Who was the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras – a real scientist or a character in ancient history? For those who are far from science, Pythagoras is the one who proved the famous theorem, later named after him.
Those who are a little more interested in the history of developing knowledge about the world will call this ancient Greek sage the founder of sciences. But what is curious is that almost nothing is known about Pythagoras himself. His biography does not exist; there is only a collection of histories, often contradicting one another. In a sense, Pythagoras himself is nothing more than another ancient myth.
Scientist or Legendary Character?
Neither the date of birth of Pythagoras nor even his real name is known. Scientists have concluded that he was born around 570 BC. on the island of Samos in the eastern part of the Aegean Sea. Most historians accept the date based on the histories about the travels of Pythagoras: no information would refute this date. Father’s name was Mnesarchus; he was either a stone cutter or a merchant – the latter is more likely since the education received by Pythagoras speaks more of the nobility of his family.
Different stories also surround the birth of Pythagoras. According to one of them, the boy was born due to a secret connection between the god Apollo and Mnesarchus Partenida. Allegedly, before the birth of his son, the father was predicted that his heir would be distinguished by extraordinary beauty and wisdom and would bring a lot of good to all humankind. That is why they called the baby Pythagoras – that is, “the one whom the Pythia announced.
The authority of the Samos sage in the ancient world was enormous, suffice it to say that many ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, including Plato, who was born after the death of Pythagoras, but fell under the influence of his school – the school of the Pythagoreans – based their works on his teachings.
There is also no information about the teachers of Pythagoras; there are only assumptions and guesses. Perhaps in his youth, he traveled to the city of Miletus, where he studied with Anaximander. Among the likely teachers, the sage is even called Zarathustra – the prophet and founder of the first monotheistic religion, whose years of life are also unknown to science and are controversial among historians. In all likelihood, for a long time – about two decades – Pythagoras spent in Egypt, studying medicine, mathematics, and religious cults there. The next segment of the sage’s life path is found in Babylon, and from there, he returned to the island of Samos.
Due to disagreement with the tyrant Polycrates, Pythagoras moved to the south of the Apennine Peninsula to the city of Crotone. There, in Crotone, a Pythagorean union appeared, uniting those who followed the teachings of Pythagoras, those who adopted his views and way of life, devoting most of their time to learning. The Pythagoreans are considered the monastic order of antiquity – the same asceticism, refusal of personal property, joint meals, a strict daily routine, and something similar to a vow of silence for new union members.
Of course, even about this part of the biography of the philosopher, only guesses are being built – scientists have neither the appropriate documentary evidence nor even the testimonies of contemporaries.
The first book about this society was written by the Pythagorean Philolaus, born after Pythagoras’ death. Earlier references have not survived. Either the school’s doctrine forbade the disclosure of such information to the “uninitiated” or recording the results of spiritual and scientific searches itself contradicted the established rules. Again according to another story, Pythagoras did not leave any notes or treatises after himself, making do with oral sayings and conversations. But this is just a version.
How Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans enriched science
One way or another, but the legacy of the Pythagoreans – whether directly surrounding the sage – the founder of the union or who joined the school much later – commands respect.
According to history, having proved the “Pythagorean theorem” about the ratio of the sides of a right-angled triangle, the sage was so jubilant that he ordered a hecatomb – a sacrifice to the gods in the form of a hundred bulls. But this is unlikely, given another generally accepted history about Pythagoras – his vegetarianism.
The philosopher believed in metempsychosis – the transmigration of souls. According to this approach, there could be a soul that was previously in a person in any living being, and therefore it is unacceptable to eat meat. Pythagoras allegedly said that he perfectly remembered his previous incarnations – he remembered and used the knowledge gained once. Along with meat, the Pythagoreans abandoned some other foods, including beans. By the way, before the appearance of the term “vegetarian,” and this happened in the forties of the XIX century, the person who refused meat was called the “Pythagorean.”
Another brainchild of Pythagoras was the science of numerology, “studying” the mystical influence of numbers on the real world. The Pythagoreans put numbers and mathematics in general almost above all; all existing and newly emerging world laws were reduced to this science. A special symbol of the school has become the Tetractys – a “magic” figure of ten points, arranged in a pyramid.
Dante Alighieri, when creating “The Divine Comedy,” also relied on the numerology of the Pythagoreans: it is not by chance that the entire composition consists of three parts, but, for example, the number 9 is repeated throughout the whole work: 9 circles of hell, nine steps of purgatory, nine celestial spheres.
And Johannes Kepler, a German mathematician, and astronomer was an adherent of another famous theory of the Pythagorean school – “the harmony of spheres.” What is it about? It’s just that some music continuously plays in space, which a person does not perceive for one reason only – having heard it from birth, he is used to it. Of course, this theory will seem naive, but for a long time, it had many followers. By the way, the sage was, according to history, the first who expressed the idea of a spherical earth.
Why is so little known about the life and achievements of Pythagoras and so much at the same time?
The entire biography of Pythagoras, or rather the mythology of Pythagoras, is taken from the rather numerous works of ancient authors – the authors of respected and authoritative, including Herodotus, Aristotle. One trouble – the biographers did not even rely on the results of Pythagoras’ contemporaries – there were no such records. Diogenes Laertius, Iamblichus, and other authors recorded the information passed from mouth to mouth in the form of teaching.
In Crotone, the Pythagoreans acquired significant political influence; this led to an increase in the city’s power and then to persecutions of the representatives of the school themselves. After the death of Pythagoras, his students fled from the city, spreading their teachings further throughout the ancient world. At the same time, many of the achievements of the Pythagoreans were attributed to the creator of the school himself, so it was also impossible to establish the original doctrine.
According to histories, Pythagoras married one of his students, Theano, and his daughter Damo became a philosopher. It is impossible to verify the names, but, in any case, many authors agree that the sage had a family and that women in the Pythagorean community enjoyed extensive rights for those times and learned science on an equal basis with men.