Does the Pythagorean maxim tell us to avoid eating beans?

SHARE Does the Pythagorean maxim tell us to avoid eating beans?

Dear Cecil: While rereading Moby Dick recently I came across a reference to something called the Pythagorean maxim. We were all forced to learn the Pythagorean theorem in grade school but this was something new. In my Norton Critical Edition the footnote says, “The Pythagorean injunction is to avoid eating beans, which cause flatulence.” Inasmuch as you are world’s top expert on all matters scatological, I figured I should turn to you for help. Where did this injunction come from and how have I managed to spend 40 years on this planet without noticing any reference to it before? Mike Beazley, Toledo, Ohio


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Blame the schools. The passage from Moby Dick reads, “In this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim).” That Melville, he cracks me up. Or at least he would have if I’d understood this joke when I first read it, which unfortunately I didn’t, since I was only in high school at the time and neither the teacher nor the text bothered to explain it. Too bad. It would have enriched the literary experience for me and I’ll bet for the whole sophomore class. Luckily today’s youth have guys like me to plug these shameful educational lacunae.

The Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras (circa 580 to circa 500 BC) founded a quasireligious brotherhood that adhered to a strict discipline. Since none of the master’s original writings survive, we can’t distinguish his contributions from those of his disciples and can only call the whole mess Pythagoreanism. Some Pythagorean precepts: Not to let swallows share one’s roof. Not to sit on a quart measure. Not to walk on highways. When the pot is taken off the fire, not to leave the mark of it in the ashes, but to stir them together. And of course to abstain from beans.

You’re probably thinking one of two thoughts: (1) these guys were deep, or (2) these guys were missing a few strings on their ukelele. I incline to the former view. The Pythagorean theorem (hypotenuse squared = sum of squares of other sides) shows these people were into practical knowledge with an eye to the sublime. Given what we know about the magical fruit, doesn’t the antibean injunction demonstrate the same?

The essence of bean

Cecil, Cecil, Cecil:

You seem to have grabbed the Pythagorean bean issue by the ridiculous end rather than the sublime. Of course it looks like Melville got it wrong, too. Basically the Pythagoreans thought of beans as a taboo plant because beans were associated with reincarnation. Evidently the hollow tubes of the pods (or of the stems) were a conduit between the underworld and southern Italy, at least. The Greeks used tubes both ways — they used to pour liquid offerings via tubes into tombs to feed the dead. You can look at some of the major writers on classical religion like Jane Ellen Harrison, E. R. Dodds, and others for more information on the use of food and sacred plants in rituals and festivals. Sometimes there’s more to bodily functions than there seems to be.

— Don Gecewicz, Chicago

Cecil replies:

I don’t know what gets into me. It was as if an evil voice said, “Cecil, what do you think your readers will find more fascinating, a learned disquisition about reincarnation or a bunch of fart jokes?” You know my tragic choice. If I were teaching at Harvard, I’d never get tenure. But I bet there’d never be an empty seat in my class.

The essence of bean, part 2

Dear Cecil:

Your recent discussion of farts and beans is somewhat misleading. I would like to call your attention to a paragraph from my monograph, “A Metaphysical and Anecdotal Consideration of the Fart” (Alphabeta Press):

Little did we know as children about the power and symbolism of beans. If we had read The White Goddess by Robert Graves, we would have known that beans were filled with wondrous powers and ought not be mocked. Graves tells us in his book that the Pythagorean mystics were bound by a strong taboo against eating beans. To eat beans was to eat one’s parents’ heads. This superstition was similar to the views held by the Platonists. They excluded beans on the rationalistic ground that they caused flatulence. Life, they argued, was breath, and to break wind after eating beans was proof one had eaten a living soul.

The point here is that the soul is associated with breath, you know, “pneuma,” pneumonia, etc, and that a fart was a kind of breath, so a soul was created and escaped, etc. Thus the connection with reincarnation. If you are going to consider this subject in your column, why won’t you answer the many letters I have sent you in the past about fish farts? If you recall, I wanted to know if in fact fish fart. As a woman who has spent much time at sea, I still have no answer to this question. Your attention to this matter will help me finish my monograph on the subject.

— Gloria Klein, via the Internet

Cecil replies:

Gloria, I’m not sure which is the more troubling thought: (1) This letter is a joke, or (2) it isn’t.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via