Pythagoras

Definition

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published on 14 February 2011
Bust of Pythagoras (Skies)
Pythagoras (ca. 571- ca. 497 BCE) was a Greek philosopher born on the island of Samos, off Asia Minor, where his ancestors had settled after leaving Phlius, a city in the northwest Peloponnese, after the civil war there in 380 BCE. While this 'fact’ of Pythagoras’ life is held to be true, it, like so much else written of the man, is impossible to verify. None of Pythagoras’ own writings remain and so much mythology grew up surrounding him, much of it by later writers who accepted, uncritically, what they read by others, that all one can say with certainty is that there was a figure in ancient Greece named Pythagoras and that this man founded a philosophical/religious order known as the Pythagoreans. Plato, in his Phaedo, makes use of Pythagoras’ link to Philius, in choosing Echecrates of Phlius as Phaedo’s audience for the story of Socrates’ last day. In that Socrates’ interlocutors in the dialogue, Simmias and Cebes of Thebes, are both Pythagoreans, and as the dialogue is chiefly concerned with the immortality of the soul as Pythagoras is said to have envisioned it, Plato’s choice of Echecrates links the dialogue directly to Pythagorean thought from the first line. Yet what, exactly, was 'Pythagorean thought’? From what was written of him, it would seem Pythagoras founded a religious order which emphasized personal salvation through withdrawal from worldly pursuits and a focus on a strict philosophical and mathematical regimen. The Pythagoreans were vegetarians and believed that the soul was immortal and passed through many incarnations. To Pythagoras, vegetarianism was a path to inner peace and, by extension, world peace in that humans could never live in harmony with each other as long as they killed and ate animals. Xenophanes, a contemporary, wrote derisively of Pythagoras that, “Once they say that he was passing by when a dog was being whipped and he took pity and said, 'Stop, do not beat it; for it is the soul of a friend that I recognized when I heard it giving tongue.’” Since one could easily be re-born as a cow or a sheep in one’s next life, eating any living thing was as strictly prohibited as cannibalism would be. The Transmigration of Souls, as Pythagoras called it, greatly influenced Plato’s thought and, perhaps, Socrates himself, in the claim that learning is recollecting, as argued in Plato’s Meno and mentioned in the Phaedo and elsewhere. If we die with our mind intact, we will 'remember’ what we learned during that life when we are born into our next incarnation. What we think we 'learn’, therefore, in this life, we are actually only 'remembering’ from our past life. Those whom we term 'child prodigies’, then, are simply people who remember their former lives better than most do. Most famous today for his Pythagorean Theorem in geometry, Pythagoras asserted that “things are numbers” and that one could understand the physical world through mathematics. In this way, also, he greatly influenced Plato as it is known that Plato’s Theory of Forms is chiefly geometry and that Plato admitted any Greek-speaking student into his Academy as long as they knew geometry. To Pythagoras, mathematics was a course of study to pursue toward enlightenment and understanding and, as he allegedly claimed, “Ten is the very nature of number” and by this 'number’ he meant not only a unit of measurement but a means by way of which the world could be grasped and understood.


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Timeline

  • c. 571 BCE - c. 497 BCE
    Life of Pythagoras of Samos.

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