The Ethics of Delphi, Solon, & Pythagoras Compared

This discussion continues from On Ethics, Defense, and Spirituality

I was asked in a comment what I think of the Delphic Maxims in comparison with Solon’s “Commandments” or the Golden Sayings of Pythagoras.

The Delphic Maxims are wide and varied, but share aspects with Solon’s Commandments and the Golden Sayings of Pythagoras. Here are some things they share in common…

Pythagoras, the man in the center with the boo...

Pythagoras teaching Image via Wikipedia

There are significant differences between the three sources.  Pythagoras lists avoidance of consuming meat among his sayings, yet this is not mentioned by Solon or Delphi.  Whereas Solon has an interesting point about how to make recommendations: “When giving advice, do not recommend what is most pleasing, but what is most useful” and Delphi recommends: “If you are a stranger act like one (Ξepsilon;νος ων ισθι)”.

What these sources have in common provides valuable insight into the most emphasized values in antiquity.

  • Delphi: “Crown your ancestors” (Προγονους στεφανου) <—> Solon: “Have regard for your parents” <—> Pythagoras: “Honour likewise thy parents, and those most nearly related to thee”

The common theme here is honoring ones parents and ancestry.  By extension, Delphi emphasizes respect for the dead “Do not make fun of the dead” (Επι νεκρω μη γελα), “Do not wrong the dead” (Φθιμενους μη αδικει), “Respect the elder” (Πρεσβυτερον αιδου), & “Revere who came before, especially those responsible for your birth”.

  • Delphi: “Guard friendship” (Φιλιαν φυλαττε), “Despise a slanderer” (Διαβολην μισει), & “Honor good men” (Αγαθους τιμα) <—> Solon: “Do not be hasty in making friends, but do not abandon them once made” & “Do not associate with people who do bad things” <—> Pythagoras: “Of all the rest of mankind, make him thy friend who distinguishes himself by his virtue”

The connection is harder to see between Delphi and Pythagoras and Solon, but with the emphasis on living honorably throughout the Maxims and praising those who behave virtuously and despising those who don’t behave well, implies the three share a common thread.  Solon perscribes “Do good things.” and Pythagoras recommends “Do nothing evil, neither in the presence of others, nor privately.” as well as “And if thou hast done any good, rejoice.”  All three sources emphasize association with honorable people, making them your friends, cultivating that friendship, and protecting it.

Aside: on protecting friendship, that requires one to defend friends from enemies. See On Ethics, Defense, and Spirituality.

  • Delpi: “Worship the Gods” (Θεους σεβου) <—> Solon: “Honor the gods.” <—> Pythagoras: “First worship the Immortal Gods, as they are established and ordained by the Law.”

In any relationship, there is give and take.  We give sponde, choe, offerings, and sing the praises of the gods in an attempt to reciprocate the much more valuable gifts They bestow upon us.  That is why we honor the gods first, because our relationship with them is the strongest, and therefore, the most important.  Solon, Delphi, and Pythagoras all make this an imperative.

The Hellenic Polytheistic culture emphasizes community. To build a community, one must associate with friends (carefully chosen) who are worthy of defense and will likewise defend in turn. Reciprocity is key in friendship, as it is in the guest-host relationship and hospitality (Delphi: “Give back what you have received.” (Λαβων αποδος).  But above all, honor the gods; our connection with Them is the most sacred and timeless and demands the most in return.  Without Hestia, there is no hearthfire for the oikos or polis at large to gather around.


  1. There are also values that are surely outdated and not suited for a modern Hellenic Polytheist, such as Delphi: “Rule your wife.” (Γυναικος αρχε).  As always, I ascribe to the practice of treating reconstruction like rebuilding (and remodeling) a house.  It will need new amenities, even if the general style is like that of the house that was.  We have to live in it, after-all.
  2. For a good read on contrasting Athenian with Hebrew codes of ethical conduct, I recommend Richard Carrier‘s article The Real Ten Commandments contrasting Solon’s Commandments with Moses‘s Ten Commandments. He wrote it in response to those who claim that the Ten Commandments of Moses were the founding of Western Morality.

Which philosophers inform your ethics?  What ancient ethics do you think apply today, and which do not?  Which do you think are most central to the religion?


4 comments on “The Ethics of Delphi, Solon, & Pythagoras Compared

  1. I confess, I was rather tempted to veer off topic and discuss Richard Carrier’s article in more detail. ^ ^

    You make very valid points concerning length, complexity, and focus. That certainly is a different angle to approach the issue with than I’d considered.

    Although, I would suggest introducing Solon and the Delphi at the same time, because while Solon is short and sweet, a new Hellenic Polytheist might not know what “bad” and “good” is in Hellenismos based on Solon alone when he says “Do good things.”

    Is the “bad” in Hellenismos like a “sin” in Christianity? Is it good to turn the other cheek when attacked, or when one’s family or friends are attacked? The answers seem more clear to me when reading the Maxims compared to reading Solon alone. I think the detail in the Delphic Maxims elaborate on what the ancients believed the “good” and “bad” are specifically.

    But your points are well-noted!

    I also agree with you on Pythagoras and recommending his sayings if one is interested in mysticism. His teachings don’t seem as widely applicable overall, even if some of them share root values with Solon and Delphi.

  2. annyikha says:

    Yes, I love Richard Carrier’s article as well.

    My take on the differences between Solon’s Commandments and the Delphic Maxims is based on length. They go over roughly the same things, only Solon is extremely concise. The Delphic Maxims also serve as a constant reminder of human limitations:

    Do not depend on strength. (Βιας μη εχου)
    Accept old age. (Γηρας προσδεχου)

    The Delphic Maxims provide that famous section at the end detailing how one should behave in each sector of life. Solon’s Commandments are more interested in helping people maintain good behavior overall than adjust to the specifics of one’s station at various periods of one’s life. The exception may be “learn to obey before you command,” but again the Delphic Maxims have a lot more to say about these things!

    Pythagoras, of course, was somewhat of a mystic, so some of the things (like avoiding meat) are representative of his followers’ ideas concerning extreme ritual purity and the salvation of the soul. For instance, look at the final lines: “(70.) And when, after having divested thyself of thy mortal body, thou arrivest at the most pure Æther, (71.) Thou shalt be a God, immortal, incorruptible, and Death shall have no more dominion over thee.”

    Quite honestly, if I were to introduce someone to Hellenic ethics, I would use Solon first and then graduate to the Delphic Maxims. Solon’s Commandments look familiar to people because individuals are used to the Mosaic Ten Commandments, and they are good enough guidelines for people to use. If a student of Hellenic Polytheism expressed interest in mysticism, I would forward the Golden Sayings/Verses of Pythagoras along with other things we know about Pythagorean theology.

  3. abc says:

    only two comments?

  4. GulliverUnivers says:

    Gulliver’s Universe!!! a place of free thinking


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s