Consult and deliberate before you act, that thou mayest not commit foolish actions. For 't is the part of a miserable man to speak and to act without reflection. But do that which will not afflict thee afterwards, nor oblige thee to repentance.
With no desire to deprive Mr. Bok of his bread, I wish to call attention to Pythagoras, who lived a little more than five hundred years before Christ.
Even at that time the world was old. Memphis, which was built four thousand years ago, had begun to crumble into ruins. Troy was buried deep in the dust which an American citizen of German birth was to remove. Nineveh and Babylon were dying the death that success always brings, and the star of empire was preparing to westward wend its way.
Pythagoras ushered in the Golden Age of Greece. All the great writers whom he immediately preceded, quote him and refer to him. Some admire him; others are loftily critical; most of them are a little jealous; and a few use him as a horrible example, calling him a poseur, a pedant, a learned sleight-of-hand man, a bag of books.
Trial by newspaper was not invented in the time of Pythagoras; but personal vilification has been popular since Balaam talked gossip with his vis-a-vis.
Anaxagoras, who gave up his wealth to the State that he might be free, and who was the teacher of Pericles, was a pupil of Pythagoras, and used often to mention him.
In this way Pericles was impressed by the Pythagorean philosophy, and very often quotes it in his speeches. Socrates gave Pythagoras as an authority on the simple life, and stated that he was willing to follow him in anything save his injunction to keep silence. Socrates wanted silence optional; whereas Pythagoras required each of his pupils to live for a year without once asking a question or making an explanation. In aggravated cases he made the limit five years.
In many ways Pythagoras reminds us of our friend Muldoon, both being beneficent autocrats, and both proving their sincerity by taking their own medicine. Pythagoras said, "I will never ask another to do what I have not done, and am not willing to do myself."
To this end he was once challenged by his three hundred pupils to remain silent for a year. He accepted the defi, not once defending himself from the criticisms and accusations that were rained upon him, not once complaining, nor issuing an order. Tradition has it, however, that he made averages good later on, when the year of expiation was ended.
There are two reasonably complete lives of Pythagoras, one by Diogenes Laertius, and another by Iamblichus. Personally, I prefer the latter, as Iamblichus, as might be inferred from his name, makes Pythagoras a descendant of Æneas, who was a son of Neptune. This is surely better than the abrupt and somewhat sensational statement to the effect that his father was Apollo.
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The birthplace of Pythagoras was Samos, an isle of Greece. He was born of wealthy but honest parents, who were much in love with each other--a requisite, says Pythagoras, for parentage on its highest plane. It is probable that Pythagoras was absolutely correct in his hypothesis.
That he was a very noble specimen of manhood--physically and mentally--there is no doubt. He was tall, lithe, dignified, commanding and silent by nature, realizing fully that a handsome man can never talk as well as he looks.
He was quite aware of his physical graces, and in following up the facts of his early life, he makes the statement that his father was a sea-captain and trader. He then incidentally adds that the best results are obtained for posterity where a man is absent from his family eleven months in the year. This is an axiom agreed upon by many modern philosophers, few of whom, however, live up to their ideals. Aristophanes, who was on friendly terms with some of the disciples of Pythagoras, suggested in one of his plays that the Pythagorean domestic time-limit should be increased at least a month for the good of all concerned.
Plato, Xenophon and Aristotle make frequent references to Pythagoras. In order to impress men like these, the man must have taught a very exalted philosophy. In truth, Pythagoras was a teacher of teachers. And like all men who make a business of wisdom he sometimes came tardy off, and indulged in a welter of words that wrecked the original idea--if there were one.
There are these three: Knowledge, Learning, Wisdom. And the world has until very recent times assumed that they were practically one and the same thing.
Knowledge consists of the things we know, not the things we believe or the things we assume. Knowledge is a personal matter of intuition, confirmed by experience. Learning consists largely of the things we memorize and are told by persons or books. Tomlinson of Berkeley Square was a learned man. When we think of a learned man, we picture him as one seated in a library surrounded by tomes that top the shelves.
Wisdom is the distilled essence of what we have learned from experience. It is that which helps us to live, work, love and make life worth living for all we meet. Men may be very learned, and still be far from wise.
