Pythagoras Biography: Mathematician, Musician,


The present page, Pythagoras Biography, provides crucial information about the most famous of the pre- Socratic philosophers. Pythagoras, the Ionian Greek scientist, mathematician, politician, religious and moral reformer, is also known as a great mystic and founder of a religious circle under the name "Pythagoreanism."

Pythagoras Biography: The Philosopher of Samos

Authentic works of Pythagoras not not exist, and (according to reliable ancient tradition) never existed. There are only four surviving biographies: these of Diogenes Laertius (180 A.D.), Porphyr (233-306 A.D.), Iamblichus (280-333 A.D.) and Photius (ca 820-ca 891 A.D.). These biographies are largely based on Neo-Pythagorean biographies of him, owned by Apollonius of Tyana, Nicomachus of Gerasa and others, and are building so-called "late" or "secondary" literature of Pythagoras. A "primary" literature (ie. based directly on the oral tradition of the last of the Pythagoreans), along with some earlier evidence (Heraclitus, Empedocles, Herodotus, Plato) form the core of the most reliable evidence about the life and teachings of Pythagoras. However, even the earliest sources are full of contradictions, and the usual criteria of historical authenticity are often inapplicable. There is, for example, an early and prevailing legend about Pythagoras the "wonder worker": this legend reproduces historic atmosphere that surrounded the "Hyperborean" Apollo's life, whereas rationalist versions are later constructions.

Pythagoras Biography: Life and Teachings

Pythagoras Biography. Pythagoras was born 570 B.C. on the island of Samos. In his youth he went to study in Miletus, where he listened to Anaximander (biographical tradition also insists on the proximity to Pherecydes of Syros as well). About 532 B.C., and under pressure from the tyranny of Polycrates, Pythagoras settled in Croton (southern Italy), where he founded a political society that has taken power in Croton and disseminated political influence throughout the South of Italy. As a result of the rising of his enemies, Pythagoras escaped to Metaponto, where he died, probably around 497 B.C..

Reconstruction of the original teachings of Pythagoras and the evolution of early Pythagoreanism presents one of the most difficult problems in the history of ancient philosophy. Not a single existing Pythagoras biography can answer all the questions concerning his exact teachings.

Through the study of the above mentioned works that have survived under the name of Pythagoras Biography, one can testify the following: 1) the doctrine of the immortality of the soul 2) the transmigration of souls in conjunction with the "memory of ancestors" (according to legend, Pythagoras could remember his four previous incarnations) 3) the kinship of all living beings 4) the requirement of "purification" (catharsis) as the highest ethical goal achieved (for the body - through diet and exercises, for the soul - through music and music cognition of the numerical structure of the Cosmos).

This numerical structure was symbolically expressed in the TETRAKTYS (" quaternions "), the amount of the first four numbers 1 +2 +3 +4 = 10, containing the basic musical intervals: the octave (2:1), quinte (3:2) and a quart (4:3). Pythagoras ascribed to the idea of the sphericity of the Earth (among other considerations, he probably was guided by the idea of symmetry between the shape of the Earth and the celestial sphere). It is believed that Pythagoras identified the Morning and Evening Star (Hesperus and Phosphorus) from Venus. He introduced a geometric division of the celestial sphere into zones (arctic, tropical, etc.) and the Earth. Furthermore, it seems that Pythagoras was the first who gave to the world the wide name "space". He is also the author/creator of the word "philosophy".

In general, we can say with confidence that, due to this, the study of space and the comprehension of the structure of the universe, were some of the most important activities of the Pythagoreans. Aristotle's testimony is as follows:

"For what it is all the existing things of nature and God have created us? Pythagoras, when he was asked about this, replied: 'To observe the firmament'."

The reconstruction of the cosmogonic teachings of Pythagoras shows that they were fundamentally dualistic. According to Pythagoras, the world is formed from the interaction of two principles: the limited and infinite (the latter conceived as an infinite empty space that surrounds our world and, at the same time, as the void). The nearest part of the infinite air is inhaled into the world and confined. Further, this part of the air distinguishes natural things, marking the beginning of their existence.

