The sixth-century BCE Greek philosopher-mystic Pythagoras was a man of spectacular achievement. Plutarch says that he taught an eagle to come at his command and stoop down to him in flight.1 He taught the doctrine of reincarnation and was thought to remember twenty-two of his past lives. He founded an order whose adherents strove to free themselves from the cycle of earthly incarnations through vegetarianism, silence, and contemplation of the ultimate reality of the universe.2
Up through the seventeenth century CE, scholars believed Pythagoras journeyed to Sidon, in Phoenicia, where he met the descendants of a man named Moschus (or Mochus) who had lived five hundred years before. Moschus was the Phoenician name for Moses, and his descendants gave Pythagoras esoteric doctrines passed down to them from their illustrious ancestor.3
Pythagoras returned to his home in the Greek colony of Crote in southern Italy to further develop his mystical philosophy which stated that the numerical relationships reflected in the relationships between musical chords are the bedrock of reality. Adding to this the secret doctrines of Moses, he discovered that the planets revolved around the sun. He also discovered the law of universal gravitation (including the inverse-square law of attraction), which he expressed allegorically as the divine music of the spheres holding the planets in thrall to the sun.
But, wait a minute! Didn’t Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) discover the law of universal gravitation?
Yes, he did. But Sir Isaac didn’t think his discoveries were original. He thought he was recovering parts of a body of primordial knowledge called the prisca sapientia (the “pristine wisdom”). Bits of this ancient knowledge had been transported through the Flood by Noah. It had caught the interest of the Egyptians, then the Jews, then the Phoenicians, until it emerged almost fully-blown in the philosophy of Pythagoras. It spread throughout the ancient world, meeting with resistance only when Aristotle insisted that the sun revolved around the earth and that many of the Pythagorean beliefs were irrational.
Almost all this knowledge disappeared in the third and fourth centuries CE with the collapse of the Roman Empire. So complete was the loss that mathematician Alfred North Whitehead could say in 1970: “By the year 1500 Europe knew less than Archimedes, who died in 212 BCE.”4 The “sacred philosophy” did not re-emerge until after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, when it was rediscovered in ancient texts, many thought lost forever, many never known, by the seers of the Italian Renaissance.
The French philosopher/mathematician René Descartes (1596-1650) believed in the existence of the prisca sapientia, declaring that when God created mankind, “certain primary seeds of truth [were] implanted by nature in our human minds.” By Descartes’s time the seeds had been “stifled [in us] owing to our reading and hearing, day by day, so many diverse errors.” Descartes regretted that the ancients had concealed these truths in symbols. He suspected their motives: “They have perhaps feared,” he remarked scornfully, “that their method being so very easy and simple, would if made public, diminish, not increase public esteem.”5
Isaac Newton and his contemporaries believed that, in the pre-Flood world where truth and the bounty of God walked hand-in-hand, the places of worship resembled a combination of planetarium and cathedral. Astronomy flourished in this land of the perfect fusion of science and spirituality, especially since the antediluvian peoples lived for centuries (this was the time of Methuselah, who died at the age of 969). Richard Hinckley Allen writes:
Following the opinion of [the first-century CE Jewish historian] Josephus, [the second-century CE Christian theologian] Origen said that the constellations were known long before the days of the patriarchs by Noah, Enoch, Seth, and Adam – indeed were mentioned in the Book of Enoch as ‘already named and divided;’ and he claimed that ancient longevity was a blessing specially bestowed to give opportunity for a long-continued period of observation and comparison of the heavenly bodies.6
Josephus consulted the historical records of Tyre (which were lost not long after his death) and wrote enigmatically that this knowledge survived the Flood thanks to the preservation of one of the pillars upon which all knowledge had been inscribed.7
William Stukeley, Newton’s contemporary, and the first archaeologist to truly understand Stonehenge, read multiple ancient sources and declared that the pre-Flood sages got along without a telescope because “in the beginning of the world… [people] lived 7, 8, or 900 years, [and] they had time in one man’s life to perfect the art of astronomy.” Both William Whiston and Newton believed the people of the land of the prisca sapientia understood the circulation of the blood and that white light contains within itself the spectrum of seven colours8 (William Harvey would “rediscover” the first, and Newton would rediscover the second).
