Pythagoras is widely considered the Greek who used the word “philosopher” for the first time. Among the masses, he is famous for his contributions to mathematics, such as Pythagoras Theorem, but Pythagoras’ life was more than just a theorem. His student, Plato, was incredibly influenced by his mentor’s teachings and often mentioned them throughout his works.
More often than not, Pythagoras was considered a spiritual leader who led a life of strict rules. Myths and legends have always surrounded his life, and very little accurate knowledge about him can be found. It is also rumored that there is no actual material related to mathematics that Pythagoras left by himself – most of it was later on put forward by his disciples. In any case, Pythagoras’ existence has definitely shaped the world of philosophy, and many were influenced by him.
Pythagoras was born on the island of Samos in the North Aegean region. His father, Mnesarchus was a gem-miner or a merchant – either way, he was wealthy enough to give his son a good education. It is speculated that Pythagoras studied from the greatest tutors of his time, from Greek and Egypt. Nothing can be said for sure in this regard.
A legend narrated by Iamblichus around Pythagoras’ birth says that when his mother was pregnant with him, an oracle of Delphi told her that her newborn will be extraordinarily wise and will prove to be of great importance for the world.
Samos was an important place at that time, and many intellectuals lived near it. It is said that Pythagoras grew up under the influence of great minds like Anaximander and Hecataeus.
As mentioned earlier, it is believed that Pythagoras traveled to Egypt for his education. Antiphon cited by keeping Porphyry as the source that Pythagoras learned Egyptian from Pharaoh Amasis II. He also states that Pythagoras took tutelage under Egyptian priests in Diospolis (modern-day Thebes), and he was the only non-Egyptian to take part in their worships. Many of Pythagoras’ ideologies can be found to have roots in Egyptian philosophies, strengthening the arguments of his education.
Other narrations tell us that Pythagoras may also have studied under Greek philosophers. Pherecydes of Syros is mentioned the most times in magical legends related to Pythagoras. Apollonius confirms that these paranormal influences can only lead to Pherecydes as Pythagoras’ teacher. Another influencer and a great teacher of his time, Thebes of Miletus, is believed to have taught Pythagoras geometry and inscribed angle theorems. Miletus was another island near Samos, which makes this narration highly likely to have happened.
Around 530 BC, while still living in Samos, Pythagoras laid the foundations of an institute. His school was called “semicircle.” The students under his tutelage were sworn to be silent about the teachings and lived a life of hermits. This is also one reason why much about Pythagoras’s life is unknown. His students were good at keeping secrets. Pythagoras and his students followed strict diets that did not consist of anything with a soul. Surprisingly, Pythagoras avoided fava beans so much that he forbade touching them or be near its fields. Diogenes Laertius (book 8, pg. 19) mentions Pythagoras’s diet in the following words:
“Some say that he was satisfied with honey alone or a bit of honeycomb or bread (he did not touch wine during the day); or, for a treat, vegetables boiled or raw. Seafood he ate but rarely.”
Pythagoras abstained from all immoral activities. He had his beliefs around morality, the cycle of life, which he thoroughly believed to be affected by numbers. His teachings and philosophies reject a life of comfort and tend to accept harsh routines for one’s self.
When Pythagoras was 40, he left his island of Samos and traveled to Croton. There are several theories about his migration. Some say that he did not conform to the rule of Polycrates the Tyrant. Others believe that Pythagoras felt burdened with the duties levied on him in Samos. He was an extremely well-respected person in Samos and people had great expectations from him.
Either way, He quickly gained popularity in Croton as an influential public speaker. His sermons were often about the effects of luxuries and comfort on human life and how people should follow the path that he soon introduced among the people of Croton.
Teachings and Beliefs
Since most of the teachings by Pythagoras were kept secret by his students, there have not been any confirmed sources about his ideologies. Some philosophers argue that Pythagoras was a mystic man rather than a scholar. His way of life and his concept of teaching is closer to mysticism.
Pythagoras was of the firm belief that souls are immortal – they cannot be dead; in fact, the soul is the opposite of death. He believed that when a living thing dies, its soul is transferred into another body. He thought that the cycle of death and rebirth continues, and it can never end.
He firmly believed that every living being should be treated with respect, and no cruelty should be acted on them. Xenophanes was famous for writing mockery about Pythagoras’s beliefs. He was opposed to his ideas and thought them to be silly. Laertius (book 8, page 36) mention one such incident by Xenophanes as:
“Once, they say, that he [Pythagoras] was passing by when a puppy was being whipped, and he took pity and said, `Stop! Do not beat it! For it is the soul of a friend that I recognized when I heard it giving tongue. ”
Plato may have started as a student of Socrates, but his Dialogues always mentioned concepts from Pythagoras’s ideas. One such concept was not “learning” but “remembering.” It states that whatever humans learn in this world is because of their memories from previous lives resurfacing. However, Plato never discussed the drawbacks of this theory.
Solely apart from practical applications, Pythagoras and his students had a firm belief in numbers and their significance in the universe. His code of life was “things are numbers.”, and he saw everything as numerals. For example, according to him, even numbers represent females and odd as males.
Pythagoras had massive respect for the number 10. He called it Tetractys. It was considered a “perfect number” forming by adding one, two, three, and four. Pythagoreans showed its significance by never gathering in groups of more than ten people.
The most interesting thing about the number 10 is that Pythagoras related it with how up to number 10 can be counted on both hands, but to go further, we have to start from unit one. Similarly, he stated that life follows the same never-ending cycle of going back, starting anew, and repeat
Pythagoras may well be responsible for introducing the idea of the musical universe. It states that all the heavenly bodies, including planets, are in perfect harmony with each other. This harmony produces music that mere humans cannot hear.
He was also known to practice prophecy, and many people looked up to him as a religious figure.
Although Pythagoras is popularly known for his contributions to mathematics, people of knowledge debate that Pythagoras may have copied similar ideas from scholars before him, or his students may have put forward those ideas instead of him.
Many discoveries are attributed to Pythagoras, including Pythagoras Theorem for a right-angled triangle, the sphere shape of the Earth, and other findings.
It is a proven fact that Babylonians and other ancient people had used Pythagoras Theorem (a2+b2=c2) before the time of Pythagoras. Some argue that Pythagoras may have only proved the formula, while others even reject this proposal.
Similarly, in astronomy, Parmenides is thought to be the one who studied Earth as a sphere. He also named the morning star the planet Venus.
The fact that Pythagoras swore secrecy from his student points out that maybe he did not want to lose credit for these discoveries that he had previously learned from different people.
It is said that Pythagoreans were divided into two categories. One group was called the “mathematikoi” (or “learners“), while the other was known as “akousmatikoi” (or “listeners“). These groups caught themselves in conflict and started attacking each other. The secrecy with which the Pythagoreans worked bothered the local governments, and soon they started raiding their meeting places. Around 510 BC, It is widely believed that one of the meeting houses was set on fire, and Pythagoras died in it.
Some believe that Pythagoras escaped to Metapontum but committed suicide after losing many followers. Another story says that Pythagoras was killed when he refused to run through a fava bean field. No matter the truth, it is not confirmed whether he died in Croton or Metapontum.
Pythagoras – A Man of Mystery and Intellect
Although there are more rumors and legends around Pythagoras than actual truth, it cannot be denied that he was a pioneer in the field of philosophy. His contributions and ideologies were the basis for so many well-known philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. It is beyond the scope of today’s world to know more about Pythagoras, but his influence can be seen throughout the practical and philosophical world.