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Audio book    

When the Dog speaks, the Philosopher listens

A guide to the greatness of Pythagoras and his curious Age

This is a book not of philosophy, but about how philosophy was born; about what it was like to explore the earliest, and most universal, scientific concepts. Exploration is fundamental to its theme, because the 7th and 6th centuries BC are one of the greatest periods of exploration in human history - explorations both mental and geographical; and many of them on a scale, and of a boldness, that impresses us profoundly today. It was also a period of extraordinary intellectual fertility and artistic development, right across the arc of Europe and Asia. In India, the Buddha began his teaching; in China, Confucius and Lao Tzu - or that group of sages, who sowed the seeds of Taoism; in Persia, too, (if we follow some chronologies) Zoroaster spoke; all this, at the same time as Greek philosophy and science were rapidly emerging, on the very edge of Europe, as a new and radical way to understand our universe and our existence within it.

Across this fascinating landscape, moved a person who possessed an uncommon ability to listen to, and understand, what he saw and heard. He travelled in person, it seems, by ship and by foot, as well as in mind, observing, thinking, listening, everywhere he went. This individual was Pythagoras. And the ideas which he brought back from Asia and from Egypt, into the Aegean world of Greece, were to change the course of human thinking for ever. Whatever he had learnt from the East, he transformed; and in that transformation, he nourished the nascent scientific way of thinking of his native Ionia, and enriched its spiritual awareness. He was a precursor - perhaps the most important precursor of all - of a quite distinct current of thought, science and speculation, which we can finally begin to call 'Western'.

Pythagoras left no writing that has survived. For this reason, his legacy has been buried, garbled, embellished, suffocated, and misunderstood throughout the centuries that followed. Luckily, he preferred to teach not so much with words, but by using mathematics, or acoustic and musical harmony, as well as through his own, very individual, way of being and reacting. By concentrating on these aspects of his legacy, and avoiding the clutter of later accretion, we are able to glimpse, beneath the undergrowth that has obscured him for so long, the crystalline limpidity of his thought. It is a thinking that is clear and liberating, grounded on the perception that order, harmony and beauty are what give meaning to the design of our universe, and to our lives within it.

His is an ancient, but, nonetheless, very relevant story. It can help us today, as we face the problems encircling our natural environment, and as we struggle with the millennia-long legacy of those religious faiths that have corralled our thinking in the intervening centuries since time of Pythagoras. Pythagoras was a free mind - and the boldness and freedom and beauty of his thinking is the subject of this book.

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Comments about the book

"An uncommonly beautiful and wise illumination of both beauty and wisdom. Few scholars write with the open-heartedness and humanity of Nigel McGilchrist; and few travellers can draw upon his extraordinary range and erudition. This is the rare book that opens up a figure who for most of us is just a name, teaches us volumes about the ancient world and, finally, gives us a sense of how to live, with music, in humility, exalted."

Pico Iyer, author of The Art of Stillness (2014); The Man Within My Head (2012); and The Open Road - the Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (2008)


"This is the most urgent thing I've read in years. I wish I'd been able to read it years ago and several of my own books ago... I've never come across a book whose medium and message are so perfectly aligned. It’s a poised book about poise: a harmonious book about harmony: a gently courteous book about gentle courtesy. Enduring, resonant, repercussive."

Charles Foster, author of Being a Human (2021); Being a Beast (2016); The Sacred Journey (2010) and The Selfless Gene (2009).


Read the full review by Jonathan Gaisman, KC, in The New Criterion (June, 2023)



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The Author Explains

An introduction to the book.

The Cover image and the Title.


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Contents of the book

About this book
1. The Maze Within and Around us

Asia, Africa & Greece
2. A Turning World
3. The Gift of the East
4. The worlds that Pythagoras saw
5. Samos

Qualities of Greekness
6. Architecture of mind
7. Freedom from Sacred Texts
8. Clarity, Poverty and Nakedness

Pythagoras Distilled
9. Catching the Voice
10. A first Encounter with Pythagoras
11. Three Words
12. Sound
13. Silence
14. Animals and Souls
15. Pythagoras and Heracleitus
16. Alignment and the Theorem
17. The Shape of the World and the Cosmos
18. The Push of the Cosmos

Problems with Pythagoras
19. Pythagoras in Italy
20. Who was Pythagoras?
21. The Historians and their Pythagorases
22. The curse of Fragmentariness

Pythagoras Today
23. The Soul as Work of Art
24. Pythagoras and our Garden of Eden
Epilogue: Truth and Beauty

After-thoughts & Appendices
i. Celestial harmony and Ancient music
ii. Pythagoras, Lao Tzu and Confucius
iii. Proof by Rearrangement of the Pythagorean Theorem

Maps & Illustrations
Notes, Aknowledgements & Credits
Sources & Select Literature
Author's Thanks


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Audio version of the book

This partial audio version of the book is provided here, for free, in order to introduce the book to the interested listener. Listening to a book being read is a different experience from reading its pages. In some circumstances, it can be advantageous: but the listener does not have the crucial help of the images, maps and illustrations, which are a fundamental part of this book in particular, nor the guidance of footnotes which help to explain many of the things that are referred to.