These ideas (which we will shortly examine at length, especially as regards Isaac Newton) began to fade in the mid-seventeenth century. They succumbed in the face of man’s widening exploration of the world, which contradicted the idea of a universal Flood; to the dawning of the Age of Reason, which brought with it a process of demythologising; and to Darwin’s discoveries of the age of the earth and the origin and evolution of species.
The Sources of the “Pristine Wisdom”
These ideas would fade – but they never quite faded away. In the early twentieth century, certain maverick artists and thinkers revived the notion of a pure science and a high civilisation that existed before our own. British novelist D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930), author of Sons and Lovers and Women in Love, wrote in Fantasia of the Unconscious in 1922:
I honestly think that the great pagan world of which Egypt and Greece were the last living terms, the great pagan world which preceded our era, once had a vast and perhaps perfect science of its own, a science in terms of life. In our era this science crumbled into magic and charlatanry. But even wisdom crumbles.
I believe that this great science previous to ours and quite different in constitution and nature from our science once was universal, established all over the existing globe. I believe it was esoteric, invested in a large priesthood. Just as mathematics and mechanics and physics are defined and expounded in the same way in the universities of China or Bolivia or London or Moscow today, so, it seems to me, in the great world previous to ours a great science and cosmology were taught esoterically in all countries of the globe, Asia, Polynesia, Atlantis, and Europe.
…In that world men lived and taught and knew, and were in one complete correspondence over all the earth. Men wandered back and forth from Atlantis to the Polynesian Continent as men now sail from Europe to America. The interchange was complete, and knowledge, science was universal over the earth, cosmopolitan as it is today.
Then came the melting of the glaciers, and the world flood. The refugees from the drowned continent fled to the high places of America, Europe, Asia, and the Pacific Isles. And some degenerated naturally into cave men, neolithic and palaeolithic creatures, and some retained their marvellous innate beauty and self-perfection, as the South Sea Islanders, and some wandered savage in Africa, and some, like Druids or Etruscans or Chaldeans or Amerindians or Chinese, refused to forget, but taught the old wisdom, only in its half-forgotten symbolic forms. More or less forgotten, as knowledge: remembered as ritual, gesture, and myth-story.9
Maverick Armenian-Greek mystic/spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff (1877?–1949) believed the Sufis were the spiritual heirs of “the old master magicians of Altai” who lived in an advanced civilisation in Central Asia that began 40,000 years ago. Gurdjieff’s disciple J.G. Bennett wrote that, according to his teacher:
In that palaeolithic age art and religion were still one; secular and religious consciousness had not yet separated out, and spirit and matter were not yet in opposition; nor was evil an absolute force seeking the overthrow of good. All things and all attitudes to things were filled with the magnetic, synthesizing radiance of hypercosmic energy, which Gurdjieff called conscious energy. In such a unified world the great Initiates developed the unique type of spirituality that still distinguishes Sufism today, wherein the polarising activity of mind is submissive to the over-riding Spirit that ever seeks a return to the One. Only in the later more alienated religious systems, Gurdjieff believed, do we find the divisive seeds of philosophical dualism.10
Newton’s Primordial Cathedral-Planetariums
Sir Isaac Newton wouldn’t have accepted Gurdjieff’s idea of the antediluvian world, but he would have agreed with him that spirituality was on a par with science in that era. Newton never ceased striving to find out the nature of the prisca sapientia in its purest form. He had deduced the existence of the primordial cathedral-planetariums from the temples, which he called prytanea after the later Greek model, that had been erected not long after the Flood and whose structures contained echoes of the prisca sapientia. Historian Robert Markley contends that these prytanea embodied a timeless mathematical form; that they were “a kind of computational code by which true knowledge [of the prisca] could be demonstrated and transmitted without interruption, interference, or corruption.”11 Newton speculated that the shape of the prytaneum had been transported through the Flood in the shape of the Ark itself; he thought the “divine dimensions” of the prytanea and the Ark were later embedded in Solomon’s temple. The ancient prytaneum “framed,” or mirrored, the shape of the Solar System; this shape had been embodied in later temples. Noah’s Ark had transported sacred fires that had burned in the prytanea; Noah used this to prepare a burnt offering to the Lord once the Ark had made landfall. And, in these temples, Newton further deduced, the priests and priestesses had circled around the ever-burning flame in the central hearth in emulation and worship of the celestial bodies that revolved around the sun.
