Pythagoras – World History Encyclopedia


Pythagoras (c. 571- c. 497 B.C.) was a Greek philosopher whose teachings emphasized immortality and transmigration of the soul (reincarnation), virtuous and humane behavior toward all living things, and the concept of “number.” “. as true that mathematics not only cleared the mind but also allowed an objective understanding of reality.

is best known today for the Pythagorean Theorem, a mathematical formula that states that the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. This formula has been applied to the measurement of distances and spaces, for example, in the planning and execution of the construction of a building. although ancient writers attribute it to Pythagoras, modern scholars cite evidence from Babylonian texts, written some time before Pythagoras, that discuss the same or at least a very similar formula.

Almost nothing is known of the life of Pythagoras, although later writers (such as Diogenes Laertius, l. c.180-240 AD) attempted to compile biographies based on stories and fragments of earlier works. Pythagoras’s biography of Laertius is the most complete, but unfortunately the author never cites the sources from which he drew, making it impossible to corroborate many of his claims.

The influence of Pythagoras on later philosophers, and the development of Greek philosophy in general, was enormous. Plato (l. c. 428 / 427-348 / 347 BC) makes reference to Pythagoras in several of his works, and Pythagorean thought, as understood and transmitted by other ancient writers, is the underlying form of Plato’s philosophy. Aristotle, the famous student of Plato (l. 384-322 BC), also incorporated Pythagorean teachings into his own thinking, and Aristotle’s works would influence philosophers, poets, and theologians (among many others) from his time to the Middle Ages ( c. 476-1500 CE) and today. Although Pythagoras remains a mysterious figure in antiquity, therefore he also stands as one of the most significant in the development of philosophical and religious thought.

life & it works

What is known of Pythagoras comes from later writers who pieced together fragments of his life from his contemporaries and students. Pythagoras is known to have been born on the island of Samos, off Asia Minor, where his ancestors had settled after leaving Phlius, a city in the northwestern Peloponnese, after the civil war there in 380 BC. He received a quality education since his father, Mnesarco, was a wealthy merchant. he may have studied in babylon and egypt and possibly had the best greek tutors of the day. however, this is all speculative, as the information comes from later writers who accepted, without criticism, what others wrote about him. If there was an authorized biography of Pythagoras, or original works by the man himself, they are long lost. scholar forrest e. baird’s comments:

Pythagoras was associated with so many legends that few scholars dare say much about his life, personality, or even his teachings, without adding that we cannot be sure that our information is accurate. that there was a man named Pythagoras who founded the sect called the Pythagoreans, we must not doubt it; Among the witnesses to his historicity was his younger contemporary, Heraclitus, who thought ill of him. however, it is notoriously difficult to distinguish between the teachings of Pythagoras himself and those of his followers, the Pythagoreans. (14)

The historicity of Pythagoras has never been questioned. Heraclitus (l. c. 500 B.C.), as Baird points out, considered Pythagoras highly overrated and another contemporary, the visionary Xenophanes of Colophon (l. c. 570-c. 478 B.C.), mocked Pythagoras for his belief in reincarnation. The difficulty in any discussion of Pythagoras is trying to separate the real man and his teachings from the mythology that surrounded him even in his own life.

Pythagorean beliefs

As noted, none of Pythagoras’s writings, if any, have survived, and because of the secrecy he demanded of his students, details of his teachings were carefully guarded. the philosopher Porphyry (l. c. 234 – c. 305 AD), who wrote a later biography of Pythagoras, noted:

what he taught his disciples no one can say with certainty, for they maintained a remarkable silence. anyway, the following became generally known. First, he said that the soul is immortal; second, that it migrates to other types of animals; third, that the same events are repeated in cycles, nothing being new in the strict sense; and finally, that all things with a soul are to be regarded as kindred. Pythagoras seems to have been the first to introduce these beliefs to Greece. (Robinson, 58)

the Greek historian herodotus (l.c. 484 – c. 425/413 b.c.) alludes to Pythagoras (although he refuses to name him) in his histories:

Moreover, the Egyptians are the first to have held the doctrine that the soul of man is immortal and that, when the body perishes, it enters another animal that is being born at the same time, and when it has been the complete round of the creatures of the dry land and of the sea and of the air enter a man’s body again at birth; and his cycle is completed in three thousand years. there are some Greeks who have adopted this doctrine, some in former times, and some in later times, as if it were of their own invention; I know their names but I refrain from writing them. (book ii.123)

Like the Pythagorean theorem, the Pythagorean concept of the transmigration of souls may also have been borrowed. scholar george g. subway. James, in his Stolen Legacy: The Egyptian Origins of Western Philosophy, notes that all the great pre-Socratic philosophers studied in Egypt or in the Egyptian mystery schools of Asia Minor (James, 9). Such (l.c. 585 a. c.), considered the first western philosopher, studied in Babylon and two other of the most important Presocratics: Anaximander (l. c. 610-c. 546 a. c.) and Anaximenes (l. c. 546 a. c.), both traveled widely and had access to the mystery schools centered on Egyptian religious thought.

it is more than likely, then, that the thought of pythagoras was actually egyptian spirituality transplanted to greece. The famous secret of Pythagoras may have been intended to prevent this fact from getting too widely circulated and discrediting him as an original thinker. it is said that he was quite charismatic and a powerful public speaker and would have undermined his authority if his philosophy were revealed to be a simple Egyptian belief repackaged.