Pythagoras was one of those strange beings who are born with a desire to know, and who finally comprehending the secret of the Sphinx, that there is really nothing to say, insist on saying it. That is, vast learning is augmented by a structure of words, and on this is built a theogony. Practically he was a priest.
Worked into all priestly philosophies are nuggets of wisdom that shine like stars in the darkness and lead men on and on.
All great religions have these periods of sanity, otherwise they would have no followers at all. The followers, understanding little bits of this and that, hope finally to understand it all. Inwardly the initiates at the shrine of their own conscience know that they know nothing. When they teach others they are obliged to pretend that they, themselves, fully comprehend the import of what they are saying. The novitiate attributes his lack of perception to his own stupidity, and many great teachers encourage this view.
"Be patient, and you shall some day know," they say, and smile frigidly.
And when credulity threatens to balk and go no further, magic comes to the rescue and the domain of Hermann and Kellar is poached upon.
Mystery and miracle were born in Egypt. It was there that a system was evolved, backed up by the ruler, of religious fraud so colossal that modern deception looks like the bungling efforts of an amateur. The government, the army, the taxing power of the State, were sworn to protect gigantic safes in which was hoarded--nothing. That is to say, nothing but the pretense upon which cupidity and self-hypnotized credulity battened and fattened.
All institutions which through mummery, strange acts, dress and ritual, affect to know and impart the inmost secrets of creation and ultimate destiny, had their rise in Egypt. In Egypt now are only graves, tombs, necropolises and silence. The priests there need no soldiery to keep their secrets safe. Ammon-Ra, who once ruled the universe, being finally exorcised by Yaveh, is now as dead as the mummies who once were men and upheld his undisputed sway.
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The Egyptians guarded their mysteries with jealous dread.
We know their secret now. It is this--there are no mysteries.
That is the only secret upon which any secret society holds a caveat. Wisdom can not be corraled with gibberish and fettered in jargon. Knowledge is one thing--palaver another. The Greek-letter societies of our callow days still survive in bird's-eye, and next to these come the Elks, who take theirs with seltzer and a smile, as a rare good joke, save that brotherhood and good-fellowship are actually a saving salt which excuses much that would otherwise be simply silly.
All this mystery and mysticism was once official, and later, on being discarded by the authorities, was continued by the students as a kind of prank.
Greek-letter societies are the rudimentary survivals of what was once an integral part of every college. Making dead languages optional was the last convulsive kick of the cadaver.
And now a good many colleges are placing the seal of their disapproval on secret societies among the students; and the day is near when the secret society will not be tolerated, either directly or indirectly, as a part of the education of youth. All this because the sophomoric mind is prone to take its Greek-letter mysteries seriously, and regard the college curriculum as a joke of the faculty.
If knowledge were to be gained by riding a goat, any petty crossroads, with its lodge-room over the grocery, would contain a Herbert Spencer; and the agrarian mossbacks would have wisdom by the scruff and detain knowledge with a tail-hold.
There can be no secrets in life and morals, because Nature has so provided that every beautiful thought you know and every precious sentiment you feel, shall shine out of your face so that all who are great enough may see, know, understand, appreciate and appropriate. You can keep things only by giving them away.
When Pythagoras was only four or five years old, his mother taught him to take his morning bath in the cold stream, and dry his baby skin by running in the wind. As he ran, she ran with him, and together they sang a hymn to the rising sun, that for them represented the god Apollo.
This mother taught him to be indifferent to cold, heat, hunger, to exult in endurance, and to take a joy in the glow of the body.
So the boy grew strong and handsome, and proud; and perhaps it was in those early years, from the mother herself, that he gathered the idea, afterward developed, that Apollo had appeared to his mother, and so great was the beauty of the god that the woman was actually overcome, it being the first god at which she had ever had a good look.
The ambition of a great mother centers on her son. Pythagoras was filled with the thought that he was different, peculiar, set apart to teach the human race.
Having compassed all there was to learn in his native place, and, as he thought, being ill appreciated, he started for Egypt, the land of learning. The fallacy that knowledge was a secret to be gained by word of mouth and to be gotten from books existed then as now. The mother of Pythagoras wanted her son to comprehend the innermost secrets of the Egyptian mysteries. He would then know all. To this end she sold her jewels, in order that her son might have the advantages of an Egyptian education.
Women were not allowed to know the divine secrets--only just a few little ones. This woman wanted to know, and she said her son would learn, and tell her.
