Medieval Studies Pythagoreanism in the Middle Ages
by
Ann E. Moyer
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0331

Introduction

Pythagorean thought in the postclassical Latin world developed in distinct ways from that of antiquity. Not only were most writers and readers Christian, but the activities of reading and writing took place mainly in the settings of religious institutions and professions, especially in the earlier Middle Ages. Thus the Pythagorean teachings and patterns of life that had often been central to ancient followers, many of which might straddle categories of religion and philosophy, underwent accommodation to Christian settings. Furthermore, ancient writings in Pythagorean traditions had been in Greek, a language largely lost among Latin Christians in late antiquity. A number of patristic writers referred in their works to Pythagorean ideas, some with approval, others not. Augustine of Hippo, who had favored Pythagorean philosophy for some years, provided many such references; so too did Tertullian and Lactantius. A few authors usually considered Neoplatonist and Neopythagorean composed or translated more substantial works. Calcidius translated the first part of Plato’s Timaeus and wrote an extensive commentary in the early 4th century; this work too focuses especially on the cosmos and world soul. Macrobius (b. 370–d. 430) composed a commentary on the section of Cicero’s Republic known as the “Dream of Scipio” (Somnium Scipionis) that describes the order and nature of the cosmos. His near-contemporary Martianus Capella composed De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii (“On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury”), a work that presented the seven liberal arts that came to figure prominently in medieval education. Of greatest importance was Boethius (c 480–524). Among his many works were textbooks for the quadrivium, the four mathematical subjects of the liberal arts: arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. Only the first two have survived; they were loose translations of the writings of the Neopythagorean Nicomachus of Gerasa (c 60–120). These works became foundations of medieval Latin education. Thanks to this cluster of texts, medieval Pythagorean thought centered most often on these quadrivial disciplines. Nonetheless, some theologians, especially during the twelfth century, used Pythagorean ideas in their writings. The writings of Plotinus, more accurately a Neoplatonist, began to become available in the late thirteenth century, and also attracted interest in the fourteenth century. The recovery of ancient sources by humanists in the mid-fifteenth century and beyond marks a transition to Renaissance Pythagorean traditions; Nicholas of Cusa marks that point of transition. Medieval Pythagorean thought is thus characterized by its traditions of textual reception, of invocations of Pythagoras as exemplary figure, and creative reimagining.

Comprehensive Surveys and Summaries on Pythagoreanism

Pythagorean thought and ideas in the medieval Latin world developed from those of late antiquity. A basic familiarity with ancient authors and issues is thus essential to understand the later centuries. Cornelli 2013 articulates and examines the basic problems and historiographic issues at stake, especially important given that the term itself was not used in antiquity or the Middle Ages. The bibliography Zhmud 2018 is the essential starting point.

  • Cornelli, Gabriele. In Search of Pythagoreanism: Pythagoreanism as an Historiographical Category. Boston: De Gruyter, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110306507

    Thoughtful analysis of the term as defined and used over time in the study of ancient thought. The issues and debates over definitions of Pythagoreanism, Platonism, and more are all highly relevant to the study of postclassical texts.

  • Zhmud, Leonid. Pythagoreanism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0319

    Offers the most thorough and current bibliography and overview of Pythagoreanism through late antiquity.

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