Pythagoras and His Life Beyond the Pythagorean Theorem
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 theorem.
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, whilst his mother was a woman by the name of Pythais. Pythagoras had two or three brothers as well.
Some historians claim that Pythagoras 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 wife. Yet others claimed that Pythagoras was never married, and had no children either.
Bust of Pythagoras – Roman copy of the Greek original. Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy. (CC BY SA 3.0)
Whilst Pythagoras’ marital status is debatable, it is generally agreed that the philosopher left his place of birth around 530 BC due to his 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.
One of the difficulties in dealing with Pythagoras’ teachings is the fact that none of his writings are known to have survived. Thus, it is necessary for people today to rely on secondary sources for an understanding of his work. Yet, 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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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 insuring the best possible future reincarnations. One characteristic aspect of this ‘Pythagorean way of life’ can be seen in the emphasis on dietary restrictions.
The evidence for these restrictions are, however, often contradictory. For instance, some sources claim that all meat was prohibited, whilst 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.
Pythagoras advocating vegetarianism. (Public Domain)
The most famous Pythagorean dietary restriction is perhaps the prohibition against eating beans. There is no agreement as to 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.
Pythagoras was an influential figure, as the ‘Pythagorean way of life’, though bizarre to modern eyes, 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 he was a revered figure as well.
Pythagoreans celebrate sunrise. (1869) By Fyodor Bronnikov. (Public Domain)
Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that none of his works are known to have survived, which means that we cannot be entirely sure of the teachings of Pythagoras.
Lastly, it may be mentioned that ‘Pythagoras the philosopher’ is today often overshadowed by ‘Pythagoras the mathematician’, as it is for his contributions to mathematics, rather than to philosophy and religion that Pythagoras is best known today.
Featured image: Detail of Pythagoras writing from ‘The School of Athens.’ By Raphael. Photo source: Public Domain
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