The family had become fairly rich by this time, and influential. Letters were gotten from the great ones of Samos to the Secretary of State in Egypt. And so Pythagoras, aged twenty, "the youth with the beautiful hair," went on his journey to Egypt and knocked boldly at the doors of the temples at Memphis, where knowledge was supposed to be in stock. Religion then monopolized all schools and continued to do so for quite some time after Pythagoras was dead.
He was turned away with the explanation that no foreigner could enter the sacred portals--that the initiates must be those born in the shadows of the temples and nurtured in the faith from infancy by holy virgins.
Pythagoras still insisted, and it was probably then that he found a sponsor who made for him the claim that he was a son of Apollo. And the holy men peeped out of their peep-holes in holy admiration for any one who could concoct as big a lie as they themselves had ever invented.
The boy surely looked the part. Perhaps, at last, here was one who was what they pretended to be! Frauds believe in frauds, and rogues are more easily captured by roguery than are honest men.
His admittance to the university became a matter of international diplomacy. At last, being too hard-pressed, the wise ones who ran the mystery monopoly gave in, and Pythagoras was informed that at midnight of a certain night, he should present himself, naked, at the door of a certain temple and he would be admitted.
On the stroke of the hour, at the appointed time, Pythagoras, the youth with the beautiful hair, was there, clothed only in his beautiful hair. He knocked on the great, bronze doors, but the only answer was a faint, hollow echo.
Then he got a stone and pounded, but still no answer.
The wind sprang up fresh and cold. The young man was chilled to the bone, but still he pounded and then called aloud demanding admittance. His answer now was the growling and barking of dogs, within. Still he pounded! After an interval a hoarse voice called out through a little slide, ordering him to be gone or the dogs would be turned loose upon him.
He demanded admittance.
"Fool, do you not know that the law says these doors shall admit no one except at sunrise?"
"I only know that I was told to be here at midnight and I would be admitted."
"All that may be true, but you were not told when you would be admitted--wait, it is the will of the gods." So Pythagoras waited, numbed and nearly dead.
The dogs which he had heard had, in some way, gotten out, and came tearing around the corner of the great stone building. He fought them with desperate strength. The effort seemed to warm his blood, and whereas before he was about to retreat to his lodgings he now remained.
The day broke in the east, and gangs of slaves went by to work. They jeered at him and pelted him with pebbles.
Suddenly across the desert sands he saw the faint pink rim of the rising sun. On the instant the big bronze doors against which he was leaning swung suddenly in. He fell with them, and coarse, rough hands seized his hair and pulled him into the hall.
The doors swung to and closed with a clang. Pythagoras was in dense darkness, lying on the stone floor.
A voice, seemingly coming from afar, demanded, "Do you still wish to go on?"
And his answer was, "I desire to go on."
A black-robed figure, wearing a mask, then appeared with a flickering light, and Pythagoras was led into a stone cell.
His head was shaved, and he was given a coarse robe and then left alone. Toward the end of the day he was given a piece of black bread and a bowl of water. This he was told was to fortify him for the ordeal to come.
What that ordeal was we can only guess, save that it consisted partially in running over hot sands where he sank to his waist. At a point where he seemed about to perish a voice called loudly, "Do you yet desire to go on?"
And his answer was, "I desire to go on."
Returning to the inmost temple he was told to enter a certain door and wait therein. He was then blindfolded and when he opened the door to enter, he walked off into space and fell into a pool of ice-cold water.
While floundering there the voice again called, "Do you yet desire to go on?"
And his answer was, "I desire to go on."
At another time he was tied upon the back of a donkey and the donkey was led along a rocky precipice, where lights danced and flickered a thousand feet below.
"Do you yet want to go on?" called the voice.
And Pythagoras answered, "I desire to go on."
The priests here pushed the donkey off the precipice, which proved to be only about two feet high, the gulf below being an illusion arranged with the aid of lights that shone through apertures in the wall.
These pleasing little diversions Pythagoras afterward introduced into the college which he founded, so to teach the merry freshmen that nothing, at the last, was as bad as it seemed, and that most dangers are simply illusions.
The Egyptians grew to have such regard for Pythagoras that he was given every opportunity to know the inmost secrets of the mysteries. He said he encompassed them all, save those alone which were incomprehensible.
This was probably true.
