Pythagoras (570 BC - 490 BC)


Pythagoras (b. 570 B.C.), about whom we have as many legends as facts, lived most of his adult life in Croton in southern Italy (see Map 2).

Pythagoras theorem

He combined mathematics and religion in a way strange to us and was active in setting up a pattern for an ideal community. The Pythagorean influence on Plato is substantial.*

Pythagoras and his followers first developed geometry as an abstract discipline, rather than as a tool for practical applications. It was probably Pythagoras himself who discovered the “Pythagorean Theorem” (the square of the hypotenuse of a triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides).

He also discovered the mathematical ratios of musical intervals: the octave, the fifth, and the fourth. Because mathematics informs these intervals, the Pythagoreans held, somewhat obscurely, that all things are numbers. They also believed that the sun, the moon, and other heavenly bodies make a noise as they whirl about, producing a cosmic harmony, the “music of the spheres.”

Pythagoras believed that the soul is a distinct and immortal entity,“entombed” for a while in the body. After death, the soul migrates into other bodies, sometimes the bodies of animals. To avoid both murder and cannibalism, the Pythagoreans were vegetarians. Xenophanes tells the story, probably apocryphal, that Pythagoras saw a puppy being beaten and cried out, “Do not beat it; I recognize the voice of a friend.” Mathematics was valued not just for itself but as a means to purify the soul, to disengage it from bodily concerns. In mathematical pursuits the soul lives a life akin to that of the gods. It is said that Pythagoras was the first to call himself a philosopher, a lover of wisdom.


This excerpt is taken from  book “THE GREAT CONVERSATION(A Historical Introduction to Philosophy)" By NORMAN MELCHERT & DAVID R. MORROW

Chapter 2, "Philosophy before Socrates"


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