Pythagoras c. 570 B.C.–c. 500 B.C.
Although much of his life and thought has been obscured by spurious and often contradictory evidence, Pythagoras is nevertheless considered the most comprehensive of the Presocratic philosophers. A mysterious figure of near legendary status in Greek antiquity, Pythagoras is largely associated with the doctrines of reincarnation and the immortality of the soul. A proponent of Orphic mysticism, Pythagoras observed that the soul experiences continuous cycles of life and death, called transmigration or metempsychosis. He departed somewhat from the Orphies, however, in his belief that purification, or the redemption of the soul, and eventual release from this cycle was attainable through the pursuit of philosophy—the most noble goal of humanity, according to Pythagoras. Additionally, he is sometimes credited with coining the term philosopher, literally a "lover of wisdom," and considered among the first to follow this vocation. A religious leader and scientist as well, Pythagoras and his disciples are also typically associated with various discoveries in the fields of music, mathematics, and astronomy, as well as the conception of cosmic unity which has since become associated with a mathematical ideal of divine perfection—known in the Middle Ages as the musical "harmony of the spheres."
Despite some critical dispute, Pythagoras is said to have been born on the Greek island of Samos in about 570 B.C., the son of a gem engraver named Mnesarchus. Ancient biographers record his youthful travels throughout the Mediterranean region, particularly in Egypt. Shortly after his return to Samos, however, Pythagoras fled his native island to avoid the political despotism of the tyrant Polycrates. By the time he had left Samos in 532 B.C., his reputation as a polymath had spread throughout Magna Graecia and preceded him when he arrived in the Italian city of Croton. Already several legends surrounding Pythagoras had come into common currency, including stories that he had appeared in two places simultaneously, that a river had spoken his name, and that he had a golden thigh. Despite the fantastic nature of these accounts, the fact remains that Pythagoras had earned an almost divine status and employed his considerable fame to establish a religious order and school in Croton. This highly secretive community eventually came to dominate political and social life not only in Croton but throughout southern Italy. The ascendancy of the exclusive Pythagorean sect in the political arena, however, precipitated a growing hostility over the next several decades. An uprising late in the sixth century B.C. forced Pythagoras into exile in Metapontum, where he died in approximately 500 B.C. Still, the Pythagorean order continued to flourish, despite continued clashes, well into the fifth century B.C.; although its political power steadily began to wane. While his school was no longer in existence by 400 B.C., the influence of Pythagoreanism nevertheless survived, appearing in many forms, particularly in the philosophy of Plato and the Neopythagorean philosophical movement which began in the first century A.D. and lasted for more than two centuries.
Largely due to the secretive and mystic nature of the Pythagorean order, Pythagoras produced no written works, relying instead on the oral transmission of his teachings. While the authorship of certain works of poetry—particularly the Golden Verses, a poetic catechism of the order—have been attributed to him by some, these writings were likely drafted by his disciples and successors, many of whom adopted the practice of venerating their teacher by composing works in his name. Still, many of the basic tenets of Pythagorean thought may be discerned in the writings of later Pythagoreans and in the critical commentaries of Pythagoras's contemporaries. Among the most important aspects of Pythagorean thought is the interplay of dual forces, such as those of chaos and order, and the Limited and the Unlimited. According to the cosmology of Pythagoras, all things derive from the actions of the force of limitation on the so-called Unlimited—a chaotic mass that comprises the universe. From these forces arise the possibility of kosmos, or orderly arrangement, and harmonia, or harmony and balance—literally, "fitting together." Pythagoras defined these concepts in terms of mathematics and music, two fields to which he and his disciples made considerable contributions. Musical harmony, Pythagoras discovered, is based upon mathematical principles and proportions. Such practical observations are matched by the religious and mystical elements of Pythagoreanism, many of them concerned with the nature of the soul and the means by which it might achieve perfection. For Pythagoras the soul was immortal and fated to experience multiple lives as it traveled through cycles of life, death, and transmigration (or reincarnation). As a consequence of this belief, Pythagoras preached the kinship of all creatures, each of which possessed a soul. The Pythagorean religion thus prohibited the consumption of meat on the grounds that the animals might contain the souls of those who were once, or in the future would be, human. Release from the cycle of reincarnation could be achieved, however, by sustained contemplation—namely the pursuit of philosophy—which brought about purification of the soul.