The years spent in Egypt were not wasted--he learned astronomy, mathematics, and psychology, a thing then not named, but pretty well understood--the management of men.
It was twenty years before Pythagoras returned to Samos. His mother was dead, so she passed away in ignorance of the secrets of the gods--which perhaps was just as well.
Samos now treated Pythagoras with great honor.
Crowds flocked to his lectures, presents were given him, royalty paid him profound obeisance.
But Samos soon tired of Pythagoras. He was too austere, too severe; and when he began to rebuke the officials for their sloth and indifference, he was invited to go elsewhere and teach his science of life. And so he journeyed into Southern Italy, and at Crotona built his Temple to the Muses and founded the Pythagorean School. He was the wisest as well as the most learned man of his time.
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Some unkind person has said that Pythagoras was the original charter member of the Jesuits Society. The maxim that the end justifies the means was the cornerstone of Egyptian theology. When Pythagoras left Egypt he took with him this cornerstone as a souvenir. That the priests could hold their power over the masses only through magic and miracle was fully believed, and as a good police system the value of organized religion was highly appreciated. In fact, no ruler could hold his place, unsupported by the priest. Both were divine propositions. One searches in vain for simple truth among the sages, solons, philosophers, poets and prophets that existed down to the time of Socrates. Truth for truth's sake was absolutely unimagined; freethought was unguessed.
Expediency was always placed before truth.
Truth was furnished with frills--the people otherwise would not be impressed. Chants, robes, ritual, processions, banging of bells, burning of incense, strange sounds, sights and smells: these were considered necessary factors in teaching divine truth.
To worship with a noise seems to us a little like making love with a brass band.
Pythagoras was a very great man, but for him to eliminate theological chaff entirely was impossible. So we find that when he was about to speak, red fire filled the building as soon as he arose. It was all a little like the alleged plan of the late Reverend T. DeWitt Talmage, who used to have an Irishman let loose a white pigeon from the organ-loft at an opportune time.
When Pythagoras burned the red fire, of course the audience thought a miracle was taking place, unable to understand a simple stage-trick which all the boys in the gallery who delight in "Faust" now understand.
However, the Pythagorean School had much virtue on its side, and made a sincere and earnest effort to solve certain problems that yet are vexing us.
The Temple of the Muses, built by Pythagoras at Crotona, is described by Iamblichus as a stone structure with walls twenty feet thick, the light being admitted only from the top. It was evidently constructed after the Egyptian pattern, and the intent was to teach there the esoteric doctrine. But Pythagoras improved upon the Egyptian methods and opened his temple on certain days to all and any who desired to come. Then at times he gave lectures to women only, and then to men only, and also to children, thus showing that modern revival methods are not wholly modern.
These lectures contain the very essence of Pythagorean philosophy, and include so much practical commonsense that they are still quoted. These are some of the sayings that impressed Socrates, Pericles, Aristotle and Pliny. What the Egyptians actually taught we really do not know--it was too gaseous to last. Only the good endures. Says Pythagoras:
Cut not into the grape. Exaltation coming from wine is not good. You hope too much in this condition, so are afterwards depressed. Wise men are neither cast down in defeat nor exalted by success. Eat moderately, bathe plentifully, exercise much in the open air, walk far, and climb the hills alone.
Above all things, learn to keep silence--hear all and speak little. If you are defamed, answer not back. Talk convinces no one. Your life and character proclaim you more than any argument you can put forth. Lies return to plague those who repeat them.
The secret of power is to keep an even temper, and remember that no one thing that can happen is of much moment. The course of justice, industry, courage, moderation, silence, means that you shall receive your due of every good thing. The gods may be slow, but they never forget.
It is not for us to punish men nor avenge ourselves for slights, wrongs and insults--wait, and you will see that Nemesis unhorses the man intent on calumny.
A woman's ornaments should be modesty, simplicity, truth, obedience. If a woman would hold a man captive she can only do it by obeying him. Violent women are even more displeasing to the gods than violent men--both are destroying themselves. Strife is always defeat.
Debauchery, riot, splendor, luxury, are attempts to get a pleasure out of life that is not our due, and so Nemesis provides her penalty for the idle and gluttonous.
Fear and honor the gods. They guide our ways and watch over us in our sleep. After the gods, a man's first thought should be of his father and mother. Next to these his wife, then his children.
