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Simone de Beauvoir attributed the following quote on the good and bad principles to Pythagoras in The Second Sex, page 114 :

There is a good principle that created order, light, and man and a bad principle that created chaos, darkness, and woman

What did he mean by this quote ? According to what I have read about him, he did not seem to be against women. If so what does this quote mean exactly ?

Thanks in advance.

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    The authenticity of the quote is doubtful, but the sentiment that women are spiritually inferior to men was common in traditional patriarchal societies. Confucius, Buddha and Plato expressed similar opinions. At least, Pythagoreans allowed women into their cult. – Conifold May 4 at 4:37
  • I've read this quote in the 'Second Sex' Book of Simone De Beauvoir – Alenoosh Baghumian May 4 at 4:53
  • @FrankHubeny The earliest occurence I found is de Beauvoir's Second Sex (1953), p.114, which conveniently omits the source, from where it spread to much of feminist literature and online quote sites. But it is in line with what Plato says in Timaeus, and Aristotle in Generation of Animals. – Conifold May 4 at 5:07
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    It looks like a late variation on a Gnostic view. Most certainly not by Pythagoras. One has to know something about de Beauvoir's readings as she appears. to be the source of the attribution. – sand1 May 4 at 9:18
  • @Conifold "what Plato says in Timaeus, and Aristotle in Generation of Animals." do you perhaps have more specific references to these sources? – Ram Tobolski May 5 at 5:16
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Neither Pythagoras nor a Pythagorean may have written the passage in question. One place to look for something like the passage would be Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie's The Complete Pythagoras which provides four surviving biographies of Pythagoras from antiquity and "a complete collection of the surviving fragments from the Pythagoreans". (page 1)

Since Simone de Beauvoir did not provide a reference for her quote in The Second Sex and it does not appear evident that it actually is a Pythagorean text, before asking what Pythagoras meant by it one has to determine whether it actually represents what the Pythagoreans actually wrote.


Guthrie, K. S. The Complete Pythagoras https://archive.org/details/TheCompletePythagoras

  • Thank you for your detailed answer. But I wonder, if this quote is not related to Pythagoras, then why the author of the quote is mentioned as Pythagoras by Simone de Beauvoir ? – Alenoosh Baghumian May 4 at 19:19
  • @AlenooshBaghumian She may have made a mistake and was referring to something someone else wrote. There may be a translation issue with something a Pythagorean actually wrote that she misquoted. Someone may have given her wrong information that she used in the book.There may be other explanations for how this could happen. – Frank Hubeny May 4 at 20:55
  • Yes, you're right. Thank you – Alenoosh Baghumian May 5 at 7:47
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As said above, there are no extant works or fragments of Pythagoras.

Ancient Pythagoreanism comprised sixth-, fifth- and fourth-century thinkers and many of them attributed their ideas to the founder of the school.

Having said that, the source of Simone de Beauvoir seems to be Aristotle's overview of Pythagoreanism; see Met, Book I, 986a :

the so-called Pythagoreans [...] assumed the elements of numbers to be the elements of everything, and the whole universe to be a proportion or number.

The elements of number, according to them, are the Even and the Odd. Of these the former is limited and the latter unlimited; Unity consists of both (since it is both odd and even); number is derived from Unity; and numbers, as we have said, compose the whole sensible universe. Others of this same school hold that there are ten principles, which they enunciate in a series of corresponding pairs:

(1.) Limit and the Unlimited; (2.) Odd and Even; (3.) Unity and Plurality; (4.) Right and Left; (5.) Male and Female; (6.) Rest and Motion; (7.) Straight and Crooked; (8.) Light and Darkness; (9.) Good and Evil; (10.) Square and Oblong.

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    There are certainly other lists of pythagorean pairs and Aristotle's popularity is perhaps not a strong argument. Googling combinations of the substantives from the quote in the 2 classical languages and 4 modern ones however failed to find anything similar before de Beauvoir. Millions of books are still unscanned but this (lack of) result is already puzzling. – sand1 May 5 at 20:34

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