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The Kinship of Pythagoras and George Costanza
April 8, 2010
Last night in my course on Sources of Great Western Ideas our topic was the immortal soul in Pythagoras and Plato. We based our discussion of Pythagoras on a fragment from Porphyry's Vita Pythagorae, 19 (quoted in Kirk and Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers, p. 238 from Diels and Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 14, 8a)

In the fragment, Porphyry says that there are some things that are universally known about Pythagoras: He maintains that the soul is immortal, that it changes into other kinds of living beings, that events recur in cycles, and that all living things should be regarded as akin. This last clause touched off a long discussion about the interconnectedness of all life.

After I drove home and had dinner, I turned on an episode of Jerry Seinfeld before going to bed. It was a popular episode, one I had seen many times. Kramer hits golf balls into the ocean, Elaine's cell phone is tossed by a temperamental Russian writer, and Jerry helps George reunite with a beautiful woman whom he hasn't seen in years - but in the process Jerry tells her that George is a marine biologist. As George and the woman walk down the beach, they encounter a crowd fretting over a distressed whale. A voice (Larry David's) calls out: "Is anyone here a marine biologist?" George, of course, is obliged to wade into the water to save the whale.

Later, at the diner, George tells Jerry and Kramer what happened:

So I started to walk into the water. I won't lie to you boys...I was terrified. But I pressed on, and as I made my way past the breakers, a strange calm came over me. I don't know if it was divine intervention or the kinship of all living things, but I tell you, Jerry, at that moment...I was a marine biologist!

Here is a YouTube clip of the ending.

How does it happen that the quote from Porphyry about the kinship of all living things finds its way into the punchline of a Jerry Seinfeld episode on the same night that I used it for the first time in class?