A great deal of apocryphal literature surrounds the Noahic Flood story. From its mention in the Koran and the New Testament, Newton may have known the story of the ever-burning light that illuminated the inside of the Ark. Journalist Rene Noorbergen tells us that references in the Bible support the contention that
…Electricity may have played a vital role in the operation of the ark. One reference is found in Genesis 8:6, where the Hebrew word challon or ‘opening’ is used, referring to the window through which Noah released the birds. The other reference, however, utilises a different word – tsohar – which is translated as ‘window‘ but does not mean window or opening at all! Where it is used (twenty-two times in the Old Testament), its meaning is given as ‘brightness, a brilliance, the light of the noonday sun’. Its cognates refer to something that ‘glistens, glitters or shines’. Many Jewish scholars of the traditional school identify tsohar as ‘a light which has its origins in a shining crystal’. For centuries Jewish tradition has described the tsohar as an enormous gem or pearl that Noah hung from the rafters of the ark, and which, by some power contained within itself, illuminated the entire vessel for the duration of the Flood voyage.12
Newton may also have known the story, told by John Cassianus in about 428 CE, that Noah’s son Cham (or Ham) was “expert in all the arts and sciences of the antediluvian generations, and wished to save this accumulated natural knowledge of man.” His father forbade him to bring the “unholy” knowledge on board the Ark. Cham inscribed the knowledge on metal plates which he buried. After the Flood, Cham succeeded in finding these plates; thus, writes Cassianus, he “transmitted to his descendants a seedbed of profanity and perpetual sin.”13
Did the descendants of Moses really pass knowledge to Pythagoras? Could Moses possibly have known anything about the philosophy of the pre-Flood world?
Newton thought that the biblical description of Creation was written by the prophet Samuel, who had gotten his information from Moses. The description hardly sounds scientific to us today; but Newton insisted the Genesis account was accurate but couched in simplistic terms because the author wanted the common man to understand it. To the objection that the entire Creation could scarcely have happened in seven twenty-four-hour periods, Newton replied that God had started the world rotating on its axis only on the fourth or fifth day, and then slowly the Deity simply made the days long enough to accomplish all He had to accomplish.
(We know now that the historians of the late Renaissance wanted to prove that Mosaic doctrines influenced Pythagoras because they could not bear to believe that some of the greatest ideas in the Western world had originated in pagan Greece. If these ideas didn’t originate in the Christian New Testament, then they were determined to prove that the ideas came from the Hebrew scriptures which formed the background to Christianity.)
Frank Manuel explains in The Religion of Isaac Newton that: “Moses knew the whole of the scientific truth – of this Newton was certain – but he was speaking to ordinary Israelites, not delivering a paper to the Royal Society, and he popularised the narrative without falsifying it.”14 Rob Iliffe similarly explains that in the early post-Flood world the priesthood “concealed these [scientific] truths from the vulgar. At this time there was a ‘sacred’ philosophy – communicated only to the cognoscenti – and a ‘vulgar‘ version, promulgated openly to the common people.”15 Newton himself sounds almost as critical as Descartes when he remarks sardonically that, “The [ancient] philosophers loved so to mitigate their mystical beliefs that in the presence of the vulgar they foolishly propounded vulgar matters for the sake of ridicule, and hid the truth beneath discourses of this kind.”16
Pythagoras & Newton: Same Theories, Different Time Period
Can it possibly be that Newton’s scientific discoveries, which revolutionised the world, were known in every detail to Pythagoras and his followers in the sixth century BCE?
