The Ascent (Anagôgę) to The One is the central spiritual practice in the Pythagorean Tradition (see also "The Threefold Way" in "Part 4"). It is based on the principle that "like knows like." Therefore, to know The One, you must become The One. To know the Highest God, you must unify with and become the Highest God, a process of Deification (Theôsis). Further, since The One is the principle from which all things have their existence, by returning to The One we rediscover and preserve our eternal Essence, and thus the Ascent is the principal means of Salvation (Sôtęria) in the Pythagorean Tradition. Through Union with the Divine we come to see beyond our individuality and to understand our own roles as organs and instruments (organa) of Divine Providence. In a sense that will become clear, the Ascent achieves Immortalization.
There are three Paths of Ascent in the Pythagorean Tradition, each correlated with one of the three principle Attributes of The One: Its Beauty, Wisdom, and Goodness, and the corresponding connecting properties, Love, Truth, and Trust, which are the Chaldaean Virtues. This table summarizes their similarities and differences:
Pythagoreans differ about which path is better; different approaches seem to be suited to souls with different personalities and talents. I will discuss them in order:
We may begin with the Erotic Ascent (Erôtikę Anagôgę), in which the power of Love and Desire (Erôs), directed toward Beauty, raises the soul toward the Beauty of The One. Naturally, the guides on this path are Aphrodite and Eros (both of whom I have already discussed). Erotic Madness is the Vehicle of Salvation and draws the Lover and Beloved together, with the ultimate goal of union. It's best known description is in Plato's Symposium (209E-212C), where it is put into the mouth of the Priestess Diotima (via Socrates); other versions are given by many later philosophers (e.g. Ficino).
The Ascent proceeds through three stages, corresponding to the Material, Aetherial, and Empyrean Realms (see "Theogony" in Part I). At the material level, desire is aroused by the beauty of the body, which is experienced through the senses. This begins with love of an individual's beauty, but expands into love of physical beauty in general. The second stage ascends to desire for the beauty of the soul, which manifests in the moral excellences (Justice, Fortitude, Moderation) and the intellectual excellences (Prudence, Knowledge, Wisdom). This higher beauty is perceived by the rational mind rather than the senses. In the third stage one comes to know Beauty Absolute in the only way possible: by uniting with It, This union transcends the duality of subject and object - of Lover and Beloved - for the Lover merges into the Beloved.
Images of fire are common at this stage: As the moth is attracted to the candle and is consumed by it, so the soul desires and is consumed in Beauty Itself. The soul gives itself as a burnt offering to The One. As fire refines gold, so the Holy Fire of Divine Beauty refines the soul, burning away its grosser elements and sublimating it. As the smoke ascends to the Gods from the sacrificial fires, so the spiritualized soul ascends to union with the Divine. The Lover and Beloved are united in Bliss.
Unfortunately, this union is imperfect and impermanent, for it cannot be sustained while the soul is still bound to the body. Although the devotee of Love must return to ordinary life, the transformation of the soul is permanent. Much more could be said about the Erotic Ascent, but not in this Summary.
The second path to The One is the Contemplative Ascent (Theôrętikę Anagôgę), in which the power of Truth (Alętheia) leads the soul to the Wisdom of The One. The guides on this path are Athena, patroness of wisdom, and Hermes, the guide of souls, messenger between Gods and mortals, and patron of boundary crossers. (Thus this may be called also the Hermetic Ascent, although "Hermeticism" is more theurgic in its operation.) On this path the Vehicle of Salvation is Divine Philosophia, which must be understood in the traditional way, as already discussed (see "Ancient Philosophia"). This Way is described by Plotinus.
The stages of this Ascent may be understood by reference to the Pythagoean Tetractys.
The Tetractys explains, of course, the phases of Emanation as described in Part I "Theogony." However it also shows the stages of Ascent back to The One. As usual, the Ascent begins in the material realm with the contemplation of the Divine in the objects of sense; this is The Awakening. A further prerequisite for the Ascent, which must be fulfilled before progress can be made, is the practice of the Four Cardinal Excellences (also called Civic or Social Virtues), as taught by Philosophia: Moderation, Fortitude, Prudence, and Justice, corresponding to Earth, Water, Air, Fire.
The second stage is Purification (Katharsis), which brings order to the Soul's Three Faculties (Non-reasoning, Reasoning, Noetic). This is accomplished by cultivating the Kathartic Excellences, by which the soul is turned inward and upward toward The One. The goal is to calm the lower parts of the soul, which are more intimately connected with the body, so that the higher parts may ascend. Also, on the principle of "like knows like," we attempt to achieve the tranquillity of the Gods and the inner unity of The One.
First we must calm the non-reasoning soul, which we share with animals and plants, and which is the seat of our appetites and of the faculties of growth and nutrition. Since excessive pleasure and pains can disturb the desired tranquillity, the philosopher strives to live healthily, with proper diet, sleep, and exercise. (Extreme asceticism may be counterproductive.) The higher (reasoning) soul must learn that disturbances arise largely from mental judgements about sensations rather than from the sensations themselves. Therefore, by controlling how we think about these things we can diminish the disturbing effects of excessive pleasures and pains.
When the non-reasoning soul has been cal