The Relationship between Consciousness, Energy and Substance in Pythagorean Philosophy – Part 1

One of the core questions that must be explored by any true spiritual philosophy is that of consciousness. ‘How does individual consciousness arise, and what is its meaning?’ Pythagoras gives us an answer to this question, which is also taken up by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Both philosophers posited that consciousness does not arise from matter, or even spirit, but rather set it as the supreme axiom – there is individual consciousness, and it represents one of the three aspects of the monad.

The Relationship between Consciousness, Energy and Substance in Pythagorean Philosophy – Part 1

From the perspective of the Western path of knowledge, the Pythagorean philosophy not just belongs to the past, but has an immediate relevance in our present, for its essence is not only coherent and rational, but ‘living’ in its underlying truths. It is a part of a tree whose roots extend throughout history and in this instance, has its origins in Pythagoras and his school of thought.

In approaching the idea of individual consciousness, we should avoid the material, mechanistic world view, for true consciousness cannot arise from the concept or process of building a ‘supercomputer’ that simply emulates. It can also not be solved from the dualistic view, which juxtaposes spirit against the complexities of matter; how would individual consciousness arise from this? Thirdly, if consciousness is only an aspect of spirit, then we are left to answer the question of how, and even why, does spirit divide itself into individuality?

So what is individual consciousness, and how can we understand it? Man has five unique senses, but our most active and prominent sense, is that of sight.  However, if we close our eyes, we notice a shifting of awareness to our other four senses, which become heightened and more acute as a result. Hence our consciousness is affected through each of our senses.

We must also consider the aspect of thought, with its myriad impressions and activities. René Descartes observed this activity and concluded, ‘I think, therefore I am’. Hence our thinking not only reflects consciousness, but affects consciousness.
A third aspect of consciousness can be seen when we consider the idea of self-observation, and its relationship to the spiritual idea of quietening the thoughts. This is closely tied to the concept of self-awareness. In calming the chaos of thinking, we come to realise that a unique and important aspect of consciousness is the ability to impartially observe our thoughts and feelings.

Most of us will be aware of this inner observation, and that in essence it confirms that one’s own consciousness is an empirical fact, that individual consciousness exists. But this still leaves the question: how does it come about?

Leibniz was faced with this precise question. He lived in a world where dualism was the prominent view, and where the most challenging question for philosophy at that time was: how does consciousness arise? He posited: ‘If we keep asking the question, how does individual consciousness arise from mind and matter, without finding an answer, then it could be that we are asking the wrong question. What if we change our paradigm and put aside the concepts of mind and matter. What if we start with the axiom: there is individual consciousness!’ He called this idea of individual consciousness, ‘the atom of consciousness’, ‘the monad’, and continued, ‘If we acknowledge that it exists, then all we can observe in terms of ‘mind’ and ‘matter’, are merely different states of monad’.


From Leibniz’s perspective, there are only monads, points of consciousness, centres of consciousness. This is the core of his philosophy. He wrote two books: ‘Monadology’ and ‘Theodicy’, in which he returned to the ideas of Pythagoras. The term ‘monad’ was originally coined by Pythagoras, and was derived from the Greek, ‘monas’, meaning unity. We also know the term ‘mono’ in audio engineering, meaning singular. The monad is a unit of consciousness in the cosmos, or to put this more succinctly, the monads are the spiritual primal atoms of the cosmos. This was the fundamental idea brought by Pythagoras.

The Pythagorean philosophy states that the monad possesses three primary aspects, three fundamental properties, which are always present simultaneously, and cannot be explained from each other. The first is the property of matter. Every monad has a material aspect. No monad exists that does not possess this quality. However, by ‘matter’, Pythagoras did not restrict his meaning purely to physical matter, but included other manifestations of it. For instance, in today’s physics we speak of and accept the idea of ‘dark matter’, meaning it cannot be seen, only its impact measured. There is also the idea of ‘neutrinos’, that are understood to penetrate and impact physical matter, yet cannot be seen. These two simple examples illustrate the Pythagorean insights into the material aspect of the monad, even if it is hidden and often incomprehensible.

Secondly, there is the consciousness aspect of the monad, the awareness principle, while lastly, we see the animating principle that must be present; the energy or force that drives the movement of all of life.  Pythagoras called this third aspect ‘dynamis’, the dynamic principle.

Consciousness, matter, movement

Let us now consider the three dimensions, the three qualities that define space: depth, width and height. If we now only consider two of these, say height and width, then we would be left with what we normally term a two dimensional form, just as we would for instance, call the shadow of a person. Such an image has no depth, no third dimension. So in order to understand the full complexities of life, we would always need to include all three dimensions in our considerations. If we now approach this topic from a purely dualistic point of view, that is, if we only consider matter as the lower spectrum, and spirit as the higher one, then from the point of view of the Pythagorean philosophy, we will have an incomplete picture, for we have not included the third aspect.

So in order to understand the deeper essences of all theological philosophies and teachings, we therefore need to consider all three primary aspects.
As we have already mentioned, these three consist of the physical, the consciousness, and the animating principles. The physical is not only the gross material form, but also includes the more subtle interpenetrating bodies. From an esoteric perspective, these vehicles are finer vibrational forms of matter, and together they form the higher aspects of the physical manifestation.

As an example, let us consider that from an individual perspective we generally see our thoughts and feelings from a subjective point of view. However, for someone who has a more developed sensory perception, thoughts and feelings become tangible and perceptible, and therefore objective. Such sensitivity can extend to a visual and auditory perception, and can also have an interactive influence where thoughts and feelings can be studied and even manipulated. Thus, the physical manifestation becomes far more objective, a characteristic that has often been utilized by many religious philosophies to provide a specific form of knowledge and security around the understanding of these more subtle levels of the physical plane.

We also need to consider the experiential aspect of the subjective; the placing of oneself into the moment of personal conscious experience. Pythagoras recognised that many philosophies, especially those from the East, based their cornerstone on commencing with the consciousness, the individuals’ subjectivity. One was asked to explore, contemplate, and ultimately control their consciousness. Whereas he further understood that the Western psyche needed to be grounded, needed to be rooted more in the physical, to avoid sinking into the subjective oceans of bliss and the delusion of cosmic consciousness. Pythagoras warned of the danger where the objective disappears and the consciousness considers the physical as a total delusion.

Pythagoras focused on the need for the objective. He saw the objective, the conscious experience of the physical with all of its subtleties, as a necessary part of entering into the subjective experience. And when this experience reached a certain level of maturity, then the third aspect, that of the dynamic, animating principle begins to manifest. But little is known of this third aspect, and for good reason.

From the Theosophical perspective, the physical represents the neophyte, the beginner; the consciousness that of the adherent, the student; and the dynamis, that of the master. Thus there are three steps, three tasks that need to be mastered in the course of man’s development. But while the consciousness, the second aspect, that moves on this plane of existence, has many wonderful attributes and insights, and as such can provide much help and assistance to others, still this awareness also includes the knowledge of its own short-comings and inadequacies with regard to the objective.

So how did Pythagoras address this issue?  Firstly, he considered the totality of manifestation, which included not only the material body, but also the more subtle emotional and mental bodies associated with it, as well as the activity of the causal factors. Thus he saw the subjective as the interplay of different energies, all displaying their opposing poles. The material with its health and illness, the emotional with the attraction and repulsion, and the mental realm with its analysis and synthesis, all of whose interactive intricacies could be understood on deeper and deeper levels.

(to be continued in part 2)

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Date: February 5, 2021
Author: Hannes Frischat (Germany)
Photo: Felix Mittermeier auf Pixabay CCO

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