Sometime in the 1690s, Newton confided to a disciple, the Scottish mathematician David Gregory, that he intended, in the forthcoming revised edition of the Principia, to, in Gregory’s words,
spread himself in proving the agreement of his own findings with those of the ancients and ‘principally of Thales’, the legendary founder of Greek philosophy. He would demonstrate that what Epicurus and Lucretius had affirmed was true and valid, and that the charge of atheism laid on them was unjust. [Newton would assert that] Thoth, the Egyptian Hermes or Mercury, had been ‘a believer in the Copernican system’, while Pythagoras and Plato had ‘observed the gravitation of all bodies towards all’.17
In 1692, at the instigation of Newton, his close friend the brilliant young Swiss mathematician Nicolas Fatio de Duillier told the eminent Dutch mathematician/astronomer Christiaan Huyghens in a letter that Newton had discovered that all the chief propositions of the Principia [Mathematica] had been known to ancients like Pythagoras and Plato, although those worthies had turned them into a “great mystery.” A startled Huyghens wrote back that the ancients may have known the solar system was heliocentric, but they could not possibly have known that the orbits of the planets were elliptical.18
Newton begun very early to disseminate these ideas to those who were closest to him. In Book Two of the 1685 De Mundi, he describes the ancient philosophy and astronomy behind the work of Plato, Pythagoras, and the Roman King Numa Pompilius. Newton argued, as Newton Project Director Rob Iliffe explains, that
the Ancients had believed in a heliocentric cosmos but that this had been perverted by misinterpretation. Whereas Pythagoras and others had correctly understood the true meaning of symbolic representations of a heliocentric cosmos, with a central Sun encircled by the concentric orbits of the planets, Greeks such as Aristotle assumed that the central object in such a scheme was the Earth…. Via Orpheus and Pythagoras, the Greeks had originally received their understanding of the natural world from the Egyptians.
Not only did Thoth (the Egyptian Mercury) know that the planets went around the sun, but Moses had promulgated the theory that atoms are the fundamental building blocks of the universe.19
David Gregory summarised the ancient beliefs that Newton believed anticipated the Principia:
The moon was like another Earth, and itself like other celestial bodies; therefore, the planets and their satellites were heavy masses of the same substance as the Earth;
Bodies in the solar system exercised a mutual gravitation that extended to all other systems (each fixed star being the centre of a gravitational system of planets), that force itself extending indefinitely in all directions;
All matter was made of atoms, and they were hard, solid, and immutable; gravity accrued to both atoms and to the bodies they composed; gravity was proportional to the quantity of matter in every body;
The proportion in which gravitational power decreased with distance was analogous to the law governing tension and pitch in a string instrument, and was concealed in the ancient concept of the “harmony of the spheres;”
The cause of gravity was explained in the “mystical philosophy” of the ancients by their supreme divinity, Pan, playing on his pipe – that is, by the direct exercise of God’s divine power in all bodies whatsoever.20
But what does it mean to say that “the harmony of the spheres” is the same as the inverse-square law of gravitational attraction? One of the clearest explanations comes from Newton’s time, from the hand of arguably Newton’s most brilliant disciple, the mathematician Colin MacLaurin. He wrote in 1750:
A musical chord gives the same notes as one double in length, while the tension or force with which the latter is stretched is quadruple: and the gravity of a planet is quadruple of the gravity of a planet at a double distance. In general, that any musical chord may become unison to a lesser chord of the same kind, its tension must be increased in the same proportion as the square of its length is greater; and that the gravity of a planet may become equal to the gravity of another planet nearer to the sun, it must be increased in proportion as the square of its distance from the sun is greater. If therefore we should suppose musical chords extended from the sun to each planet, that all these chords might become unison, it would be requisite to increase or diminish their tensions in the same proportions as would be sufficient to render the gravities of the planets equal. And from the similitude of these proportions the celebrated doctrine of the harmony of the spheres is supposed to have been derived.21
For some commentators, the question of the supposed similarity of Newton’s doctrines with those of Pythagoras takes second place to an even more beguiling question: If Newton hadn’t totally immersed himself in the philosophy of Pythagoras, would he ever have come up with the universal law of gravitation? Did Pythagoras’ tantalising notions of the music of the spheres and the pipes of Pan, insofar as they represented a true portrait of the dynamics of the universe – to push, prod, stretch, open up, redirect, inspire and bedevil Sir Isaac – that had it not been for them, he would never have conceived the idea of an all-controlling gravitation? (A secondary question, occasionally asked, is: Did the prolonged meditation of Pythagoras on the mystical number of seven provide Newton with an indispensable impetus pushing him to the discovery that light is composed of seven colours?)
