Pythagoros and the Bean

By Williams, Kate Garnons | Contemporary Review, October 1993 | Go to article overview

Pythagoros and the Bean


Williams, Kate Garnons, Contemporary Review


IF you ever wondered what Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician, had to do with Vicia Fava, the humble broad bean, the answer, is absolutely nothing -- on principle. His apparent aversion to the harmless legume was not, however, simply a matter of personal preference -- for all we know he may have been quite partial to the bean; it was a question, believe it or not, of profound philosophical conviction.

Pythagoras is chiefly remembered, with varying degrees of pleasure or pain, for his theorem concerning the right-angled triangle -- 'with', as W. S. Gilbert put it, 'many cheerful facts about the square on the hypotenuse'. But in the sixth century B.C. he attracted more attention as an eccentric, even cranky, philosopher. Driven as a trouble-maker from his native island of Samos, he eventually found his way to Crotona, a Greek colony in southern Italy, but not before he stopped off for a brief stay in Egypt. And it was here, almost certainly, that he picked up many of those decidedly un-Greek ideas on which he based his philosophy and lifestyle.

The Egyptians were an endless source of fascination to the Greeks who felt something of an inferiority complex towards the older and more sophisticated civilisation on the Nile. Herodotus, that much-travelled Greek historian of the fifth century B.C., further stimulated interest in the country with his traveller's tales. And concerning the broad bean, he reveals an interesting snippet of information: the Egyptian priests of his day, he tells us, could not bear even to look at the vegetable, 'because', he deduces, 'they imagined it to be unclean'. Herodotus does not elaborate on this statement; nor does he offer any explanation for the fact that traces of broad beans are to be found in a number of Egyptian tombs dating from earlier times than his own. What, we may wonder, had the poor benighted bean done, to become all of a sudden taboo?

The answer is, of course, that it had done nothing. Herodotus had simply got it all wrong. Believing as they did in the transmigration of the soul after death from one species of life to another, animal or vegetable depending on the owner's spiritual state of health, the Egyptians considered the broad bean a more than likely candidate for temporary residence. And why the broad bean? Aristotle suggests the most plausible answer, when he points out the resemblance between the shape of Vicia Fava and the human testicles. What better accommodation could Nature afford the soul of man-in-transition, so to speak -- offering him, as it did, a remembrance of times past! The reluctance, then, of the Egyptian priests to come in contact with the broad bean, which Herodotus observed, can be understood in terms rather of excessive respect than disdain: to paraphrase Malvolio in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, they believed, 'the soul of our grandam might haply inhabit' -- not a 'bird', but a bean.

The transmigration of souls was only one of the ideas Pythagoras took with him from Egypt to southern Italy. Not surprisingly he soon attracted a body of curious followers, but in the course of time many of them decided to live permanently under his guidance and in accordance with his rules. Although the community, or the Brotherhood as it was called, accepted women as well as men, the observance of silence and chastity, which was part of the rule, may well have acted as a deterrent to the more frivolous-minded.

Vegetarianism was another feature of the Brotherhood's way of life, though it seems to have been of a rather selective kind -- only the heart and brains of an animal were absolutely forbidden. The reasoning behind this very specific prohibition looks to have based more on ritualistic than philosophical grounds, it must be said.

Mathematical principles, as one might suspect, also figured, strongly in Pythagoras's teaching. 'All is number', was his starting point, and on the basis of this he worked out some sensible schemes, like the numerical ratio between the notes of the musical scale, but also some less sensible, like the idea that the planets were arranged in a musical relationship to each other -- the so-called 'harmony of the spheres'. …

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