Pythagoras of Samos

Pythagoras was born on the island of Samos, Greece in 569 BC.

He was a Greek religious leader and a philosopher who made developments in astronomy, mathematics, and music theories.

He moved to Croton (a city in southern Italy) and started a religious and philosophical school there.

He had many followers called the Pythagoreans.

Pythagoras did much more than just discover what is now referred to as the Pythagorean Theorem. Pythagoras and his followers contributed to music, astronomy and mathematics. Pythagoras believed in secrecy and communalism, so distinguishing his work from the work of his followers is almost impossible. When joining Pythagoras’s group, you had to remain silent for five years before you could contribute to the group. Some of their discoveries were right, and some were proven wrong in time.

The most important idea of the Pythagoreans was that most things could be understood through math, which was important to math and science development.

Pythagoras or his students proved the converse theorem, though it was used much earlier in Egypt.

Pythagoras died about 475 BC in Metapontum, Lucania.

Major Works of Pythagoras of Samos

– No extant works.

Biographical sources

No authentic writings of Pythagoras have survived,[5][6][7] and almost nothing is known for certain about his life.[8][9][10] The earliest sources on Pythagoras’s life are brief, ambiguous, and often satirical.[11][7][12] The earliest source on Pythagoras’s teachings is a satirical poem probably written after his death by Xenophanes of Colophon, who had been one of his contemporaries.[13][14] In the poem, Xenophanes describes Pythagoras interceding on behalf of a dog that is being beaten, professing to recognize in its cries the voice of a departed friend.[15][13][12][16] Alcmaeon of Croton, a doctor who lived in Croton at around the same time Pythagoras lived there,[13] incorporates many Pythagorean teachings into his writings[17] and alludes to having possibly known Pythagoras personally.[17] The poet Heraclitus of Ephesus, who was born across a few miles of sea away from Samos and may have lived within Pythagoras’s lifetime,[18] mocked Pythagoras as a clever charlatan,[11][18] remarking that “Pythagoras, son of Mnesarchus, practiced inquiry more than any other man, and selecting from these writings he manufactured a wisdom for himself—much learning, artful knavery.”[18][11]

The Greek poets Ion of Chios (c. 480 – c. 421 BC) and Empedocles of Acragas (c. 493 – c. 432 BC) both express admiration for Pythagoras in their poems.[19] The first concise description of Pythagoras comes from the historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c. 484 – c. 420 BC),[20] who describes him as “not the most insignificant” of Greek sages[21] and states that Pythagoras taught his followers how to attain immortality.[20] The accuracy of the works of Herodotus is controversial.[22][23][24][25][26] The writings attributed to the Pythagorean philosopher Philolaus of Croton, who lived in the late fifth century BC, are the earliest texts to describe the numerological and musical theories that were later ascribed to Pythagoras.[27] The Athenian rhetorician Isocrates (436–338 BC) was the first to describe Pythagoras as having visited Egypt.[20] Aristotle wrote a treatise On the Pythagoreans, which is no longer extant.[28] Some of it may be preserved in the Protrepticus. Aristotle’s disciples Dicaearchus, Aristoxenus, and Heraclides Ponticus also wrote on the same subject.[29]

Most of the major sources on Pythagoras’s life are from the Roman period,[30] by which point, according to the German classicist Walter Burkert, “the history of Pythagoreanism was already… the laborious reconstruction of something lost and gone.”[29] Three lives of Pythagoras have survived from late antiquity,[30][10] all of which are filled primarily with myths and legends.[30][31][10] The earliest and most respectable of these is the one from Diogenes Laërtius’s Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers.[30][31] The two later lives were written by the Neoplatonist philosophers Porphyry and Iamblichus[30][31] and were partially intended as polemics against the rise of Christianity.[31] The later sources are much lengthier than the earlier ones,[30] and even more fantastic in their descriptions of Pythagoras’s achievements.[30][31] Porphyry and Iamblichus used material from the lost writings of Aristotle’s disciples[29] and material taken from these sources is generally considered to be the most reliable.[29]


Early life

There is not a single detail in the life of Pythagoras that stands uncontradicted. But it is possible, from a more or less critical selection of the data, to construct a plausible account.

