Pythagoras of Samos

Pythagoras, the man in the centre with the book, teaching music, in Raphael’s The School of Athens. Public Domain.

Pythagoras of Samos was a Philosopher and Mathematician born in Ancient Greece, probably most famously known for the equation a2+b2=c2 in a right-triangle.

He famously started a school of Pythagoreans in Italy, however this was following his unsuccessful attempt in Samos. The story goes that he paid a boy to be his disciple, and taught him his views on philosophy and mathematics. One day he tested the boy, by pretending that he didn’t have any money left to pay him, in order to see if the boy was loyal (which he was). However politically he failed in Samos, so fled with his disciple and mother to Italy.

In Italy (Croton) where he met a rich man named Milo, thought to be one of the strongest men ever (a man who had won at the Olympic games around 12 times). Milo set aside part of his house for Pythagoras to set up his school, as he was a fan of mathematics and philosophy. The school was formed of hundreds of ‘brothers’ and a few ‘sisters’. Pythagoras’ favourite student was Milo’s daughter, who he later went on to marry despite the big age difference.

One random fact about the Pythagorean Brotherhood that he formed, is that in order to join you had to donate all your worldly possessions to a common fund. If you chose to leave the Brotherhood, you would receive twice the amount you had originally put in.

Pythagoras was the first person to coin the word ‘philosopher’ (the words ‘Phil’ and ‘Soph’ are Greek roots which mean ‘love’ and ‘wisdom’, therefore ‘philosophy’ means ‘the love of wisdom’).

For those interested in maths, one of the ideas that Pythagoras came up with is that of ‘perfect numbers’. A number is thought to be a perfect number if its divisors add up exactly to the number.
For example, 6 is thought to be a perfect number, as its divisors 1, 2 and 3, add up 6.

The Brotherhood was shrouded in mystery as its members were sworn to secrecy. The general thought pushed by Pythagoras was that people were stuck in a cycle of reincarnation (and for this reason, you had to be a vegetarian if you were part of the Brotherhood) as a punishment, and in order to become free and live in the ‘blessed realm’ (thought to be the sun or the moon, back then) you needed to adhere to a strict regiment of behavioural and thought restrictions. Historians say they borrowed this way of thinking from the Ancient Greek religion/cult of Orphism. There’s also a story about how Pythagoras started believing in reincarnation; he once walked past a group of men beating up a dog, in which he heard the voice of his late friend in the yelp of the dog.

Another famous anecdote about Pythagoras, is regarding how he came to learn about the relationship between musical harmony and numbers. He is said to have had the revelation whilst listening to two blacksmiths working; one day Pythagoras was listening to them doing their work. He noticed that one combination of hammers produced a non-harmonious sound. After closer inspection he realised this was owing to the relationship between the weights, or the ratio.

Pythagoras is also believed to have been the first to say that that conclusions arrived at through reason are superior to those arrived at through the senses.

There’s a lot about Pythagoras around, so I’d definitely recommend reading more about him if any of this peaked your interest.


Sources: Philosophize This! (http://www.philosophizethis.org) | Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com) | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://www.iep.utm.edu) | Britannica (http://www.britannica.com/biography) | Fermat’s Last Theorem – Simon Singh (IBAN 1-85702-669-1)