with δικαιοσύνη, to use his term) we need to start with some other foundation.
Socrates is famous for the depth of his arguments. (Law schools call the method of correctly arguing cases ‘the socratic method.’ It is based on his method of arguing and, to this day, is still considered the best way to get a point across.) He makes sense. It is hard to go over his arguments and NOT see his point.
The people who listened to him started to lose their faith in the great system around them that is often called ‘the establishment’ today. It was not a good thing. It was not on their side. His ideas had a particular attraction for young people. If the system didn’t work for them, didn’t work for the world, didn’t work for the human race, and didn’t even really benefit the thing they were raised to worship called a ‘country,’ why devote their lives to serving this beast? After talking to Socrates, they didn’t want to play a part in the system anymore.
These young people talked to their teachers, t heir parents, their advisors, the people who were planning their lives for them. These people represented the system that they no longer respected. They wanted the young people to step forward, get a good job, make lots of money, maybe even go into government, become rulers, and run the wars themselves. After talking to Socrates, they didn’t want to do these things. They had other goals, but they were goals that their advisors teachers, and even their parents couldn’t really identify with. They didn’t want to play a part in the system, they wanted to study it, identify the way it worked, find ways to create a better system, and help put it into place.
The parents, teachers, and advisors thought it was bad for the young people to think this way. They wanted them to stop listening to Socrates. But, well, you know how young people are: tell them not to do something and they will only want to do it more. They couldn’t stop the message without stopping the messenger. They filed complaints with the authorities.
The authorities decided to have a talk with Socrates.
We don’t know who said what. But we know that the two sides didn’t get along. Socrates told them he wasn’t going to stop. He had not harmed anyone. He had not violated any laws or rules. He would not stop.
The authorities decided to up the stakes. They said that they could charge him with the crimes of heresy (not accepting doctrine that people were required to accept) and ‘corrupting youth.’ Socrates thought it was nonsense. His country had freedom of speech. He was protected by the law and had done nothing wrong No jury would convict him.
The authorities wanted Socrates to take the threat seriously. A war was on. The enemy was the most dangerous enemy anyone has ever faced. (When wars start, all enemies are depicted this way; some people believe it every time..) They could tell the jury that his ideas hurt the morale of youth and therefore harmed the war effort. They said that if he made them take him to court, they would have a very good chance of winning and, if they won, they would seek the death penalty.
The trial was held in public. A jury was empanelled with 501 members. The trial would last one day. A majority would be required to conflict and impose sentence.
One of Socrates followers, Plato, was in the audience. He took notes of the trial and published them under the title ‘The Apology.’
Socrates arguments were pretty simple. He told the jury he had done no harm to anyone. In fact, no one had claimed he had. He was not on trial for doing anything wrong, he was there because he had shown the people of Athens that their leaders were fools and didn’t know what they were doing. He had embarrassed them. They were putting him on trial for making them look foolish.
I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed him—his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination—and the result was as follows:
When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and still wiser by himself; and thereupon I tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me.
Then I went to another who had still higher pretensions to wisdom. My conclusion was exactly the same. Whereupon I made another enemy of him, and of many others besides him. Then I went to one man after another, being not unconscious of the enmity which I provoked, and I lamented and feared this.
But necessity was laid upon me and I swear to you, Athenians, by the dog I swear!—for I must tell you the truth—the result of my mission was just this: I found that the men most in repute were all but the most foolish; and that others less esteemed were really wiser and better.
There is another thing:
Young men of the richer classes, who have not much to do, come about me of their own accord; they like to hear the pretenders examined, and they often imitate me, and proceed to examine others; there are plenty of persons, as they quickly discover, who think that they know something, but really know little or nothing; and then those who are examined by them instead of being angry with themselves are angry with me: This confounded Socrates, they say; this villainous misleader of youth!
And if somebody asks them, Why, what evil does he practice or teach? they do not know, and cannot tell; but in order that they may not appear to be at a loss, they repeat the ready-made charges about teaching things up in the clouds and under the earth, and having no gods, and making the worse appear the better cause; for they do not like to confess that their pretence of knowledge has been detected.
These people are numerous and ambitious and energetic, and are drawn up in battle array and have persuasive tongues, they have filled your ears with their loud and inveterate accusations. And this is the reason why my three accusers, Mellitus and Anytus and Lycon, have set upon me; Meletus, who has a quarrel with me on behalf of the poets; Anytus, on behalf of the craftsmen and politicians; Lycon, on behalf of the rhetoricians.
And this, O men of Athens, is the truth and the whole truth; I have concealed nothing, I have dissembled nothing.
Then the prosecutors had their turn.
They appealed to the jury’s patriotism.
