Pythagoras (Πυθαγόρας) of Samos is one of the most well-known ancient Greek philosophers. He has been associated with numbers and mathematics but some of his teachings dealt with the paranormal. He has therefore always been considered a controversial thinker. He was criticized by both ancient Greeks and contemporary humans. At the same time, his impact on mathematics is undeniable.
- Pythagoras Had a Quirky Lifestyle
- Pythagoras Devoted His Life to Numbers
- Pythagoras Believed in Metempsychosis (Reincarnation)
- Pythagoras Influenced the Teachings of Plato
- Pythagoras Inspired a Cultlike Philosophical Movement
Pythagoras Had a Quirky Lifestyle (and Diet)
Pythagoras is known for his eccentric lifestyle that made him look odd in the eyes of the Greeks. He followed strict rules and a restrictive diet by choice. Some ancient writers, such as Eudoxus of Cnidus, presented him as a vegetarian for ethical reasons. Many contemporary vegans and vegetarians say that Pythagoras suggested that people shouldn’t eat anything that has died. But we cannot say this with certainty. Aristotle, Aristoxenus, and other writers, present him as a meat eater who restrained from eating very specific animals, such as oxen and rams. Not only that, but he was also an advocate for religious animal sacrifices and consumed the offerings with great pleasure. It is possible perhaps that Pythagoras changed his dietary choices many times throughout his life.
Pythagoras also promoted a communal lifestyle, where there are no private possessions. With the exception of Spartans, ancient Greeks found such ideas quite obscene. It comes as no surprise that he was the protagonist in many jokes at that time. But how did the philosopher end up with his controversial lifestyle choices?
Pythagoras was born in 570 BC in the island of Samos in the Aegean Sea. We know from Herodotus and Isocrates that his father was Mnesarchus, a wealthy gem-engraver. From a young age, Pythagoras allegedly travelled in many nearby regions and got influenced by foreign cultures. These include Ancient Egypt, where he reportedly spent some time studying. He was also reportedly influenced by the teachings of the Persian Magi, the priests of Zoroastrianism. Later in life, he emigrated to South Italy. Moreover, some of his ideas have parallels with the teachings of a less popular Greek religious and philosophical movement that we will discuss later.
Modern scholars fail to agree on the cultural influences of Pythagoras. We are not aware of any books he might have written, and we know about him through other people’s accounts. What we do know is that he followed an eccentric lifestyle that seemed to have been inspired by foreign cultures.
Pythagoras Devoted His Life to Numbers
Pythagoras was a philosopher and a mathematician. He is credited with the “Pythagorean theorem”, which states that “in a right-angled triangle the square of the hypotenuse is equal [to the sum of] the squares of the two other sides”, and with numerous other scientific contributions. He reportedly was the first who identified the “five regular solids” and the one who discovered the “theory of proportions”. But Pythagoras love for numbers turned to something that resembled a religion.
Today, many new age practitioners are interested in numerology and the spiritual meaning behind each number. This movement is inspired by the teachings of Pythagoras, who is the father of western numerology. Someone could say that he was the predecessor of new agers. He showed interested in eastern cultures and religions, he tried combining science with the paranormal, and he probably even tried becoming a vegan at some point.
Numerology derives from the Latin term “numerus” (number) and the Greek term «λόγος» (reason/ logic/ speech). Numerologists give a divine and mystical meaning behind each number. They also try to find a connection between certain numbers with coincidences and events. Today numerology is considered pseudoscientific.
Pythagoras believed that everything had numerical relationships. He started by connecting numbers to musical notes. He also came up with a method that reportedly reveals someone’s personality using his/her name and date of birth. The philosopher also had a favorite number. That was number 10, which, according to him, it was the most perfect and complete number.
Pythagoras Believed in Metempsychosis (Reincarnation)
Ancient Greeks believed in souls. Most of them believed that, when someone died, his or her soul would go to Hades, a place under the surface of the Earth that was both heaven and hell. Pythagoras, on the other hand, believed in metempsychosis – the Greek version of reincarnation.
Many foreign scholars believe that the Pythagorian concept of metempsychosis (μετεμψύχωσις) was inspired by the eastern concept of reincarnation, since the philosopher showed a great interest in foreign cultures. But the truth is that the concept of the soul being transferred to another body after death, did exist in some parts of Greece. Hellenism, the religion that worshipped the 12 gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus, consisted of various religious movements. One of them was Orphism.
Orphism was both a philosophical and a religious movement that followed the teachings of a mythical poet named Orpheus. The latter had allegedly descended to Hades to find his lover, Euridice. Orpheus was like the prophets of modern religions. His followers believed that, if they underwent certain rituals and followed specific rules, they would spend eternity with Orpheus and other mythical characters after death. Those who didn’t follow the teachings of Orpheus, would be reincarnated indefinitely.
The parallels between Orphism and the teachings of Pythagoras are obvious. In the past, some scholars believed that it was Pythagoras who started Orphism. But this is not widely accepted anymore.
Pythagoras Influenced the Teachings of Plato
Plato and Aristotle might be the two most well-known ancient Greek philosophers. Their ideas could be described as “mainstream” when compared to the ones of Pythagoras. However, the controversial philosopher and mathematician did influence Plato and, as a result, his student, Aristotle.
A great example of that is the dialogue “Timaeus”, where Plato, through the words of Timaeus, talks about the elements of the soul that each one of them has a geometric shape. The dialogue is full of symbolisms and it connects geometry with the universe and the divine.
Pythagoras Inspired a Cultlike Philosophical Movement
If you know Pythagoras, then you might have heard of Pythagoreanism. It was a philosophical movement based on the teachings of Pythagoras. It emerged in Italy in the 6th Century BC. The Pythagoreans were separated in two distinct philosophical traditions: the “mathematikoi” and the “akousmatikoi”.
The first were the “intellectual” Pythagoreans. They focused on mathematics, geometry, and astronomy. They even understood that the Earth is not the center of the universe but rather a celestial body that orbits around a central fire. The mathematikoi were philosophers and scientists who wanted to understand the world.
The “akousmatikoi” focused on ethics, harmony, and justice. Some of them avoided meat, and most of them dressed simply and followed an ascetic lifestyle to be rewarded in the afterlife. These Pythagoreans are often considered to be members of a religious cult, rather than a philosophical movement. That is because they followed the ideas of Pythagoras as if they were a dogma. A set of rules that should not be judged nor criticized. Many scholars argue that they worshipped Pythagoras as a semigod or a prophet. The same way cult members do with their cult leaders. That is the opposite of what philosophy is. Philosophy is the constant search of wisdom, rather than the belief that you possess the absolute truth. Its purpose is to free the mind, spark curiosity, rather than numb it with rules and doctrines.
It is worth mentioning that the teachings of Pythagoreanism emerge and submerge throughout history. For example, there was a revival of Pythagoreanism in the first century AD in the Roman empire. Early Christian theologians, such as Clement of Alexandria, also adopted the ascetic lifestyle of Pythagoreans. Neopythagoreanism also reemerged in the late 20th century with the rise of the new age movement. Many new agers exhibit interest in foreign cultures and religions, in numerology, and the afterlife, while following a strict lifestyle regarding what they eat or buy. They also refer to the universe as a conscious, divine being, just like the Pythagoreans often did.
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