So great was this power of Pythagoras over the people that many of the women who came, hearing his discourse on the folly of pride and splendor, threw off their cloaks, and left them with their rings, anklets and necklaces on the altar.
With these and other offerings Pythagoras built another temple, this time to Apollo, and the Temple to the Muses was left open all the time for the people.
His power over the multitude alarmed the magistrates, so they sent for him to examine him as to his influence and intents. He explained to them that as the Muses were never at variance among themselves, always living in subjection to Apollo, so should magistrates agree among themselves and think only of being loyal to the king. All royal edicts and laws are reflections of divine law, and therefore must be obeyed without question. And as the Muses never interrupt the harmony of Heaven, but in fact add to it, so should men ever keep harmony among themselves.
All officers of the government should consider themselves as runners in the Olympian games, and never seek to trip, jostle, harass or annoy a rival, but run the race squarely and fairly, satisfied to be beaten if the other is the stronger and better man. An unfair victory gains only the anger of the gods.
All disorders in the State come from ill education of the young. Children not brought up to be patient, to endure, to work, to be considerate of their elders and respectful to all, grow diseased minds that find relief at last in anarchy and rebellion. So to take great care of children in their infancy, and then leave them at puberty to follow their own inclinations, is to sow disorder. Children well loved and kept close to their parents grow up into men and women who are an ornament to the State and a joy to the gods. Lawless, complaining, restless, idle children grieve the gods and bring trouble upon their parents and society.
The magistrates were here so pleased, and satisfied in their own minds that Pythagoras meant the State no harm, that they issued an order that all citizens should attend upon his lectures at least once a week, and take their wives and children with them.
They also offered to pay Pythagoras--that is, put him on the payroll as a public teacher--but he declined to accept money for his services. In this, Iamblichus says, he was very wise, since by declining a fixed fee, ten times as much was laid upon the altar of the Temple of the Muses, and not knowing to whom to return it, Pythagoras was obliged to keep it for himself and the poor.
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Churchmen of the Middle Ages worked the memory of Pythagoras great injustice by quoting him literally in order to prove how much they were beyond him. Symbols and epigrams require a sympathetic hearer, otherwise they are as naught.
For instance, Pythagoras remarks, "Sit thou not down upon a bushel measure." What he probably meant was, get busy and fill the measure with grain rather than use it for a seat.
"Eat not the heart"--do not act so as to harrow the feelings of your friends, and do not be morbid.
"Never stir the fire with a sword"--do not inflame people who are wrathful.
"Wear not the image of God upon your jewelry"--do not make religion a proud or boastful thing.
"Help men to a burden, but never unburden them." This saying was used by Saint Francis to prove that the pagan philosophers had no tenderness, and that the humanities came at a later date. We can now easily understand that to relieve men of responsibilities is no help; rather do we grow strong by carrying burdens.
"Leave not the mark of the pot upon the ashes"--wipe out the past, forget it, look to the future.
"Feed no animal that has crooked claws"--do not encourage rogues by supplying them a living.
"Eat no fish whose fins are black"--have nothing to do with men whose deeds are dark.
"Always have salt upon your table"--this seems the original of "cum grano salis" of the Romans.
"Leave the vinegar at a distance"--keep sweet.
"Speak not in the face of the sun"--even Erasmus thought this referred to magic. To us it is quite reasonable to suppose that it meant, "do not talk too much in public places."
"Pick not up what falls from the table"--Plutarch calls this superstition, but we can just as easily suppose it was out of consideration for cats, dogs or hungry men. The Bible has a command against gleaning too closely, and leaving nothing for the traveler.
"When making sacrifice, never pare your nails"--that is to say, do one thing at a time: wind not the clock at an inopportune time.
"Eat not in the chariot"--when you travel, travel.
"Feed not yourself with your left hand"--get your living openly and avoid all left-handed dealings.
And so there are hundreds of these Pythagorean sayings that have vexed our classic friends for over two thousand years. All Greek scholars who really pride themselves on their scholarship have taken a hand at them, and agitated the ether just as the members of the Kokomo Woman's Club discuss obscure passages in Bliss Carman or Ella Wheeler Wilcox. Learned people are apt to comprehend anything but the obvious.