Their country was at war. It was the most important war in all of history. (All wars are portrayed this way at the time they are being waged.) We can’t afford to lose it. We must think of our boys in the trenches first. They must fight and kill until all the enemies are dead or their leaders surrender and throw themselves on our mercy.
Our enemies are monsters. If they win, they will storm the city, desecrate our art, rape our wives and daughters, kill our mothers, enslave our sons, and (if the worst of the fear mongers are right) eat our babies.
Socrates might be allowed to say what he wants to say after the war is over and all threats are gone. But the time is not right. The war is the only important thing now. Nothing that harms the war effort can be tolerated. Socrates has to stop.
If we have to put him to death to stop him—and he has made it clear this will be necessary—we have no choice: it must be done. You—all the members of the jury—owe it to your country, to your gods, and to your loved ones to make sure this happens.
Fear is a powerful motivator. Hatred can always be called forward in time of war. People had lost loved ones. They wanted someone to suffer for it. Here was a heretic (this was one of this charges) who didn’t believe in the war effort. Socrates was convicted, sentenced to death, and executed.
The Socratic Dialogues
After Socrates was gone, the authorities collected all his papers and destroyed them. His thoughts and ideas were dangerous. They wanted to protect their people from these dangers and had to be careful. If they left the papers, they might fall into the wrong hands and corrupt young people, making them anti-war and anti-establishment. As far as we know, they were successful and not a single word from Socrates own hand survives.
But the ideas they considered so dangerous were not really Socrates own personal ideas. They had come to him through the Pythagoreans and originated with the great geometrician himself. All that Socrates was trying to do was to open a mental door, in as many people as he could talk to. He wanted to let them know that they should not be afraid to think about these things. Their minds belonged to them. The authorities wanted them to think a certain way. But their minds belonged to them. They had the right to use it any way they wanted.
The Pythagorean movement was widespread. We don’t know exactly how widespread because these people knew the authorities didn’t like their message, so they met and interacted in private. If you look on the internet, you will see a wide range of opinions including everything from claims that it was just a small group of mathematicians who got together to discuss the ideas behind irrational numbers (which Pythagoras had discovered and which were considered to be the result of witchcraft for thousands of years after their discovery), to the idea that all subsequent anti-establishment secret societies originated with the Pythagoreans.
After Socrates was dead, many members of this movement came to Athens to meet with the ‘young men of the richer classes’ that Socrates had ‘corrupted’ with his ideas about society. They decided that Socrates ideas should not die with him. They wanted to recreate his most important arguments. They worked on several books that are now called ‘socratic dialogues.’ They recreate Socrates ideas.
Many attempts have been made to destroy these ideas or to distort them to make it appear that Socrates was trying to say something he wasn’t trying to say.
In some ways they were successful. Almost all of the socratic dialogue Critias was destroyed. This is important because Critias was his version of the title book of this series, Possible Societies: it explains different societies and shows how they work. The book Timaeus is very clearly a tiny part of a much larger work. (Socrates speaks only a few times in this book and his comments are short sentenes that all take the form: ‘but I told you in our previous discussions that is not how the world works.’)
But we do have enough information to put together his basic ideas. The fundimental arguments are in the book called ‘πολιτεία (‘politikas’) which explains how societies that divide the world into individual territorial units that have sovereignty operate and shows why they can never meet the needs of the human race (never have ‘δικαιοσύνη’).
In the set of dialogues called ‘Πολιτική’ (Policia, again, the name Socrates uses to represent ‘societies that divide the world into countries’) he works out the basic principles of societies that work this way:
First, he points out that war is an inherent part of societies built on this premise. The following quotes are all from the book ‘Πολιτεία.’:
Socrates: Then a slice of our neighbors’ land will be wanted by us for pasture and tillage, and they will want a slice of ours?
Glaucon. That, Socrates, will be inevitable.
Socrates: And so we shall go to war, Glaucon. Shall we not?
Glaucon. Most certainly, he replied.
Socrates: Then without determining as yet whether war does good or harm, thus much we may affirm, that now we have discovered war to be derived from causes which are also the causes of almost all the evils in nations, private as well as public.
Even in Socrates’ time, people realized that war brought economic benefits. It created jobs, it stimulated economic activity, and it stimulated invention and discovery.
Even today, there is great dispute over whether the benefits war brings outweigh the costs. In other words, it isn’t clear whether war is a good thing or a bad thing.
Socrates clearly doesn’t want to get into this issue. He isn’t trying to say war is bad and should stop. He is only trying to show that war is an inevitable consequence of the foundational operations of societies that divide the world into sovereign territorial entities.
