Pythagoras was born on an island ruled by tyrants and fled to Croton. He likes to contemplate nature’s laws, the creation of the universe, and the gods. He shares his contemplations with the people of Croton. One day, he gives a speech urging them not to eat meat. He addresses the citizens as mortals and implores them not to defile their bodies with meat when nature provides an abundance of fruit, milk, and honey. Pythagoras points out that only savage beasts eat meat, and that it is wrong for one creature to eat the guts of another. He says that greed and gluttony cause people to eat meat.
In his speech, Pythagoras takes contemplations of the gods, the universe, and nature—the main themes of the Metamorphoses—and formulates a philosophy. One of the points of this philosophy is that human beings should not eat meat. This point circles back to the early days of the universe’s creation in which humans became corrupt by abusing nature. Similarly, the habit of eating meat is an abuse of nature’s creatures.
Pythagoras points out that, during the Golden Age, humans never ate meat. During that time, birds, rabbits, and fish lived without fear of human killers. A person can kill an animal out of self-defense, but they shouldn’t eat it. People started to eat their foes, but then they started to eat their pigs, goats, and oxen—animals which provide wonderful services, such as milk and labor, to humans while they’re alive. Even worse, humans started including the gods in their murders, believing that sacrificing animals pleased them. Pythagoras says it is horrible to kill an innocent animal and then to gorge on its flesh.
Pythagoras traces the slippery slope of corruption that started with human beings defending themselves and ended with them abusing innocent nature. Pythagoras illustrates how eating meat might seem like the natural use of nature’s resources to satisfy human needs, but that it is actually the opposite. Killing an animal disregards the service that this animal naturally provides to humans, showing how eating meat is an abuse of nature rather than an embrace of it.
After this speech, Pythagoras says he will unveil the heavens, expose the errors of mortals, and correct them by revealing fate. Pythagoras wonders why human beings fear death and says that all things change but that nothing dies. After the body has decayed and burned, the soul wanders and enters new bodies. Like in a piece of wax, each form that the soul inhabits is only an impression on the unchanging wax. Therefore, a person should never live according to their bodily desires.
In his speech, Pythagoras creates a teaching from the fact of transformation. Since transformation proves that a person has a soul that can leave its body and inhabit new forms, a person should never live by the rules of their body but instead by rules more fitting for a soul. In this way, transformation is not only of aesthetic value to the Metamorphoses, but also provides a philosophy of life.
Pythagoras says that nothing in the universe remains unchanged. Like a river that can never stand still, time is constantly flowing. Night and day are different; the sun is different colors at different times, and the moon a different size and shape at different times. The year has four seasons, starting with youthful spring and ending with aged winter.
Pythagoras explains that no part of the universe remains stagnant in the same state. Not only do souls pass from one body to another, but the forms of nature are always waxing and waning. Also, time constantly moves. In this way, everything is always transforming.
The human body is also constantly changing and aging. A person begins as a seed until nature confines them inside a mother’s womb and thrusts them into the light. Humans are born helpless until they gradually develop into self-supporting creatures. Their strength increases until their prime and then they start to diminish. In this way, time causes everything to decay. Even the elements are impermanent, with earth, water, air and fire always evaporating and condensing into one another. Nothing keeps its original form, but nothing dies, either. Things simply change form, the whole remaining constant.
Pythagoras points out that the claim that everything changes is the same as the claim that nothing ever dies. Even though it seems that everything, in changing, is constantly decaying and dying out, in reality these things are only undergoing the process of transformation. Because everything changes, there is no death. Death would constitute a stable state of non-changing—a state that doesn’t exist in the constantly changing world.
Pythagoras says that he has seen evidence that places also change. He has seen land erode into water and has found shells far away from the seashore. Plains have become valleys and marshes have become dry land. Rivers that were once safe to drink are now contaminated; some are drinkable at their source but not farther down. Islands have become mainland and mainland has become islands; old cities exist under the sea; winds have become trapped in caves and formed hills.