In a seminal article, “Newton and the Pipes of Pan,” J.E. McGuire and J.B. Rattansi tackle this question. They explain that Newton’s textual analyses of ancient natural philosophy
…provide a pedigree for his own doctrines, to legitimate them for an audience which still widely accepted the idea of a prisca sapientia. He could use them as a direct defense for his own doctrines, as he does in the Opticks, and, on one occasion, during the controversy with Leibniz. Furthermore, the documents dealt with in this paper do not tell us whether his own adoption of the doctrines he ascribes to the ancients preceded his textual studies. Such basic problems as the existence of the void, the properties of matter, and the character of the divine agency lay beyond the experimental procedures they could deploy. Newton’s solutions to some of these problems are explained and defended by the analogical reasoning whose patterns he defined in the Regulae. But the possibility that the ancient texts might have provided clues, and guided his thoughts in one direction or another, can by no means be excluded.22 (author’s underlining)
Beyond the question of whether Newton’s intense meditation on the philosophy of Pythagoras was indispensable to his discovery of the principle of universal gravitation, there lies an equally beguiling question (and one that could never have been raised in Newton’s time):
After years of collaboration with analytical psychologist Carl Jung, Nobel Prize-winning Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli (1900-1958) came to the conclusion that the collective unconscious posited by Jung certainly existed. Pauli further decided that the archetypes theorised by Jung (and which he thought had a greater reality than physical reality) certainly existed, and that the fundamental components of science, the “background physics” of the universe, so to speak, derived their being without a doubt from those archetypes.23
Did Sir Isaac Newton and Pythagoras, across the gulf of 2,300 years, tap into the very same cluster of archetypes of the collective unconscious – that same single cluster that gave its essential shape to both the principle of gravitation and the allegory of the music of the spheres?
If this is so, perhaps René Descartes, with his notion of the prisca sapientia as comprised of seeds of truth planted in the mind of man, is closer to the truth than Sir Isaac Newton, who saw in the prisca sapientia the spiritual and scientific force that defined a pristine primordial land that still couldn’t save itself from God’s wrath in the form of the Flood.
- Plutarch, The Lives of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Translation by John Dryden, The Modern Library, 1992, 80
- Eduard Zeller, Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy, Meridian Books, 1955, 47-48
- J.E. McGuire & P.M. Rattansi, “Newton and the ‘Pipes of Pan’,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Dec., 1966), 130
- Marcelo Gleiser, The Dancing Universe: From Creation Myths to the Big Bang, Dutton/Penguin Group, 1997, 70
- Quoted in Prisca Sapientia, MathPages, www.mathpages.com/home/kmath066/kmath066.htm
- Richard Hinckley Allen, Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Dover, 1963 (1899), 27-28
- Quoted in Jed Z. Buchwald & Mordecai Feingold, Newton and the Origin of Civilization, Princeton University Press, 2013. (Yahuda MS 16.2 fols. 47V, 52; Josephus, 1841)
- David Boyd Haycock, William Stukeley: Science, Religion and Archeology in Eighteenth-Century England, Boydell Press, 2002, 95 (The Newton Project) www.newtonproject.sussex.ac.uk/view/texts/normalized/OTHE00021
- D.H. Lawrence, Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious and Fantasia of the Unconscious, Mineola, 2005, 54-55
- Victoria LePage, “G.I. Gurdjieff & the Hidden History of the Sufis,” New Dawn 107 (March-April 2008), 67-72
- Robert Markley, “Newton, Corruption, and the Tradition of Universal History,” In Newton and Religion: Context, Nature, & Influence, James E. Force & Richard H. Popkin, eds. Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999, 136
- Rene Noorbergen, Secrets of the Lost Races: New Discoveries of Advanced Technology in Ancient Civilizations, Bobbs-Merrill, 1977, 45-46
- Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part IV, Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Apparatus, Theories and Gifts, Cambridge University Press, 1980, 346
- Frank E. Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton, The Fremantle Lectures 1973, Clarendon Press, 1974, 364-365
- Rob Iliffe, Newton: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2007, 96
- Sir Isaac Newton, The Original of Religions, (The Newton Project) www.newtonproject.sussex.ac.uk
- McGuire & Rattansi, 109-110
- Ibid., 110
- Iliffe, 96
- Rattansi, 187-188
- Quoted in McGuire & Rattansi, 117
- Ibid., 137
- John Chambers, “Physics and the Unconscious: The Discoveries of Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung,” Atlantis Rising 98 (March-April 2013), 39
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