Pythagoras seems to have elicited the awe and esteem of many in antiquity and the derision of a select few. A semi-divine figure to some, including Isocrates, who transmits many of the legends surrounding him in his Busiris, Pythagoras has been closely associated with the god Apollo, and tales of his incredible power and wisdom were common. Others, including his contemporary, Heracles, called him a charlatan and a deceiver. Negative assessments formed the minority opinion, however, excepting the weighty conclusions of Aristotle, who revealed many of the more absurd practices of Pythagoras, including his obsession with the spiritual qualities of numbers. Modern criticism has tended to focus on the mass of contradictory evidence concerning the philosopher and the question of his real influence on the development of Greek philosophy. Because of the lack of texts written by Pythagoras himself, scholars have been forced to rely on the documents of such later individuals as Philolaus, a Pythagorean who flourished in the fifth century B.C. and was the first to record the teachings of Pythagoras in written form. Twentieth-century critics have also undertaken the process of separating the scientific and mathematical discoveries that were likely made by later Pythagoreans from the largely spiritual and mystical thought of Pythagoras himself. Most now agree that the main contributions of the philosopher seem to have been in relation to his cosmology—particularly his synthesis of mathematical and musical forms into a theory of divine harmony—and his theory of the soul, which seems not to have existed in Greek thought prior to Pythagoras and which exerted a tremendous influence on later Platonic philosophy.
SOURCE: B. A. G. Fuller, "Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans," in History of Greek Philosophy: Thales to Democritus, Henry Holt and Company, 1923, pp. 103-17.
[In the following essay, Fuller summarizes the contributions of Pythagoras to the fields of music, mathematics, medicine, and astronomy. He notes the influence of the Pythagorean ideas of duality and their distinction between the concepts of "form" and "matter" on later philosophical thought.]
There is no figure in the history of philosophy so mysteriously shrouded in the phosphorescent mists of legend as the person of Pythagoras. Revered by his more immediate followers as a superior being, he acquired among later disciples the majesty of a demigod. He was variously reputed to be the son of Apollo in his present existence, and to have been the child of Hermes in a prior incarnation.
Like the Bodhisattvas on the threshold of Nirvana and Buddhahood, he was said to possess through the grace of his parent, Hermes, the memory of all his past existences. As for his teachings, they were derived straight from his other father, Apollo, through the lips of the Delphic oracle. And it was reported that in the flesh he had descended into Hades. He was also credited with other scarcely less distant but more mundane journeyings which had acquainted him at first hand with all the lore of the Phoenicians, the Chaldeans, the Magi, the Hindoos, the...
(The entire section is 5455 words.)
SOURCE: W. K. C. Guthrie, "Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans," in A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. I, Cambridge at the University Press, 1962, pp. 146-340.
[In the following excerpt, Guthrie highlights evidence of Pythagoras's teachings and life in the works of his contemporaries and other important figures in the history of ancient Greece.]
The history of Pythagoreanism is perhaps the most controversial subject in all Greek philosophy, and much about it must remain obscure. For this there are several good reasons, which are themselves not without interest. The subject is not only obscure but highly complex, and its complexity demands above all a clear statement at the outset of what is to be attempted and the outline of a plan of campaign.
First, is it justifiable to put a general account of the Pythagoreans at this early point in the exposition? Pythagoras was a contemporary of Anaximenes, but his school existed, and its doctrines developed and diverged, for the next two hundred years. Little can be attributed with certainty to the founder himself, and much Pythagorean teaching is associated with the names of philosophers of the late fifth or early fourth century. There is, however, no doubt that Pythagoras inaugurated a new tradition in philosophy, sharply divided in purpose and doctrine, as in external organization, from anything that we have met hitherto, and that from his time...
(The entire section is 12589 words.)
SOURCE: C. J. De Vogel, in an introduction to Pythagoras and Early Pythagoreanism: An Interpretation of Neglected Evidence on the Philosopher Pythagoras, Van Gorcum & Comp. N.V., 1966, pp. 1-19.
[In the following excerpt, De Vogel surveys modern criticism of Pythagoras, especially of his presumed dual role as a religious leader and as a scientist-philosopher.]
1. The problem
We have all grown up with the idea that very little was to be known about Pythagoras. From contemporary evidence, we saw, he appears as a kind of 'shaman'. And can a shaman be a man of science?
