Pythagoras was among the most celebrated philosophers of the Antique period. He is attributed both with being “the first to bring to the Greeks philosophy in general” (Isocrates, Ausiris 14.4; qtd in L&M 4.25) and with being the first to use the term ‘philosophy’ and to call himself a ‘philosopher’” (Diogenese Laertes, L&M, 4.107). His teaching focused on mathematics and rational inquiry, yet was thoroughly esoteric.

He is said to have traveled very broadly and to have incorporated teaching from everywhere he went. It is said that he met with and learned from Thales, as well as Anaximander. He is also thought to have studied geometry with the Egyptians and to have gained knowledge of ethics at Delphi (DL 14.3; in L&M 4.25). His esoteric teaching would have been particularly influenced by learning of the Orphic mysteries from Aglaophamus (Proclus, Platonic Theology; qtd. in L&M 25) and to his initiation into the mysteries of Egyptian religion (qtd. in L&M 4.27).

There are many myths surrounding Pythagoras’ life. One myth was that he had descended into Hades. Another was that he remembered his earlier lives, indeed that his soul had wandered and could remember “all the plants and animals it had been in and everything that his soul had experienced in Hades and that other souls there endure” (L&M, 43). There are myths of him being a miracle worker (L&M 49). Some even worshiped him as a god (Justin, 14.13; qtd. in L&M 4.57).

The school that he founded, which is said to have lasted ten generations, was a sect devoted to theoretical learning, moral training, but also a strong indoctrination. There were levels to the initiation. Learners who joined the school would initially be silent for five years. After being tested they would then belong to the “household” (Diogenes Laertius, in L&M 69). In the Pythagorean school, students were prohibited from eating animals, except for those that were allowed for sacrifices. Those were the animals into which the human soul does not migrate (Iambl. VP 71; in D&M 64f.). Pythagoreans were “to abstain from beans as though from human flesh…and from almost all creatures of the sea” (Porph. Abst. 1.26 L&M 4.63).

In a story surely apocryphal given its poetic (in)justice, Pythagoras is said to have died after the house where he was visiting Milo the Wrestler was set afire. He fled, but the jealous people who set the house ablaze caught up with him at a bean field when he refused to cross it. They there slit his throat (L&M 4.51ff). We might assume the tale is meant to sarcastically point out the absurdity of not eating beans, which were not consumed because they looked “like testicles or the gates of Hades” (L&M 4.123).

Despite the strangeness of the apocryphal stories surrounding Pythagoras and his school, we see in him great learning. He viewed the reality as numerical. He  formalized the Pythagorean theorem, named after him. He and his students also came to understand the ratio character of musical scales. Along with Parmenedes and the Eleatics he represents an epistemological orientation that is important in the development of Western thought — the focus of his thought being not primarily on sense experience but on concepts and logic. His focus in particular was on mathematical knowledge. With this focus, along with Parmenedes, he was a was influence on Plato.

Side by side with great learning, however, Pythagoras and his students also displayed great dogmatism. Hippasus, who is said to have revealed how to draw the dodecahedron (and is thought by some to have developed the idea irrational numbers and thereby undermined the Pythagorean view of the rationality of the universe), was killed by the Pythagoreans, cast to sea (Iamblichus, On General mathematical Science 18.4; qtd. in L&M 4.131).

Proceed to chapter 6, on the Sophists


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