Pythagoras: The Father of Greek Philosophy

Pythagoras, Thales of Miletus, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Xenophanes, Parmenides, Zeno, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Leucippus, and Democritus all made contributions to Pre-Socratic philosophical thought and were referenced by later philosophers and historians to some extent or another.

Although none of the complete works of Pre-Socratic philosophers survive today in full, we do have excerpts and references to their work that allude to who these philosophers were and to some extent what their metaphysical, theological, and philosophical premises and theses were.  References to these Pre-Socratic philosophers, quotations as well as summaries of their belief system and philosophies comes from of course Aristotle and Plato, the Middle Platonist Plutarch, the (Epicurean) philosophical historian Diogenes Laertius, from early Judeo-Christian scholars such Philo Judaeus, Origen and Clement of Alexandria and from 3rd and 4th century CE Neo-Platonist authors such as Iamblichus, Porphyry and Simplicius.

It is clear from the works of Plato and Aristotle that they were influenced by these Pre-Socratic philosophers; even if only within the context of disagreeing with their fundamental tenets or conclusions, or illustrating the supremacy of their intellectual premises or beliefs with their predecessors, all of which generally fall under the category of Pre-Socratics.  This can be seen for example in that many of the Pre-Socratic philosophers were characters and/or referenced in Plato’s dialogues – Pythagoras and Parmenides for example.  All of these Pre-Socratic philosophers, and Socrates himself if we are to believe the portrayal of him by Plato, shared the common principle of the rejection of the hitherto traditional mythological and Theogonical, i.e. divine, explanation of universal creation and order reality that permeated ancient thought, and to a great extent all of them attempted to answer such fundamental questions of the origin of the universe and the nature of reality in a more rational, reasonable fashion as contrasted by the traditions that came before them.

Of the Pre-Socratic philosophers, Pythagoras (c. 570 – c. 495 BCE) is undoubtedly the most influential and the most enigmatic.  He is the first supposedly to have called himself a “philosopher”, literally “lover of wisdom”, and as such it is probably not too much of a stretch to call him the father of western philosophy, although many might argue against this depiction.  Much of the modern academic literature surrounding Pythagoras, and the tradition which followed him as understood through his disciples, the sect that he founded, and his intellectual influence not only on other Pre-Socratic philosophers, but in the “Italian” philosophical tradition as it was defined in antiquity and looked upon as distinct from the “Ionian” philosophical tradition – as distinguished by Aristotle and Diogenes Laertius among other ancient authors – but also on the “Socratic” tradition as well as reflected on the works of Plato.[2]

Much of the modern academic literature surrounding Pythagoras focuses on what can truly be said to be “historically accurate” concerning his life and teachings.  This is a somewhat tricky problem because a) it is widely held that he authored no works himself, b) it is believed that his teachings were to be kept secret by initiates and c) because the biographies of his life that have survived are from authors that lived and wrote centuries after his death, most notably those of the Epicurean philosophical historian Diogenes Laertius who flourished in the early 3rd century CE, and the Neo-Platonists Porphyry and Iamblichus who are also 3rd and 4th century CE authors, some 9 centuries at least after Pythagoras is supposedly to have lived and taught, circa 6th century BCE (570 – 501 BCE).[3]

By the time these biographies were written however, Pythagoras had evolved into a semi-divine figure of fairly eminent heroic stature so the stories surrounding his life and teachings weave myth and history into a single narrative, making it somewhat difficult to ascertain the “facts” regarding not just his biography but also his specific teachings, their origins, and their true import and influence on the subsequent Hellenic intellectual landscape.  Diogenes Laertius in his most influential and lasting work Lives of Eminent Philosophers notably spends as much ink on the life and teachings of Pythagoras as he does on Plato and Aristotle, so if nothing else that should give the reader a good estimation on the relative import of this figure on the development of Hellenic philosophical tradition, at least as seen through the eyes of one of the most prominent Philosophical historians in Hellenic antiquity, a work which undoubtedly influenced our understanding of the early development of the Hellenic philosophical tradition as much if not more than any other work in the history of Western intellectual development.  It should come as no surprise then that Pythagoras was and is still widely regarded as one of the most influential Hellenic philosophers in antiquity, and certainly is one of the most, if not the most, influential and widely studied of all of the Pre-Socratic philosophers.


Pythagoras was reportedly born on the island of Samos just off the coast of modern day Turkey in the Aegean Sea.  This region of the Mediterranean at that time rested just on the Eastern Ionian border, and just on the Eastern borders of what was then the Persian (Achaemenid) Empire.  To this extent, and this is true of the cities of Miletus and Ephesus as well, both of which were centers of intellectual thought in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE during the time of the “Pre-Socratic” philosophical movement if we may call it such, it is fairly reasonable to assume some sort of Near Eastern, i.e. Persian and Chaldean, as well as Egyptian influence on the philosophy of Pythagoras.[4]

While Aristotle supposedly wrote a treatise On the Pythagoreans, it is unfortunately no longer extant, so that leaves us with scant relatively contemporaneous sources to look to regarding what can be determined to be “historically accurate” regarding the life and teachings of this famous historical figure from antiquity.  Both Herodotus (c. 484 – 425 BCE) as well as Plato (428 – 348 BCE) mention his “school” in passing, and Aristotle (367 – 347 BCE) does refer to a “Pythagorean School” or set of beliefs to which he was associated at somewhat greater length (more on this below), but even these authors write at least a century or two after Pythagoras died so we need to view their assertions and statements regarding what has come to be known as “Pythagorean” philosophy with a certain level of skepticism.[5]

However, what we can surmise definitively from the very early sources was that as an historical figure he did in fact exist, and that he was in fact the founder of a somewhat countercultural intellectual movement (again today what we would call a “sect” which involved some sort of secret initiations and various rights, beliefs and practices), and that he did consider himself to be a philosopher in the later Hellenic sense of the term, that he studied and travelled abroad throughout the Mediterranean and Near East prior to founding his “school” in southern Italy and that at the very least he was well known in antiquity, leaving the question of influence and how well respected he was within the later Hellenic philosophical community (if we may call it that) aside as evidenced for example by the criticism of Pythagoras in a quotation attributed to Heraclitus[6].

So it’s hard to discern fact from fiction as it were with respect to what Pythagoras actually taught versus what the subsequent philosophers that were influenced by him, his students, actually understood and interpreted his philosophy to be.  Especially when you’re dealing with a figure that clearly cultivated a semi-divine status and had a religious following of sorts that lasted some several hundred years after his death.  What is known is for certain is that he cultivated and promoted a way of life that was vegan, was a believer in the notion of metempsychosis – i.e. that the Soul lives on after death and passes into the bodies of other animate “things” such as plants or animals or even humans or deities depending upon its actions – and that his philosophical teachings were focused on numeric harmony and proportion, from which his association with the famed Pythagorean theory stems from even though he was not a mathematician per se.

All of the historical sources however are fairly consistent when speaking to the various “Oriental” influences on Pythagoras from a theo-philosophical perspective.  It is widely held for example that he travelled and studied with various priests and mystics throughout the Mediterranean during his life.  In particular it believed that he spent a good deal of time in Egypt, and is also believed to have been influenced and/or initiated by Chaldean and Persian (Magi) priests.  It is also believed by some later authors that he was exposed to the philosophy of the Hebrews as well which would not be altogether surprising given the geography and time period within which he lived and taught.  Evidence for influence from as far East as India is lacking however, despite many efforts to prove otherwise and despite the fact that his beliefs in reincarnation (metempsychosis) have a very “Eastern” and classically Indian (Hindu) theo-philosophical flavor.  Regardless however, Pythagoras for a variety of political and social reasons ended up after his studies and travels settling in Croton in Southern Italy where the bulk of his teachings and followers ensued, and where he eventually met his untimely death around 490 BCE, later being attributed as one of the founders of the so-called “Italian” philosophical school, at least as how Diogenes Laertius distinguished it specifically from the Ionian school as reflected by the teachings of Socrates and his followers to the East (the East of Italy at least).