After having shown this relationships, Socrates goes on to work out the natural consequences of war and the things that must happen in any society built on principles that lead naturally to war.
To have war, a large number of people must spend their lives cutting down forests to make charcoal, digging through the ground for ore, smelting, and doing things that cause immense harm to the world. Some people will have to devote their lives to soldiering: they will have to go to schools where they will learn how to kill without remorse or constraint; they will have to practice stabbing human-shaped dummies with knives, spears, or pikes until they can do it mechanically, without even thinking. They will have to learn to follow orders without even the slightest hesitation: if ordered to cut off the head of the man on the right of them, they must not think first, they must act. (This kind of order is often used to test the fitness of soldiers.)
Then, when the war comes, they must actually kill real people. Idealistic soldiers often are shocked when they get to a war and find that most of the people they will have to kill are women, children, and old people who don’t pose any threat to anything. People must kill and kill and kill, while other people are trying their very best to kill them. They must do these things in horrible conditions, often living in trenches with fetid, rotting corpses for weeks on end, knowing each time they go to sleep they may not wake up again.
People are not normally drawn to these conditions.
They would not do them unless their minds had been prepared to make them think that these conditions were necessary, and that their fighting, killing, and risking death day after day brought about some greater good.
Logic and reason would tell us that there is no greater good.
As Socrates pointed out in his first argument above, the war is not about making the world a better place. It is the natural consequence of the structural realities of societies that are built on certain foundations. War will happen. Once we know that war will happen, we need to make sure our people are indoctrinated. These things go together. Have one thing and you must have the other.
They must be indoctrinated.
Socrates then provides some basic information about the specific way the indoctrination must happen. It must start with the most gullible and naïve adults by singling them out and intentionally lying to them. Then it must be made sure that only those who believe these lies are allowed access to the children in that society. It must be made sure that the truth never gets into any book that the children might read; they can only hear the lies. They must hear them over and over again until they come to believe they are the truth.
: We begin by telling children stories which, though not wholly destitute of truth, are in the main fictitious; and these stories are told them when they are not of an age to learn more complex ideas.
Adeimantus: Quite right.
: You know also that the beginning is the most important part of any work, especially in the case of a young and tender thing; for that is the time at which the character is being formed and the desired impression is more readily taken.
Adeimantus: Quite true.
: And shall we just carelessly allow children to hear any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons, and to receive into their minds ideas for the most part the very opposite of those which we should wish them to have when they are grown up?
Adeimantus: We cannot.
Socrates: Then the first thing will be to establish a censorship of the writers.
The first thing that is necessary to make people willing to accept the reality of societies divided into nations (territorial sovereignty societies) is to make sure that the people can’t get objective information. We have to ‘establish a censorship of the writers.’
This is particularly critical for children. If we want children to grow up to be willing to fight in and make other sacrifices for the wars, we must make sure that we regulate the things they We want to make sure that they can only receive into their minds the exact thoughts that
Socrates goes into very great detail about the specific aim of such indoctrination: it has to be used to train people to override their moral restraint and personal views of right and wrong so they will follow orders to commit the atrocities that are a part of war. It is to turn them into monsters with no regard for anything but the orders they are given:
As we were saying, the members of the warrior class were to be dogs, and to hear the voice of the rulers, who are their shepherds. The young man should not be told that in committing the worst of crimes he is doing wrong; and that even if he chastises his father when he does wrong, in whatever manner, he will only be following the example of the first and greatest among the gods.
Socrates and Adeimantus then discuss intricate details of the indoctrination process. For example, they note children are extremely susceptible to the power of music. Music can tell them the way they are supposed to think about various matters. For example, do you want them to believe mass murder is a good thing? Create a song that associates the most horrible murders with the most beautiful music your musicians can create.
I went to my first two years of school in France and learned the Marseilles as my national anthem. We sang it regularly in class and before every important event. It has one of the most euphoric, happiest melodies ever written, a melody associated with these words: and
You will find similar messages in the songs that young children are required to sing in other militant countries. These songs associate the most wonderful and uplifting melodies with stories of tools that strike without warning and blow children into tiny pieces.
The education systems couldn’t get people to accept these things if they started with adults who could study the issue logically. The adults would argue with them and never accept them. But if you start when children are very young, and use tools like music and poetry to create neural pathways that associate the acts you want them to do with beauty and happiness, you can make the associations in their minds, without them even realizing they are being manipulated.
Socrates and Adeimantus then discuss various other tools needed to manipulate the way children think in societies that are built on this foundation. This includes the need to distort history to glorify both the war and the winner and turn war into some sort of wonderful cloth that wipes away evil and leaves only good. You can’t make them think this by presenting truthful, accurate, objective information, so you have to lie.