The stories surrounding Pythagoras and beans are almost too silly to believe. But multiple sources seem to corroborate the mathematician-philosopher’s hatred of beans as well as his belief that the gas they gave people let part of their souls escape.
Pythagoras’ Aversion to Beans
Before we explore the bean mystery, it’s essential to understand the man himself. Pythagoras lived between 570-495 BCE and is best known for the Pythagorean theorem, which relates to the three sides of a right triangle. However, he also established a religious movement known as Pythagoreanism, which combined elements of mathematics, spirituality, and philosophy.
Pythagoras held influence that extended well beyond the realm of mathematics. One of the most peculiar aspects of Pythagorean doctrine was the prohibition against consuming beans. But why did the great mathematician and his followers abstain from beans?
Central to Pythagorean belief was the doctrine of transmigration or metempsychosis. This concept posits that souls are immortal and, upon death, move into another living being.
The nature of the next life, according to this doctrine, depended on one’s actions in the previous one. Leading a virtuous life could lead to reincarnation in a higher form, while an immoral life could result in a lower one.
Beans: The Window to the Soul?
Here’s where beans enter the narrative. Multiple theories aim to explain the Pythagorean aversion to beans, and they’re all intriguing.
- The Resemblance Theory: Some ancient sources suggest that beans were thought to resemble the human fetus, and therefore, consuming them was akin to eating human flesh. This act could disrupt the cycle of transmigration, trapping souls and preventing them from reaching their next destination.
- The Flatulence Theory: Another theory hinges on the idea that beans, known for causing flatulence, would allow souls to escape from the body prematurely. In essence, eating beans might inadvertently release a soul before its time.
- The Blood Connection: Some Pythagoreans believed that beans and human beings were formed from the same material. It was said that if one were to bury a bean, it would turn into a human-like embryo. Thus, consuming beans was seen as a form of cannibalism.
- Nutritional and Digestive Reasons: Beyond mystical reasons, it’s plausible that Pythagoreans avoided beans due to their dietary practices. Beans can be hard to digest for some, leading to discomfort and health issues.
The prohibition against beans wasn’t the only dietary restriction that Pythagoreans adhered to. They followed a predominantly vegetarian diet, believing that animals had souls and consuming them would harm the cycle of transmigration.
This holistic view of all life forms underscored the interconnectedness of everything in the universe. This is also a foundational tenet of Pythagorean philosophy.
Death by Bean Field?
The association between Pythagoras and beans took a dramatic twist with accounts of his death. Several ancient sources, including the biographer Diogenes Laertius, recount a tale where Pythagoras met his end in a bean field. Fleeing from his enemies, he supposedly came across a bean field and, due to his aversion to beans, refused to cross it. This hesitation allowed his pursuers to catch up with him, leading to his demise.
While this story seems allegorical and its authenticity is debated, it underscores the profound significance beans held in Pythagoras’s life and teachings.