Pythagoras (Samos, 582 – 500 BC), is famous for his Pythagorean theorem, but in reality, he was a pre-Socratic philosopher who emphasized the metaphysical more than mathematics.
In fact, while the first time I heard about Pythagoras was in a math class because of the famous Pythagorean theorem, I spent much more time talking about him in the metaphysics portion of a physics class in high school. It was there in a Catholic high school that I was taught that Pythagoras was the leader of a cult and that Pythagoras’s emphasis was on understanding the universe and the supernatural, and that his development of mathematics was probably a byproduct of his cultic beliefs.
Pythagoras is a pre-Socratic philosopher, both because he lived before Socrates and his emphasis was for the most part on the physis, the nature of the external, the laws and makeup of the material and measurable world. Especially in his use of mathematics, you can see that he is endeavoring to measure the metaphysical.
Despite his fame, very little of absolute certainty is known about him. Pythagoras lived before Heraclitus and Parmenides. Some say he was a shaman who claimed supernatural wisdom. There are legends that he performed miracles. He believed, most probably, in metempsychosis, the migration of the soul from one body to another, and reincarnation. Some say that because of this, the view that the soul is immortal is traced back to him. Plato refers to some Pythagorean traditions, especially in his Phaedo.[i]
Pythagoreans sought the supernatural in numbers and harmony. In their study of music, they discovered that musical intervals could be represented as numerical ratios. The concepts of fourths, fifths, octaves, as any musician knows, are extremely mathematical. The general belief is, then, that the Pythagoreans pursued both music and mathematics as a means of understanding the universe and even the supernatural.[ii]
Pythagoras was quoted by Plato:
“‘Friends should have all things in common’, as Pythagorus used to say”[iii]
Pythagorean tradition is mentioned by or associated with the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Francis Bacon, and Hegel. Plato, himself, lived for a time with the Pythagorean community in Italy, “vegetarian and communist, which had for generations controlled the Greek colony in which it lived.”[iv]
The Pythagorean religion continued for some time. Of the religion itself we know it was:
“a society of disciples which has been very influential for some time. Men and women in the society were treated equally -an unusual thing at the time- and all property was held in common. Members of the society practised the master’s teachings, a religion the tenets of which included the transmigration of souls and the sinfulness of eating beans. Pythagoras’ followers had to obey strict religious orders where it was forbidden to eat beans, to touch white cocks, or to look into a mirror beside a light.”[v]
Pythagoreanism is an important example of the integration of philosophy and religion. The fact that it dates 600 years before Christ and that its ideas were part of the philosophical development people as influential as Plato and Bacon shows how prevalent the concept of the integration of philosophy and religion was and continues to be in the culture.
[i] Philosophy 1, A. C. Grayling, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998, P. 356
[iii] Laws, 807, referenced in The story of philosophy, Will Durant, Touchstone, Simon & Schuster New York, 1961. p.43
[v] The BigView.com, this page at http://www.thebigview.com/greeks/pythagoras.html
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