It cannot be determined whether he concealed his teachings for this reason or some other. it is possible that he simply felt that the masses would not understand or appreciate his ideas. Whatever the reason, the secrecy added much to his mystique and reputation. His belief in the immortality of the soul and reincarnation naturally led to a vegetarian lifestyle with an emphasis on harming no other living being, and this asceticism, which also demanded of his followers, further elevated the reputation of him as a holy man. Diogenes Laertius describes his diet and habits:

Some say that he sated himself with honey alone or with a little honeycomb or bread (he did not touch the wine during the day); or, for a treat, boiled or raw vegetables. shellfish that she ate, but rarely. her tunic, which was white and spotless, and her sheets, which were also white, were of wool; because the flax had not yet reached those parts. he was never observed to relieve himself, have sex, or be drunk. he used to avoid laughter and indulgence with insulting jokes and vulgar stories. (viii.19)

Laertius describes Pythagoras as a pescetarian, who ate fish and shellfish, but most other ancient authors maintain that he was a strict vegetarian who abstained from the meat of any living thing that could be considered to have a soul. he also abstained from sexual relations and remained celibate in order to maintain spiritual power and clarity of thought. By disengaging from worldly pleasures like sex and food, he freed himself from bodily distractions to focus on soul improvement.

Some thought this asceticism went too far. he and his followers were known to especially refrain from eating, or even touching, beans (one account of his death, in fact, states that he would not enter a bean field to escape pursuers and was therefore killed ). Laertius also mentions Xenophanes’ satirical criticism of Pythagoras’s belief in the transmigration of souls:

once, they say, he [Pythagoras] was passing by when they were whipping a cub, and he took pity and said, ‘stop! don’t get over it! because it is the soul of a friend that I recognized when I heard her give her tongue. (viii.36)

For Xenophanes, who rejected reincarnation, Pythagoras’s beliefs were as foolish as stating that the voice of a deceased friend could be recognized in the barking of a dog. However, for Pythagoras, vegetarianism, pacifism and humane treatment of other living beings were part of the path to inner peace and, by extension, world peace in the sense that humans could never live in harmony as long as they killed, they ate and were killed. cruel to animals the mistreatment of animals, and eating animal flesh, devalued all life by holding that some creatures (humans) were worth more in life than others. Pythagoras believed that all creatures were created equal and should be treated with respect.

Contemporary and later writers considered him a mystic, not a mathematician as he is sometimes defined today, and his school was associated with spiritual salvation and miraculous revelation. A central belief, which would significantly influence Plato, was that philosophical inquiry was vital to the salvation of the soul and the apprehension of ultimate truth. one aspect of that truth was that nothing significantly changed and everything was eternal and eternally recurring. According to the ancient writer and student of Aristotle, Eudemus of Rhodes (1. c. 370 – c. 300 BC), Pythagoras believed in the eternal return as a logical and mathematical necessity. eudemus writes:

if one believed the Pythagoreans, that events repeat themselves in an arithmetic cycle, and that I’ll be talking to you again sitting as you are now, with this pointer in hand, and that everything else will be the same as it is now , then it is plausible to assume that time will also be the same as now. (boy, 16)

in this belief, pythagoras foreshadows the great german philosopher fredrich nietzsche (l. 1844-1900 ad) and his theory of eternal return in which nietzsche asserts that, in the absence of the “finish line” of a dictating god sentence after death, one’s life will be automatically restored and repeated in exactly the same way. Nietzsche’s theory has often been interpreted as encouraging careful consideration of how time is spent, since every event, big or small, will have to be relived forever; this may also have been suggested by the teachings of Pythagoras.

