Famous as: Philosopher, Scientist and Religious Scholar.
Born on: around 575 B.C
Born In: Samos, Greece
Works and achievement: Establishment of Pythagorian theory, proponent of number theory
The famous Greek philosopher mathematician Pythagoras was born in the island of Samos in around 570 B.C. Samos was at this time one of the colonies that had been developed by the city states of ancient Greece centred upon Asia Minor and the islands lying off its coasts. Such colonisation had been encouraged moreso by population pressures and political turmoils in ancient Greece rather than by the prospect of trading opportunities.
It is difficult to be precise about Pythagoras and his background, 570 B.C. is rather a long time ago and records were not really maintained even about prominent or controversial figures. It is suggested that his mother came from amongst the colonial Greeks of Samos but that his father was a Phoenician craftsperson from Tyre who worked with precious metals and who had been granted citizenship rights after bringing corn to Samos at a time of famine.
Pythagoras seems to have had an impressive birthmark on his thigh that, amongst his fellows, was held to be a mark of divine favour – he was considered to have had a “Golden Thigh.” In his later journeys about the Greek colonial world, Pythagoras is said to have ventured to Miletus and to have been taught there by the mathematicians Thales and Anaximander. Thales, who had been the first person to actually predict a solar eclipse, was then too old to teach as he would wish but strongly advised the younger man to pursue his studies further in Egypt.
Pythagoras’ life was affected by the geopolitics of the day. The Persian Empire under Cyrus joined with the populous state of Media. The resultant Empire of the Medes and Persians defeated Croesus ruler of Lydia the most notable Greek Kingdom in Asia Minor.
Persian sway extended towards the western coasts of Asia Minor and in 538 B.C. power in Samos was seized by Polycrates who established Samos as a centre of power through alliances, the maintenance of an army, navy, and through piracy. Pythagoras seems to have fallen out of favour with Polycrates but, before going into exile, obtained a letter of introduction from him addressed to Polycrates’ ally the ruler of Egypt.
Despite a permission obtained from the Egyptian ruler most of the Egyptian priestly schools seemed unwilling to take in the young foreigner who eventually found a grudging acceptance and went on to learn much in Egypt. Quite apart from proficiency in Mathematics and Geometry these Egyptians often evidenced a passion for secrecy, a refusal to eat beans, and a striving for purity.
In 525 B.C. Egypt was conquered by Cambyses II son and successor to Cyrus as ruler of the Medes and Persians. Pythagoras was captured and carried into captivity in Babylon where he associated with the mystically inclined Magi (followers of Zoroaster) priesthood and gained further instruction in mathematics, geometry, and music.
In 522 B.C. Cambyses II died and was replaced by Darius, Polycrates also died that year. In 520 B.C. Pythagoras was able to return to Samos which seems at that time to have fallen under Darius‘control. Following a brief visit to Crete to study its system of Law he again returned to Samos where he established a school known as the Semicircle.
The Samians called their learned returned citizen into taking a pan in public affairs and also into involvements in diplomatic missions. Pythagoras was not happy with these political and diplomatic roles being forced upon him and, stating that his teachings were not really what the Samians seemed to be happy with, ‘left Samos. In 518 B.C. Pythagoras travelled west there were many wealthy Greek colonies in Magna Graecia the “Greater Greece” then located upon the Italian peninsula.
Pythagoras chose to now base himself in Kroton on the “heel” of today’s Italy founding a school that was dedicated to the study of mathematics and philosophy but which also had a marked mystical aspect to its teachings. Kroton was then a health resort and religious centre but also having a famed medical school. Sybaris, the town from which our own term Sybarite indicating a hedonistic life of material extravagance and excess is derived was a close neighbour.
An inner circle of students at Kroton were remarkable for wearing long hair, being vegetarians and, having no personal property. This inner brother and sister hood maintained vows of secrecy and were taught that reality was mathematical in nature. The mystical aspects of this Pythagoreanism held that philosophy tends to purify the Soul and that the Soul can attain to Union with the Divine. The Pythagorean School regarded Geometry as being the highest form of mathematical studies. Mathematics generally was seen as being a direct approach to reality.
Pythagoras was deeply struck by how, on the Greek seven string lyre, harmonious notes were obtained when the lengths of those strings was proportional to whole numbers e.g. 2:1, 3 :2,4:3. The number 10 was deemed particularly significant. The Pythagoreans associated Opportunity with the number 7, Justice with the number 4, Marriage with the number 5, and Masculinity with odd numbers and Femininity with even numbers.
The famous Pythagoras Theorem concerning right angled triangles holds that the square of Hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. This idea was current for many centuries beforehand but Pythagoras was the first to prove it to be true.
The Pythagoreans eventually gained political control of Kroton, whilst under Pythagorean control Kroton utterrly defeated Sybaris in war but the Pythagoreans were later banished by political opponents. The Pythagoreans outlook later greatly influenced Plato who was a major founding figure in several main branches of western philosophy