Society / People

570BC , Duration 75Y

Event #5213: Pythagoras

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Text #9123

"Pythagoras", in Wikipedia.

Pythagoras of Samos; (c. 570 – c. 495 BC) was an Ionian Greek philosopher, mathematician, and has been credited as the founder of the movement called Pythagoreanism. Most of the information about Pythagoras was written down centuries after he lived, so very little reliable information is known about him. He was born on the island of Samos, and traveled, visiting Egypt and Greece, and maybe India, and in 520 BC returned to Samos. Around 530 BC, he moved to Croton, in Magna Graecia, and there established some kind of school or guild.

Pythagoras made influential contributions to philosophy and religion in the late 6th century BC. He is often revered as a great mathematician and scientist and is best known for the Pythagorean theorem which bears his name. However, because legend and obfuscation cloud his work even more than that of the other pre-Socratic philosophers, one can give only a tentative account of his teachings, and some have questioned whether he contributed much to mathematics or natural philosophy. Many of the accomplishments credited to Pythagoras may actually have been accomplishments of his colleagues and successors. Some accounts mention that the philosophy associated with Pythagoras was related to mathematics and that numbers were important. It was said that he was the first man to call himself a philosopher, or lover of wisdom, and Pythagorean ideas exercised a marked influence on Plato, and through him, all of Western philosophy.

The stories which were created were eagerly sought by the Neoplatonist writers who provide most of the details about Pythagoras, but who were uncritical concerning anything which related to the gods or which was considered divine. Thus many myths were created – such as that Apollo was his father; that Pythagoras gleamed with a supernatural brightness; that he had a golden thigh; that Abaris came flying to him on a golden arrow; that he was seen in different places at the same time. With the exception of a few remarks by Xenophanes, Heraclitus, Herodotus, Plato, Aristotle, and Isocrates, we are mainly dependent on Diogenes Laërtius, Porphyry, and Iamblichus for biographical details. According to Burkert (1972, p. 109) Aristoxenus and Dicaearchus are the most important accounts. […]

According to Walter Burkert (1972)

Most obvious is the contradiction between Aristoxenus and Dicaearchus, regarding the catastrophe that overwhelmed the Pythagorean society. One of the two reports must be basically wrong: either Pythagoras withdrew to Metapontum before the outbreak of the unrest and died there (as Aristoxenus says) or he and his followers were hounded from city to city (as Dicaearchus has it). Like his doctrines, the life of Pythagoras also becomes a mirror image of real controversies in the schools. On the one hand there is the controversy over the primacy of the theoretical or practical life. In this respect Heraclides thinks Pythagoras as the apostle of pure “theory”.

There is not a single detail in the life of Pythagoras that stands uncontradicted. But it is possible, from a more or less critical selection of the data, to construct a plausible account.


Both Plato and Isocrates affirm that, above all else, Pythagoras was famous for leaving behind him a way of life. According to Timaeus of Locri, he was the first to say, Friends have all things in common and Friendship is equality. […]

Pythagoras set up an organization which was in some ways a school, in some ways a brotherhood (and here it should be noted that sources indicate that as well as men there were many women among the adherents of Pythagoras), and in some ways a monastery. It was based upon the religious teachings of Pythagoras and was very secretive.[citation needed] The adherents were bound by a vow to Pythagoras and each other, for the purpose of pursuing the religious and ascetic observances, and of studying his religious and philosophical theories. There is mentioning of an oath on the Tetractys.

There were ascetic practices (many of which had, perhaps, a symbolic meaning). Some represent Pythagoras as forbidding all animal food, advocating a plant-based diet, and prohibiting consumption of beans. This may have been due to the doctrine of metempsychosis. Other authorities contradict the statement. According to Aristoxenus, he allowed the use of all kinds of animal food except the flesh of oxen used for ploughing, and rams. There is a similar discrepancy as to the prohibition of fish and beans. But temperance of all kinds seems to have been urged. It is also stated that they had common meals, resembling the Spartan system, at which they met in companies of ten. […]

Pythagoras, or in a broader sense, the Pythagoreans, allegedly exercised an important influence on the work of Plato. According to R. M. Hare, this influence consists of three points: (1) The platonic Republic might be related to the idea of “a tightly organized community of like-minded thinkers”, like the one established by Pythagoras in Croton. (2) There is evidence that Plato possibly took from Pythagoras the idea that mathematics and, generally speaking, abstract thinking is a secure basis for philosophical thinking as well as “for substantial theses in science and morals”. (3) Plato and Pythagoras shared a “mystical approach to the soul and its place in the material world”. It is probable that both were influenced by Orphism.

Aristotle claimed that the philosophy of Plato closely followed the teachings of the Pythagoreans, and Cicero repeats this claim: Platonem ferunt didicisse Pythagorea omnia (“They say Plato learned all things Pythagorean”). Bertrand Russell, in his A History of Western Philosophy, contended that the influence of Pythagoras on Plato and others was so great that he should be considered the most influential of all Western philosophers.

Pythagoras was the first person known to have taught the earth was spherical, with antipodes and that it revolved around the sun. Pythagoras was also said to have spread the seeds of political liberty to Crotona, Sybaris, Metapontum, Rhegium, Sicily, Tauromenium, Catana, Agrigentum and Himera.

After his travels, Pythagoras moved (around 530 BC) to Croton, in Italy (Magna Graecia). Possibly the tyranny of Polycrates in Samos made it difficult for him to achieve his schemes there. His later admirers claimed that Pythagoras was so overburdened with public duties in Samos, because of the high estimation in which he was held by his fellow-citizens, that he moved to Croton. On his arrival in Croton, he quickly attained extensive influence, and many people began to follow him. Later biographers tell fantastical stories of the effects of his eloquent speech in leading the people of Croton to abandon their luxurious and corrupt way of life and devote themselves to the purer system which he came to introduce.

No texts by Pythagoras are known to have survived, although forgeries under his name — a few of which remain extant — did circulate in antiquity. Critical ancient sources like Aristotle and Aristoxenus cast doubt on these writings.

While the theorem that now bears his name was known and previously utilized by the Babylonians and Indians, he, or his students, are often said to have constructed the first proof. It must, however, be stressed that the way in which the Babylonians handled Pythagorean numbers implies that they knew that the principle was generally applicable, and knew some kind of proof, which has not yet been found in the (still largely unpublished) cuneiform sources. Because of the secretive nature of his school and the custom of its students to attribute everything to their teacher, there is no evidence that Pythagoras himself worked on or proved this theorem. For that matter, there is no evidence that he worked on any mathematical or meta-mathematical problems. Some attribute it as a carefully constructed myth by followers of Plato over two centuries after the death of Pythagoras, mainly to bolster the case for Platonic meta-physics, which resonate well with the ideas they attributed to Pythagoras. This attribution has stuck down the centuries up to modern times.

Pythagoras became the subject of elaborate legends surrounding his historic persona. Aristotle described Pythagoras as a wonder-worker and somewhat of a supernatural figure, attributing to him such aspects as a golden thigh, which he showed to Abaris, the Hyperborean priest, and exhibited in the Olympic games.

See: Burkert, Walter. Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism. Harvard University Press, June 1, 1972.

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