From Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

For as in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim), so for the most part the Commodore on the quarter-deck gets his atmosphere at second hand from the sailors on the forecastle.

I understand the Pythagorean theorem (a^2 + b^2 = c^2) but I'm not sure what he means in applying it to head winds and winds from astern.


By “the Pythagorean maxim” Melville means the forbidding of eating beans, which was believed in antiquity to have been one of the rules of the Pythagorean cult.

Plato then asserts that we should bring our bodies into such a disposition before we go to sleep as to leave nothing which may occasion error or perturbation in our dreams. For this reason, perhaps, Pythagoras laid it down as a rule, that his disciples should not eat beans, because this food is very flatulent, and contrary to that tranquillity of mind which a truth-seeking spirit should possess.

Marcus Tullius Cicero (44 BCE). On Divination 1.30. Translated by C. D. Yonge (1853).

The passage from Moby-Dick is thus a fart joke: if you “violate the Pythagorean maxim” (eat beans) then you will find that “winds from astern” (farts) become prevalent.

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    Also, I think he's saying that the 'second-hand' atmosphere that the Commodore, in his position on a deck to the rear of the main mast enjoys, emanates from the fundaments of the sailors before the mast (whose mess probably features less meat and more beans than the commodore's table). ie the sailors breathe clean air and the commodore breathes sailor farts. – Spagirl May 21 '19 at 11:13

The "Pythagorean maxim" bit has several meanings.

First, it's a poetic way of saying that you are much more likely to encounter hardships (headwinds) than ease and comfort (winds from astern).

Second, it's referring to the fact that when sailing, it is possible to sail into a headwind (although its not as fast as having the wind at your back) but your sail has to be at a specific angle to generate lift via Bernoulli's principle, and Pythagoras is well known for his math involving angles.

Finally, it's a fart joke; Pythagoras believed you should not eat fava beans because they cause you to fart (again, winds from astern) and flatulence took away from your precious "breath of life". Additionally he's saying that when a working sailor on the front deck (forecastle) of a ship farts, it will be blown into the face of his boss on the rear deck.


Not just metaphor. I think he may also be referring to that fact that while sailing you literally feel headwind more than tailwind. If you are sailing at a given speed you can subtract that speed from a tailwind, or add it to a headwind, and thats how much wind you will feel. I've heard this called 'apparent wind' by sailors.

  • Hello and welcome to Literature Stack Exchange. Could you explain how this phenomenon of apparent wind connects to the quotation from the novel? And what does it have to do with Pythagoras? Thanks. – verbose Apr 1 at 6:38

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