Whatever one might be inclined to say in reply to this question, this much was certain, that the texts in which something like a Pythagorean philosophy of number and numerical proportions appears date from the fourth century B.C., this applying most probably also to the Philolaus texts. Now, whatever may be said, the fourth century is not the sixth. And is not this the limit by which we are strictly bound?
One thing that seemed of particular importance was the fact that in his chapter on Pythagorean philosophy in Metaph. A Aristotle never mentioned Pythagoras by name. He spoke of 'those who were called Pythagoreans' and of 'the Italian philosophers'. What could this mean other than that even for Aristotle the figure of the historical Pythagoras had vanished into the...
(The entire section is 6536 words.)
SOURCE: Edward Hussey, "Pythagoras and the Greek West," in The Presocratics, Duckworth, 1972, pp. 60-77.
[In the following excerpt, Hussey examines evidence of the life of Pythagoras and the immediate impact of his thought on Graeco-Roman medicine, mathematics, astronomy, music, and philosophy.
'The Greek West' is a convenient name for what came to be called in antiquity 'Great Greece' [Magna Graecia): the area of Greek settlement in the Western Mediterranean, above all in Sicily and southern Italy. Most of the Greek cities there had been founded in the last half of the seventh century, but they received fresh waves of emigrants from old Greece throughout the sixth, especially from Ionia after the Persian conquest.
These young and often very prosperous Greek cities in the West were to the older Greek world at this time something of what America was to Europe in the nineteenth century A.D., an underdeveloped region offering the prospect of new opportunities and wealth. The Greek settlers dispossessed or treated with the native tribes and acquired large tracts of rich agricultural land. Some of the new cities were also well placed to be markets and entrepôts for some of the most lucrative trade in the Mediterranean. The wealth amassed was conspicously consumed, as may still be seen from the ruins of Acragas and Selinus in Sicily, with their extravagant use of space and their great...
(The entire section is 5989 words.)
SOURCE: S. K. Heninger, Jr., "Pythagoras' School and Biography," in Touches of Sweet Harmony: Pythagorean, Cosmology, and Renaissance Poetics, The Huntington Library, 1974, pp. 19-44.
[In the following essay, Heninger recounts perceptions of Pythagoras and his thought from the Renaissance.]
In the development of Western philosophy as the renaissance saw it the sect of Pythagoras had played a definite and important role, a role much more important than is generally conceded today. For Ralph Cudworth, in fact, "Pythagoras was the most eminent of all the ancient Philosophers." While such praise might be excessively generous—the myopic view of a Cambridge enthusiast in the mid-seventeenth century—there is no question about the reverence accorded Pythagoras and the long line of disciples that followed him down through antiquity. The two best known schools of classical philosophy, for the renaissance as for us, were the Academy of Plato and the Lyceum of Aristotle. The acknowledged prototype of philosophical schools, however, was the society for initiates which Pythagoras had founded at Croton in the late sixth century, known later as the Italic sect. Pythagoras stood behind Aristotle and Plato, somewhat obscured by the mists of time, but clearly visible—certainly a more distinct personality and intellect than we discern from our modern vantage point.
Of these three giants of...
(The entire section is 5351 words.)
SOURCE: Charles H. Kahn, "Pythagorean Philosophy Before Plato," in The Pre-Socratics: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Alexander P. D. Mourelatos, Anchor Books, 1974, pp. 161-85.
[In the following essay, Kahn outlines the critical debate surrounding Pythagoras and his contributions to ancient Greek philosophy, examining the doctrines generally attributed to him and the evidence that might substantiate these attributions.]
The name of Pythagoras is not only the most famous, it is also the most controversial in the history of Greek thought before Socrates and Plato. Since antiquity it has been a name to conjure with: There is such a wealth of conflicting evidence concerning Pythagoras' teaching, but so much of this evidence is unreliable. In 1925 A. N. Whitehead could write, in reference to the function of mathematical ideas in abstract thought: "Pythagoras was the first man who had any grasp of the full sweep of this general principle…. He insisted on the importance of the utmost generality in reasoning, and he divined the importance of number as an aid to the construction of any representation of the conditions involved in the order of nature."1 But just two years earlier Erich Frank had published a book in which he claimed that "all the discoveries attributed to Pythagoras himself or to his disciples by later writers were really the achievement of certain South Italian...
(The entire section is 10380 words.)
SOURCE: Jonathan Barnes, "Pythagoras and the Soul," in The Presocratic Philosophers, Vol. 1, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979, pp. 100-20.