So, this audio version is not a substitute for the book itself; but it is provided here, in the hope that the listener will be interested to obtain the book itself after listening to it being read. To further encourage that, the last two important and concluding chapters, as well as the Epilogue and three Appendices, have been omitted from the reading. Some illustrations have been included out of necessity, however, because the book's discussion of a number of them would otherwise not make sense to the listener.

It is hoped that this reading will give much pleasure, and will encourage the listener to obtain the book itself.

About this book

Chapter 1: The Maze Within and Around us

Maze of the Villa Pisani, Strà, Italy

Chapter 2: A Turning World

The constellation of Orion, the Hunter, as seen in the Southern Hemisphere

Chapter 3: The Gift of the East

Left: The Moschophoros or 'Calf-Bearer', mid 6th century BC (Acropolis Museum, Athens)
Right: Ramses II, 13th century BC, Temple of Karnak

Chapter 4: The worlds that Pythagoras saw

Watercolour impression of the façade of the Ishtar Gate in Babylon, c.575 BC,
by the German Art Historian, Friedrich Wachtsmuth, c 1912

Chapter 5: Samos

The Samos Kouros, early 6th century BC
(Archaeological Museum, Vathi, Samos)

Chapter 6: Architecture of Mind

The Temple of Hephaistos (or 'Theseion'), Athens, mid 5th century BC;
drawn by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, 1794

Chapter 7: Freedom from Sacred Texts

The ancient Theatre at Delphi

Chapter 8: Clarity, Poverty & Nakedness

The Strait of Telendos, looking South from the Hellenistic fort of Kastri above Emboreio on Kalymnos

Chapter 9: Catching the Voice

'His Master's Voice', oil painting by Francis Barraud, 1898

Chapter 10: A first Encounter with Pythagoras

Grave stele from Tanagra in Boeotia; early 4th century BC
(National Museum of Archaeology, Athens)

Chapter 11: Three words

The firmament seen from Earth

Chapter 12: Sound

Samian cithara or lyre of the time of Pythagoras
(Reconstruction from one of the ivory carved human figures - interpreted here as frame supports -
in the Archaeological Museum of Vathi, Samos)

Chapter 13: Silence

'Le Silence', Antoine-Augustin Préault, 1843
(Plaster model, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas)

Chapter 14: Animals and Souls

Top: Ancient rhyton (a pouring cup for ceremonial drinking) in the shape of a dog's head, with decoration attributed to the Brygos Painter, working in Athens c. 490-470 BC (Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia, Rome)
Bottom: The Euergides painter, Athenian red-figure cup, late 6th century BC (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

Chapter 15: Pythagoras and Heracleitus

Nataraja: Shiva as the divine dancer in a ring of fire, destroying while creating
(Bronze from Tamil Nadu, 11th century, Art Institute of Chicago)

Chapter 16: Alignment and the Theorem

Top: Albrecht Dürer, The Great Piece of Turf, 1503 (Albertina Collection, Vienna)
Bottom: Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I, 1514 (detail)

Chapter 17: The Shape of the World and the Cosmos

Reconstruction of a map by Dirk Couprie, based on a version proposed by Anaximander

Chapter 18: The Push of the Cosmos

Ceiling fresco of a diver, early 5th century BC
From a fresco in the necropolis of Paestum (Poseidonia), Italy

Chapter 19: Pythagoras in Italy

The Greek settlements of Magna Graecia

Chapter 20: Who was Pythagoras?

Fava bean

Chapter 21: The Historians and their Pythagorases

Frontispiece of a 17th century translation of the 'Lives... of the most famous Ancient Philosophers', by Diogenes Laertius

Chapter 22: The curse of Fragmentariness

The so-called 'Marine Venus', a mid-2nd century BC memory of the Aphrodite of Cnidos of Praxiteles found on the sea bed near Rhodes
(Archaeological Museum, Rhodes)


Is this the sound of the Ancient kithara?
Improvisation by Peter Pringle, reproduced here by kind permission of the artist.

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