Pythagoras: A Life Beyond Math and Science
Pythagoras is perhaps the most famous figure in the group of ancient Greek philosophers known as the Pre-Socratics. This is largely due to the Pythagorean Theorem, a mathematical theorem that is still widely used today. Apart from being a mathematician, Pythagoras was also an influential thinker in other areas. For example, he made important contributions to religion during his life as well. These aspects of Pythagoras, however, are much less well-known, and have been overshadowed by his mathematical teachings.
Mixed Stories on Pythagoras’ Personal Life
Pythagoras is believed to have been born around 570 BC, and spent his early life on Samos, a Greek island in the eastern Aegean Sea. His father was Mnesarchus, a gem merchant, and his mother was a woman by the name of Pythais. Pythagoras had two or three brothers as well.
The nature of Pythagoras’ family life is debated. Some historians claim that he was married to a woman named Theano, had a daughter named Damo, and a son named Telauges. Others claimed that Theano was Pythagoras’ student, not his wife. There is also a belief that the ancient Greek philosopher was never married and had no children.
Bust of Pythagoras – Roman copy of the Greek original. Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy. (CC BY SA 3.0)
While Pythagoras’ marital status is debatable, it is generally agreed that the philosopher left his place of birth around 530 BC due to a disagreement with the policies of the tyrant Polycrates. It was either at this time, or perhaps even before, that Pythagoras visited Egypt and Babylon (some say even India), where he became acquainted with the beliefs and customs of these cultures.
Pythagoras eventually settled in Croton (modern Crotone), at that point of time a Greek city in southern Italy, and was put in charge of the education of the children and the women of the city. Pythagoras became an influential person in the area, and even established an exclusive community of followers in Croton.
Illustration depicting Pythagoras teaching women. (Public Domain)
His fame, however, also led to his downfall. It is said that Cylon, a young man from an aristocratic family, desired to join this community. When his request was rejected, he gathered anti-Pythagorean support and attacked the philosopher. As a result, Pythagoras abandoned Croton and moved to Metapontum around 500 BC, where he died some years later.
What is Pythagoras Known For?
One of the difficulties in dealing with Pythagoras’ teachings is the fact that none of his original writings are known to have survived. Thus, it is necessary for people today to rely on secondary sources for an understanding of his work. This poses another problem, as Pythagoreans in subsequent generations are said to have had a tendency of ascribing to Pythagoras their own developments of his ideas.
In fact, it is unclear whether the famed Pythagorean Theorem (or any of his other theorems) was proven by Pythagoras himself, or by his followers.
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Pythagoras’ Beliefs and the Pythagorean Way of Life
Still, one may be able to say a few things about the teachings of Pythagoras. Although Pythagorean thought is dominated by mathematics, the followers of Pythagoras also dabbled in mysticism. For example, Pythagoras may have been the first to introduce to the Greeks the idea of the immortality of the human soul and reincarnation.
This was a radical challenge to the traditional Olympian tradition, as the elevation of the human soul to this immortal status devalued the Olympian gods and their worship, and raised the importance of caring for one’s soul.
Pythagoras emerging from the underworld. (1662) By Salvator Rosa. (Public Domain)
This care for one’s soul can be seen in the ‘Pythagorean way of life’, a set of features which was probably aimed at assuring the best possible future reincarnations. One characteristic aspect of this ‘Pythagorean way of life’ is an emphasis on dietary restrictions.
The evidence for these restrictions are, however, often contradictory. For instance, some sources claim that all meat was prohibited, while others record that only certain meats (animals not used for sacrifice) were prohibited. There are also sources which claim that there was no prohibition at all against eating meat.
The most famous Pythagorean dietary restriction is perhaps the prohibition against eating beans. There is no agreement about the reason for this prohibition, and the amount of ancient speculation regarding this matter shows that this practice was considered odd.
Reasons proposed for the Pythagorean aversion for beans include: their flatulent tendencies that disturbs one’s sleep and peace of mind, their resemblance to testicles, and the belief that if they are buried in manure they could take on a human shape.
Many legends also say that Pythagoras made a cup to teach people moderation in their drinking habits. The name for this invention is the Pythagoras Cup, the Justice Cup, or the Greedy Cup. It is a cup with a simple hydraulic system that empties the contents through a hole in the base if liquid is filled above a specific line. Pythagoras may have been interested in teaching his students that they should apply this idea of moderation to other aspects of their lives apart from drinking as well. The cup could have been a teaching tool to show that greed could make a person lose not only what they hope to gain, but also what they already have.
Pythagoras cup. (ketrik17 /Adobe Stock)
Pythagoras was an influential figure, as was the ‘Pythagorean way of life.’ Although it may seem bizarre to many people today, this lifestyle was still being practiced during the 4th century BC, about a century after his death. Additionally, the fact that so many ancient writers wrote about him (though their claims often contradict each other) shows that Pythagoras was a revered figure as well.
Pythagoreans celebrate sunrise. (1869) By Fyodor Bronnikov. (Public Domain)
But none of this takes away from the unfortunate fact that his original writings did not survive. This means that we cannot be entirely sure what Pythagoras taught his students or really thought about the universe and our place in it.
The Mysterious End to a Man who was a Mathematician and More
As with many other aspects of his life, there is also debate surrounding what may have brought about the end of Pythagoras. Some ancient writers claimed that the Pythagoreans and their teacher were killed in a bloody massacre instigated by Croton authorities who had tracked him down. Others say that Pythagoras died of starvation after he fasted for 40 days.
Today, ‘Pythagoras the philosopher’ is often overshadowed by ‘Pythagoras the mathematician’, as it is his contributions to mathematics, rather than philosophy and religion, that he is most remembered for; even though this man had a significant impact on various areas of life during his time.
Top Image: Pythagoras advocating vegetarianism. Source: Public Domain
Updated on July 9, 2020.
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