Pythagoras points out that transformation, although it has a divine connotation, is actually a fundamental characteristic of nature. Natural processes always involve the reformation of land and the decay and rebirth of new forms. In this way, transformation in the human realm can be seen as a divinely motivated occurrence, but also as simply our part in nature.
Pythagoras says that water both affects and undergoes change. A certain spring is hot and cold at different times of day; a certain river turns whatever it touches to marble; a certain pool emasculates whoever swims in it, and another makes the bather go mad; there is a spring that causes anyone who drinks from it to detest wine, and another that makes the drinker drunk as if on wine.
Pythagoras points out that much of the universe’s transformation is arbitrary. It is not that water affects a certain kind of change, only that water affects change. In this way, Pythagoras suggests that transformations occur for no other reason than the fact that everything changes.
Pythagoras says that volcanoes are evidence of change. Volcanoes might suggest that a living creature lurks in the earth’s core, breathing flame through several holes in the earth’s surface. On the other hand, volcanoes might be due to winds trapped in the earth’s craters generating friction against the rock and starting fires. Or yet again, volcanoes may be a chemical reaction of minerals. When the creature moves, or the winds or minerals run out, the volcanoes change location or stop altogether.
Pythagoras explains that transformations have divine, mythological, and natural significance. A single instance of transformation—such as the volcano—can have three different explanations depending on which point of view they are seen from. In this way, metamorphosis is the driving force of the universe as it is a fundamental part of every worldview.
Pythagoras says time and decay turn material into animals. If a person digs a ditch and buries a dead bull, bees are born all over the decaying carcass. Leaves will house the cocoons that later become butterflies, and mud births the tadpoles that turn into frogs. When a bear gives birth, it gives birth to a living lump of flesh that slowly grows and forms itself into a full-sized bear. Most animals start as limbless bodies that develop with time, and all birds come from the yolk of an egg. Only the phoenix is not born from an alien form: the baby phoenix is born from its father’s dead body and lives 500 years.
Pythagoras explains that the process that seems like death is actually the process of birth. This process mimics the process of the universe’s initial creation: the universe began as an indistinguishable lump of chaos that was then organized into a world. In the same way, the bear cub is a lump before it is a bear. When something “dies” it simply return to formlessness, just as the universe did after the flood, and then reforms again.
Pythagoras says that there is not enough time in the day for him to recount all the transformations of the universe. He says that civilizations also rise and fall. Troy was wealthy and populated, but now is humbled and reduced to ancient ruins. Sparta and Athens are gone. Now, Rome is rising, changing its shape, and steadily growing. When Troy was falling, Priam foreshadowed that it wouldn’t fall completely, but that it would live on in Aeneas, who would forge it anew on a strange land. Rome started in this way, and Iulus will go on to make it powerful before he is taken up to the heavens as a god. In this way, the Greeks won the Trojan War for the benefit of the Trojans.
The Metamorphoses itself is a testament to Pythagoras’s claim that he doesn’t have the time to recount all the world’s transformations. The Metamorphoses contains thousands of transformations— including the transformation of Troy into Rome, from a place of defeat into a state of prowess—and gave the impression, seeing as it was an oral history, that there were thousands left unsaid simply because those who’d witnessed them weren’t encountered in Ovid’s non-linear oral history.
Pythagoras stops himself from straying too far off topic. He says that everything in the universe changes shape, including humans. Humans possess “winged souls” that inhabit different forms. For this reason, the animals a person encounters may be their parents or siblings. Therefore, people should respect animals and not eat them. When a person kills an animal, they are spilling human blood. Pythagoras says people should let goats produce milk and sheep produce wool and stop murdering them. Since all creatures are one, Pythagoras recommends a diet that is kind to all.
Pythagoras describes the human soul as “winged”—able to take flight into different forms. Pythagoras then gives another argument against the consumption of meat. Not only does eating meat abuse nature, but it abuses human beings as well whose winged soul might be perched in an animal body. Pythagoras claims that all creatures are one, having shown, with Ovid’s work to illustrate it, that there is free passage between all creatures.