It was in Persia to the East of Ionia during the time of Pythagoras and the Pre-Socratics that the Magi (the Greek designation for their priestly class during the Median, Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanian periods of Iranian/Persian history) held such great influence over theological matters as well as presumably matters of state as well which was so often the case in antiquity.  These priests, again Magi, were often referred to in the Greek literature in classical antiquity, had a reputation for divination (telling the future) and astronomy, and were in fact the very same class of priests who were said to have come and witnessed the birth of Christ.  There is even a tale told by Diogenes Laertius in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers of a letter sent by Darius I, one of the rulers of the Achaemenid Empire, to Heraclitus asking him to join his court as a Greek emissary of sorts, an offer in which he declined apparently.[7]

While at times the Persians were the great adversaries of the Greeks in antiquity, as were at other times the Spartans and the Macedonians each who had their turns at imperial dominion of what later became the Roman Empire, this was the same civilization that had assimilated (really conquered) the Assyrian/Sumer-Babylonian peoples and the same people that adopted in one form or another what came to be known in Greek circles as Zoroastrianism.  Zoroastrianism in this context was the form of the worship of great god Ahura Mazda, as understood from the teachings of the legendary Persian prophet Zarathustra, teachings that were captured in the Avesta which held theological influence over the Persians/Iranians from at least the time of the Achaemenid Empire (c. 550 – 330 BCE) down to the time of the Sassanian Empire (224 – 651 CE), up until the overthrow of the Persian (Sassanian) Empire during the first half of the 6th century CE era when they were conquered by the Arabs/Muslims – so for almost 1000 years give or take.[8]

The earliest attested writings attributed to Pythagoras himself are the so-called Golden Verses, a set of aphorisms written in dactylic hexameter verse that are attested to have existed and been in wide circulation as early as the third century BCE, but only show up in the written records by Neo-Platonist authors and commentators in the 5th centuries CE.  The aphorisms themselves bear a striking resemblance to a Zoroastrian tradition called andarz[9], which follows a very similar mode of style as the Golden Verses where short sayings or proverbs are attributed to great rulers or teachers that facilitate the cultivation of religious or spiritual endeavors, providing further evidence of the connection between Pythagorean doctrine and Persian theology, i.e. the Magi.[10]

It is also widely held that much of Pythagoras’s numerological and arithmological philosophy, the philosophy of harmony and proportion for which he was so well known, was derived from the Egyptians and/or the Chaldeans.  For both the Chaldeans, which heralded from ancient Sumer and Babylon (aka Assyrian) as well as the Egyptians and Indo-Aryans in fact, had a long standing tradition and association with astronomy, mathematics, and geometry, as well as a longstanding belief in the mystical and divine nature of number, arithmology and geometry in general – ideas which played an integral part in what we have come to understand as Pythagorean philosophy.[11]


The earliest reliable reference we have regarding “Pythagorean” philosophy is of course from Aristotle, in particular from Book I of Metaphysics where in typical Aristotelian fashion he outlines (and typically criticizes) previous philosophical belief systems and teachings prior to establishing his own system.

At the same time, however, and even earlier the so-called Pythagoreans applied themselves to mathematics, and were the first to develop this science; and through studying it they came to believe that its principles are the principles of everything.  And since numbers are by nature first among these principles, and they fancied that they could detect in numbers, to a greater extent than in fire and earth and water, many analogues of what is and comes into being—such and such a property of number being justice, and such and such soul or mind, another opportunity, and similarly, more or less, with all the rest—and since they saw further that the properties and ratios of the musical scales are based on numbers, and since it seemed clear that all other things have their whole nature modelled upon numbers, and that numbers are the ultimate things in the whole physical universe, they assumed the elements of numbers to be the elements of everything, and the whole universe to be a proportion or number.

Well, it is obvious that these thinkers too consider number to be a first principle, both as the material of things and as constituting their properties and states.  The elements of number, according to them, are the Even and the Odd.  Of these the former is limited and the latter unlimited; Unity consists of both (since it is both odd and even); number is derived from Unity; and numbers, as we have said, compose the whole sensible universe.  Others of this same school hold that there are ten principles, which they enunciate in a series of corresponding pairs: (1.) Limit and the Unlimited; (2.) Odd and Even; (3.) Unity and Plurality; (4.) Right and Left; (5.) Male and Female; (6.) Rest and Motion; (7.) Straight and Crooked; (8.) Light and Darkness; (9.) Good and Evil; (10.) Square and Oblong.[12]

Here we see many of the classical elements of Pythagorean philosophy laid out, albeit in a manner that is not altogether clear whether or not the belief systems were held and taught by Pythagoras himself, or were espoused by later interpreters and/or followers of his teachings.  Regardless, these doctrines as Aristotle describes them come to be known as the fundamental attributes of Pythagorean philosophy as well as the founding principles upon which the “Italian” school, which Pythagoras is the founding member of, is based.

We have first and foremost the discipline of mathematics assigned to this school of thought, and through which they came to understand that mathematics – number and arithmetic and basic geometry – was basically the language of the universe, or the language through which the universal order, and moral and ethical order of the individual and society at large, could be best understood.  The far reaching implications of this belief in the relationship between number, mathematics, geometry and the universal order on Western intellectual developments cannot be overstated.  Furthermore, through this “mathematical” understanding of the cosmos, and in particular through their understanding of harmonic and music theory to which Pythagoras himself is closely associated, the Pythagoreans came to believe that harmony and proportionality, which in turn were based upon the relationships of the fundamental numbers between 1 and 10, could be used to describe the universe in its entirety – at least metaphysically and metaphorically speaking.

Furthermore, and this is perhaps where we start to shift more into Aristotle’s interpretation of Pythagorean philosophy rather than perhaps his teachings, or the teachings of his followers, is the leap between the universal harmonic order based upon numbers and their inherent (mathematical and geometrical) relationships, to numbers as “first principles”, which for the most part is what Aristotle is trying to establish in the context of the work which he is speaking about Pythagorean philosophy, i.e. Metaphysics or “first philosophy”.  In this context then, Aristotle lists the ten list of fundamental, opposing forces – Even and Odd, Darkness and Light, Good and Bad, Male and Female, etc. – each of which is ascribed a numerical value, and the sum total of which describe all of the elemental forces of the universe –i.e. again his “first principles”.

So we can see here, at least at some level, through the great analytical lens of Aristotle himself, the association of “Pythagorean” philosophy not only with numerology and harmony which is what it has classically come to be seen as predominantly focused on as universal and ontological “first principles”, or arche, but also – and somewhat less emphasized, or in fact altogether ignored, by later interpreters and expositioners of Pythagorean philosophy, is the belief in the universe or cosmos as an ordered structure of pairs of opposites, from which the underlying harmony and balance, i.e. proportion, of the cosmic world order can best be understood, or said another way how the underlying structure of the universe as we “experience” it can best be explained.

The description of Pythagorean doctrinal development by the Syrian Neo-Platonist Iamblichus is also worth mentioning as it is not only more consistent with more modern interpretations of Pythagorean intellectual developments, but it also explains to a certain extent why Aristotle refers to Pythagorean philosophy in the aggregate and avoids attributing the belief systems which have come to be understood as “Pythagorean”, even by the 4th century BCE, to Pythagoras himself.  That is to say why Aristotle uses the language the words “so-called Pythagoreans” which is quite different than how he refers to the belief systems surrounding first principles of Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Leucippus, Democritus, Xenophanes and Parmenides from the very same passage which are all described within the very same passage.[13]

In his work Life of Pythagoras, Iamblichus distinguishes between two different branches of Pythagorean thought – akousmatikoi and mathematikoi.[14]  The former was in all likelihood the topic of analysis and discussion of the now lost works of Aristotle On the Pythagoreans, as well as the somewhat more contemporary (contemporary to Pythagoras) work by Anaximander of Miletus (c. 610 – 546 BCE) entitled An Explanation of Pythagorean Symbola.  These works presumably described and analyzed not just the life of the famed figure Pythagoras himself but also presumably the sayings and aphorisms, i.e. symbola, which had been directly attributed to Pythagoras himself and which encapsulated his philosophical teachings.