In honor of Pythagoras, a minor planet (asteroid) number 6143 is named after him as well as and the lunar crater Pythagoras.

Pythagoras Biography: the Pythagorean Paradigm

Pythagoras' life spans most of the sixth century and early fifth century before our common era. He is a one of the greatest Greek thinkers of all time.

He probed the cosmos with mathematics and observation. Like Socrates, however, he did not leave us any written work.

Pythagoras influenced Plato and Aristotle who shaped Greek civilization. Plato and Aristotle mentioned Pythagoras in their extensive writings. But the most detailed and trustworthy Pythagoras biography is the work of Iamblichos, a Platonic philosopher who lived about a millennium after Pythagoras.

From comments of Plato and Aristotle and the Pythagoras biography of Iamblichos, the portrait of Pythagoras is of a man of enormous wisdom.

Pythagoras was born in the Aegean island of Samos. After his education in Samos, Pythagoras lived in Egypt for about twenty years and Phoenicia for some ten years. He studied with priests and visited those countries' sacred monuments. He returned to Samos and visited the Greek polis of Miletos in Asia Minor. He spent some time in Miletos studying under Thales and Anaximander, two great Greek natural philosophers.

When he returned to Samos, he moved to Croton in Magna Graecia (Southern Italy) where he founded a community and a school. Pythagoras taught at his school for about forty years.

Pythagoras introduced number as a fundamental constituent of the cosmos. This started a tradition of using geometry in measuring and understanding the natural world and the cosmos. The Pythagorean theorem (the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle equals to the sum of the squares of the other two sides of the triangle) mirrored that tradition.

Pythagoras thought of the Earth and the other heavenly bodies as spheres moving around an invisible fire at the center of the universe.

He connected the mathematical ratios of the sounds he heard from his monochord musical instrument to the music of the spheres in the heavens. He blended music, mathematics and astronomy in his search for harmony in the cosmos, a perfect, beautiful, and eternal world of stars governed by natural laws and order.

Pythagoras united the heavens and the Earth. He helped his students understand the movement of the heavenly spheres; he shed light on the eclipses of the sun and the moon. He guided his listeners to reading the night sky and studying astronomy for a better understanding of the geometry, beauty and harmony of the heavens.

In his Pythagoras Biography, Iamblichos claims that Pythagoras triggered "among the Greeks all the exact sciences and branches of knowledge, everything that gives the soul true vision and clears the mind blinded by other practices, so that they [the Greeks] may see the real principles and causes of all there is."

Iamblichos also says that Pythagoras' "likeness to the gods" enabled him to grasp "the celestial harmonies of the cosmos... he alone could hear and understand the universal harmony and music of the spheres." This celestial music (according to the Pythagoras Biography by Iamblichos) was more complete and satisfying than any human melody. It was made up by a diversity of sounds of motion and speeds and sizes and positions of the stars. The result was a melody of exceptional quality and beauty.

In addition, always according to the Iamblichos Pythagoras Biography, this great man established a community in Croton where "friends have all things in common," worship the gods, eat vegetarian food, respect the departed, live under laws, have the same education, respect each other, and exhibit mercy towards all living things.

These Pythagoreans avoided ignorance, disease, divisions and discord in their families and poleis (=cities); they also scorned luxury and excess of everything.

Among the gods they honored, they started with Zeus, Herakles, and the sons of Zeus, the Dioskouroi. Zeus was the originator and ruler of life; Herakles was the power of nature; and the Dioskouroi were universal harmony.

In other words, Iamblichos (in his Pythagoras Biography)is making a case that Pythagoras established a model community of "lovers of learning" who lived the examined life and lived it well.

Pythagoras made a difference in Greece. Plato, Aristotle and the flowering of Greek science after Alexander the Great are not comprehensible without Pythagoras. In the tenth book of the "Republic," Plato says the followers of Pythagoras established a way of life known as Pythagorean.

