The Presocratics – Pythagoras

Marble bust of a man with a long, pointed beard, wearing a tainia, a kind of ancient Greek headcovering in this case resembling a turban. The face is somewhat gaunt and has prominent, but thin, eyebrows, which seem halfway fixed into a scowl. The ends of his mustache are long a trail halfway down the length of his beard to about where the bottom of his chin would be if we could see it. None of the hair on his head is visible, since it is completely covered by the tainia.Bust of Pythagoras of Samos in the Capitoline MuseumsRome.

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

Pythagoras was among the most celebrated philosophers of the Antique period. He supposedly was “the first to bring to the Greeks philosophy in general”  and was the first to use the term ‘philosophy’ and to call himself a ‘philosopher.” 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. His esoteric teaching would have been particularly influenced by learning of the Orphic mysteries from Aglaophamus and to his initiation into the mysteries of Egyptian religion.

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.” There are myths of him being a miracle worker. Some even worshiped him as a god.

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.” 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. Pythagoreans were “to abstain from beans as though from human flesh…and from almost all creatures of the sea.”

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. 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.”

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 Parmenides 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 Parmenides, 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.

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One thought on “The Presocratics – Pythagoras

  1. One of the most difficult lessons of my life was how to not equate intelligence with wisdom or morality and goodness. From a child on into late life I had equated a brilliant scientific intelligence with wisdom, goodness and common sense. I made a lot of serious mistakes in judgment based on this foolish notion. Now, finally, I usually can see through that mistake and in fact I often equate these scientifically skillful humans more with with the psychopath or sociopath than the wise and moral human. I think history will bear this out as we sink into the dust. The fact that these brilliant thinkers let crazy myths grow up around them is a case in point. Or that they make claim to knowing things beyond death without ever presenting evidence for such knowledge. It’s actually very common and shows how little discernment us regular blokes have by letting them get away with it. Pythagoras sounds like one of these types. I prefer the man with just a little common decency and good sense and honesty to any guy who can come up with a theorem but wants to be the big boss because he’s intelligent. Power corrupts and it seems there are almost no exceptions.

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