Even if Pythagoras himself did not formulate the concept in this way, he must have articulated it in some way for later Pythagoreans to have repeated it. The concept of the cyclical nature of life and the immortality of the soul were at the heart of Pythagorean thought and influenced many ancient Greek writers and thinkers, but none as significant as Plato.

pythagoras & Plato

it is possible that plato started out as a student of socrates, adhering to dialectics to establish truth, and then gradually moved towards adopting pythagorean idealism, as some scholars have claimed, but it seems more likely that socrates himself was aligned with Pythagorean thought. There is really no way to establish any claim in this regard, since most of what we know about Socrates comes from Plato’s dialogues that were written after Socrates’ death, when Plato already had a mature philosophical mind.

however it was presented to him, Pythagorean thought significantly influenced Plato’s philosophy, which included the concept of an ultimate truth not subject to opinion, an ethical way of living in line with that truth, the immortality of the soul . , the need for salvation through philosophy, and learning-as-memory. Pythagorean concepts are evident in all of Plato’s works, but especially in the dialogues of the Meno and the Phaedo.

In the main, Plato’s main character, Socrates, shows how what one calls “learning” is really just “remembering” lessons from a past life. he proves his claim by having a young, uneducated slave solve a geometric problem. Plato argues that if one dies with his mind intact, one will “remember” what he learned during that life when he is born in the next. what one thinks he “learns” in this life, in reality he only “remembers” from his past life and what he knew in that past life he remembered from a previous one.

Plato never addresses the obvious problem with this theory: at some point, the soul must have had to “learn” and not just “remember”. his assertion that one “remembers” what one learned in the ether between lives, not just in mortal form, fails to address the concern that the soul would still need to “learn” at some point, whether in the body or out of it .

Pythagoras’ claim that “things are numbers” and that one could understand the physical world through mathematics also appears in the meno, not only through Socrates’ interaction with the slave, but also through through his argument that virtue is an inherent singular quality. in all people, regardless of age, sex or social status, in the same way that “number” informs and defines the known world; one recognizes reality through a distinction between unity and duality.

This affirmation would go towards the development of Plato’s famous theory of forms in which he describes an objective world of truth, above the mortal realm, which underlies and informs all human truths and gives them their value of “veracity”. “. . Without this realm of forms, Plato argued, there could be no real truth; only opinion on what one felt to be true.

for Pythagoras, mathematics was the path to enlightenment and understanding, and as he stated, “ten is the very nature of number” and by this ‘number’ he meant not just a unit of measurement, but to a means by which the world could be grasped and understood. he pointed out how people can count to ten on their fingers and, when they reach ten, go back to the unit and start again. in the same way, a soul entered a body, lived for a certain time, died and returned to the starting point, to then follow the same path again.

This concept is fully explored in Plato’s Phaedo, the account of Socrates’ last day in prison before his execution, which focuses on the immortality of the soul and the afterlife. From the beginning of the dialogue, Plato makes use of the link between Pythagoras and Phlius, choosing Echecrates from Phlius as the interlocutor and audience for Phaedon, the narrator. Furthermore, the characters of Simmias and Cebes of Thebes, Socrates’ central interlocutors in the story recounted by the Phaedo, are both Pythagoreans. Echecrates’ choice of plato links the dialogue directly to Pythagorean thought from the first line but, through simmias and cebes, Pythagorean concepts are introduced and developed throughout.

towards the end of the dialogue, after socrates has given several proofs of the immortality of the soul, he concludes with this exchange with cebes:

Tell me, [said Socrates], what must be in the body for it to be alive?

a soul, [cebes] replied.

and is this always like this?

sure, said [cebes].

so the soul always gives life to everything that contains it?

no doubt, [cebes] responded.

and is there an opposite to life or not?


what is it?


And have we already agreed that the soul can never receive the opposite of what it brings?”

yes, of course we have, said cebes.

what do we call that which does not admit death?

the immortal, [cebes] said.

and the soul does not admit death?


so the soul is immortal?

it is.

fine, said [socrates]. Shall we say that this is proven? what do you think?

(phaedo, 105c-e)

the mathematical proofs that socrates offers above regarding even and odd numbers finally lead to the above proof that “even” cannot admit the “odd” in order to remain itself (even) and, therefore, life (the soul) cannot admit death. and still life remains; therefore, the soul must be immortal. This entire argument typifies Pythagorean thought as it was understood by ancient writers and practiced by the Pythagorean sects of Plato’s time.


The Phaedo also establishes the geography of the afterlife that would later be used by the church to create the concepts of hell, purgatory, and heaven. The concept of purgatory first appears in Phaedo 108b-d, judgment of the dead in 113d-e, hell in 113e-114a, and heaven in 109d-110b. Plato’s argument for an ultimate and undeniable realm of truth, from which all other truths are established, is also evident in the Gospel narratives of the Bible, especially in the Gospel of John and in the Epistles of St. John. paul.

Although nothing can be said with certainty about the life of Pythagoras or his original teachings, enough of his thinking was developed by later disciples and admirers to have influenced the greatest Greek philosopher of antiquity. Plato’s work established the discipline of philosophy and has permeated each other, to a greater or lesser degree, over the past 2,000 years. The details of Pythagoras’s life may never be fully known, but his influence continues to be felt, around the world, today.

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