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  • The Pythagorean Precepts (How to Live a Pythagorean Life) by Aristoxenus of Tarentum
  • Christopher Moore
Aristoxenus of Tarentum. The Pythagorean Precepts (How to Live a Pythagorean Life). Edition, commentary, and introduction by Carl A. Huffman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. xi + 636. Cloth, $170.00.

Like his fellow first-generation Peripatetic Theophrastus, Aristoxenus (b. ca. 370 BCE) wrote an extraordinary number of works (453—hopefully some were article-length or coauthored!). Many concerned music; one on Socrates contained evidence independent of Plato and Xenophon. At least five concerned Pythagoreanism: The Life of Pythagoras (biographical, attending to his idiosyncratic regimen), On Pythagoras and His Associates (on the first Pythagorean community, in Magna Graeca), On the Pythagorean Way of Life (on the practices of that community down to the fourth century), Life of Archytas (on the philosopher-ruler of Tarentum, a contemporary of Plato), and the Pythagorean Precepts. This last one, as Carl Huffman reconstructs the Pythagorikai Apophaseis, seems to have presented the norms governing an active fourth-century Pythagorean community, specifically the one in which Aristoxenus’s first important teacher, Xenophilus, lived. This would be an instance of the Pythagorean community mentioned admiringly by Socrates in Plato’s Republic (10.600a–b). The Pythagorean Precepts would thus be a work of contemporary descriptive ethics (what norms the community members were said to have paid fealty to), though with some theoretical backing, as we see from the included justifications for those precepts. (The extant fragments of this book do not indicate whether Aristoxenus subscribed to the ethical outlook constituted by those precepts; his nonmembership in that community and participation in Aristotle’s research program suggest he did not.) These precepts differ from the symbola or exhortations attributed to Pythagoras that are well known, for example, from Diogenes Laertius.

The explicitly attributed plus conjectured fragments of this work add up to about ten printed pages of translation (154–63). Huffman orders them from general advice to specific applications. Humans, like other animals, are by nature driven by a rowdy mess of problematic desires; the main ethical imperative is to attain self-control (sôphrosunê)—but this is to be done by submitting oneself to superior authority. This means obedience to the divine, but especially also to the appropriate elders, for which purpose one should reside in a hierarchically ordered, intentional community. (These are communities of friendship but also careful admonition: compare Philodemus’s Peri parrhêsias, on Epicurean communities.) Expectation of pleasure is never a decisive reason for action. The variety of desires confronting us is many: some kinds pursue replenishment, others emptying, and still others the presence or absence of sensations. Desires can be bad for reasons of shamelessness (aschêmosunê), disproportion (asummetria), or inappropriateness (akairia). A powerful argument for attaining an ordered life by one’s adulthood is ontogenetic: the moral texture of one’s offspring depends on the moral texture of the parents at the moment of procreation. Related to this is an exhortation to sexual restraint.

In effect, Huffman has recovered a ten-page ethics text from the early fourth century. I want to underline the importance of this recovery to our thought about early Greek ethics. Similarly robust material outside Plato and Aristotle is found only in the Democritean sentences and the Anonymous of Iamblichus (and maybe in aspects of Xenophon’s Socratica and the first half of his Constitution of the Lacedaemonians). So we now have a [End Page 145] precious addition to our comparative studies of early Greek ethics, at least at the length worth assigning to students (I will definitely assign it). (On this point, I direct the reader’s attention to the thirty chapters of David Wolfsdorf, ed., Early Greek Ethics [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020]; the last chapter contains a summary by Huffman of his findings about the Pythagorean Precepts.)

A major preoccupation of Huffman’s book, in its introductory essays and in the fragment-specific commentaries, is the establishment of the independence of Xenophilus’s Pythagoreanism from Platonic or Aristotelian material. Earlier scholars on the Pythagorean Precepts claimed that Aristoxenus foisted Academic thought onto the Pythagoreans, to the glory of neither. To show the error of this claim, Huffman...


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