I've encountered the quote "Number is the ruler of forms and ideas, and the cause of gods and demons," which is frequently attributed to Pythagoras. My objective is to ascertain the authenticity of this attribution and, if it is indeed true, to locate where it was first documented.

Some have suggested that this quote might be found in Chapter 28 of Iamblichus's 'On the Life of Pythagoras.' However, after reviewing the text, I did not find the quote there. Could anyone provide insight or clarification about its origin? Any guidance on where to find a primary source or at least an early mention of this concept would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you in advance for your assistance.

  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps Pythagoras in The Sacred Discourse, but I don't know if it is available. Iamblichus says something like it in Ch. 28 of Life of Pythagoras. $\endgroup$
    – Michael E2
    Commented Nov 4, 2023 at 22:00
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    $\begingroup$ The two links in the comment of MichaelE2 are different translations of the exact same source, namely Chapter 28 of Life of Pythagoras by Iamblichus. Iamblichus indicates this quote comes from Syrianus' commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics. Some of those commentaries are still extant, so getting them might be useful. But there's no extant source for anything written by Pythagoras entitled "The Sacred Discourse"; see the skeptical discussion in Section 3 of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Pythagoras. $\endgroup$
    – Lee Mosher
    Commented Nov 5, 2023 at 0:23
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    $\begingroup$ See Pythagoras and Existence of Pythagoras Resources: NO Pythagoras' texts existing. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 7:50

1 Answer 1


The two links in my comment, Google Books and Project Gutenberg, are different editions of the same translation by Thomas Taylor (1818). The Gutenberg edition has a different layout, with endnotes instead of footnotes. The scan of the actual book shows they were originally footnotes. It is in the footnote by Thomas, where we find Syrianus quoted:

Pythagoras, therefore, in the Sacred Discourse, clearly says, that “number is the ruler of forms and ideas, and is the cause of Gods and dæmons.”

I wasn't sure whether or whom Thomas was quoting at first, but the Greek is also given and more clearly attributed to Syrianus. One can find the Greek in the following manuscript:

Syrianus, In metaphysica commentaria (Cambridge, Trinity College, MS O.9.4), https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-TRINITY-O-00009-00004/146, p. 132, ll. 22-24.

enter image description here

αυτος μεν Πυθαγορας, εν τῳ ιερῳ λογῳ, διαρρηδην μορφων και ιδεων κραντορα τον αριθμον ελεγεν ειναι, και θεων και δαιμονων αιτιον.

Remarks on the manuscript by the Cambridge library:

This manuscript, probably copied in the last thirty years of the 17th century, is a copy of the commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics by the 5th-century Neoplatonist philosopher Syrianus.


The manuscript was probably a copy of Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Auct. T.1.16 (Misc. 194).

The text posted below the image is the beginning of the Greek quote in the footnote from the Gutenberg transcription. It seems to be missing the first three words from the manuscript:

πῶς δ'ἄν

My Greek is pretty poor. Perhaps someone else would help. Literally the words translate "And how [or thus, as] if...", where "and" (δε) often combines with μεν (second word in Taylor's quote) to form a contrasting pair of phrases. Taylor includes "therefore" in his translation, which may come from these words. Since ἔλεγεν seems to be the indicative mood, it's unlikely that the Greek means "as if Pythagoras said...."

In sum, the source of the purported quote seems to be Syrianus (4th/5th c. CE, about 100 years after Iamblichus and 900 years after Pythagoras), who attributes it to something Pythagoras himself expressly said (διαρρήδην ἔλεγεν). The English version is from Taylor's translation. As Lee Mosher points out, the text cited by Syrianus (τῷ ἱερῷ λόγῳ, the Sacred Discourse) has not been found, and doubt surrounds whether such a text ever existed. Interestingly, Iamblichus questions whether Pythagoras actually wrote the Sacred Discourse in the passage leading up to Thomas's footnote.

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    $\begingroup$ Remember ἄν can only mean “if” when it is followed by a subjunctive (in which case it is a contraction of ἐάν). Here it is the modal particle ἄν joining with the imperfect ἔλεγεν to form the “past potential”, and is in fact part of the apodosis of a “Present contrary to fact” conditional sentence, which is itself a question. So it should be translated something like “How could Pythagoras say…?” Note that the Greek extract you quote isn’t the complete sentence; it’s followed by a couple of δέ clauses and finally by a conditional clause. It’s difficult to translate out of context. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 3:40

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