Pythagoras may still make a difference in our age. However, we need to be as revolutionaries as Pythagoras: rethink, transform, or abolish our obsolete and hazardous civilization fueled by war, money, and pollution.

Start this epic struggle by reconnecting with the natural world. Follow Pythagoras and love all living things and the Earth, above all. Imitate Pythagoras and stop eating meat.

Not eating animals would improve more than our health and the health of the natural world. It would slow down the heating of the Earth. Something like fifty percent of all global heating gases come from more than sixty billion animals we slaughter every year for food. This includes all the land we convert from forests for animal grazing and feed.

Stop eating animals: this alone would lead to the worldwide reorganization of giant industrialized agriculture to small-scale farming compatible with climate change.

A new civilization like that of Pythagoras and the Greeks could unite the natural world, the cosmos, and society. The top priorities of such a new beginning would include among other things: the replacement of Earth-warming fossil fuels with Earth-loving solar power; dramatic reduction of world population; and the elimination of humanity's worst enemies: poverty, war, and nuclear bombs.

We might call such a prospect ecological civilization. Would such a civilization lead us living like friends sharing all things in common? Probably not. But ecological civilization modeled after the Pythagorean paradigm could entice humans to live in harmony with each other and the Earth. 

Pythagoras Biography: The Theory of Reincarnation

The name of Pythagoras is known to all from school, but many people associate this name with a theorem in geometry. Meanwhile, this ancient Greek philosopher, mathematician and mystic was the first man, who coined such terms as "philosopher" and "philosophy" (in our modern sense). He was also an advocate of the doctrine of reincarnation - the transmigration of souls. In some ways, he even shadowed forth ideas of communism.

Pythagoras was born in Samos, a town located on the island of the same name in the Aegean Sea, which was one of the most prominent and well-known centers of the Hellenic world in the VI century BC.. Most authoritative encyclopedias do not state the birth year of Pythagoras. Pretty approximately, historians say that he was born in "about 570 BC". Herodotus, who lived after Pythagoras, and spent many years in Samos, pointed out that the mystic's father was Mnesarchus. The author of biographies of many ancient philosophers (among which the Pythagoras biography), Diogenes Laertius, added: "Pythagoras, the son of Mnesarchus, the rock mender." Ancient people used this word to refer to those who carved stones that were often used in signet rings.

Iamblichus, in contrast to other ancient authors, gave (in his own Pythagoras biography) a different spelling of the name of Pythagoras' father - Mnemarh. Probably, it was a clerical error. Some sources mention his mother. There is nothing to prove that, but it is quite possible that the woman's name was Parfenida, and it was her husband that gave her a new name - Pifaida. The author of a recently published Pythagoras biography, Igor Surikov, wrote: "That is extremely doubtful! The Greeks actually did not have the practice of renaming people, especially the grown-ups."

Mnesarchus gave that name to his wife after visiting the Oracle of Apollo in Delphi to inquire about a voyage to Syria. The Oracle said that the voyage would be successful and profitable. She also said that his wife was pregnant and that she would give birth to a child that would stand out among all others who ever lived before. The child would be beautiful, wise and it would bring good to people of all times. When his wife delivered the baby in Sidon, Phoenicia, he named his son Pythagoras, because Pythia foretold his birth. There is another interpretation of his name. "Aristippus of Cyrene in the book "About Physics" says that the child was named Pythagoras, because he was saying infallible truth, like Pythia did," said Diogenes Laertius.

In his Pythagoras biography, Igor Surikov explains why such interpretation is unlikely: "Pythagoras is a common ancient Greek name, which appears for the most part without any connection with Apollo and Delphi. It should be noted that ancient Greek personal names typically have some meaning that one can transfer to other languages - "translate" that is, with a certain degree of accuracy. The first element of this name is most likely derived from the root 'pyth-', which means 'knowledge gained through questioning.' The second root, '-agor-,' is related to speech, most often public speech. Thus, the very name of "Pythagoras" can be roughly understood as "the person who speaks about what he has learned."