[In the following essay, Barnes analyzes Pythagorean arguments for the immortality and transmigration of the soul.]
(a) Ipse dixit
The ancient historians of philosophy distinguished between the Ionian and the Italian tradition in Presocratic thought. … Although the Italian 'school' was founded by émigrés from Ionia, it quickly took on a character of its own: if the Ionians followed up Thaïes' cosmological speculations, the Italians, I judge, had more sympathy for his inquiry into psychology and the nature of man. But that estimate of the scope of early Italian thought is controversial; and before I look more closely at the Italian doctrines, I must indulge in a brief historical excursus.
The prince of the Italian school was Pythagoras, who flourished in the last quarter of the sixth century, a younger contemporary of Anaximenes.' The Pythagorean doxography is of unrivalled richness. We are told more about Pythagoras than about any other Presocratic thinkers; and Pythagoras is one of the few Presocratics whose name has become a household—or at least a schoolroom—word.
Pythagoras himself had the wisdom to write nothing.2 His numerous sectarians, eager to repair his omission,...
(The entire section is 9545 words.)
SOURCE: David R. Fideler, in an introduction to The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library, edited and translated by Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie, Phanes Press, 1987, pp. 19-54.
[In the following excerpt, Fideler discusses the significant elements of Pythagoras's thought and assesses the influence of these ideas in the present era.]
It has been suggested, by Alfred North Whitehead, that "the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." If such be the case, what might then be said of Pythagoras, to whose philosophy Plato was so greatly indebted? While no definitive answer will be attempted here, it might do well to note that not only did Pythagoras first employ the term philosophy, and define the discipline thereof in the classic sense, but that he bequeathed to his followers, and to the whole of Western civilization, many important studies and sciences which he was instrumental in either formulating or systematizing.
True as this may be, much mystery surrounds the figure of Pythagoras, despite the significant influence of Pythagorean thought in antiquity. Of course, many things can be precisely stated. He was both a natural philosopher and a spiritual philosopher, a scientist and a religious thinker. He was a political theorist, and was even involved in local government. While he may not have been the first...
(The entire section is 16510 words.)
SOURCE: Richard D. McKirahan, Jr., "Pythagoras of Samos and the Pythagoreans," in Philosophy before Socrates: An Introduction with Texts and Commentary, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1994, pp. 79-115.
[In the following essay, McKirahan presents an overview of Pythagorean thought on issues of religion, mathematics, number theory, and cosmology, citing contemporaneous sources as evidence for his statements.]
Pythagoras' Life and the Pythagorean Movement
Although details of Pythagoras' life and work are unclear, even mysterious, the following brief account is widely accepted. Born on the island of Samos c. 570, he left c. 530 on account of disagreement with the policies of the tyrant1 Polycrates. At this time or before, he visited Egypt and Babylonia. He settled in Croton, a Greek city in southern Italy, where political life was based on associations or clubs. A Pythagorean association soon came to prominence, bringing Croton to increased military and economic importance. This association was characterized by certain religious and philosophical views, and is frequently called a school or brotherhood. Pythagoras and his followers are said to have governed the state so well that it was truly an aristocracy ("government of the best").2 Similar associations were formed in other Greek cities in south Italy. Pythagorean power in Croton lasted unbroken for twenty...
(The entire section is 14879 words.)
Burkert, Walter. Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism, translated by Edwin L. Minar, Jr. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972, 535 p.
Book-length survey of the sources of Pythagoreanism, criticism of the movement, and the overall significance of Pythagorean thought.
Burnet, John. "Pythagoras." In Greek Philosophy, Part I: Thales to Plato, pp. 37-56. London: Macmillan and Co., 1920.
Overview of Pythagorean thought on medicine, music, and number theory. Burnet was among the first to discern the disparate traditions of Pythagoras as a mystic and as a scientist-philosopher.
——."Science and Religion" and "The Pythagoreans." In Early Greek Philosophy, pp. 80-129, 276-309. New York: Meridian Books, 1957.
Recounts information about Pythagoras's life and examines his influence on Greek philosophical thought.
Kirk, G. S., J. E. Raven, and M. Schofield. "Pythagoras of Samos." In The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts, pp. 214-38. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957. Second Edition, 1983.
Investigates early evidence relating to Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans in the texts of Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, and other writers of...
(The entire section is 295 words.)