— Walter Burkert, 1972[32]

Herodotus, Isocrates, and other early writers agree that Pythagoras was the son of Mnesarchus[33][20] and that he was born on the Greek island of Samos in the eastern Aegean.[33][5][34][35] His father is said to have been a gem-engraver or a wealthy merchant,[36][37] but his ancestry is disputed and unclear.[38][d] Pythagoras’s name led him to be associated with Pythian Apollo (Pūthíā); Aristippus of Cyrene in the 4th century BC explained his name by saying, “He spoke [ἀγορεύωagoreúō] the truth no less than did the Pythian [πυθικός puthikós]”.[39] A late source gives Pythagoras’s mother’s name as Pythaïs.[40][41] Iamblichus tells the story that the Pythia prophesied to her while she was pregnant with him that she would give birth to a man supremely beautiful, wise, and beneficial to humankind.[39] As to the date of his birth, Aristoxenus stated that Pythagoras left Samos in the reign of Polycrates, at the age of 40, which would give a date of birth around 570 BC.[42]

During Pythagoras’s formative years, Samos was a thriving cultural hub known for its feats of advanced architectural engineering, including the building of the Tunnel of Eupalinos, and for its riotous festival culture.[43] It was a major center of trade in the Aegean where traders brought goods from the Near East.[5] According to Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier, these traders almost certainly brought with them Near Eastern ideas and traditions.[5] Pythagoras’s early life also coincided with the flowering of early Ionian natural philosophy.[44][33] He was a contemporary of the philosophers Anaximander, Anaximenes, and the historian Hecataeus, all of whom lived in Miletus, across the sea from Samos.[44]

Alleged travels

Pythagoras is traditionally thought to have received most of his education in Ancient Egypt, the Neo-Babylonian Empire, the Achaemenid Empire, and Crete.[45] Modern scholarship has shown that the culture of Archaic Greece was heavily influenced by those of Levantine and Mesopotamian cultures.[45] Like many other important Greek thinkers, Pythagoras was said to have studied in Egypt.[46][20][47] By the time of Isocrates in the fourth century BC, Pythagoras’s alleged studies in Egypt were already taken as fact.[39][20] The writer Antiphon, who may have lived during the Hellenistic Era, claimed in his lost work On Men of Outstanding Merit, used as a source by Porphyry, that Pythagoras learned to speak Egyptian from the Pharaoh Amasis II himself, that he studied with the Egyptian priests at Diospolis (Thebes), and that he was the only foreigner ever to be granted the privilege of taking part in their worship.[48][45] The Middle Platonist biographer Plutarch (c. 46 – c. 120 AD) writes in his treatise On Isis and Osiris that, during his visit to Egypt, Pythagoras received instruction from the Egyptian priest Oenuphis of Heliopolis (meanwhile Solon received lectures from a Sonchis of Sais).[49] According to the Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215 AD), “Pythagoras was a disciple of Soches, an Egyptian archprophet, as well as Plato of Sechnuphis of Heliopolis.”[50] Some ancient writers claimed, that Pythagoras learned geometry and the doctrine of metempsychosis from the Egyptians.[46][51]

Other ancient writers, however, claimed that Pythagoras had learned these teachings from the Magi in Persia or even from Zoroaster himself.[52][53] Diogenes Laërtius asserts that Pythagoras later visited Crete, where he went to the Cave of Ida with Epimenides.[52] The Phoenicians are reputed to have taught Pythagoras arithmetic and the Chaldeans to have taught him astronomy.[53] By the third century BC, Pythagoras was already reported to have studied under the Jews as well.[53] Contradicting all these reports, the novelist Antonius Diogenes, writing in the second century BC, reports that Pythagoras discovered all his doctrines himself by interpreting dreams.[53] The third-century AD Sophist Philostratus claims that, in addition to the Egyptians, Pythagoras also studied under Hindu sages in India.[53] Iamblichus expands this list even further by claiming that Pythagoras also studied with the Celts and Iberians.[53]