It is unlikely that the name of the philosopher's mother can be found in ancient sources or any existing Pythagoras biography. The ancient Greeks would rarely mention the names of women, especially from decent layers of society, in contrast to names of courtesans. Thucydides quoted Pericles, who lived a century after Pythagoras: "The woman deserves greatest respect, if she is least spoken about by men." It is possible that Pythagoras had brothers, but they did nothing to become famous, and we know nothing about them. One of them was named Tirrena, which means "Etruscan." Sources often point out that Mnesarchus was not a Greek, but an Etruscan man, so he named his son in honor of the people, to whom he allegedly belonged.

At the age of about 40 years, Pythagoras left Samos and moved to Italy. Maybe he went there because it was the land of his ancestors? The Etruscans had the reputation of mysterious people already in ancient times.

In antiquity, it was believed that it was Pythagoras, who started using the words "philosophy" (literally, "love of wisdom") and "philosopher" (literally: lover of wisdom). He taught that "only God, not man, could be wise." For it was premature to call philosophy "wisdom" and those who practice it - "wise men." A philosopher is someone who feels attracted to wisdom. According to another legend, Pythagoras' teachers were not only Middle Eastern priests and astrologers, but also the famous mathematician of Miletus (Asia Minor), Thales. Pythagoras, of course, visited Miletus, but Thales died either before the birth of Pythagoras, or when he was a child.

There were numerous legends about Pythagoras' disciples of too. There is a story told by Herodotus about Zalmoxis, a disciple and servant of Pythagoras, who, once free, returned home and tricked "a few silly" fellow citizens of his. Having invited most illustrious citizens to dinner, he argued that "his guests and even their distant descendants would never die, but go to a shelter, where they could expect eternal life and bliss." He then took refuge of the Thracians for three years in the dungeon, and suddenly appeared before them during the fourth year of his seclusion, and the people "believed in his teachings."

According to the Pythagoras biography by Surikov, the origins of the legend have the following explanation. Zalmoxis is a Thracian deity, whose cult had mystical and shamanic features. "And perhaps this is why he was wrongly associated with Pythagoras, - writes biographer Igor Surikov. - His views and practices contained elements of shamanistic beliefs."

Philosopher Porphyry (in his Pythagoras biography) wrote that Pythagoras had a son, Arimnest, a mentor of Democritus. "Others write that Theano, a woman from Crete, became the mother of Pythagoras' son Telavg and daughter Mia. Furthermore, others mention his daughter Arignota, who even preserved Pythagorean writings.

As we know, Pythagoras left his native Samos and settled in Italy, which in ancient times was known as Vitalia. According to Timaeus, Pythagoras was the first one to say "Friends share everything" and "Friendship is equality." The "communist" principle of equality in the Pythagorean brotherhood was conducted fairly consistently. No Pythagorean was allowed to own private property.

They even shared such personal items as utensils for eating. It seems that even Soviet communal apartments or dorms did not have such rules. The origins of the communist utopia can clearly be seen from Plato's "The Republic".

In turn, Plato was heavily influenced by Pythagorean teachings. For the Pythagoreans, the authority of their teachers was unquestioned. His statements, proven or not, were treated as ultimate truth. The Greeks loved to challenge everything (dispute begets truth), trying to find "for and against" arguments. However, when it came to the statements of Pythagoras, they fully accepted the words of their philosopher, similarly to how Christians accept the words of Christ and Muslims - the words of Muhammad. The Pythagoreans, according to the Pythagoras biography by Iamblichus, "ascribed Pythagoras to the rank of gods, as a good and humane demon."

"According to Pythagoras, the human soul can migrate from one human body to another, but also to the bodies of other creatures, such as animals or even plants. With each new incarnation, the soul loses the memory of the past. So every time we all live our lives as if we live for the first time."

The man known as Pythagoras died in 497 BC. in Metapontum, a town in southern Italy.

Igor Bukker


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