Pythagoras life and biography

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Pythagoras biography

Date of birth : -
Date of death : -
Birthplace : Samos, Ionia, Greece
Nationality : Greek
Category : Science and Technology
Last modified : 2010-05-25
Credited as : Philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoreanism, Plato

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Pythagoras of Samos ( c. 570 - c. 495 BC) was an Ionian Greek philosopher and founder of the religious movement called Pythagoreanism. Most of our information about Pythagoras was written down centuries after he lived, thus very little reliable information is known about him. He was born on the island of Samos, and may have travelled widely in his youth, visiting Egypt and other places seeking knowledge. Around 530 BC, he moved to Croton, a Greek colony in southern Italy, and there set up a religious sect. His followers pursued the religious rites and practices developed by Pythagoras, and studied his philosophical theories. The society took an active role in the politics of Croton, but this eventually led to their downfall. The Pythagorean meeting-places were burned, and Pythagoras was forced to flee the city. He is said to have ended his days in Metapontum.

Pythagoras made influential contributions to philosophy and religious teaching in the late 6th century BC. He is often revered as a great mathematician, mystic and scientist, and he is best known for the Pythagorean theorem which bears his name. However, because legend and obfuscation cloud his work even more than with the other pre-Socratic philosophers, one can say little with confidence about his teachings, and some have questioned whether he contributed much to mathematics and natural philosophy. Many of the accomplishments credited to Pythagoras may actually have been accomplishments of his colleagues and successors. Whether or not his disciples believed that everything was related to mathematics and that numbers were the ultimate reality is unknown. It was said that he was the first man to call himself a philosopher, or lover of wisdom, and Pythagorean ideas exercised a marked influence on Plato, and through him, all of Western philosophy.

Known in the modern world as a philosopher and a mathematician, Pythagoras was more of a leader of a religious movement that believed in the quantitative operations of the universe. In his sect, he and his followers believed in the reincarnation of the soul and that true happiness would not be gained unless one led a life of pure moral and ethical standards.

Pythagoras was born on a small island called Samos, but when the island’s government began to brutalize intellectuals, he fled to Italy and started his own school in the region of Croton. While there, many scholars believed Pythagoras became not only active in education, but also in politics. When another sect began losing followers to Pythagoras’ teachings, the group attacked Pythagoras’ disciples, killing nearly all of them.

As a religious leader, a philosopher, a mathematician, and a scientist, Pythagoras had a lot of subjects to deal with. However, during his lifetime, it was quite common, in fact, for Math and Religion to be under the same academic heading. One wouldn’t simply study philosophy, for example, without having a strong base in mathematics. In any regard, since either Pythagoras or his followers became more involved in searching for mathematical anomalies, their finding of the hypotenuse of right triangles has been dubbed the Pythagorean Theorem ever since.

Even while they continuously studied the world around them, their philosophy became their religion as it took on more mystical teachings and practices. One aspect that made Pythagoreanism, or the religion of his followers, so appealing was its ability to answer questions about how life was connected. Pythagoras taught that all life was interconnected, even plants and animals. And, while a human would not reincarnate into a plant, a similar life force ran through both equally. The Pythagoreans did believe, however, that a human could embody the soul of an animal if that person did not lead an ethical life.

In the field of mathematics, Pythagoras attempted to teach about the Limited and Unlimited dual universe in which everyone lived. His conclusions were based on the study of music and other mathematical ratios that showed how intervals could all be expressed using the numbers one, two, three, and four. If all of these numbers are added together, the sum is 10 – what is called “the whole nature of number”. Additionally, Pythagoras and his followers developed their own theories about the cosmos. All in all, Pythagoras helped lead men to search for answers, whether it was through religion, philosophy, math, or science, which helped in the development of these fields.

Pythagorean theorem

Since the fourth century AD, Pythagoras has commonly been given credit for discovering the Pythagorean theorem, a theorem in geometry that states that in a right-angled triangle the square of the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle), c, is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, b and a—that is, a2 + b2 = c2.

While the theorem that now bears his name was known and previously utilized by the Babylonians and Indians, he, or his students, are often said to have constructed the first proof. It must, however, be stressed that the way in which the Babylonians handled Pythagorean numbers, implies that they knew that the principle was generally applicable, and knew some kind of proof, which has not yet been found in the (still largely unpublished) cuneiform sources. Because of the secretive nature of his school and the custom of its students to attribute everything to their teacher, there is no evidence that Pythagoras himself worked on or proved this theorem. For that matter, there is no evidence that he worked on any mathematical or meta-mathematical problems. Some attribute it as a carefully constructed myth by followers of Plato over two centuries after the death of Pythagoras, mainly to bolster the case for Platonic meta-physics, which resonate well with the ideas they attributed to Pythagoras. This attribution has stuck, down the centuries up to modern times. The earliest known mention of Pythagoras's name in connection with the theorem occurred five centuries after his death, in the writings of Cicero and Plutarch.

Musical theories and investigations

According to legend, the way Pythagoras discovered that musical notes could be translated into mathematical equations was when one day he passed blacksmiths at work, and thought that the sounds emanating from their anvils being hit were beautiful and harmonious and decided that whatever scientific law caused this to happen must be mathematical and could be applied to music. He went to the blacksmiths to learn how this had happened by looking at their tools, he discovered that it was because the anvils were "simple ratios of each other, one was half the size of the first, another was 2/3 the size, and so on."

The Pythagoreans elaborated on a theory of numbers, the exact meaning of which is still debated among scholars. Another belief attributed to Pythagoras was that of the "harmony of the spheres." Thus the planets and stars moved according to mathematical equations, which corresponded to musical notes and thus produced a symphony.


Pythagoras was also credited with devising the tetractys, the triangular figure of four rows, which add up to the perfect number, ten. As a mystical symbol, it was very important to the worship of the Pythagoreans, who would swear oaths by it.

Influence on Plato

Pythagoras or in a broader sense, the Pythagoreans, allegedly exercised an important influence on the work of Plato. According to R. M. Hare, his influence consists of three points: a) the platonic Republic might be related to the idea of "a tightly organized community of like-minded thinkers", like the one established by Pythagoras in Croton. b) there is evidence that Plato possibly took from Pythagoras the idea that mathematics and, generally speaking, abstract thinking is a secure basis for philosophical thinking as well as "for substantial theses in science and morals". c) Plato and Pythagoras shared a "mystical approach to the soul and its place in the material world". It is probable that both have been influenced by Orphism.

Bertrand Russell, in his History of Western Philosophy, contended that the influence of Pythagoras on Plato and others was so great that he should be considered the most influential of all western philosophers. But Pythagoras also had his critics, such as Heraclitus who said that "much learning does not teach wisdom; otherwise it would have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, and again Xenophanes and Hecataeus".

Influence on esoteric groups

Pythagoras started a secret society called the Pythagorean brotherhood devoted to the study of mathematics. This had a great effect on future esoteric traditions, such as Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, both of which were occult groups dedicated to the study of mathematics and both of which claimed to have evolved out of the Pythagorean brotherhood. The mystical and occult qualities of Pythagorean mathematics are discussed in a chapter of Manly P. Hall's The Secret Teachings of All Ages entitled "Pythagorean Mathematics".

Pythagorean theory was tremendously influential on later numerology, which was extremely popular throughout the Middle East in the ancient world. The 8th-century Muslim alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan grounded his work in an elaborate numerology greatly influenced by Pythagorean theory. Today, Pythagoras is revered as a prophet by the Ahl al-Tawhid or Druze faith along with his fellow Greek, Plato.

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