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Some Notes on Pythagoras

by Zacharias Voulgaris

Introduction

Pythagoras, one of the most significant pre-Socratic philosophers, is nowadays mostly known for his theorem in geometry, which has found a great many applications in science. Yet, if we examine his life and works, we will find that there was much more to him than a mathematician. His way of life and the philosophy he developed inspired many people to follow him and learn from him. Although there are no known texts whatsoever written by him or his contemporaries, his influence was so great that centuries later philosophers would refer to him, and his unique philosophy has inspired (and continues to inspire) many lovers of wisdom.

Biography

Pythagoras was born either in 570, or in 580 or in 582 (the last one is the most cross-referenced) in Samos, a Greek island opposite the western coast of Turkey. There were a few reports about him travelling to the Near East, particularly Babylonia, Phoenicia, and Egypt, among other countries. The trip to Egypt (which is the most likely to have taken place, as it appears in various sources), was probably his most important journey. There, he is said to have been initiated into the Mysteries of Egypt, which were considered to have been the most significant Schools of Wisdom in the ancient world. Also, he is said to have travelled to India afterwards, were there are references from the Brahmins about a sage from Ionia (this is the name of his region).

Yet, his most important journey was the one to Croton, a Greek city in the southern part of Italy. There he attracted many followers to his way of life, forming the first historical order in antiquity: the Pythagoreans. However, the nature of the Pythagorean way of life was not so popular among the other people of the area, who attacked him c. 510 BC, making him flee to Metapontum, another Greek city in the area. There, Pythagoras lived until his death in 490 or 500 BC.

Philosophy

Despite his significant scientific contribution (the theorem providing the ratio between the sides of a right-angled triangle, which he had proven and made popular in the Greek world), Pythagoras was more well-known for other things. Particularly, he was famous as 1) an expert on issues of life after death and a type of reincarnation (metempsychosis as he would call it), 2) an expert on religious ritual, 3) a miracle-worker (he was said to be able to perform extraordinary feats, such as being in two places at the same time), 4) a founder of the Pythagorean order, which placed an emphasis on self-discipline as a means to philosophical enlightenment. These, however, do not even begin to describe his work, which was multi-faceted and on many levels.

In the practical aspect, Pythagoras had a great influence on mathematics, visual art and music. Yet, whatever he proposed and taught was not like the dry scientific findings that often appeal to a particular elite of scientists nowadays. His philosophy was imbued with a sense of mysticism, which blended harmoniously with common-sense rational thought. A great genius of his time, he managed to penetrate the essence of things through the study of mathematics which was for him a purifier of the soul, just like music. With an open mind and a quite scientific methodology, he and his disciples found the connection between music and mathematics and discovered that the musical intervals can be expressed as ratios of numbers. He then extended this relationship between music and numbers to everything else in nature. This can be seen by his famous saying: "all things are numbers". This has found many followers even today, when the mathematical patterns of natural processes (ranging from the structure of plants to the formation of galaxies), have become more evident through various sciences.

It is also interesting that his philosophy had other aspects of a more metaphysical nature. In Pythagoras' mind, numbers, spirits, souls, gods and the mystic connections among them formed one big picture. Moreoever, in Pythagoras' "religion", there were no theological explanations, merely a mixture of mysticism and common sense.

One of his contributions to philosophy was that of the symbol of the Tetraktys, which was comprised of 10 dots, forming a perfect triangle. This symbol for him and his followers was so sacred that it is said that they would take vows on it. The nature of this symbol gives us an insight into the abstract viewpoint they had on things, which however was applied in very practical and concrete ways, such as the order they had formed.

Order of the Pythagoreans

This was a very radical School of Philosophy which grew to a society of 600 or more members. In this society, there was equality between men and women, in a time 2500 years before this notion even began to appear in our Western society. The Pythagorean order was a hierarchy consisting of a number of levels. The lowest one (level 0) was that of probationism, where the candidates were given a practical test where they would prove their courage and inner strength. If they passed it, they would be on the first level, that of the Akousmatikoi, which lasted 3-5 years. During that period they could listen to the other members of the society, but they were not allowed to talk or even ask questions. The next level was that of the Masters or Mathematicians. There they would study mathematics, geometry, musical harmony and astronomy. The few who were able would also study occult mathematics and learn about the archetypical nature of numbers. The third level was that of the Perfect Masters / Physicists, and was for the very few. These were the initiated Masters of the School and were said to be able to communicate with the gods through dreams. Some researchers talk about more advanced levels as well, such as that of the Politician (4th level, according to J. Mallinger), or an even higher one (5th level, according to H. Czogolla).

Although the order was broken apart by its enemies, its spirit lived on and inspired other Philosophical Schools in the following centuries. The most well-known of them was that of the Neo-Pythagoreans (1st century A.D.), founded by Publius Nigidius Figulus. This group claimed to be the direct successors of the Pythagoreans and taught the same philosophical principles and conducted the same mysteries. Even today, there are many people around the world who find the teachings of this Greek sage still applicable and inspiring, showing how this unique philosophical school managed not only to penetrate the veils of nature to discover some of its principles, but also managed to pass the test of time.

References

  1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  2. www.thebigview.com (last accessed Sept. 2008)
  3. Secret Societies 2nd edition, Archetypo, 2005. (in Greek)