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The School of Pythagoras grew until it became the chief attraction of Crotona. The size of the town was doubled through the pilgrims who came to study music, mathematics, medicine, ethics and the science of government.
The Pythagorean plan of treating the sick by music was long considered as mere incantation, but there is a suspicion now that it was actual science. Once there was a man who rode a hobby all his life; and long after he was dead, folks discovered it was a real live horse and had carried the man long miles.
Pythagoras reduced the musical scale to a mathematical science. In astronomy he anticipated Copernicus, and indeed, it was cited as the chief offense of Copernicus that he had borrowed from a pagan. Copernicus, it seems, set the merry churchmen digging into Greek literature to find out just how bad Pythagoras was. This did the churchmen good, but did not help the cause of Copernicus.
Pythagoras for a time sought to popularize his work, but he soon found to his dismay that he was attracting cheap and unworthy people, who came not so much out of a love of learning as to satisfy a morbid curiosity and gain a short cut to wisdom. They wanted secrets, and knowing that Pythagoras had spent twenty years in Egypt, they came to him, hoping to get them.
Said Pythagoras, "He who digs, always finds." At another time, he put the same idea reversely, thus, "He who digs not, never finds."
Pythagoras was well past forty when he married a daughter of one of the chief citizens of Crotona. It seems that, inspired by his wife, who was first one of his pupils and then a disciple, he conceived a new mode of life, which he thought would soon overthrow the old manner of living.
Pythagoras himself wrote nothing, but all his pupils kept tablets, and Athens in the century following Pythagoras was full of these Pythagorean notebooks, and these supply us the scattered data from which his life was written.
Pythagoras, like so many other great men, had his dream of Utopia: it was a college or, literally, "a collection of people," where all were on an equality. Everybody worked, everybody studied, everybody helped everybody, and all refrained from disturbing or distressing any one. It was the Oneida Community taken over by Brook Farm and fused into a religious and scientific New Harmony by the Shakers.
One smiles to see the minute rules that were made for the guidance of the members. They look like a transcript from a sermon by John Alexander Dowie, revised by the shade of Robert Owen.
This Pythagorean Community was organized out of a necessity in order to escape the blow-ins who sailed across from Greece intent on some new thing, but principally to get knowledge and a living without work.
And so Pythagoras and his wife formed a close corporation. For each member there was an initiation, strict and severe, the intent of which was absolutely to bar the transient triflers. Each member was to turn over to the Common Treasury all the money and goods he had of every kind and quality. They started naked, just as did Pythagoras when he stood at the door of the temple in Egypt.
Simplicity, truth, honesty and mutual service were to govern. It was an outcrop of the monastic impulse, save that women were admitted, also. Unlike the Egyptians, Pythagoras believed now in the equality of the sexes, and his wife daily led the women's chorus, and she also gave lectures. The children were especially cared for by women set apart as nurses and teachers. By rearing perfect children, it was hoped and expected to produce in turn a perfect race.
The whole idea was a phase of totemism and tabu.
That it flourished for about thirty years is very certain. Two sons and a daughter of Pythagoras grew to maturity in the college, and this daughter was tried by the Order on the criminal charge of selling the secret doctrines of her father to outsiders.
One of the sons it seems made trouble, also, in an attempt to usurp his father's place and take charge of affairs, as "next friend." One generation is about the limit of a Utopian Community. When those who have organized the community weaken and one by one pass away, and the young assume authority, the old ideas of austerity are forgotten and dissipation and disintegration enter. So do we move in circles.
The final blow to the Pythagorean College came through jealousy and misunderstanding of the citizens outside. It was the old question of Town versus Gown. The Pythagoreans numbered nearly three hundred people. They held themselves aloof, and no doubt had an exasperating pride. No strangers were ever allowed inside the walls--they were a law unto themselves.
Internal strife and tales told by dissenters excited the curiosity, and then the prejudice, of the townspeople.
Then the report got abroad that the Pythagoreans were collecting arms and were about to overthrow the local government and enslave the officials.
On a certain night, led by a band of drunken soldiers, a mob made an assault upon the college. The buildings were fired, and the members were either destroyed in the flames or killed as they rushed forth to escape. Tradition has it that Pythagoras was later seen by a shepherd on the mountains, but the probabilities are that he perished with his people. But you can not dispose of a great man by killing him. Here we are reading, writing and talking yet of Pythagoras.