These sayings or aphorisms, which dealt primarily with ethical and moral matters, as well as matters of theology and what later came to be known as “philosophy” (with respect to doctrines describing a way of life for example) in all likelihood were the original source of the later compilation of the Golden Verses which again we know circulated throughout the Hellenic intellectual community by at least the 3rd century BCE and which was attributed to Pythagoras himself.  The followers of these symbola were, at least in later Neo-Platonic intellectual circles, distinguished from the Pythagorean mathematikoi as akousmata, which according to Iamblichus at least had a musical element, a chanting aspect to them – hence the term.  The other branch of Pythagorean thought, i.e. the mathematikoi, were in all likelihood the ones that had the most influence over Platonic philosophy, in particular the underlying geometry of universal order as described in the Timaeus.[15]


What is also interesting and somewhat baffling is that Ovid’s recollection and reverence for Pythagoras is almost entirely left out of the academic literature in terms of it actually truly reflecting “Pythagorean” philosophy, even though a) he explicitly outlines what he means by Pythagorean doctrine, and b) he sits some two centuries at least before the later Neo-Platonist authors of Porphyry and Iamblichus that are typically cited as the most reliable sources for Pythagorean life and teachings, and c) Ovid himself is known to have been well schooled in philosophy and was born and raised in the very same region (Southern Italy) where we know Pythagoras spent a great deal of his later life teaching and where he clearly exerted great influence.

Ovid spends a good deal of his final Book of Metamorphoses covering Pythagorean teachings in fact, told within the context of the story of the founding of Crotone by Numa Pompilius (753-673 BCE), Rome’s legendary second king.  Crotone is where Pythagoras founded his “school” and herein Ovid takes the opportunity to run through Pythagorean doctrine as it were, as he describes the founding of the city by Numa and just before he closes his work with the deification of Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus.  After describing the vegan lifestyle, and the belief in the transmigration of souls (metempsychosis), both attributes of Pythagorean thought and doctrine that were and are widely held to be true, Ovid goes on to describe Pythagorean doctrine in more detail, aligning it squarely with his overarching theme for his work in fact, i.e. change or metamorphosis as the primary characteristic and qualification of existence.

‘Since I have embarked on the wide ocean, and given full sails to the wind, I say there is nothing in the whole universe that persists.  Everything flows, and is formed as a fleeting image.  Time itself, also, glides, in its continual motion, no differently than a river.  For neither the river, nor the swift hour can stop: but as wave impels wave, and as the prior wave is chased by the coming wave, and chases the one before, so time flees equally, and, equally, follows, and is always new.  For what was before is left behind: and what was not comes to be: and each moment is renewed.[16]

This is not typically the philosophical teaching that is attributed to Pythagoras, Pythagoras the mystical mathematician who espoused the belief in the underlying harmony of number and ratio as reflections of the divine universal order, and although Ovid clearly has an axe to grind to try and closely align one of the greatest Italian philosophers of antiquity with the overarching theme of change which permeates his work, the philosophy that he lays out however is very reminiscent of the philosophy and metaphysics that underlie the cornerstone of Far Eastern (Chinese) philosophy, i.e. the Yijing.

Ovid goes on to describe how the elements themselves are subject to change – earth, air, water and fire – describing a process of transformation that bears even more striking similarity to Yijing metaphysics as its described in the Ten Wings and the various bagua (trigram) arrangements.

‘Even the things we call elements do not persist.  Apply your concentration, and I will teach the changes, they pass through.  The everlasting universe contains four generative states of matter.  Of these, two, earth and water, are heavy, and sink lower, under their own weight.  The other two lack heaviness, and, if not held down, they seek height: that is air, and fire, purer than air.  Though they are distinct in space, nevertheless they are all derived from one another, and resolve into one another.  Earth, melting, is dilated to clear water: the moisture, rarified, changes to wind and air: then air, losing further weight, in the highest regions shines out as fire, the most rarified of all.  Then they return, in reverse, revealing the same series of changes.  Since fire, condenses, turns into denser air, and this to water, and water, contracted, solidifies as earth.

‘Nothing keeps its own form, and Nature, the renewer of things, refreshes one shape from another. Believe me, nothing dies in the universe as a whole, but it varies and changes its aspect, and what we call ‘being born’ is a beginning to be, of something other, than what was before, and ‘dying’ is, likewise, ending a former state.  Though, ‘that’ perhaps is transferred here, and ‘this’, there, the total sum is constant.[17]

So while relatively contemporary interpretations of Pythagorean doctrine most certainly include a references to a certain lifestyle and diet, as well as initiation into a private sect that clearly represented some sort of religious and/or mystery cult type of movement, as well as an association with sacred mathematical and geometric symbolism and a universal order based upon the interaction of a finite set of opposing, basic elemental forces, we also find with Ovid in particular an association of Pythagorean teachings with basic elemental change, as well as an integration and assimilation of the teachings in general to the more archaic and pre-historic Mythos of the Hellenic world to which Ovid’s entire work rests in in fact.

What we find in Ovid’s interpretation of Pythagorean teaching, is a more archaic form of theology as it were, and one that is hinged on the idea of change and flux being the primordial characteristic of existence, as well as – consistent with Aristotle’s interpretation of Pythagorean philosophy in terms of first principles – the idea or notion that the universe is best understood as the interrelationships and intermixing of a basic set of opposing forces, forces which are aligned with number, proportion and harmonic balance.  In total, in looking at the “philosophical” interpretation of Pythagorean theology and cosmology, and combining it within the mythological and more pre-historic narrative provided by Ovid and his notion of change as being the primordial elemental property of reality, we are left with a worldview, a theo-philosophical system, that looks very similar to that which is represented by the Classic of Changes, i.e. the Yijing, from the Far East, a view and a comparison which is rarely made – if ever – and one which begs the question as to where and why these similarities exist between two of the primordial philosophical systems that emerge from these geographically disparate and theoretically distinctive civilizations which we believe did not have any sort of cultural or social connection at this phase in their respective civilizational development.


[2] According to Aristotle, Platonic philosophy is for the most part “aligned” with and consistent with the “Italian” schools which came before him. of which Pythagoras is the most eminent and influential figure of course.  He also aligns Platonic philosophy with Heraclitus as well, specifically in reference to his doctrine of the whole sensible world being in a state of “flux”.  See Aristotle. Metaphysics.  Book I .987a from Aristotle. Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, translated by Hugh Tredennick. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1933,

[3] While references to Pythagoras can be found in the extant works of both Plato and Aristotle, it can be argued that neither of them assign him specifically with the establishment philosophical significance per se.  See Huffman, Carl, “Pythagoras”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

[4] Miletus was the epicenter of the so-called Milesian School where Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes, all very prominent early Pre-Socratic philosophers heralded from, and Ephesus was the home of Heraclitus, the famed philosopher of flux and change which supposedly, according to Aristotle at least, heavily influenced the philosophic thought of Plato.

[5] Herodotus says that the Pythagoreans agreed with the Egyptians in not allowing the dead to be buried in wool in his Histories Book II, verse 81.  See The History of Herodotus, parallel English/Greek, tr. G. C. Macaulay, [1890], at at  For the reference to the Pythagoreans in Plato’s Republic where Plato associates the Pythagoreans with a doctrine of universal harmony with respect to astronomical matters, see Republic 7.530d from Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969 at

[6] Much learning does not teach one to have understanding, else it would have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, and again Xenophanes and Hecataeus.”  Quotation attributed to Heraclitus by Diogenes Laertius, Proclus and other ancient authors.  See Heraclitus of Ephesus, translated by G.W.T. Patrick 1889 at

[7] Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Diogenes Laertius. R.D. Hicks. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1972 (First published 1925).  Book IX, Chapter I.  Verses 12-14.  See

[8] Affinities and similarities between the culture and theological beliefs in the Avesta literature and the Vedas of the Indo-Aryans is covered in detail in other sections of this work.

