Pythagoras of Samos (c. 570 – c. 495 BC)

Although his life is shrouded in myth and legend, Greek philosopher, sage and mathematician Pythagoras of Samos (c. 570 – c. 495 BC) seems to have been the son of a seal or gem-engraver or a wealthy merchant. 

Details of his early life and education are confused.

Like many other significant Greek thinkers, Pythagoras reputedly studied in Egypt. Plutarch and the Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215 AD) had him studying at Heliopolis, and other accounts place him in Crete, Phoenicia and Chaldea, where he is reputed too have learnt astronomy. 

More fanciful stories have him learning from Hindu sages in India and studying with Celtic and Iberian mystics.

Other sources favour a variety of native Greek teachers, including Thales or Anaximander in nearby Miletus, the mythic bard Orpheus and Delphic priestesses.

Pythagoreanism seems to have been a lifestyle with a number of dietary prohibitions, most famously, ‘refrain from beans’, 

The diet does not, however, appear to have been vegetarian or, in contemporary terms, vegan.  It is generally agreed that Pythagoras issued a prohibition against consuming the meat of non-sacrificial animals ( and poultry). 

According to some sources, Pythagoras only prohibited the flesh of oxen used for ploughing, and rams. He reputedly ate the meat from sacrifices.

In any case, Pythagoreanism emphasised asceticism and purification and was associated with doctrines of metempsychosis (the transmigration of souls) and the kinship of all living things. 

They also placed particular emphasis on physical exercise, therapeutic dancing, daily walks along scenic routes, and athletics.

He seems to have been about forty years old when he left Samos. The conventional wisdom is that his love of freedom meant that he wanted to escape the tyranny of the city's ruler, Polycrates. 

He then settled in Croton, a Greek colony in southern Italy, where he founded a secretive community in which initiates lived a communal, ascetic lifestyle. 

In this new setting, he rapidly acquired great political influence, serving as an adviser to the city's elites and persuading citizens to abandon their luxurious lifestyle and adopt his more ascetic approach. 

While the Pythagoreans were able to influence the thousand-strong supreme council that ruled the city, after a military expedition destroyed the nearby rival colony, Sybaris around 510 BC prominent citizens suggested that Croton adopt a more democratic constitution. 

After the Pythagoreans rejected the notion, the supporters of democracy roused the populace against them. 

Accounts of the attack on a Pythagorean meeting-place are contradictory may have become confused it with later anti-Pythagorean movements, but the building was apparently set on fire, and many of those present perished. Pythagoras may have died during the turmoil. 

If that was not the case, the general assumption is that he escaped to Metapontum, where he died. 

In one version of events, when he and his surviving followers reached Metapontum, they took shelter in the temple of the Muses and of starvation after spending forty days without food.

Other versions have him killed when his pursuers caught him after he refused to escape through a bean field or reaching safety but committing suicide because the loss of so many of his beloved students depressed him.

Given the conflicting versions of the circumstances surrounding his death, it comes as no surprise to learn that there is no consensus about his life's achievements. 

He is generally accredited with mathematical discoveries involving musical intervals, the relations of numbers and the theorem which bears his name.

That theorem: The sum of the areas of the two squares built on the legs of a right-angled triangle equals the area of the square on the hypotenuse, was known and used by the Babylonians and Indians before Pythagoras. 

It is entirely possible that he picked up concepts on his travels and merely introduced them to the Greeks. 

On the same basis, classical historians dispute whether he made any of the mathematical and scientific discoveries later attributed to him in the fields of music, astronomy, and medicine. 

His later followers may have developed anything that he did not pick up on his earlier travels.

One of the most likely suspects in that regard is Philolaus of Croton, who lived in the late fifth century BC and produced the earliest texts describing theories about numerology and music later attributed to Pythagoras.

Both Pythagoras and Parmenides of Elea have been credited with establishing that the Earth was spherical, and by the end of the 5th century BC, the notion was generally accepted among Greek intellectuals. 

They were also, reputedly the first to divide the globe into five climatic zones and identify the planet Venus as the morning and evening star.

Pythagoras is usually credited with developing the notion that the planets and stars move according to mathematical equations. These, in turn, were thought to correspond to musical notes, resulting in an inaudible symphony, the "music of the spheres".

While it is impossible to disentangle the man's own views from the accretions of mysticism that came after him, he had a profound influence on later philosophers, astronomers and mathematicians.

That influence was not limited to the likes of Plato and Aristotle. In Renaissance times, Nicolaus Copernicus cited various Pythagorean ideas as important influences on his heliocentric model of the universe. 

Johannes Kepler believed in the Pythagorean doctrine of the music of the spheres, and his search for the equations that underpinned the belief led to his discovery of the laws of planetary motion. 

The title of Kepler's book on the subject Harmonices Mundi (Harmonics of the World), reflects the Pythagorean teaching that had inspired him.

Although Isaac Newton was notoriously disinclined to give others credit for their discoveries, he attributed the development of the Law of Universal Gravitation to the influence of Pythagoras, whose influence extends to the Freemasons. 

They are reputed to have deliberately modelled their society on the community he founded at Croton.


Chambers Biographical Dictionary


© Ian Hughes 2017