Born: c. 580 BC
Birthplace: Samos, Ionia, Greece
Died: c. 500 BC
Location of death: Metapontum, Lucania, Greece
Cause of death: unspecified
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Mathematician, Philosopher, Religion
Nationality: Ancient Greece
Executive summary: Pythagorean Theorem
The life of this celebrated man, the founder of what is known as the Italic School of philosophy, has been so greatly obscured by the mass of legends and incredible stories which gathered in later ages around his name, that it is very difficult to arrive at anything like certainty regarding his history and character. That he was a native of the island of Samos, the son of Mnesarchus, a merchant, or, according to other accounts, a signet-engraver, we know on good authority. The date of his birth is very uncertain, but is usually placed about the year 570 BC; and all authorities agree that he flourished in the times of Polycrates and Tarquinius Superbus (540-510 BC). He is said to have been a disciple of Pherecydes of Syros, of Thales, and Anaximander, and, like other illustrious Greeks, to have undertaken extensive travels for the purpose of adding to his knowledge; in the course of which -- lasting, we are told, for nearly 30 years -- he visited Egypt (bringing with him according to the usual story, letters of introduction from Polycrates to Amasis the king) and the more important countries of Asia, including even India.
We have every reason to believe that he did, at all events, visit Egypt, and there availed himself of all such mysterious lore as the priests could be induced to impart; from whom possibly he learned the doctrine of Metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls (which was, as is well known, one of the most famous tenets of the Pythagorean school), and whose influence may perhaps be traced in the mystic rites, asceticism, and peculiarities of diet and clothing which formed some of its chief characteristics -- though we may consider it as nearly certain that his philosophic and religious system was much less indebted to the influence of other countries than the ancients generally believed. During his travels, Pythagoras matured the plans which he afterwards carried into action; but finding, on his return to his native island, that the tyranny established there by Polycrates unfitted it for his abode, he left Samos and eventually settled in the city of Croton, in southern Italy.
Here he is said to have acquired in a short time unbounded influence over the inhabitants, as well as over those of the neighboring states; and here he established his famous Pythagorean fraternity or order, which has often been compared with the still more celebrated order founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola in more modern times. The adherents of Pythagoras were chiefly found among the noble and the wealthy; these, to the number of 300, he formed into a select society, bound by a sort of vow to himself and to each other, for the purpose of studying the philosophical system of their master, and cultivating the ascetic observances and religious rites enjoined by him. They thus formed at once a philosophical school and a religious brotherhood, which gradually assumed the character and exercised the power of a political association also. This political influence, which undoubtedly became very great, was constantly exerted on the side of aristocracy; and to carry out the principles of this form of government, understood in the best sense of the word, seems to have been the ultimate aim of Pythagoras. He is also said to have increased his influence by a practice unknown to the other sages of the ancient world -- the admission of women, not probably into his society, but to attendance on his lectures and teaching. Of the internal arrangement and discipline of this fraternity we really know but little. All accounts agree that what was done and taught among the members was kept a profound secret from the outer world. In the admission of members, Pythagoras is said to have exercised the greatest care, and to have relied much on his skill in physiognomy. They then had, it is said, to pass through a long period of probation, intended apparently to test their powers of endurance and self-restraint -- though almost certainly the assertion that they had to maintain silence for two or even five years is an exaggeration of later times. Among the members of the society we are told there were several gradations, and there was also a more general division of his disciples under the names Esoteric and Exoteric -- the former being applied to all who were admitted to the more abstrues doctrines and sublimer teaching of their master, the latter to those who received only the instruction open to all. The mode of life seems to have been regulated by Pythagoras in its minutest details. It is well known that he is said to have forbidden all animal food -- a consequence, perhaps, of the doctrine of Metempsychosis -- and also particularly beans (but these statements cannot be relied on), and there is no doubt that temperance of all kinds was strictly enjoined. In the course of instruction, great attention was paid to mathematics, music, and astronomy; and gymnastics formed an important part of the training. Religious teaching was inculcated in the so-called Pythagorean Orgies or Mysteries; and while he outwardly conformed to the usual mode of worship, there is reason to believe that in secret he taught a purer faith. The result of the whole system seems to have been an unbounded reverence on the part of the disciples for their master (of which the well-known ipse dixit is a sufficient attestation); in the members of the order an elevated tone of character, exhibited in serenity of mind and self-possession, extreme attachment to each other, and also supreme contempt for all the outer world.
