Pythagoras of Samos (Ancient Greek: Πυθαγόρας ὁ Σάμιος [Πυθαγόρης in Ionian Greek] Pythagóras ho Sámios “Pythagoras the Samian”, or simply Πυθαγόρας; c. 570 BC – c. 495 BC) was an Ionian Greek philosopher, mathematician, and founder of the religious 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 might have travelled widely in his youth, visiting Egypt and other places seeking knowledge. Around 530 BC, he moved to Croton, a Greek colony in southern Italy, and there set up a religious sect. His followers pursued the religious rites and practices developed by Pythagoras, and studied his philosophical theories. The society took an active role in the politics of Croton, but this eventually led to their downfall. The Pythagorean meeting-places were burned, and Pythagoras was forced to flee the city. He is said to have died in Metapontum.
Pythagoras made influential contributions to philosophy and religious teaching in the late 6th century BC. He is often revered as a great mathematician, mystic andscientist, but he 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 mathematicsand natural philosophy. Many of the accomplishments credited to Pythagoras may actually have been accomplishments of his colleagues and successors. Whether or not his disciples believed that everything was related to mathematics and that numbers were the ultimate reality is unknown. 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.
Accurate facts about the life of Pythagoras are so few, and most information concerning him is of so late a date, and so untrustworthy, that it is impossible to provide more than a vague outline of his life. The lack of information by contemporary writers, together with the secrecy which surrounded the Pythagorean brotherhood, meant that invention took the place of facts. 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 Iamblichusfor the biographical details. Aristotle had written a separate work on the Pythagoreans, which unfortunately has not survived. His disciples Dicaearchus, Aristoxenus, and Heraclides Ponticus had written on the same subject. These writers, late as they are, were among the best sources from whom Porphyry and Iamblichus drew, besides the legendary accounts and their own inventions. Hence historians are often reduced to considering the statements based on their inherent probability, but even then, if all the credible stories concerning Pythagoras were supposed true, his range of activity would be impossibly vast.
Herodotus, Isocrates, and other early writers all agree that Pythagoras was born on Samos, the Greek island in the eastern Aegean, and we also learn that Pythagoras was the son of Mnesarchus. His father was a gem-engraver or a merchant. His name led him to be associated with Pythian Apollo; Aristippus explained his name by saying, “He spoke (agor-) the truth no less than did the Pythian (Pyth-),” and Iamblichus tells the story that the Pythia prophesied that his pregnant mother would give birth to a man supremely beautiful, wise, and beneficial to humankind. A late source gives his mother’s name as Pythais. As to the date of his birth, Aristoxenus stated that Pythagoras left Samos in the reign of Polycrates, at the age of 40, which would give a date of birth around 570 BC.
It was natural for the ancient biographers to inquire as to the origins of Pythagoras’ remarkable system. In the absence of reliable information, however, a huge range of teachers were assigned to Pythagoras. Some made his training almost entirely Greek, others exclusively Egyptian and Oriental. We find mentioned as his instructorsCreophylus, Hermodamas of Samos, Bias, Thales, Anaximander, and Pherecydes of Syros. He is said too, to have been taught by a Delphicpriestess named Themistoclea, who introduced him to the principles of ethics. The Egyptians are said to have taught him geometry, the Phoenicians arithmetic, the Chaldeans astronomy, the Magians the principles of religion and practical maxims for the conduct of life. Of the various claims regarding his Greek teachers, Pherecydes is mentioned most often.
Diogenes Laertius reported that Pythagoras had undertaken extensive travels, and had visited not only Egypt, but Arabia, Phoenicia, Judaea, Babylon, and even India, for the purpose of collecting all available knowledge, and especially to learn information concerning the secret or mystic cults of the gods. Plutarch asserted in his bookOn Isis and Osiris that during his visit to Egypt, Pythagoras received instruction from the Egyptian priest Oenuphis of Heliopolis. Other ancient writers asserted his visit to Egypt. Enough of Egypt was known to attract the curiosity of an inquiring Greek, and contact between Samos and other parts of Greece with Egypt is mentioned.
It is not easy to say how much Pythagoras learned from the Egyptian priests, or indeed, whether he learned anything at all from them. There was nothing in the symbolism which the Pythagoreans adopted which showed the distinct traces of Egypt. The secret religious rites of the Pythagoreans exhibited nothing but what might have been adopted in the spirit of Greek religion, by those who knew nothing of Egyptian mysteries. The philosophy and the institutions of Pythagoras might easily have been developed by a Greek mind exposed to the ordinary influences of the age. Even the ancient authorities note the similarities between the religious and ascetic peculiarities of Pythagoras with the Orphic or Cretan mysteries, or the Delphic oracle.