Alleged Greek teachers

Bust of a somewhat elderly and rather tired-looking man with a short, curly beard, vaguely similar to Greek busts of Homer
Bust of Pythagoras in the Vatican Museums, Vatican City, showing him as a “tired-looking older man”[1]
Bronze bust of a man with a short, curly beard wearing a tainia, which resembles a turban. Short curls hang out from underneath the tainia. The face is much broader than the other busts and the neck much fatter. The brow ridges are very prominent.
Bronze bust of a philosopher wearing a tainia from Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum, possibly a fictional bust of Pythagoras[54][1]

Ancient sources also record Pythagoras having studied under a variety of native Greek thinkers.[53] Some identify Hermodamas of Samos as a possible tutor.[55][53] Hermodamas represented the indigenous Samian rhapsodic tradition and his father Creophylos was said to have been the host of his rival poet Homer.[53] Others credit Bias of Priene, Thales,[56] or Anaximander (a pupil of Thales).[56][57][53] Other traditions claim the mythic bard Orpheus as Pythagoras’s teacher, thus representing the Orphic Mysteries.[53] The Neoplatonists wrote of a “sacred discourse” Pythagoras had written on the gods in the Doric Greek dialect, which they believed had been dictated to Pythagoras by the Orphic priest Aglaophamus upon his initiation to the orphic Mysteries at Leibethra.[53] Iamblichus credited Orpheus with having been the model for Pythagoras’s manner of speech, his spiritual attitude, and his manner of worship.[58] Iamblichus describes Pythagoreanism as a synthesis of everything Pythagoras had learned from Orpheus, from the Egyptian priests, from the Eleusinian Mysteries, and from other religious and philosophical traditions.[58] Riedweg states that, although these stories are fanciful, Pythagoras’s teachings were definitely influenced by Orphism to a noteworthy extent.[59]

Of the various Greek sages claimed to have taught Pythagoras, Pherecydes of Syros is mentioned most often.[60][59] Similar miracle stories were told about both Pythagoras and Pherecydes, including one in which the hero predicts a shipwreck, one in which he predicts the conquest of Messina, and one in which he drinks from a well and predicts an earthquake.[59] Apollonius Paradoxographus, a paradoxographer who may have lived in the second century BC, identified Pythagoras’s thaumaturgic ideas as a result of Pherecydes’s influence.[59] Another story, which may be traced to the Neopythagorean philosopher Nicomachus, tells that, when Pherecydes was old and dying on the island of Delos, Pythagoras returned to care for him and pay his respects.[59] Duris, the historian and tyrant of Samos, is reported to have patriotically boasted of an epitaph supposedly penned by Pherecydes which declared that Pythagoras’s wisdom exceeded his own.[59] On the grounds of all these references connecting Pythagoras with Pherecydes, Riedweg concludes that there may well be some historical foundation to the tradition that Pherecydes was Pythagoras’s teacher.[59] Pythagoras and Pherecydes also appear to have shared similar views on the soul and the teaching of metempsychosis.[59]

Before 520 BC, on one of his visits to Egypt or Greece, Pythagoras might have met Thales of Miletus, who would have been around fifty-four years older than him. Thales was a philosopher, scientist, mathematician, and engineer,[61] also known for a special case of the inscribed angle theorem. Pythagoras’s birthplace, the island of Samos, is situated in the Northeast Aegean Sea not far from Miletus.[62] Diogenes Laërtius cites a statement from Aristoxenus (fourth century BC) stating that Pythagoras learned most of his moral doctrines from the Delphic priestess Themistoclea.[63][64][65] Porphyry agrees with this assertion,[66] but calls the priestess Aristoclea (Aristokleia).[67] Ancient authorities furthermore note the similarities between the religious and ascetic peculiarities of Pythagoras with the Orphic or Cretan mysteries,[68] or the Delphic oracle.

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