But it was natural that political power uniformly exercised in one direction by an aristocratic and exclusive society such as this should in the end excite a widespread feeling of jealousy and hatred, which at length, when opportunity was given, caused the overthrow of the fraternity. A war between the cities of Croton and Sybaris, in which the Pythagoreans took a prominent part, ended in the total destruction of the latter city (510 BC); and on this success they seem to have presumed so greatly, that they proceeded to more active measures against the popular party than they had yet attempted. A violent outbreak was the consequence; the house in which the leading Pythagoreans were assembled was set on fire, and many perished in the flames. Similar commotions ensued in other cities of southern Italy in which Pythagorean clubs had been formed, and the result was that, as a political organization, the Pythagorean order was everywhere suppressed; though, as a philosophical sect, it continued to exist for many years after. Of the fate of Pythagoras himself different accounts are given; but he is generally supposed to have escaped to Metapontum, and died there (504 BC), where his tomb was shown in the time of Cicero.
Pythagoras is said to have been the first to assume the title of Philosopher (lover of wisdom) in place of the name Sophos (wise), by which the sages had before been known. Various discoveries in music, astronomy, and mathematics are attributed to him; among others, the proposition now known as the 47th of Euclid, book I. We have good ground for believing that he was a man of much learning and great intellectual powers, which were specially exerted in the way of mathematical research, as is evinced by the general tendency of the speculations of his school. There is no doubt that he maintained the doctrine of transmigration of souls into the bodies of men and other animals -- which seems to have been regarded in the Pythagorean system as a process of purification -- and he is said to have asserted that he had a distinct recollection of having himself previously passed through other stages of existence. We are told that on seeing a dog beaten, and hearing him howl, he urged the striker to desist, saying "It is the soul of a friend of mine, whom I recognize by his voice."
Respecting the system of philosophy actually taught by Pythagoras we have but little trusworthy testimony. Pythagoras himself, it is all but certain, wrote nothing, and the same seems to have been the case with his immediate successors; we are therefore, in endeavoring to form an idea of the Pythagorean philosophy, obliged to rely almost entirely on the compilations of later writers (namely Diogenes Laërtius, and the Neo-Platonists, Porphyrius and Iamblichus, all of them long subsequent to the Christian era), who often but imperfectly understood the details they gave. The tendency of the school was towards the consideration of abstractions as the only true materials of science, and to number was alotted the most prominent place in their system. They taught that in Number only is absolute certainty to be found; that Number is the Essence of all things; that things are only a copy of Numbers; nay, that in some mysterious way, Numbers are things themselves. This Number theory was probably worked out from the fundamental conception, that, after destroying or disarranging every other attribute of matter, there still remains the attribute Number; we still can predicate that the thing is one. With this doctrine of Number was intimately connected that of the Finite and Infinite, corresponding respectively with the Odd and Even in Number; and from a combination of this Finite and Infinite it was taught that all things in the Universe result. The abstract principle of all perfection was One and the Finite; of imperfection, the Many and the Infinite. Essentially based also on the same doctrine, was the Theory of Music; the System of the Universe, which was conceived as a Kosmos, or one harmonious whole, consisting of ten heavenly bodies revolving around a Central Fire, the Hearth or Altar of the Universe; and the celebrated doctrine of the Harmony of the Spheres -- the music produced by a movement of these heavenly bodies, which were arranged at intervals according with the laws of harmony -- forming thus a sublime Musical Scale. The Soul of Man was believed to partake of the nature of the Central Fire, possessing three elements -- Reason, Intelligence, and Passion; the first distinctive of Man, the last two common to Man and Brutes.
The Ethical teaching of the Pythagoreans was of the purest and most spiritual kind; Virtue was regarded as a harmony of the soul, a conformity with or approximation of the Deity; Self-restraint, Sincerity, and Purity of Heart were especially commended; and Conscientiousness and Uprightness in the affairs of life would seem to have been their distinguishing characteristics.
The Pythagorean system was carried on by a succession of disciples down to about 300 BC, when it seems to have gradually died out, being superseded by other systems of philosophy; it was revived about two centuries later, and lasted for a considerable time after the Christian era -- disfigured by the admixture of other doctrines, and an exaggeration of the mysticism and ascetic practices, without the scientific culture of the earlier school.
In addition to the writers above mentioned, scattered and scanty notices -- affording, however, really the most trustworthy information that we possess as to the life and doctrines of Pythagoras -- occur in Herodotus, Plato, Aristotle (the latter especially).
Taken Prisoner of War
Asteroid Namesake 6143 Pythagoras
Lunar Crater Pythagoras (63.5N, 63.0N, 142km dia, 4800m height)
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