PYTHAGOREANS

Who was Pythagoras? 

Pythagoras (pictured on the right in Raphael’s School of Athens) is one of the so-called ‘Pre-Socratic’ philosophers, who lived and taught on the Ionian Peninsula in the late sixth and early fifth century BC. He was supposedly the first person to use the term ‘philosopher’, and the magical legends that surround him show how philosophy grew out of an earlier tradition of shamanism:  Pythagoras is said to have been able to speak to rivers, to control the weather, to appear in two different places at once. These legends should be taken with a fistful of salt, but if you can see through the smoke and mirrors, Pythagoras made important contributions to philosophy.

Such as? 

Pythagoras was the first to insist that philosophy needs to be a daily way of life: his students, who lived in a philosophical commune, followed a strict daily regime, designed to free their divine souls from their mortal bodies and secure a good reincarnation. The Pythagorean way of life included memorisation, repetition and incantation exercises, and in the book we explore why these techniques are useful for us today, whether we believe in reincarnation or not.

Why are these techniques of memorisation, repetition and incantation useful? 

Pythagoras had a profound grasp of the human psyche. He and his followers understood that humans are not entirely rational. There is a large part of our psyche that is irrational and automatic. So if we want our philosophy to really sink in, we need to soak our minds in it, so that it guides both the rational and irrational parts of our psyche. Otherwise our pre-rational cortex may be very wise and philosophical, while the other 95% of us will carry on happily living as before.

How do we turn our philosophical ideas into automatic habits? 

One of the ways to do this is through memorisation, repetition and incantation techniques. Epictetus said: ‘It is not easy for a man to acquire a fixed judgement, unless he should state and hear the same principles every day and apply them all the time to his life.’ We need to repeat our philosophical principles until they become habits.

By literally repeating them? 

Yes, literally. The Pythagoreans did this through the technique of the maxim, which condenses a philosophical idea into an easy-to-remember slogan, catchphrase or mnemonic. Greek philosophy is full of them: ‘know thyself’, ‘life itself is but what you deem it’, ‘change is nature’s delight’, ‘be the master of yourself’, and so on. Students of philosophy would repeat these maxims over and over so that, when they were in dangerous or stressful situations, the maxims would automatically pop up in their minds and help them. The idea behind the maxim is that humans are very forgetful creatures. We make a firm commitment to do something in the morning, then completely forget it by the afternoon. So we need constant little reminders to steer ourselves in the right direction.

And the technique still works today? 

Yes. The chapter begins with the extraordinary story of Admiral James Stockdale, an American fighter pilot who was captured during the Vietnam War. He was imprisoned for seven years, tortured 15 times, and was kept in solitary confinement for four years. Despite this, Stockdale wasn’t broken by the experience. He stayed resilient, and refused to appear on North Vietnamese television denouncing the war. One of the things that helped him cope was the fact he had memorised the Handbook of Epictetus before the war. Amid the trauma of imprisonment and torture, the maxims and principles of ancient philosophy came to him and helped him endure.

A modern maxim

We have to soak our minds in philosophy, repeat its ideas over and over. One of the ways the Greeks did this was through handbooks, which enabled our philosophy always to be procheiron, or ‘close at hand’. Students of philosophy would put maxims up on their walls, on pieces of furniture, in paintings, in family crests, anywhere, to remind themselves of their principles. It’s still a useful technique: think of the popularity of contemporary maxims like ‘Keep calm and carry on’ or ‘Work hard and be nice to people’.

What about the incantation technique? 

Pythagoras suggested that the spoken or sung word had a magical effect over our psyches. He suggested that our psyches respond to everything we think, say or sing. Usually this influence happens unconsciously. But we can consciously mould our souls by saying or singing ideas to ourselves?

Singing? 

Yes. He suggested the irrational-emotional part of our psyche responds particularly to music. Like Orpheus, Pythagoras was supposed to be able to tame wild beasts with his voice. Likewise, we can tame our own passions through singing and music. Many religious traditions use this technique. When Christians gather in a church and sing hymns and psalms, they’re bonding as a unit, they’re celebrating their faith in God. But they’re also repeating ideas and maxims to music, and allowing them to really sink into their automatic-emotive minds. Write a book, you might connect with a few people. Write a catchy song that sticks in people’s head, then you can really spread your ideas.

Is there a scientific evidence base for these memorisation, repetition and incantation techniques? 

There is indeed, particularly in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). One of the two pioneers of CBT, Aaron Beck, discovered in the 1960s that our emotions are directed by what he called our ‘self-talk’ – a constant running commentary that we keep up to ourselves, often without realising it. The process of CBT involves bringing that unconscious self-talk into our consciousness, seeing if it makes sense, and then taking our more rational ideas and repeating them until they become part of our automatic self-talk.

CBT does this using many of the techniques we explore in this chapter. When I used CBT to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder and social anxiety, for example, I used to repeat handouts to myself every night, so that the therapy would really soak in. It felt pretty ridiculous, but it worked. I used to listen to the therapy on a Walkman on the way to work and back every day. I even carried a little handbook filled with ‘power phrases’, and if I felt myself getting very stressed, I would find a private space, pull out the handbook, and repeat some of these phrases or maxims. Again, I felt very cheesy. But it worked.

Handbooks, power phrases, the endless repetition of slogans…It sounds like Maosim! Isn’t this brain-washing? 

In a way, yes. Marcus Aurelius said: ‘the soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts. Soak it then in trains of thought’. But there’s a crucial ethical distinction between non-consensual brain-washing, and voluntary, self-directed brain-washing. If you think about it, we’ve been ‘brain-washed’ since we were born. We’ve been soaked in the ideas and values of our parents, our friends, our culture, our economic and political system. Perhaps these ideas and values are perfectly suited for our spiritual flourishing. But if you’re interested in philosophy, it’s probably because you suspect your conditioning is not best suited to your flourishing. We can choose new beliefs and values, then choose to soak our minds in them.

The techniques you’ve described sound a little bit like positive affirmation or the Law of Attraction, and the idea that if we repeat something over and over, it will magically become true. 

I explore this in the chapter. In fact, the champions of ‘positive affirmation’, such as the psychologist Emile Coué, and the supporters of the Law of Attraction, like Rhonda Byrne, both claimed that their methods could be traced back to Pythagoras. However, I argue that there is a big difference between their ideas and those of the ancient Greeks. The Greeks thought that philosophy has a magical power over our psyches. We can use it to transform our emotions and withstand crises. But they didn’t believe it gave them a magical power over the universe.

The Greeks recognised there is a limit to what we can control in life. Adverse things happen to good people. Just look at how many Greek philosophers met violent ends, including Pythagoras. Rhonda Byrne’s idea that we can control the universe through our thoughts and words is just wishful thinking. Philosophy can give us magical powers over our selves, and that can help us in our path through life. But it’s not a free ticket to fame and fortune. Epictetus told his students: ‘Property, health, reputation – philosophy promises none of these things.’ Admittedly, the tales of Pythagoras retain some aspects of magic. But rational philosophy grew out of magic. People like Rhonda Byrne want to take it back.

In the chapter, you mention that some contemporary students of philosophy use ‘philosophical tattoos’ as a way of reminding themselves of their ideas and principles, like the amnesiac hero of Memento. Can we see some of these philosophy tattoos?

Sure, here are some. Don’t rush off and get one unless you’re really sure you want it for life!