Pythagoras of Samos

Universality and exclusivity combine in the life and teachings of Pythagoras in a way which is hard to account for. The famous geometric theorem of Pythagoras is an example of the perfect coherence (‘armonia’) and sacred universality of number and mathematics, and is known the world over; while the exclusive meetings, and the secret teachings, passwords, prescriptions and symbols of the Society he founded, inspired only suspicion and helped to arouse enmity and heap destruction in the end on the Pythagorean sect. The problem arises from the fact that Pythagoras was at the same time both thinker, philosopher and mathematician, as well as a spiritual teacher, seer and leader—although such a distinction between the two would have been hard to make in the 6th century bc, and is a product of our own, post-Aristotelian world-view. Aristotle, who was writing two centuries after Pythagoras, is in fact the earliest source for our sketchy knowledge of the events of his life. Pythagoras left no writings of his own, and a number of those who later recorded things he allegedly said or did, had an interest in ridiculing them.
   He must have been born around 570 bc, and probably trained on Samos in the craft of his father, Mne sarchus, who was as a gem-engraver: it seems probable that he did travel to Egypt and Babylon since he received, according to Diogenes Laertius, a letter of introduction from Polycrates to Amasis, Pharaoh of Egypt. It is not hard to see how the worldly and some times brutal character of Polycrates might soon come into conflict with an ascetic, religious genius, such as Pythagoras, however: in 530 bc, so as to avoid further conflict with the tyrant, Pythagoras abandoned Sa mos for Croton in Southern Italy—a destination per haps encouraged by Democedes of Croton, who was court physician to Polycrates as well as to the Persian emperor, Darius. It is not impossible that he passed some time in the cave here on Kerketeus, while that decision matured.
   In Croton, led—like his near contemporary Confucius—more by a moral, reforming zeal than by a desire for power, he was drawn into the arena of public affairs, and took a leading role in the politics and expanding influence of the city. Diogenes says he gave it a ‘constitution’ and, with or through his followers, governed the state so well that it deserved, in a literal sense, the name of ‘aristocracy’ or ‘government of the best’. The influence of such an ‘aristocrat’ of the soul, and of the societies he formed in neighbouring cities, increased for a good 20 years: but the secrecy and exclusivity of the Pythagoreans’ ways, and the assumption of superiority inherent in their behaviour, eventually led to the arousal of popular suspicion and discontent. Pythagoras was either banished or went into exile; meeting-houses were burned, and leading Pythagoreans were rounded up and killed. Pythagoras himself appears to have taken refuge in a Temple of the Muses at Metapontum, where he died, some where around the year 500 bc. The immediate influence of his teachings and of the Pythagorean School continued for at least a century more.
   Pythagoras seems to have been the first to use the word ‘kosmos’—a word which typifies the genius of the Greek language for combining many potent elements in one concept: a sense of order, right arrangement, coherence, beauty. (Our modern word ‘cosmetics’ is a distant memory of it.) It is towards unity or empathy with this divine nature of the kosmos, that the soul of man aspires. The way was through the purification offered by philosophia—a reasoned understanding of the harmony of the kosmos—and through sympathy and harmony with all living beings which were of similar substance. Once this central idea is grasped, everything else follows: from the abstention from taking life and of eating animals, and the kinship of all beings through the process of transmigration of souls, to the primacy of pure number as the origin of order and the expression of divine beauty and coherence, and the concept that the perfectly articulated movement of the celestial bodies gave rise to a heavenly music—a music that only the especially enlightened could hear, universal but exclusive. In the process of tracing this grand design, Pythagoras touches upon a variety of observations which are fundamental to later thinking: not just the way in which pure number and order are incarnate in the physical relationships of spatial geometry, as ex pressed in the Theorem that bears his name, but their immediate presence to the senses in the harmony of musical intervals. Nothing is perhaps more central to his philosophy than the revelation that the indisputable perfection of harmonic intervals (the musical octave, the fifth and the fourth) was yet another expression of pure number ratios (2:1, 3:2, and 4:3), provable by the measurement of lengths of musical strings. For Pythagoras, this did not remain a question of detached analysis: it was tangible proof that our world was alive and imbued with a divine and mysterious beauty and order—that it was a kosmos in the truest sense of the word.

Samos Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island Group, Greece.

Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Start typing and press Enter to search