Pythagoras

Pythagoras (pĬthăg´ərəs), c.582–c.507 BC, pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, founder of the Pythagorean school. He migrated from his native Samos to Crotona and established a secret religious society or order similar to, and possibly influenced by, the earlier Orphic cult. We know little of his life and nothing of his writings. Since his disciples came to worship him as a demigod and to attribute all the doctrines of their order to its founder, it is virtually impossible to distinguish his teachings from those of his followers. The Pythagoreans are best known for two teachings: the transmigration of souls and the theory that numbers constitute the true nature of things. The believers performed purification rites and followed moral, ascetic, and dietary rules to enable their souls to achieve a higher rank in their subsequent lives and thus eventually be liberated from the "wheel of birth." This belief also led them to regard the sexes as equal, to treat slaves humanely, and to respect animals. The highest purification was "philosophy," and tradition credits Pythagoras with the first use of the term. Beginning with the discovery that the relationship between musical notes could be expressed in numerical ratios (see Greek music), the Pythagoreans elaborated a theory of numbers, the exact meaning of which is still disputed by scholars. Briefly, they taught that all things were numbers, meaning that the essence of things was number, and that all relationships—even abstract ethical concepts like justice—could be expressed numerically. They held that numbers set a limit to the unlimited—thus foreshadowing the distinction between form and matter that plays a key role in all later philosophy. The Pythagoreans were influential mathematicians and geometricians, and the theorem that bears their name is witness to their influence on the initial part of Euclidian geometry. They made important contributions to medicine and astronomy and were among the first to teach that the earth was a spherical planet, revolving about a fixed point. At the end of the 5th cent. BC the Pythagoreans were forced to flee Magna Graecia when people grew enraged at their interference with traditional religious customs; many were killed. A short-lived Neo-Pythagoreanism developed at the beginning of the Christian era; it borrowed some elements from Jewish and Hellenistic thought and greatly emphasized the mystical element in Pythagorean ideas.

See biographies by P. Gorman (1978) and T. Stanley (1988); D. J. O'Meara, Pythagoras Revived: Mathematics and Philosophy in Late Antiquity (1989).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

To Think like God: Pythagoras and Parmenides, the Origins of Philosophy
Arnold Hermann.
Parmenides, 2004
Pythagoras Revived: Mathematics and Philosophy in Late Antiquity
Dominic J. O'Meara.
Clarendon Press, 1990
The Great Mathematicians
Herbert Westren Turnbull.
New York University Press, 1961
Librarian’s tip: Chap. I "Early Beginnings: Thales, Pythagoras, and the Pythagoreans"
Lectures on the History of Philosophy: Greek Philosophy to Plato
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel; E. S. Haldane.
University of Nebraska Press, vol.1, 1995
Librarian’s tip: "Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans" begins on p. 194
Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem
Simon Singh.
Walker, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of Pythagoras in multiple chapters
The Growth of Physical Science
James Jeans.
Macmillan, 1948
Librarian’s tip: "The Pythagorean School" begins on p. 25
The Presocratic Philosophers
Jonathan Barnes.
Routledge, 1989
Librarian’s tip: "Pythagoras and the Soul" begins on p. 100
Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans: A Brief History
Charles H. Kahn.
Hackett, 2001
Presocratic Reflexivity: The Construction of Philosophical Discourse C. 600-450 BC
Barry Sandywell.
Routledge, 1996
Librarian’s tip: "The Pythagorean Form of Life" begins on p. 189
The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists
Robin Waterfield.
Oxford University Press, 2000
Librarian’s tip: "Pythagoras and Fifth-Century Pythagoreanism" begins on p. 87
The Worlds of the Early Greek Philosophers
J. B. Wilbur; H. J. Allen.
Prometheus Books, 1979
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans"
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