[9] See

[10] For the full listing of 71 aphorisms, see Wikipedia contributors, ‘The golden verses of Pythagoras’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 23 February 2016, 20:59 UTC, <> [accessed 28 September 2016]

[11] The opening passage to the famed Egyptian Rhind Mathematical Papyrus for example, a mathematical textbook which dates to the early part of the second millennium BCE more than 1000 years before Pythagoras was born, reads: “Accurate reckoning.  The entrance into the knowledge of all existing things and all obscure secrets.”.  From the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus.  Volume I.  Free Translation and Commentary by Arnold Buffum Chace.  Mathematical Association of America, Oberlin, Ohio.  1927.  Page 49.  The actual papyrus dates to around 1650 BCE and we are told is from a copy from an even older text dating from the 19th century BCE during the reign of Amenemhat II.  It was written in hieratic script and is a mathematical textbook of sorts which contains teachings and formulas on not just basic arithmetic and geometry, but also calculation of volume and area, fairly sophisticated algebraic equations and solutions, and other advanced geometry and mathematical topics that was clearly produced as a teaching tool.  The Indo-Aryans as well, at least with respect to geometry and basic mathematics and algebra as reflected in the Shulba Sutras, a text related to the construction of altars related to Agni (fire) worship and altar construction dated from the early part of the first millennium BCE.  For a deeper exploration of the connections between ancient Greek and Vedic geometry see “Greek and Vedic Geometry” by Frits Staal.  Published in the Journal of Indian Philosophy in 1999 by Kluwer Academic Publishers.  Vol. 27, No. 1/2, pg. 105.

[12] Aristotle. Metaphysics Book I 985b 986b.  Aristotle. Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, translated by Hugh Tredennick. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1933, 1989.  From

[13] Again see Aristotle Metaphysics 1.985a – 1.986b.  Aristotle. Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, translated by Hugh Tredennick. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1933, 1989.  From

[14] The Life of Pythagoras by Iamblichus.  Translated from the Greek by Thomas Taylor.  Theosophical Publishing House, Hollywood, CA.  1918. Page 62-64.

[15]  For a detailed treatment of the source and nature of these “akousmata”, as well as a description of the delineation between “akousmatikoi” and “mathematikoi” as described by the Neo-Platonist Iamblichus, see “The Pythagorean Akousmata and Early Pythagoreanism” by Johan C. Thom at

[16] Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translated by Anthony S. Kline, 2000.  Bk XV:176-198.  “Pythagoras’s Teachings: The Eternal Flux.”  From

[17] Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translated by Anthony S. Kline, 2000.  Bk XV:237-258.  “Pythagoras’s Teachings: The Elements”  From

The Hetu and Luoshu Diagrams: Numerology in Chinese Antiquity

What we can definitively say about how the underlying symbols of the Yijing were created can be ascertained primarily from the commentaries that survive and were appended to text itself as it has been received from antiquity, a process that we know and has already been indicated was influenced by socio-political factors.  It is clear however that numerological and arithmological beliefs were instrumental in their creation, as indicated not only in the commentaries themselves which speak to how the hexagrams and their constituent trigrams were created, but also by associated mythology surrounding two figures in particular that seem to point to even deeper Chinese antiquity.

The two figures in question are the Yellow River Map, or Hetu (河圖), and the “Inscription of the River Luo”, or Luoshu (洛書, also written 雒書), each of which is connected in mythological lore to Fu XI and King Wen, two figures from Chinese antiquity lore that are integrally linked to the establishment of Chinese civilization.  The figures are referred to not only in the Ten Wings itself, but also in the “Book of Documents”, or Shujing (書經) which dates to the middle of the Western Zhou period (11th to 8th centuries BCE), as well as the Guanzi (管子), or “Master Guan”, which is a collection of various philosophical treatises on statecraft collected during the Spring and Autumn period (8th to 5th centuries BCE).[1]

Hetu and Luoshu diagrams

Hetu and Luoshu diagrams

While the derivation of the Hetu and Luoshu diagrams to the Earlier and Later Heaven arrangements of the bagua, or eight trigrams, which form the basis of the hexagrams of the Yijing does not show up in the written records until the Song Dynasty period (960 – 1279 CE), there is ample evidence to surmise that that the numerological and/or metaphysical connection between them reaches back into at least Bronze Age China from which the first evidence of the Zhou Yi emerges.

First and foremost, we have a direct reference to the Hetu and Luoshu in the Ten Wings commentary itself, albeit in a form that does not allow for too much explanation as to how precisely these diagrams are related to Yijing divination other than referring to the Hetu as a “map” and the Luoshu as a “document” or “inscription”, and indicating that they were used as a “model” for the ancient sages who used or created the Yijing.  The specific verse or passage from the Great Commentary is below:


Therefore: Heaven creates divine things; the holy sage takes them as models.  Heaven and earth change and transform; the holy sage imitates them.  In the heavens hang images that reveal good fortune and misfortune; the holy sage reproduces these.  The Yellow River brought forth a map and the Lo River brought forth a writing [document]; the holy men took these as models.[2]


It’s also clear from the archeological record though that ancient Yijing divination was performed in conjunction with the burning of tortoise shells so that does offer further corroborating evidence that these symbols, or at least the Luoshu, was related to ancient Yijing divination in some way.  We could speculate that that this ancient practice, using the Luoshu and Hetu diagrams, was the origins of the divination practice in deep Chinese antiquity and these practices ended up evolving into the yarrow stalk and hexagram based divination process that ended up being encapsulated in the Zhou Yi and then codified finally in the Yijing.

Furthermore, we have from Chinese mythology the association of the Hetu diagram with the legendary Fu XI who witnessed a “dragon horse”, or longma (龍馬), emerge from the Yellow River with a set of symbols on its back, i.e. the Hetu diagram, from which he supposedly “divined” an ordered system of trigrams within which the universal ordering of things could be understood.  This is the mythology that surrounds the creation of the “Earlier than Heaven”, or Fu Xi, arrangement of the eight trigrams.  We also have a very similar myth associated with the Luoshu diagram that speaks to the emergence of a dragon turtle, or longgui (龍龜), from the River Luo from which had the Luoshu symbol on its back, actually its turtle shell, from which an alternate trigram arrangement or sequence was established, the “Later than Heaven”, or King Wen arrangement.

It also seems clear that the design of the Hetu and Luoshu diagrams, being based upon the collection and arrangement of sets of dark and light circles, speaks to a much more archaic and older numerological system that predates the formulation of the trigrams or hexagrams that constitute the core part of the Yijing.

For in deep antiquity, and this is perhaps true of the evolution and creation of all counting systems in antiquity, numbers were represented by simple representations and collections of objects, objects that were typically easily accessible.  For example, the early numbering system of the Chinese, which was base 10 like ours and as reflected in the Hetu and Luoshu each of which have numerical representations of all of the numbers 1 – 9, used small bamboo rods (stalk like figures in fact) to denote the numbers 1 through 10.  This system of symbols allowed for not only the representation of very large numbers using a small set of symbols which were easy to learn and communicate, but also allowed for relatively straightforward arithmetic operations as well.[3]

The Luoshu diagram significantly, also is a clear representation of the magic square of base three – where each of the numerical representations on all of the lines of the diagram, the vertical, horizontal and diagonal axes, all add up to 15.  This may be perhaps the earliest known evidence for a magic square in antiquity.

This numerical diagram, across all ancient cultures and civilizations that understood numbers in fact, indicates not only a belief in the “divine” or “revealed” nature of base 10 as the core counting system upon which all numerology and arithmology is subsequently based, but also the “divine” or “eternal” nature of the numbers 1 through 9 and their inherent symmetry and harmony, tying these basic numbers directly with universal harmony and balance upon which the Yijing squarely (pun intended) rests.

We also find a reference, albeit indirect, to the Hetu diagram in specific passage from the Great Commentary (Dazhuan):


Heaven has 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9.  Earth has 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10.  Thus heaven has five numbers and earth has five numbers.  The two series are interlocked in order; each number in one series has its partner in the other [When they are distributed among the five places, each finds its complement].  The sum of heaven’s numbers is 25; the sum of earth’s numbers is 30; the sum of the numbers of heaven and earth is 55.  This is what stimulates alternation and transformation and animates spirits [It is this which completes the changes and transformations ad sets demons and gods in movement].  The full Number is 50, of which 49 are used.  Dividing into two lots represents duality.  Setting one aside completes the triad.  Counting by fours represents the four seasons.  Reserving the remainder between the fingers represents the leap month.[4]


As per the first part of this passage, in the Hetu diagram we see the odd numbers between 1 and 10 – 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 respectively – being represented by the white, or “yang”, circles/dots, yang being the primary attribute of the trigram named Heaven (Qian) which is made up of three solid lines.  And conversely we see in the Hetu all of the even numbers between 1 and 10 – 2, 4, 6, and 8 respectively – being represented by black, or “yin” circles/dots, yin being the primary element associated with the Earth trigram (Kun) which is represented by three yin, or broken, lines.  Furthermore, we can see in the Hetu diagram that in fact the two series of even and odd numbers are in fact paired, each number having its counterpart on the opposite side of the diagram – 1 opposite 2, 3 opposite 4 and so on.

It is within this framework of basic numbers, specifically the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 (from which 10, the most “complete” or “perfect” number is derived arithmetically in the Pythagorean system; 1 + 2 + 3 + 4) upon which the yarrow stalk divination framework is built upon.  We start with a reference to the calculation that is used to determine the total number of yarrow stalks, from the arithmetic summation of all the even and odd numbers between 1 and 10, summing 55 in all, of which 50 are used as the basis for calculation.  The fundamental duality underpinning the universe, represented by the number 2 (the Dyad in Hellenic philosophical parlance), is then manifest in the initial division process of yarrow stalks into two piles or sets.  The number 3 (the Triad) is then signified by the setting aside of one yarrow stalk after the initial division into 2 piles is completed.  We then use the number 4 (the Tetrad) as the means by which the yarrow stalks are counted, by fours.  We also see here a direct reference to (at least one of) the universal meanings of 4, i.e. the 4 seasons.

It’s important to note that the Yijing is in fact NOT a counting system, and despite the best efforts of many numerologists over the centuries, it is clear that the underlying hexagrams, as well as the underlying trigrams upon which the hexagrams are based, do not represent numbers per se.  However, it is factual to say that that the system of broken and solid lines from which the trigrams and hexagrams are constructed, as well as the divination process itself which underlies Yijing consultation, clearly has a strong numerological and arithmological basis – a numerological basis and theory that in all likelihood rests upon, and was formulated out of, the prehistoric numerology that is reflected in the Hetu and Luoshu diagrams.

So while the textual evidence seems to be unclear or hazy at first glance, upon reflection and analysis it’s clear that there existed a strong relationship between the inherent numerology encoded in the Hetu and Luoshu diagrams to the numerology and arithmology that underpinned the Yijing tradition, even if the textual and written evidence for the correlation and ultimate derivation of the bagua arrangements of Earlier and Later Heaven from the Luoshu and Hetu diagrams respectively is not clarified in the written record at least until a much later period in the Song dynasty circa 1000 CE.


[1] Reference the online resource Chinese Literature and Philosophy, from entitled “The River Chart and the Inscription of the Luo” at

[2] The I Ching: Or Book of Changes.  Translated from the Chinese into German by Richard Willhelm and then to the English by Cary F. Baynes with a foreword by Carl Jung.  Princeton University Press.  Third Edition 1967.  The Great Treatise (Dazhuan) Book II Ch. XI verse 8 pg. 320

[3] See

[4] The Book of Changes (Zhouyi).  Translation and commentary by Richard Rutt.  Routledge Publishing, 1996.  From the Ten Wings section, the Dazhuan or Great Commentary.  Wing 5, Dazhuan I, Chapter IX verse 1-3 pg. 415 and alternate translations in brackets from The I Ching: Or Book of Changes.  Translated from the Chinese into German by Richard Willhelm and then to the English by Cary F. Baynes with a foreword by Carl Jung.  Princeton University Press.  Third Edition 1967.  The Great Treatise (Dazhuan) Book II Ch. IX verses 1-3; pgs.  308-311

Beginner’s Mind

The odd thing
Is that every Westerner
Approaches the practice of meditation
With a goal in mind
Without exception

The even odder thing
Is that from an Eastern point of view
[Particularly Daoist/Zen Buddhist
Which are very related and symbiotic traditions]
This misses the entire point
Not part of the point
The entire point
Of meditation practice

Reflect on that for a moment
Because it’s important
If you are a practitioner
To understand this very simple
And yet at the same time subtle
Extremely relevant and critical point

There is no goal to meditation practice
To the true practitioner
To the Master
The great sage as the ancient texts refer to them as
The Rishis of the Vedic tradition
The ancient shaman really

Nirvana, Enlightenment, Samadhi
And other illustrious powers and visions
Which many many practitioners hope to obtain
Or even to the poor old soul
Who struggles with mental anguish
And is looking for some peace and relief
An escape from the trials of life
Or those that wish to lead
More successful and empowering lives
And believe meditation
Through the clarity of mind
Will help them achieve those goals

Indirectly or directly
Doesn’t matter which
This misses the entire point
Which is the very point
Of this poem if you can call it that

The purpose of meditation
The purpose of life
Is to lead the best life
The one that is most fulfilling
And one that is full of as much joy
And happiness as possible
Aristotle’s arete (Greek: ἀρετή)

This was the absolute primary purpose
Of the writings of the almost all
Of the ancient philosophers
From around the globe
From Confucius, to Mencius, to Laozi
To Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics
And even to the Hindus

[With Vyasa and the Rishis
And the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads
In a less direct way
More Confucian in a sense perhaps
Given the Vedic emphasis on ritual (li)]

Meditation practice then
Is not the means to some sort of end
It is the end
The practice and life are not different
Practice and Life are the same

We are so goal oriented here in the West
That not for any given moment
Can we actually find happiness
Even while it stares us in the face
Because it is always somewhere out of reach
Due to some inadequacy that has been identified
By the relative ego and its constant comparison
To the ideal self
Which does not nor ever will exist

This is my problem with the materialists
The causal principalists who claim
With their authoritative academic voices
And all their scholarly credentials and degrees
That the only reality is the physical reality
That which can be measured and quantified

Hence their loss in madness
And why quantum theory is so powerful a model
That they just don’t understand
Where causality and determinism themselves
Need to be abandoned in order for the model
To make any sense whatsoever

Unless they just call it a mathematical theory
That predicts results (Copenhagen interpretation)
And say that it says nothing about the ‘real’ world
Which is nonsense in and of itself
Or you get the other just as lunatic conclusion
That the math does in fact represent ‘reality’
And therefore there must be multiple realities
That exist simultaneously
Of which ours is the only one
That we know about or have access to


These seemingly logical and rational
Mathematically coherent and consistent
But at the same time completely nonsensical
Conclusions are all necessary and determined by
The fact that experience and Being (Aristotle’s)
Are considered to be ontologically subservient
To quantifiable and measurable results
And ‘observable’ phenomenon
Along with the predictability of outcomes
Of other various measurement phenomenon
Upon which all reality is not only based
But upon which the borders of reality itself are drawn

While all this sounds pretty complicated
The point here is that the Eastern view
Not only considers subjective phenomenon to be real
It considers experience itself to be
The primary, and in fact only,
Definition of Reality that is possible
And the only thing that is true about this definition of Reality
Is that it changes constantly
And the experience of the subject
Cannot be distinguished from in any meaningful way
The object of attention or awareness or intellectual understanding
That is yielded from
Is created and born from
Each and every individual experience
That each and every individual has
In each and every moment
Of their separate but totally interconnected lives

This is why Change (The I Ching)
Is so important and telling
Given its primary significance in the Eastern tradition
And virtually the only book that embeds with it
Some sort of cosmological theory
[If you can call it that]
And why it is so hard for Westerners
To understand what the purpose of the word is
Why it lasted so long and is such an elementary part
Of every form of theology or philosophy
That has emerged from the Far East

Because it doesn’t really ‘say’ anything
It (and by it i mean the act of consulting the I Ching)
Simply identifies a specific situation
Within the cosmic order of Heaven and Earth
Via the enactment of a certain ritual
Which includes Fate and the Observer
In the very process by which
A specific hexagram is selected
Out of a series of fixed and finite
But at the same time completely interrelated
Set of symbols that describe the attributes
Of a given circumstance

The event (the selected hexagram)
Most accurately reflects the current situation
Depending upon the question that has been posed
To the Book of Changes

By this process
The cosmological experience
And one’s place within it as it occurs
Has manifested itself and can be understood
Within the overall set of cosmic experiences
And their interaction and constant flow into and out of one another
Each with their own balance and assortment
Of Yin and Yang elements
Constantly working together
Which began at the beginning
When the world was created
Which to the Eastern mind
Has no beginning
And has no end

After this consolation and interpretation
After this ritual is performed
An advanced practitioner
A priest in the Western sense
Can provide the person, the leader or aristocrat in ancient times
A better understanding of the current situation
And make recommendations regarding
What can be done to achieve greater harmony and balance
Between yourself and Heaven and Earth
Which yields happiness or contentment
Which is again the very goal and purpose of life

So where you ‘are’ in the cosmological universal experiences
Along with where you are heading
As described and bound by
The 64 hexagrams of yin and yang
That make up the Book of Changes then
Can reveal how you might
Move toward more balance and harmony
Between Heaven and Earth
And the ‘ten thousand things’
As wànwù is commonly translated
And the individual
By honing the practice of virtue (ren)
May achieve happiness
The Eudaimonia of the ancient Greeks
And thus can not only find happiness and purpose
In their individual lives
But also can construct
A harmonious and happy society
Along with it

But as usual we have lost our way
Or our wu wei (non-action, non-doing)
As the case may be

The point here is that
The purpose of meditation
Is not some sort of goal
Or any other goal
Than to lead a better life
Lead the best possible life

And to the Easterner
The Daoist and the Zen Buddhist
The only reality there is
Is the one that is sitting in front of you
At this very moment
Which is why mindfulness
Is so important in the Buddhist tradition

As also is emptiness
Which is basically is the opposite
Of the ancient Chinese word wànwù
Or ‘ten thousand things’ or ‘myriad of things’
As it is usually translated
Or at the very least
Emptiness can be considered to be
The origin and source
Or perhaps better put
Universal backdrop of
These ten thousand things
And what we in the West call Reality

So at some point the practitioner comes to realize
And it doesn’t happen in a moment
Because realization itself
Understanding and knowledge
Have many many levels
As Socrates last teaching showed us
That the wisest among us
Knows the least

That while we may speak of how
The end is not the goal
And it is the journey which is the whole purpose
The whole way to find the meaning of life
The holy Grail as it were

To be able to truly comprehend this fact
Gives us the illumination
That in fact our practice and our life
Are not two things but are one thing
And that the more they blend
And the more they complement each other
Our thoughts are not distractions from the View
They are the View

They, these thoughts that page us so sometimes
Are in fact the divine manifestations
That dwell within and originate
And flow out of and from Universal Mind
Into our own individual small minds
This is the Brahman and Atman
That the Vedic Rishis speak of
Which sits within (and without)
Coexists in fact
In each and every soul
And every animate thing
That can be said to exist

So with this sort of mindset then
These thoughts as they arise in our practice
Can be accepted for what they are
Manifestations of Mind within mind
And our emotional attachment
Or perhaps better put emotional reaction
To these thoughts as they arise
Can also be accepted
Along with the thoughts
Be they reflective or speculative
As manifestations of this divine principle
Which we all carry within us
And which is our source of being
And is also the source of Being itself

This is the practice
It is one of acceptance of the present situation
Your present situation in life
Your role in creating it
Your ability to truly understand it
To understand your codependence
On family, friends, colleagues, lovers, etc

And by so doing
Look to achieve this balance and harmony
Between the Earth and the Heavens
As the ancient Chinese so elegantly put it
Using symbols and not even words
Because once words are used
True understanding is actually lost in some sense

So don’t abandon your goals or objectives in life
The Western way of thinking has value too
But in your practice you must abandon such things
And then as the mind settles in
As thoughts and emotions settle
Out of and back Into
The grand abyss of awareness
That underlies all things and beings
One can recognize
Even if for a fleeting moment
The very source of Being itself
And our identity with it

The experience of Satchitananda
Existence Knowledge Bliss Absolute
Can be experienced
And perhaps more importantly
Its aftertaste spill into our daily lives
To make ourselves better people
And the world around us
A better place


Chinese Monotheism: Worship of Heaven (Shangdi)

Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism (Daoism), all rich and prolific theo-philosophical traditions of the East which thrived in ancient times and still flourish today, were and are much more accepting of the worship of many different deities or aspects of the divine, or in some cases – Taoism and Buddhism for example – lack the divine anthropomorphic principle to be worshipped at all.  They all however do not outlaw idolatry explicitly as a tenet of faith however, and do not establish the worship of one and only one God as a fundamental tenet of their faith, a marked distinction from the religious developments that took place in the West.

So although religions of the East represent significant world factions in modern times, over 1 billion followers at least, these belief systems cannot be considered monotheistic in the sense that they do not profess and dictate the worship of a single, exclusive deity at the expense of the worship of all other deities and manifestations of the divine.  And perhaps not unrelated, the religions of the East have not been the source of great strife or persecution in the last few thousand years since their inception.  Having said that however, there are some monotheistic threads present in the Eastern religious traditions, in albeit not as hard or stubborn a form as their Western counterparts, again based on our working definition of monotheism being the explicit and law based worship of a single deity to the exclusion of all other deities and idols.

One of the unique attributes of the Chinese philosophical tradition is its lack of focus on what we would call in the West “theological” concerns, i.e. issues related to how the universe was created (cosmology) and what divine forces if any preside over it.  While even in the theo-philosophical systems of Plato and Aristotle we find a rejection of mythology and the realm of the gods as simply matters of faith or speculation, Aristotle’s prime mover and Plato’s demiurge, still plays a fundamental metaphysical role in each of their respective philosophical systems, even if they are not front and center so to speak.  In the Chinese tradition however, while we see an implicit theological stance per se in the role of Heaven, we do not see it dealt with specifically or directly in the works of the philosophers themselves, outside of an occasional appeal to the divine as a benchmark of world and natural order.  In other words, the existence of Heaven is not denied per se but it takes on the form of a more “naturalist” view as the philosophical systems mature in the classical period.

But implicit in all the classical philosophical works from Chinese antiquity is a cosmological belief in the tri-partite universal order based upon the realm of Heaven (Tian天), the realm of Earth (Di地), and the realm of Man.  It could be said that the whole of Chinese philosophy is meant to, and produced for, the establishment of harmony between these three interconnected yet distinct aspects of reality.

From the I Ching (Yijing), the Book of Changes, one of if not the cornerstone Chinese philosophical text from antiquity, the core of which was written and used as a divination text in the 2nd millennium BCE at the latest, is primarily interpreted (cosmologically speaking), as a means to balance and harmonize these worlds given a specific situation or circumstance in fact – at least how the work was interpreted by the classical Chinese philosophical tradition in the Ten Wings, the commentary that is tied to the work.

From the Great Commentary, one of the Ten Wings, we find the work described as:

As a document, the Yijing is vast and far-ranging, and has everything complete

within it. It contains the way of the heavens, the way of human beings, and the

way of the earth.[1]

The Yijing is seen as a work whose scope is the entire universal world order, a world order that is bound by the world of Heaven, the way of Man, and the way of Earth.

1 – The Book of Changes contains the measure of heaven and earth; therefore it enables us to comprehend the tao of heaven and earth and its order.

2 – Looking upward, we contemplate with its help the signs in the heavens; looking down, we examine the lines of the earth. Thus we come to know the circumstances of the dark and the light.  Going back to the beginnings of things and pursuing them to the end, we come to know the lessons of birth and of death.  The union seed and power produces all things; the escape of the soul brings about change.  Through this we come to know the conditions of outgoing and returning spirits.

3 – Since in this way man comes to resemble heaven and earth, he is not in conflict with them. His wisdom embraces all things, and his tao brings order into the whole world; therefore he does not err.  He is active everywhere but does not let himself be carried away.  He rejoices in heaven and has knowledge of fate, therefore he is care free.  He is content with his circumstances and genuine in his kindness, therefore he can practice love.

4 – In it are included the forms and scope of everything in the heavens and on earth, so that nothing escapes it. In it all things everywhere are completed, so that none is missing.  Therefore by means of it we can penetrate the tao of day and night, and so understand it.  Therefore the spirit is bound to no one place, not the Book of Changes to any one form.[2]

While these excerpts no doubt represent later interpretations of the significance of the text, at least later than when the text was initially drafted and used which goes at least as far back as the Zhou Dynasty (early first millennium BCE) and probably much earlier, we see implicit here the fundamental belief in the cosmological world order being the tripartite world order of Heaven, Earth and Man, the understanding of which – via the Yijing – yields greater tranquility and social harmony in this world, in any one individual life.

So this worldview of the tripartite order of Heaven, Earth and Man which is meant to operate in harmony and balance that the sages, shamans really from early Chinese pre-history, attempted to align in the individual and social fabric via the use of divination texts like the I Ching (called the Zhou Yi in the Zhou Dynasty prior to the addition of the Ten Wings) clearly is reflective of a much older theological belief system that was no doubt tied to elaborate rituals and sacrifice and involved the belief in Heaven, what was Shangdi in those times, as a god that needed to be appeased and who was responsible for Truth and Justice at some level in the world of Man.  This Shangdi from pre-historic and Bronze Age China evolves into the Heaven (Tian) that we know from the classical philosophical works of the late Zhou, Qin and Han dynasty periods that make up what we know as Chinese Philosophy.  What we see clearly here in early Chinese history, no different than the other traditions in antiquity throughout the world, is that philosophy and theology in antiquity are closely linked, one born from the other really, and ancient China is no different in this regard.

The etymology of the character for Tian – 天 – which can be traced of its roots through Seal Script, Bronze inscriptions and even back to Oracle bone script in the early second millennium BCE reveals this theo-philosophical history of the Heaven, and Shangdi.  The character is representative of the character of a man, the similarity to a stick figure of the symbol is clear.[3]  So while the anthropomorphic qualities of Tian are smoothed over as it were by the time of the classical era (Confucius et al), we can see the direct reference of the idea, the concept, of an all pervading anthropomorphic deity, i.e. Shangdi, at least as far back as the Shang dynasty (2nd millennium BCE) but in all likelihood much earlier than this.

What we know about the Shang Dynasty period in China’s history comes from various archeological sites in Northeastern China as well as historical texts written in the classical period (5th through 2nd centuries BCE) that speak to the traditions in deep Chinese pre-history as well as the lineage of rulers and kingdoms, all the way back to the pseudo-mythical legendary times of Fu Xi and the Yellow Emperor.  These texts are primarily the Bamboo Annals, Classic of History (aka Book of Documents or Shujing) and Records of the Grand Historian.

From these sources we know that the Shang dynasty succeeded the legendary Xia (or Yin) dynasty which was established by Yu the Great, the tamer of the Great Flood.  They were based primarily in the North Eastern part of China, by the Yangtze and Yellow river, but their influence spread much further throughout what we today know as China.  The people lived in complex societies, large towns and created complex irrigation systems.  They domesticated animals and had mastered the art of Bronze craftsmanship hence the term Bronze Age used to describe this time in China’s history.  They also mastered the art of jade carvings and we know that jade was an important luxury and jewelry item of the upper and middle classes.

They had a highly developed lunar calendar system (the word for Moon and Month were the same for example) that was used by the ruler and his subjects to determine when to plant crops, when to harvest, etc.  We also see the first evidence of writing in this era of China’s history, first on tortoise and ox bones, and then later on Bronze inscriptions – hence the term Oracle Bone and Bronze scripts that are used to describe early forms of Chinese writing.  While it is believed that inscriptions were also made on bamboo or silk strips, consistent with later time periods in Chinese antiquity, we do not have any evidence of such given that these types of artifacts degrade quite considerably over time.  It is clear that the forms of writing we see on the bones and bronze is fairly mature however, and it can be safely assumed that writing developed in China at least in the third millennium BCE if not earlier, putting Chinese writing systems in line with the cuneiform of the Sumer-Babylonian and Akkadian peoples and the hieroglyphs of the Egyptians to the West in fact.

From the archeological, written and inscription evidence we see a people described as having a complex hierarchical social structure on top of which sat the Emperor who was looked upon as having the so-called “mandate of Heaven” to rule and govern over the people.  These people not only had complex burial structures with vast and expensive artifacts left with the deceased, but also consulted the “spirits”, or ancestors, on various important topics or before making important political or social decisions, speaking to the divine reverence which the ancient Chinese had for their either direct, or ancient ancestors.  This is typically referred to as “ancestor worship” in the literature on Chinese history and this tradition was kept alive in some form or another certainly through the Han Dynasty period (206 BCE to 220 CE) period and is prominently reflected in the philosophy of Confucius.  Within this culture of worship of ancestors, we also see strong evidence for the worship of the great god of the sky, Shangdi, a tradition which was to later transform into, or morph into, the notion of Heaven in the Zhou dynasty and persisted throughout much of China’s history[4].

We see ample evidence in the archeological and written record of the worship of the great sky god (Shangdi), the ancient Bronze Age god of the sky of the Shang peoples, harkening back no doubt to China’s pantheistic roots.  The Book of Documents (Shujing) also references sacrifices and rituals to Shangdi going back to pseudo-historical Emperor Shun from the latter part of the third millennium BCE or so (23rd century BCE).

The two Chinese characters from which the word for “Shangdi” is derived are “上”, meaning “high” “highest” “first” or “primordial”, combined with “帝, which is typically translated as “emperor” and is the same character used in the name of “Huangdi”, the great Yellow Emperor of deep Chinese antiquity which is the same title sometimes used for the Emperor of China himself.  From earliest times, and consistent throughout Chinese history in fact, we can see the close link to the Emperor and the one supreme deity Shangdi, marking as in most ancient civilizations the notion of divine authority with rule of the people.

In the time of the Zhou dynasty at the turn of the first millennium BCE, we see a transition and semantic equivalence that is established between Shangdi and Tian (Heaven), which is also the word for “sky”.  Tian is of course one of the three pillars of the world order in classical Chinese philosophy – Heaven, Earth and Man.  We see this transition take place, along with the evolution of Classical Chinese as a writing system, first in the Zhou dynasty period and then maturing in the latter half of the first millennium BCE in the Warring States period, being firmly established in Chinese philosophical nomenclature by the beginning of the Han Dynasty in 202 BCE (Former or Earlier Han) when most if not all of classical Chinese philosophical works were commented on and “canonized” so to speak.

Rulers of the Chinese empire throughout its written history were looked upon as “Tianzi”, or sons of Heaven, which is the abstract concept who the deity came to represent over the centuries.  In the archeological and written record Shangdi is presented as the ruler of Heaven who presides over order and justice in the world of human affairs.  The notion that a supreme deity of the heavens establishes order and justice is a common theme throughout the ancient world in fact and parallels here can be drawn to the ma’at (Maat) of the Egyptians or the rta of the Indo-Aryans as well as of course the aforementioned association of divine legitimacy to the rulers themselves.  In this sense Shangdi can be looked at as analogous to Marduk of the Babylonians who rose to prominence as the head of the Babylonian pantheon as Babylon rose to power around the same timeframe much further to the West, or even Zeus/Jupiter in the Greco-Roman tradition a millennia or so later although the link to authority and power is not present.

We see the role of heaven played out in the socio-political sphere as well beginning with the Zhou dynasty specifically which Confucius looked upon as a bygone age of justice and virtue.  It’s in the transitional period between the Shang and Zhou dynasty that we find the first reference to the notion of the “Will of Heaven” which was used by the first dynastic rulers of the Zhou as justification for the overthrow the Shang dynastic rulers.  This idea that rulership is not necessarily by birth but by a so-called “Mandate of Heaven” (again Tian) which bestows a right to rule on a just ruler or Son of Heaven (Tianzi) is unique to the Chinese and has been used throughout its history to justify an overthrow of rule or governanceNatural disasters, unrest or famine were for example generally considered to be signs that the rulers had lost the Mandate of Heaven and so the well being of the ruled and the authority of the ruler were seen as tightly interconnected and interdependent upon each other.

Worship of Heaven (Shangdi  and later Tian) throughout China’s long history included the erection of shrines and the offering of prayers, and in the Shang dynasty and earlier, the use of sacrifices as a form of worship.  The last and greatest of these houses of worship was erected as recently as the 14th century CE, the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.  The connection of Shangdi to imperial rule and the seat of power, akin to the Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs in some respects, was prevalent even after Confucianism, Taoism, and then much later Buddhism took root with the Chinese people in the latter part of the first millennium BCE, as evidenced by the rulers of China continuing to perform the annual bull sacrifice, a beast with very ancient roots in mythology, in honor of Shangdi even in modern times.

[1] Great Commentary B8.  Quotation from The Great Commentary (Dazhuan 大傳) and Chinese natural cosmology by Roger T. Ames.  Translation by Ames.  Published March 2015 in the International Communication of Chinese Culture.

