Childhood & Early Life
Pythagoras was born in the eastern Aegean island of Samos, Greece in 570 BC. It is believed that his mother, Pythias, was a native of the island while his father, Mnesarchus, was a merchant from Tyre (Lebanon), dealing in gems. It is also said that he had two or three siblings.
Pythagoras spent most of his early childhood at Samos. As he grew up, he began to accompany his father on his trading trips. It is believed that Mnesarchus once took him to Tyre, where he studied under scholars from Syria. It is possible that he might have also visited Italy during those early years.
Subsequently, Pythagoras studied extensively under different teachers. He learned poetry, could recite Homer and play the lyre. Apart from scholars from Syria, he also studied under wise men of Chaldea. Pherecydes of Syros was also one of his early teachers under whom he studied philosophy. .
At the age of eighteen, Pythagoras traveled to Miletus to meet Thales, a master of mathematics and astronomy. Although by then Thales had become too old to teach, the meeting was quite fruitful; it elicited in him an interest in science, mathematics and astronomy.
He must have also studied under Thales’ student Anaximander. The later works of Pythagoras show a striking similarity with the works of Anaximander. Both his astronomical and geometrical theories seem to have naturally developed from the theories of the elder philosopher.
In 535 BC, Pythagoras left for Egypt to study under the temple priests. Earlier Thales had also given him the same advice. However, according to other accounts, he went to Egypt to escape the tyranny of Polycrates, the then ruler of Samos.
Pythagoras lived in Egypt for around ten years. After completing the necessary rites he first gained admission into the temple of Diospolis and was accepted into priesthood. It is also believed that for some years he studied under the Egyptian priest Oenuphis of Heliopolis.
In 525 BC, Emperor Cambyses II of Persia conquered Egypt. Pythagoras was captured and taken as prisoner to Babylon. Here he quickly associated himself to the Persians priests known as the magi and began to study mathematics and mathematical sciences as well as music under them.
In 522 BC, Cambyses II of Persia died under mysterious circumstances and Polycrates, the tyrannical ruler of Somas, was also killed. These events offered Pythagoras an opportunity to return to Somas, which did in 520 BC.
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On his return to Samos, Pythagoras opened a school called The Semicircle. However, his method of teaching was different and appealed to few. At the same time, the leaders wanted him to get involved with the city administration, which did not appeal to him.
In 518 BC, he shifted his base to Croton in southern Italy. Some accounts say he went there to study law and stayed back. Other accounts claim he went there in 530 BC to escape the tyranny of Polycrates, not to Egypt.
Whatever may be the case, it was here at Croton that he first started teaching in full scale, quickly gathering a band of followers. Subsequently, he set up a brotherhood, which was open to both men and women. It developed into a religious cum philosophical school with considerable political clout.
The Pythagoreans, as the followers of Pythagoras were called, could be divided into two sects. Those who lived and worked at the school were known as the mathematikoi or learners. Others, who lived outside the school, were known as akousmatics or listeners. Pythagoras was the master of both the sects.
The mathematikoi had to lead their life according to rules, which defined what they ate, wore or even spoke. They had no personal possession and followed strict vegetarianism. Contrarily, the akousmatics were allowed to own personal properties and eat non-vegetarian food. They attended the school only during the day time.
The Society practiced strict secrecy not only about rites and rituals, but also about what was taught. Therefore, although it made outstanding contributions to mathematics it is hard to distinguish between the works of Pythagoras and that of his followers.
Yet, Pythagoras’ contribution to mathematics can never be overstated. Today, he is best remembered for his concept of numbers. He believed that everything could be reduced to numbers and these numbers had their own characteristics, strengths and weaknesses.
To him 10 was the most complete number because it was made up of the first four digits (1+2+3+4) and when written in dot notation, they formed a triangle. He also believed geometry to be the highest form of mathematical studies through which one can explain the physical world.
Pythagoras’ belief stemmed from his observations of mathematics, music and astronomy. For example, he noticed that vibrating strings produce harmonious tones only when the ratios between the lengths of the strings are whole numbers. He later realized that these ratios could be extended to other instruments.
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He also propagated that the soul is immortal. On death of a person, it takes up a new form and thus it moves from person to person and even to lower animals through a series of incarnations until it becomes pure and such purification could be done through music and mathematics.
Pythagoras himself was a good musician and could play the lyre well. Believer of mysticism, he also held that certain symbols have mystical significance and that the interaction between the opposites was an essential feature of the world.
He also taught that the Earth was a sphere at the center of the Cosmos. He held that all other planets and stars were spherical because sphere is the most perfect solid figure.
Pythagoras is most famous for his concept of geometry. It is believed that he was first to establish that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles and that for a right-angled triangle the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.
Although the last mentioned theorem was already discovered by the Babylonians, Pythagoras was first to prove it. It is also believed that he devised the tetractys, the triangular figure of four rows which add up to ten, which according him, was the perfect number.
Personal Life & Legacy
Pythagoras was married to Theano, his first pupil at Croton. She was also a philosopher in her own right. She wrote a treatise called ‘On Virtue’ and the doctrine of the golden mean was included in it. However, some say that she was not his wife, but a disciple.
According to various accounts, the couple had a son named Telauges, and three daughters named Damo, Arignote, and Myia. Some sources also put the number to seven. Their second daughter Arignote was a known scholar and works like ‘The Rites of Dionysus’, ‘Sacred Discourses’ have been credited to her.
Their third daughter Myia is said to have married the famous wrestler, Milo of Croton. It is further stated that Milo was an associate of Pythagoras and saved his life from a roof collapse.
Like most geniuses, Pythagoras too was very outspoken and created many enemies. One of them instigated the mob against the Pythagoreans and set fire to the building where they were staying. However, Pythagoras was able to escape. He then went to Metapontum and starved himself to death.
Some other accounts say that he was caught in a conflict between Agrigentum and the Syracusans and was killed by the Syracusans. Whatever was the cause of his death, according to most accounts he died in 495 BC. The ‘Theorem of Pythagoras’ or ‘Pythagoras Theorem’ still bears his legacy.