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Exercising Memory like the Pythagoreans

Exercising Memory Like the Pythagoreans

Most people have heard of the Pythagorean Theorem, and can recite a2 + b2 = c2 on their way to finding the measurements of right triangles. But who was Pythagoras?

Pythagoras from Raphael's School of Athens
Pythagoras studying a table of ratios in Raphael’s School of Athens (detail).

Pythagoras was a very influential teacher, whose cultivation of the life of the mind with his students led to a way that endured for all time after he died. Like Socrates and Epicurus and Jesus and Mohammed, he impacted forever the lives of everyone he encountered, and his sayings were eagerly received and memorized and shared and practiced among those young people whose close-knit friendships found their principle and endpoint in him. He lived in the 6th century BC, and, like the other teachers I mentioned, he was not a great author. It is true that some writings survive from antiquity that have been attributed to him, but few if any scholars today believe that we have any texts actually authored by him. Mohammed, among the teachers I mentioned above, is the lone exception to this, and so we will set him aside from the rest of the discussion. 

On the other hand, what we do have, and what has generally been believed to be true by centuries of followers, are the genuine and authoritative teachings of these great teachers. Socrates has Plato (among many others), Epicurus has Lucretius (among many others), and Jesus has John the Evangelist (among many others, especially the authors of the three Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke). So today the characters of these great teachers are mediated to us through the students who were their closest friends, who adopted and conformed themselves to the character of the first teacher…and attracted new friends who fell in love with the same character. 

Imitation: The First Step

The first step in this process: the all-important imitation. The students become friends as they delight in imitating the strange, wonderful, fresh words of their master. They reflect on what he or she has said, quoting him and comparing notes. Which one of us, who has fallen in love with the life of the mind, has not had this experience of a great teacher? When Fr. John Debicki—former chaplain of The Heights—passed away, I remember doing this with my colleagues. “The will of God is not a consolation prize,” he would insist in the dim lamplight of the oratory, his gravelly voice growing more intense, “it’s the prize!”

Dr. Karl Maurer (1948-2015)

When Karl Maurer—classics professor at the University of Dallas—departed, such gatherings occurred in many places. Some of us even stood at the edge of his grave recalling and confirming to each other the words that had burned our hearts like pyrographic irons years ago. “When you translate his poetry,” he would tell me under the mesquite trees, “and when you write your own…it has to be your own, fresh, living speech!” The great teachers’ aphorisms get into their memorable shape like prayers, by repetition to us, their students.

These memorial exercises had already been happening for years and years as his students were coming and going and catching a kind of fire that couldn’t quite be described or measured exactly, but whose warmth established firm certainty of its presence in those who came near to it.

So yes, we know who Jesus was; we know who Epicurus was; we know who Pythagoras was, because we have practiced this memory exercise. Thus today we have the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, a collection of lines of poetry in the standard meter for classical Greek (and Latin) epic: dactylic hexameter. Meter by itself is a mnemonic device, but in the ancient world, when children spent their first school years doing little more than memorizing lines of poetry, dactylic hexameter in particular cries out, “memorize me!” Therefore, although no one today believes that Pythagoras himself wrote the Golden Verses, the most recent scholarship has made strong arguments for a very early date indeed (as early as the 4th century BC). At the very least, they tell us what theological and moral teachings the earliest Pythagoreans believed in. It is likely that they even tell us some of what Pythagoras himself believed.

Review and Repeat

What can we gain from this? What can we bring to our studies? What can we bring to our students? At the very least, we can lift the lesson from the Golden Verses that the great Roman philosopher Cicero learned from them in the 1st century BC: the memory must be exercised daily, so that, like our arms and legs, it will stay in shape. Most importantly of all in old age, when the peak strength of our arms and legs has fallen into desuetude, Cicero says, is the exercise of memory. So in his treatise On Old Age, he has his speaker Cato the Elder (a teacher like Pythagoras whose words and character emerge through the written works of generations of students) recommend the memory exercise that the Pythagoreans practice:

multum etiam Graecis litteris utor, Pythagoreorumque more exercendae memoriae gratia, quid quoque die dixerim audierim egerim commemoro vesperi. Hae sunt exercitationes ingenii, haec curricula mentis: in his desudans atque elaborans corporis vires non magno opere desidero. (Cicero, De Senectute, 38)

I even make great use of Greek literature, and in the evening every day I make a recollection of what I said, what I heard, what I did, for the sake of exercising my memory the way the Pythagoreans do. These are the exercises of talent, these the race-tracks of the mind: when I work up a sweat on these I don’t much miss the strength of the body. (Cicero, Cato the Elder On Old Age, 38)

What is that Pythagorean Custom (Pythagoreorum mos) that Cicero has Cato talking about? It seems to have been a nightly self-examination, a trial of one’s conscience, found in the Golden Verses:

μηδ’ ὕπνον μαλακοῖσιν ἐπ’ ὄμμασι προσδέξασθαι,

πρὶν τῶν ἡμερινῶν ἔργων τρὶς ἕκαστον ἐπελθεῖν·

“πῆ παρέβην; τί δ’ ἔρεξα; τί μοι δέον οὐκ ἐτελέσθη;”

ἀρξάμενος δ’ ἀπὸ πρώτου ἐπέξιθι· καὶ μετέπειτα

δειλὰ μὲν ἐκπρήξας, ἐπιπλήσσεο· χρηστὰ δέ, τέρπου.


Let not your gentle eyelids welcome sleep,

Before you thrice go o’er all your day’s deeds:

Start from the top, go all the way, and then

“What deed did I do wrong, or fail to do?”

Repent the ills you did, enjoy the good.


The memory is one of the uniquely natural perfections of man, “the paragon of animals!” as Hamlet said. If we become happiest by developing our natural perfections, well then…what an excellent way to develop this one, and become happier!


About the Author

Lionel Yaceczko

Latin, Greek
Lionel Yaceczko holds a BA from the University of Dallas, where he wrote a thesis on Propertius, and a MA and Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America. His dissertation on education in the Roman Empire led to the publication of his book Ausonius Grammaticus (Gorgias Press, 2021). He is also the author of an introductory Latin textbook, Jerome...
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