[2] From The I Ching or the Book of Changes by by Wilhelm/Baynes. Princeton University Press 1977.  “Ta Chuan” / “The Great Treatise” chapter IV pgs. 293-296.

[3] See

[4] The rituals surrounding the worship of ancestors and Shangdi in the Shang dynasty period was associated with animal, and in some cases, human sacrifice, a practice that was later abandoned but nonetheless did exist in some form or another in this time period of China’s history.

The Book of Changes: The Wisdom of the Far East

One of the most unique, lasting and influential texts that has come down to us from the Far East that in antiquity is the Yijing (I Ching), also known as the Book of Changes.  The work has a long history, its roots dating back at least to Bronze Age China with a longstanding interpretative tradition that carried forward for centuries, millennia even, thereafter and exists even to this day[1].


In ancient times the holy sages made the Book of Changes thus:

They invented the yarrow-stalk oracle in order to lend aid in a mysterious way to the light of the gods.  To heaven they assigned the number three and to earth the number two; from these they computed the other numbers.

They contemplated the changes in the dark and the light and established the hexagrams in accordance with them.  They brought about movement in the firm and the yielding, and thus produced the individual lines.

They put themselves in accord with tao and its power, and in conformity with this laid down the order of what is right.  By thinking through the order of the outer world to the end, and by exploring the law of their nature to the deepest core, they arrived at an understanding of fate.[2]


As the historians and philosophers of ancient China tell us, the Yijing was first conceived in Bronze Age China as a divination text, i.e. a text used by rulers and aristocrats to tell the future and/or determine the best course of action given a certain decision or question that was posed to it.  [A corollary to the West for example was the Oracle at Delphi in Greece that was known to be consulted by various rulers and aristocrats throughout the Greek classical period.  It is said for example that Socrates consulted the Oracle at Delphi regarding who was the wisest man in all of Greece to which the priestess famously replied, “None are wiser than you”.]

In its earliest form, or at least the earliest form known to us, the text is sometimes referred to as the Zhouyi, or Changes of Zhou, and consisted of 64 basic signs or gua, of which just one was selected as a result of the divination process or rite (see below).  Each sign had a particular symbol, name, “judgement” assigned to it and an interpretation of the sign that was “divined” based upon the understanding of the priest or scholar who presided over the ceremony who had been trained in the divination process along with the specific question, or advice, that was framed as part of the oracular process.

Each sign consists of a specific symbol and meaning, a chapter heading as it were along with a series of six lines – read from bottom to top – now most commonly referred to as a “hexagram” (as juxtaposed with the three line “trigram” which formed the origin of the six line format; two trigrams were eventually combined to form a hexagram).  Each of the lines in a six line hexagram is either a solid line representing yang/male/odd/creative energy or a broken line representing yin/female/even/receptive energy.

Each of the 64 symbols represented a specific state of the universal order which reflected any given situation in the world of man.  By determining which sign was significant, and which direction or movement the particular situation represented – a result of the divination process – one could come to an understanding of the given situation, how it was trending and/or its given potential, and so look to act to bring the situation into harmony, or balance.  Balance to the ancient Chinese being a sense of harmony between the world of Heaven, the world of Earth, and the world of Man which represented to them the basic three powers of the universal order.

To the authors of the Yijing, the world of Heaven, Earth and Man operated according to the same basic principles and could be understood in terms of the basic forces of the universe that could be summarized into 64 states of being, along with their tendency to change, from which a given situation could be “divined”, or mapped, as a result of the consultation of the “oracle” or Book of Changes.  Each sign then, each of the 64 gua, symbolized a specific, unique aspect of the combination of these basic opposing and complementary cosmic and universal forces (yin/yang) which was to be interpreted to signify the state, and advice or fate associated with the particular oracle, as part of the divination ceremony.

This was the original purpose of the text, and it was not until the Warring States period (475-221 BCE) that the Yijing text as it is known today, the canonical version so to speak, was formed which included a detailed commentary as an appendix that expounded upon the philosophical meaning behind the text as well as its history and purpose.  In this later form, the text consisted of the 64 original chapters which included the symbol name and meaning, then an explanation of the decision (judgment), commentary on the lines themselves and then the “Commentary”, or Ten Wings, which is an appendix that includes the philosophical import and meaning behind much of the text and ritual of its use that is classically attributed to Confucius (c. 551-479 BCE).


Therefore there is in the Changes the Great Primal Beginning (Tai Chi).  This generates the two primary forces.  The two primary forces generate the four images.  The four images generate the eight trigrams.[3]


It is said that these 64 hexagrams which form the core of the Yijing to this day, were originally conceived as eight primary gua (three line trigrams as opposed to the 6 line hexagrams which became part of the standard text as it matured) by the mythical king/hero like figure from Chinese antiquity named Fu Xi (sometimes Fu Hsi).  He is credited in some traditions with not only creating the eight primary gua (or bagua, literally “eight symbols”) of the Yijing, but also with the invention of fishing, cooking, hunting and even writing – the Chinese Prometheus one could think of him as.

It is said that Fu Xi originally created what is known as the Earlier Heaven sequence of trigrams, with the trigram representing the Heaven at the top (South), the Earth at the bottom (North), the Moon or Water in the West and the Sun or Fire to the East.  These were the four cardinal points, and the four primary constituents of the cosmic order.  To these were added the trigrams representing Lake, Wind, Thunder and Mountain in the various positions around the sequence, yielding not only an ordered sequence of 8 (2 cubed) trigrams/symbols around a primary circle but also yielding two concentric circles or systems of movement around the circle – from Heaven to Thunder moving counter clockwise (12 o’clock to 7 o’clock) and then from Wind to Earth moving clockwise (1 o’clock to 6 o’clock), reflecting the basic flow of universal energy in waxing and waning from balance to imbalance and back again from which the classic yin/yang symbol we know so well in the West today was created[4].

It is said that King Wen created the Later Heaven eight primary gua circular sequence which is the sequence that survives and is associated with the classical canon version of the text today along with the “accomplished” 64 hexagram gua sequence which stems from this bagua arrangement which bears his name, i.e. the King Wen sequence[5].   The commentary on the individual lines that accompanies each hexagram is attributed to King Wen’s son, the legendary scholar and statesman the Duke of Zhou who, along with this work on the Yijing, is also attributed with consolidating the power of the Zhou Dynasty from its preceding rulers the Shang.

From its earliest inception then, the line diagrams, the gua – in either their eight primary or 64 accomplished form – constituted states of being as it were, along with the propensity, their potential to change from one state to the other moving from balance and harmony to imbalance and chaos and back again.  And it was believed that with a better understanding of these states, and the system of change from which they reflected, one could better understand reality, along with of course one’s current situation which was reflected in a given consultation with the text (or oracle) and thereby achieve cosmic harmony.



[1] The earliest extant versions of the actual text are dated from around 300 BCE although its clear not just from the archaeological and historical record but also from the linguistic/philological analysis of the text that it has origins from much earlier.  The date of the creation of the text itself, at least in its basic hexagram form as it has been handed down to us through the Chinese philosophical tradition, is from at least no later than the Western Zhou period of Chinese antiquity (c. 1045-771 BCE).   See Teaching the I Ching (Book of Changes) by Geoffrey Redmund, and Tze-ki Hon, Oxford University Press 2014 Chapter 2, pg. 39-40.

[2] The I Ching or Book of Changes, Wilhelm/Baynes.  Princeton University Press, Third edition, 1967.  Commentary, Shuo Kua: Discussion of the Trigrams – chapter 1 verse 1. pg.  262

[3] The I Ching or Book of Changes, Wilhelm/Baynes.  Princeton University Press, Third edition, 1967.  Commentary, Ta Chuan (The Great Treatise, Great Commentary) Chapter XI verse 5. pg.  318

[4] The balance of dark and light, the process of change from a state of equilibrium and balance to disharmony and chaos and back again, which underlies not only the cosmic and philosophy of the Yijing but also Daoism (Taoism) as well.  This is the meaning of the classic Yin/Yang Dark and Light symbol that is so familiar to us in modern times reflecting the wisdom of the Far East.

[5] It is said that this alternative arrangement, along with the accomplished gua that accompanied it, were created while King Wen was imprisoned for seven years and spent his time studying the symbols and Fu Xi’s original, cosmic arrangement.

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