Last week, the classics community learnt of the passing of Walter Burkert. I never met Walter Burkert, and I don’t usually feel entitled to write with sadness about people whose paths I have never crossed. But, you see, without Walter Burkert – I can say with some certainty – I would not be where I am today. Without his work, I would not be a historian of science.
Serendipity has played a very large role in my academic ‘career’. As an undergraduate, looking for a dissertation topic at the end of my second year (I had two years left – that is how things work in the Belgian system), I once browsed the ‘philosophy’ section at my local library. I came across the French translation of Iamblichus’ Life of Pythagoras (La vie de Pythagore, translated by Luc Brisson and Alain-Philippe Segonds). I have no idea how my local library came to possess a translation of this rather unusual text. Iamblichus (a Neoplatonist active at the end of second-beginning of third century CE) is hardly one of the most-read ancient philosophers! Anyway, the library did have a copy, and I leafed through it. At the end of the text is a list: a list of famous Pythagoreans. And, lo and behold, among these Pythagoreans there were women.
Here we were: all my passions at once: ancient history, philosophy, women’s history… and lists. I decided that these Pythagorean women would be the topic of my undegraduate dissertation. The topic was rich, to say the least, and through acquainting myself with these ladies, I came across gynaecological texts. Eventually, I pursued that particular line of enquiry and became a historian of medicine and pharmacology.
But beside their interest in women’s bodies and place in society, the Pythagorean women also had mathematical and cosmological interests. This is how I came to read Walter Burkert’s Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism (1972 for the English translation). This has to be one of the best academic books of all times. It is by no means an easy book. In fact it is bloody hard going. But it well worth the effort. In a nutshell, Burkert tries to establish what the earliest Pythagoreans – those who consigned nothing to writing – believed. In particular, he discusses the status of mathematics in early Pythagoreanism. He comes to the conclusion that early Pythagoreans did not develop complex mathematics but had an interest in the cosmological meaning of numbers (basically: numbers are the principle of all things). Burkert’s work is based on very very thorough and painstaking research. But, it is also open to anthropological ideas. And that is what really inspired me.
‘Inspired’ is probably the best word, because Burkert argues that Pythagoras was in many ways similar to a shamanic figure. That made me love the Greeks that little bit more: no, they were not these highly ‘rational’ people who only argue in a syllogistic fashion – they had some time for shamanic-like inspiration. Or perhaps not… because to be honest, Pythagoreans were rather marginal in the ancient Greek world.
When I teach Ancient Science, I tell my students that, if they take away one thing from the course, I’ll be happy. That thing is an understanding of syllogistic thinking. Syllogistic thinking works beautifully when the premisses are truly universal, but let’s face it, they rarely are (especially when politicians use syllogistic arguments). That appreciation of the limits of ‘rational’ reasoning started to germinate with my reading of Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism.