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The Pythagorean succession
In ancient times mystical and magical traditions were passed on orally from teacher to student. Often this involved the teacher ritually adopting the student so that they became Spiritual Parent and Child. Thus in ancient texts the teacher is sometimes called "Father" or "Mother," and the student "Son" or "Daughter." Such a tradition was called a Succession (Diadokhę, "what has been received from another"), and it was commonly traced back to a Divine Ancestor, a God who first divulged the secret teachings to a mortal (often His son). Thereafter the Succession was under the guardianship of that God, and all its members were said to be in a divine Seira (Chord, Series, Lineage) originating from the God.
One of the most famous traditions of this kind is the Pythagorean Succession (Pythagoreios Diadokhę), which traces it teachings to Pythagoras (572-497 BCE), who was rumored to be a son of Apollo: his name refers to Pythian Apollo, and his mother became pregnant after a visit to Delphi, where the Pythoness predicted that she would bear a great sage. Nevertheless, Pythagoras had his own teachers; he studied under Pherekydes and, according to his biographers, was initiated into the Mysteries of the Chaldeans, Egyptians, Brahmans, Phoenicians, and Zoroastrians.
As discussed in Part I (History), the Pythagorean Succession includes many of the most famous Sages and Philosophers of antiquity, including Empedocles (c.495-435), Plato (427-347), Apollonius of Tyana (1st cent. CE), Plutarch (c.46-c.125), Plotinus (205-270), the Emperor Julian (331-363), and Hypatia (365-415). When the Pagan schools were closed by Justinian in 529 CE, the Wandering Seven philosophers fled Athens for Persia; they remained there for a time and a few settled in the East. In any case, after more than a thousand years, the Succession disappeared underground, and it is difficult to trace thereafter, although it surfaces from time to time.
Pythagoras coined the term Philosophos, which means Lover of Wisdom. A new word was necessary because, while many people call themselves "wise" (sophos), the truly wise person knows that Wisdom (sophia), like Buddhahood, is an ideal that few attain, and then only after many lifetimes. Desire and pursuit of Wisdom is the most we should claim.
Modern philosophy often seems like a dry, academic discipline residing in the highest attics of the ivory tower, but ancient Philosophia was very different; it was a practical discipline aimed at teaching one to live well. This is also the goal of modern teachers of Philosophia. (Better living through Enlightenment!)
In some ways Philosophia is more like medicine than a theoretical subject. Its goal is both Therapeia (care, therapy, cure) and Hugieia (health, soundness of mind and body). That is, it aims at alleviating the troubles and afflictions of people and at showing them a better way to live.
Since each student in a school of Philosophia is in a different situation, each student is prescribed practices suited to their condition. Assessing the spiritual condition and progress of the student is the job of the teacher, who may be called Kathêgemôn (Leader, Guide) or Didaskalos (Teacher, Master).
The Teacher often makes use of the Therapy of the Word, which includes incantations and spells, but also theological and philosophical discourse. The latter might be true or false to varying degrees or on different levels, but their literal truth was not so important as their effect on the mind of the student. Just as the doctor may administer different herbs to you at different times, depending on your condition, so also the Guide administers different doctrines (verbal therapies) appropriate for your spiritual state. The goal is not to build philosophical systems but to cure and care for souls. As Epicurus (c.55-c.135) said, "Empty are the words of that philosophos who cures no human suffering."figures-plato
The Teacher may prescribe other Spiritual Exercises (Askêseis), including meditation, contemplation, affirmations, visualization, journal writing, and individual and group examination of spiritual progress and problems. More advanced students may be invited to receive training in Spiritual Magic (Theurgy) and other mystical practices requiring greater dedication.
Is the Spiritual Guide superfluous in the modern world? On one hand, the threads of the ancient Succession are hard to find (although self-proclaimed gurus are everywhere). On the other, much of the ancient teaching can be found in books and doesn't have to come from oral teaching. Therefore, solitary practice if often the best option nowadays. Nevertheless, a Guide is still useful for being able to assess the condition of the student and to prescribe appropriate practices. Furthermore, a Guide is useful when the student gets stuck or encounters special problems (especially in the more advanced practices). Finally, if a student is psychologically "at risk," a spiritual Guide may steer them away from potentially dangerous practices, and aid their healing (perhaps directing them to professional care). In summary, although a Guide is by no means necessary, your progress may be easier if you can find a competent, honest Teacher.