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Who's Who Ancient Greece: The Philosophers

Pythagoras of Samos 570 - 500 BC

pythagorasBorn on the island of Samos, this very famous philosopher and mathematician died in southern Italy, known during the 6th century BC as Magna Graecia.

It is said that he was the first to use the name philosopher for himself, the word meaning 'lover of wisdom'.

His teachers were Pherecydhes in Mytilini (Lesvos), Thales and Anaximander in Miletus, and the Egyptian Amasis , with whom he studied in Egypt and where he lived for 22 years, learning Egyptian Arabic and studying the philosophic treatises. Pythagoreans believed in the harmony of the universe and of the soul, with music and rhetoric having healing powers

He lived in Babyon for 12 years, where he met Persian magi and Chaldean wise men. Next he travelled to Crete and entered the Idhean cave where Zeus was said to have been hidden as an infant; he also visited Dilos (Delos) and Delfi (Delphi), settling at last in Kroton in southern Italy, where he founded his own school, which was more like a religious and political association, with the aim of political, moral, and social reform of the Greek cities which were caught up in partisan politics.

Though medecine, religion, and mathematics were taught in the school, which had three hundred pupils, it also engaged in mystic rituals, and had an oligarchic orientation, with the expressed purpose of training virtuous and wise men capable of governing the cities properly, accepting only pupils from the aristocracy, and admitting them only after rigorous testing.

pythagorian theorum illustrated

It in fact gained power to the point of ruling the state. Branches of the school were were founded by Pythagoras in other town of Magna Graecia, including on the island of Sicily. Applicants were expected to observe certain rather peculiar rules, such as shunning broad beans, not breaking bread, not leaving an imprint of their bodies when they got out of bed, not to touch white cockerels, and others.

Pythagoras is best known for the theorem named for him, which contributed greatly to the fields of arithmetic and geometry . The science of numbers among Pythagoreans was a mystic science, with each number symbolizing stages in creation, both on the cosmic and individual level.

Similarly, the first astronomers were astrologers and the first chemists alchemists. One might also state that the first religions were myths. Instead of finding the first universal principle in an element such as water, fire, or air, the Pythagoreans saw numbers and intervals (which led in turn to the science of sound and music), as the underlying reality of the universe.

Just as numbers all had spiritual significance, the study of acoustics in terms of mathematical intervals was not simply a mechanical explanation of sound, but an analysis of the spiritual power of harmony on all planes in the universe, as is well expressed in the term 'music of the spheres'.

During following centuries, Pythagorean thought was confused with Orphism, another occult philosophy, said to be founded by the legendary Orpheus, the Thracian whose song, accompanied by himself on the lyre, was said to bring peace to wild animals, the sea, and to the entire world. Plato was influenced by both schools of thought.