Stoicism and Pythagoreanism: The Allegory of the Festival

Stoicism & Pythagoreanism

The Allegory of the Festival and the Three Lives

PythagorasPythagoras reputedly coined the term “philosophy” and when asked to explain what a “philosopher” was he gave the following simile:

[Pythagoras said] that human life seemed to him comparable with the festival to which people flocked form all over Greece in order to see those magnificent [Olympic] Games. This is an occasion for which some people have gone into physical training in the hope of winning the splendid distinction of a crown, while others are attracted by the prospect of buying or selling for profit, whereas a further category again – and these represent an especially good class of people – are interested in winning neither applause nor profit, but come merely for the sake of the spectacle, to get a thorough look at what is going on and how it is down. And we too, said Pythagoras, as we enter this life from some other kind of existence [as he believed in reincarnation], behave like people who have moved out of town to join the crowds at this sort of show. Some of us are enslaved to glory, others to money. But there are also a few people who devote themselves wholly top the study of the universe, believing everything else to be trivial in comparison. These call themselves students of wisdom, in other words philosophers [“lovers of wisdom”]; and just as a festival attracts individuals of the finest type who just watch the proceedings without a thought of getting anything for themselves, so too, in life generally, the contemplation and study of nature are far superior to the whole range of other human activities. (Cicero, Tuscalan Disputations, 5.9)

Diogenes Laertius also mentions this:

[Pythagoras] used to compare life to a festival [panêguris]. And as some people came to a festival to contend for the prizes, and others for the purposes of selling their wares, and the best as spectators; so also in life, the men of slavish dispositions,” said he,” are born to the pursuit of fame and material gain, but philosophers are seekers after truth. (Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 8.6)

Likewise, according to Iamblichus:

[Pythagoras] likened the entrance of men into the present life to the progression of a crowd to some public spectacle. There assemble men of all descriptions and views. One hastens to sell his wares for money and gain; another exhibits his bodily strength for renown; but the most liberal assemble to observe the landscape, the beautiful works of art, the specimens of valour, and the customary literary productions. So also in the present life men of manifold pursuits are assembles. Some are influenced by the desire of riches and luxury; others, by the love of power and dominion, or by insane ambition for glory. But the purest and most genuine character is that of the man who devotes himself to the contemplation of the most beautiful things, and he may properly be called a “philosopher”. (Iamblichus, The Life of Pythagoras, 12)

He linked this to the “survey of the whole heaven, and of the stars that revolve therein”, and suggested that philosophy is the love of this kind of wisdom, the contemplation of the beauty and order of the cosmos.  The Stoics were greatly influenced by Pythagorean contemplative exercises.  Epictetus, who elsewhere refers several times to the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, also mentions this famous analogy between life and a festival (panêguris) more than once, during his lectures on Stoicism.

Our position is like that of those who attend a festival.  Cattle and oxen are brought there to be sold, and most men engage in buying and selling, while there are only a few who go merely to see the fair, how it is conducted, and why, and who are promoting it, and for what purpose. So it is also in this “festival” of the world in which we live; some persons, like cattle, are interested in nothing but their fodder; for to all of you that concern yourselves with property and lands and slaves and one office or another, all this is nothing but fodder! And few in number are the men who attend the fair because they are fond of the spectacle. “What, then, is the cosmos,” they ask, “and who governs it?” […] That is the way these few are affected; and thenceforward they have leisure for this one thing only – to study well the “festival” of life before they leave it. With what result, then? They are laughed to scorn by the crowd, quite as in the real fair the mere spectators are laughed at by the traffickers; yes, and if the cattle themselves had any comprehension like ours of what was going on, they too would laugh at those who had wonder and admiration for anything but their fodder! (Discourses, 2.15.23-29)

Epictetus says that the true Stoic “wishes to be of one mind with God” and therefore “has his heart set on changing from a man into a God, and although he is still in this paltry body of death, does none the less have his purpose set upon fellowship with Zeus” (Discourses, 2.19.26-27).

Imagine that you are in Olympia, regard the turmoil as a festival.  There, too, one man shouts this and another that; one man does this and another that; one man jostles another; there is a crowd in the baths.  And yet who of us does not take delight in the Olympic festival and is not sad to leave?  Do not become peevish or fastidious toward events. […] If, however, you fall in with a crowd, call it games, a festival, a holiday, try to keep holiday with the people.  For what is more pleasant to a man who loves his fellow-men than the sight of large numbers of them? (Discourses, 4.4.24-27)

Elsewhere, Epictetus uses the analogy of the festival to express the notion that we should treat life as if it were “on loan” from Zeus or Nature, and be willing to leave without complaint when the time comes for us eventually to die:

And now it is Thy [Zeus’] will that I leave this festival; I go, I am full of gratitude to Thee that Thou hast deemed me worthy to take part in this festival with Thee, and to see Thy works, and to understand They governance.” (Discourses, 3.5.8)

He returns again to this theme:

And so, when you have received everything, and your very self, from Another [Zeus], do you yet complain and blame the Giver, if He take something away from you? […] And as what did He bring you into the world?  Was it not as a mortal being?  Was it not as one destined to live upon earth with a little portion of paltry flesh, and for a little while to be a spectator of His governance, and to join with Him in His pageant and holiday?  Are you not willing, then, for so long as has been given you, to be a spectator of His pageant and His festival, and then when He leads you forth, to go, after you have made obeisance and returned thanks for what you have heard and seen?  “No,” you say, “but I wanted to go on with the holiday.”  Yes, and so do the initiates in the mysteries want to go on with the initiation, and no doubt the spectators at Olympia want to see still other athletes; but the festival has come to an end; leave, depart as a grateful and reverent spectator departs; make room for others; yet others must be born, even as you were born, and once born they must have land, and houses, and provisions.  […]

God has no need of a fault-finding spectator.  He needs those who join in the holiday and the dance, that they may applaud rather, and glorify, and sing hymns of praise about the festival.  But the peevish and the cowardly He will not be distressed to see left out of the festival; for when they were present they did not act as thought they were on a holiday, nor did they fill the proper role; but they were distressed, found fault with the Deity, with fate, and with the company insensible to what had been vouchsafed them, and to their own powers which they had received for the very opposite use – high-mindedness, nobility of character, courage, and the very freedom for which we are now seeking. (Discourses, 4.1.104-110)

One thought on “Stoicism and Pythagoreanism: The Allegory of the Festival

  1. I am attracted to the virtues, but given the amount of criticism leveled against Western rationalist epistemology by materialist feminists I am wondering if women’s cognitive differences is/are accounted for ? I do like Gilles Deleuze’s philosophical thought, was he a stoic?

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