Pythagoras (c. 570-c.495 B.C.)

Pythagoras was one of the most celebrated and controversial of the ancient Greek philosophers. He was at once a mathematician and a philosopher, not to mention a kind of cult leader and seer on the fate of the human soul. He was born on the island of Samos, off the coast of modern Turkey. But at the age of forty he left to escape the tyranny of Polycrates and settled in Croton in southern Italy.

The Purification of the Soul

Once in Croton, Pythagoras founded a brotherhood of disciples dedicated to philosophia (a term derived from the Greek word philo, meaning “love,” and sophia, meaning “wisdom”). He said philosophers were “lovers of wisdom.” He was called a “leader and father of divine philosophy.” The Pythagorean society he led was known for its belief in the purification of the soul. Living by a set of religious and ethical rules was the way to purification and human bliss.

Since Pythagoras believed in a transmigration (or reincarnation) of the soul from human to human and even human to animal, he and his followers were vegetarians. He believed in a brotherhood of all living things. All living things must be interrelated because their souls have each possessed a great number of different bodies during past transmigrations. One writer told the story of how Pythagoras, seeing someone beating a dog, told him to stop, since he had recognized the voice of a friend in the yelping of the dog. Whether the tale is true or not, Pythagoras did believe in a migration of the soul in which the soul survives death.

Was Pythagoras the first to put forward a theory of immortality?

No. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the Egyptians were the first to hold this view. When the human body dies, the soul enters another animal as it is being born. When the soul has gone round all the creatures of land, sea, and air, it once more enters the body of a person that is then being born. This cycle takes 3,000 years.

The Pythagoreans also dedicated themselves to certain ritual practices. There were thirty-nine rules in all, most of which were rules of abstinence. The Pythagoreans also believed in prolonged silences as a means to improving their self-control. All such rituals furthered the purification of the soul.

They believed that whereas physical sensuality contaminates the soul, the noblest means of purification is intellectual activity, which liberates the soul, and the greatest intellectual activity is mathematics.

All Things Are Number

Devotion to mathematics is at the heart of Pythagorean philosophy. Pythagoras thought that all things could be expressed numerically. In seeing that points, lines, and surfaces are the real units that compose nature, Pythagoras anticipates Galileo's thinking of the seventeenth century.

The most obvious example of the lawlike numerical structure of nature is the Pythagorean theorem, A2 + B2 = C2. But they thought that a mathematical principle could explain all of reality. In this sense, all bodies must be regarded as numbers. It makes sense: in a straightforward way, a large triangle differs from a small triangle in a measurable, numerical way. Even musical pitch depends upon numbers, since the lengths and the intervals on the musical scale may be expressed by numerical ratios. Pythagoras also spoke of a cosmic harmony: he thought that the law-like mathematical relationships between heavenly bodies must have caused a “music of the spheres.”

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