There is little direct evidence as to the kind and amount of knowledge which Pythagoras acquired, or as to his definite philosophical views. Everything of the kind mentioned by Plato and Aristotle is attributed not to Pythagoras, but to the Pythagoreans. Heraclitus stated that he was a man of extensive learning; and Xenophanes claimed that he believed in the transmigration of souls. Xenophanes mentions the story of his interceding on behalf of a dog that was being beaten, professing to recognise in its cries the voice of a departed friend. Pythagoras is supposed to have claimed that he had been Euphorbus, the son of Panthus, in the Trojan war, as well as various other characters, a tradesman, a courtesan, etc. In his book The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Philostratus wrote that Pythagoras knew not only who he was himself, but also who he had been.
Many mathematical and scientific discoveries were attributed to Pythagoras, including his famous theorem, as well as discoveries in the field of music, astronomy, and medicine. But it was the religious element which made the profoundest impression upon his contemporaries. Thus the people of Croton were supposed to have identified him with the Hyperborean Apollo, and he was said to have practised divination and prophecy. In the visits to various places in Greece – Delos, Sparta, Phlius, Crete, etc. which are ascribed to him, he usually appears either in his religious or priestly guise, or else as a lawgiver.
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.
His followers established a select brotherhood or club for the purpose of pursuing the religious and ascetic practices developed by their master. The accounts agree that what was done and taught among the members was kept a profound secret. The esoteric teachings may have concerned science and mathematics, or the secret religious doctrines and usages which were undoubtedly prominent in the Pythagorean system, and may have been connected with the worship of Apollo. Temperance of all kinds seems to have been strictly urged. There is disagreement among the biographers as to whether Pythagoras forbade all animal food, or only certain types. The club was in practice at once “a philosophical school, a religious brotherhood, and a political association.”
Such an aristocratic and exclusive club could easily have made many people in Croton jealous and hostile, and this seems to have led to its destruction. The circumstances, however, are uncertain. Conflict seems to have broken out between the towns of Sybaris and Croton. The forces of Croton were headed by the Pythagorean Milo, and it is likely that the members of the brotherhood took a prominent part. After the decisive victory by Croton, a proposal for establishing a more democratic constitution, was unsuccessfully resisted by the Pythagoreans. Their enemies, headed by Cylon and Ninon, the former of whom is said to have been irritated by his exclusion from the brotherhood, roused the populace against them. An attack was made upon them while assembled either in the house of Milo, or in some other meeting-place. The building was set on fire, and many of the assembled members perished; only the younger and more active escaping. Similar commotions ensued in the other cities of Magna Graecia in which Pythagorean clubs had been formed.
As an active and organised brotherhood the Pythagorean order was everywhere suppressed, and did not again revive. Still the Pythagoreans continued to exist as a sect, the members of which kept up among themselves their religious observances and scientific pursuits, while individuals, as in the case of Archytas, acquired now and then great political influence. Concerning the fate of Pythagoras himself, the accounts varied. Some say that he perished in the temple with his disciples, others that he fled first to Tarentum, and that, being driven from there, he escaped to Metapontum, and there starved himself to death. His tomb was shown at Metapontum in the time ofCicero.
According to some accounts Pythagoras married Theano, a lady of Croton. Their children are variously stated to have included a son, Telauges, and three daughters,Damo, Arignote, and Myia.
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. Ancient Pythagoreans usually quoted their master’s doctrines with the phrase autos ephe (“he himself said”) — emphasizing the essentially oral nature of his teaching.
Since the fourth century AD, Pythagoras has commonly been given credit for discovering the Pythagorean theorem, a theorem in geometry that states that in a right-angled triangle the area of the square on the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the areas of the squares of the other two sides—that is, .
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 Platoover 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. The earliest known mention of Pythagoras’s name in connection with the theorem occurred five centuries after his death, in the writings of Cicero and Plutarch.
Musical theories and investigations
According to legend, the way Pythagoras discovered that musical notes could be translated into mathematical equations was when one day he passed blacksmiths at work, and thought that the sounds emanating from their anvils being hit were beautiful and harmonious and decided that whatever scientific law caused this to happen must be mathematical and could be applied to music. He went to the blacksmiths to learn how this had happened by looking at their tools, he discovered that it was because thehammers were “simple ratios of each other, one was half the size of the first, another was 2/3 the size, and so on.”
This legend has since proven to be false by virtue of the fact that these ratios are only relevant to string length (such as the string of a monochord), and not to hammer weight. However, it may be that Pythagoras was indeed responsible for discovering these properties of string length.
Pythagoreans elaborated on a theory of numbers, the exact meaning of which is still debated among scholars. Another belief attributed to Pythagoras was that of the “harmony of the spheres”. Thus the planets and stars moved according to mathematical equations, which corresponded to musical notes and thus produced a symphony.
Pythagoras was also credited with devising the tetractys, the triangular figure of four rows, which add up to the perfect number, ten. As a mystical symbol, it was very important to the worship of the Pythagoreans, who would swear oaths by it:
And the inventions were so admirable, and so divinised by those who understood them, that the members used them as forms of oath: “By him who handed to our generation the tetractys, source of the roots of ever-flowing nature.”—Iamblichus, Vit. Pyth., 29