ODD TRUTHS: THOMAS TRYON, THE PYTHAGORAS OF LONDON

“Cast thy Eyes round about thee, and enter into the inside of Things, and with a silent distinguishing Thought, and earnest sedate Meditation, and Contemplation, behold the wonderful Operations of the serene silent magick Powers of the Coelestials, and also of the Terrestials…”

-from The Knowledge of a Man’s Self the Surest Guide to the True Worship of God, vol. III, by Thomas Tryon (1704).

In 1697, a London publisher released The Angelicall Guide, a curious treatise on astrology and angel magic. Its author was John Case, a physician and the reputed successor to magicians William Lilly and Thomas Safford. In the preface, Case lauds a certain “Thomas Tryon”,  as a “true Philosophical Genius” who had blessed the world with his book, The Way to Long Life, Health, and Happiness (1691). The same year, Tryon also appeared in the dedication of Arcana philosophia, or, Chymical secrets, by John Headrich (or Hendrick).  In it, Headrich, a self-styled “Philo-Chymicus” and fixer for the personal pharmacists of King Charles II, calls Tryon a  “worthy” friend.

Advertisement for Dr John Case’s practice from The Quacks of Old London (1928). Image via Wellcome Library, London.

Like Case, Headrich acknowledges Tryon as a man of incomparable wisdom. He also mentions (in Greek script) Tryon’s nom de plume, Philotheos. Tryon’s full pseudonym Philotheos Physiologus can be roughly translated as “God-loving physiologist”. This name is the key to understanding the philosophy of the East Londoner who has been described by some as an English Pythagoras.

Thomas Tryon. Portrait via Internet Archive.

Before he became Philotheos, Tryon was, by most standards, an ordinary City of London businessman. After spending his teenage years as a shepherd in the idyllic Gloucestershire countryside near Bibury, Tryon became an apprentice to a hat-maker at Bridewell Dock (near modern-day Blackfriars Bridge) in 1652. Apparently, city life took a toll on Tryon, and he insulated himself from the hubbub and long work hours by studying astrology and the physical sciences. Eventually Tryon, influenced by his employer, directed his spiritual energies elsewhere and became an Anabaptist.

Bridewell Dock in the 1660s. Image via Internet Archive.

 For a few years, he was a devout parishioner, attending sermons and meetings, and fulfilling all the run-of-the-mill community obligations. In the end though, Tryon’s fervour lost out to his ennui, and he broke from the church in 1657. Around the same time, Tryon (who had read some of the works of Jacob Boehme) started hearing disembodied messages from the “Voice of Wisdom”. The voice encouraged him to attain purity of mind by regulating his diet. Tryon obeyed, and spent the following three years trying to live an “abstemious” vegetarian lifestyle:

“My drink was only water, and food only bread and some fruit, and that but once a day for some time. But, afterwards, I had more liberty given me by my guide, Wisdom, viz., to eat butter and cheese.”

   Like any twenty-something, Tryon sometimes reneged on his commitment, and for this, he was periodically stricken with bouts of illness.  Nevertheless, Tryon, bent on self-illumination, persisted in his asceticism for the rest of his life. And yet, Tryon’s public life went on as usual. He married, had kids, and made a fortune conducting business across the Atlantic in Barbados. Tryon only took up writing after he had settled down in Hackney. He was forty-eight.

Incomplete list of Thomas Tryon’s books. Excerpt from English cookery books to the year 1850 (1913).

From 1682 until his death in 1703, Tryon preached through his pen, communicating his altruistic views on a number of eclectic, seemingly incompatible topics. Cookery, abolition, and economics, are just a few of the subjects that interested him. The greater part of his corpus however, is devoted to oneirology and a kind of dietetic theosophy. This theosophy can be summed up in three words: temperance, continence, and simple living. Despite the fact that Tryon had, so to speak, made his bones (in this case, earned his periwig) as a transcontinental merchant, he was convinced that peace of mind could be attained by resigning from the world.

Title page of Thomas Tryon’s Pythagoras, his Mystick Philosophy Reviv’d (1691).

In Tryon’s view, the more one focuses on the inward life, the better.  A “clean” diet of unseasoned herbs, grains, vegetables, and water, is best for the body in that it nutritionally strengthens a human’s hidden mental activity, which Tryon defines as “magick powers”. Ultimately, Tryon believed that diet coupled with self-reliance would aid in mankind’s restoration to a kind of prelapsarian (before the Fall of Adam and Eve) state of being. Tryon also was of the opinion that the wise should make an effort to make contact with angels.

In his treatise Pythagoras, his mystic philosophy reviv’d (1691), Tryon writes that angels are auxiliaries and ministers who can instruct righteous humans through visions and dreams. The best time to make contact wth them is at night, and the way to attract them is by maintaining virtuous, holistic habits. The main theme in Tryon’s advice is the individual’s liberation from the spiritually compromising allurements and encumbrances of the world:

“Therefore, upon the whole matter, such as would have the free undisturbed converse of Good Angels and Spirits, and the advantage of real Dreams, let them endeavour, and with equal constancy and ear∣nestness pursue after purity, both of mind and body, to avoid all excess of foods or drinks, either in quantity or quality, to eschew things derived from violence, and therefore to be considerate in eating of Flesh or Fish, or any thing, not procurable but by the death of some of our fellow Creatures; rather let them con∣tent themselves with the Delicacies…but above all, let them at their going to Bed, divest themselves of all worldly Cares, as well as of their Cloathes, and with an ardent Faith, and intire Charity, commend themselves to God…”

All in all, whether he was conversing with angels or writing about food, Tryon constantly and earnestly played the part of an inspired and god-fearing physiologist. He was generally admired and respected in his day, but, like most mystical writers, Tryon acquired significant renown after death. In fact, as early as 1706, Tryon was suspected of being the founder of “a sect of Pythagoreans”.

Tryon’s works also made a strong impression on Benjamin Frankin. For a time, Franklin, who refers to Tryon as his “master” took up vegetarianism for its moral and practical benefits. Perhaps the most compelling element of Tryon’s approach to life is that he strove to make his philosophy livable, pragmatic, and humanitarian. His illumined alter-ego Philotheos was the inevitable result of his assiduous study of the world.

Want more stories? Check out our spin-off project, Godfrey’s Almanack.

2 thoughts on “Thomas Tryon, The Pythagoras of London

  1. D Olin

    A couple decades ago I was in graduate school studying Benjamin Franklin and took the summer to read the books he mentions in his autobiography. Which one of the volumes of Tryon’s works that he read, Franklin doesn’t mention in the autobiography, so I read as many as I could find on microfiche. Today, you can find a few of Tryon’s works online.

    I was struck by how much Franklin emulated Tryon in the form of writing. But Franklin put his quick and witty sayings in his almanac. Tryon just wrote and jumped from subject to subject. Franklin tells in the autobiography that he emulates the practices of those he admires, so it shouldn’t surprise me, but it did.

    It is also puzzling how Tryon makes a case for vegetarianism and temperance, but in the same volume gives instructions on how to cook meat and make wines and ales. So I tend to think that his idea of vegetarianism isn’t gospel. And his preaching of drinking water instead of stronger drinks is also not written in stone.

    Tryon’s works are worth a second look. Some say he’s the father of vegetarianism, but I think he is rather preaching the concept of moderation in an era of excesses, and if appealing to the wish of long life, wealth and happiness is a way to do it, then it makes sense to reach his audience that way.

    When I read his works long ago, I thought he was likely an obscure author–some of his ideas were so wildly outlandish–even for that era. But he was a popular author, and he had many followers.

    Reply

Leave a Reply