Pythagoras of Samos (-570 - -495) MP

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Birthplace: Isle of Samos, Ancient Greece
Death: Died in Metapontum, Gulf of Tarentum, Italy
Occupation: Mathematician & philosopher
Managed by: Jason Scott Wills
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About Pythagoras of Samos

Pythagoras of Samos (Ancient Greek: Ὁ Πυθαγόρας ὁ Σάμιος Ho Pythagóras ho Sámios "Pythagoras the Samian", or simply Ὁ Πυθαγόρας; c. 570–c. 495 BCE) was an Ionian Greek philosopher, mathematician, and founder of the religious movement called Pythagoreanism. Most of the information about Pythagoras was written down centuries after he lived, so very little reliable information is known about him. He was born on the island of Samos, and might have travelled widely in his youth, visiting Egypt and other places seeking knowledge. He had a teacher named Themistoclea, who introduced him to the principles of ethics. Around 530 BCE, he moved to Croton, a Greek colony in southern Italy, and there set up a religious sect. His followers pursued the religious rites and practices developed by Pythagoras, and studied his philosophical theories. The society took an active role in the politics of Croton, but this eventually led to their downfall. The Pythagorean meeting-places were burned, and Pythagoras was forced to flee the city. He is said to have ended his days in Metapontum.

Pythagoras made influential contributions to philosophy and religious teaching in the late 6th century BCE. He is often revered as a great mathematician, mystic and scientist, but he is best known for the Pythagorean theorem which bears his name. However, because legend and obfuscation cloud his work even more than with the other pre-Socratic philosophers, one can give account of his teachings to a little extent, and some have questioned whether he contributed much to mathematics and natural philosophy. Many of the accomplishments credited to Pythagoras may actually have been accomplishments of his colleagues and successors. Whether or not his disciples believed that everything was related to mathematics and that numbers were the ultimate reality is unknown. It was said that he was the first man to call himself a philosopher, or lover of wisdom, and Pythagorean ideas exercised a marked influence on Plato, and through him, all of Western philosophy.

Mathematics

The Pythagorean theorem: The sum of the areas of the two squares on the legs (a and b) equals the area of the square on the hypotenuse .

   The so-called Pythagoreans, who were the first to take up mathematics, not only advanced this subject, but saturated with it, they fancied that the principles of mathematics were the principles of all things.
   —Aristotle, Metaphysics 1–5 , cc. 350 BCE

Pythagorean theorem

Since the fourth century CE, Pythagoras has commonly been given credit for discovering the Pythagorean theorem, a theorem in geometry that states that in a right-angled triangle the area of the square on the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the areas of the squares of the other two sides—that is, a*2 + b*2 = c*2.

While the theorem that now bears his name was known and previously utilized by the Babylonians and Indians, he, or his students, are often said to have constructed the first proof. It must, however, be stressed that the way in which the Babylonians handled Pythagorean numbers implies that they knew that the principle was generally applicable, and knew some kind of proof, which has not yet been found in the (still largely unpublished) cuneiform sources. Because of the secretive nature of his school and the custom of its students to attribute everything to their teacher, there is no evidence that Pythagoras himself worked on or proved this theorem. For that matter, there is no evidence that he worked on any mathematical or meta-mathematical problems. Some attribute it as a carefully constructed myth by followers of Plato over two centuries after the death of Pythagoras, mainly to bolster the case for Platonic meta-physics, which resonate well with the ideas they attributed to Pythagoras. This attribution has stuck down the centuries up to modern times. The earliest known mention of Pythagoras's name in connection with the theorem occurred five centuries after his death, in the writings of Cicero and Plutarch.

Musical theories and investigations

According to legend, the way Pythagoras discovered that musical notes could be translated into mathematical equations was when one day he passed blacksmiths at work, and thought that the sounds emanating from their anvils being hit were beautiful and harmonious and decided that whatever scientific law caused this to happen must be mathematical and could be applied to music. He went to the blacksmiths to learn how this had happened by looking at their tools, he discovered that it was because the hammers were "simple ratios of each other, one was half the size of the first, another was 2/3 the size, and so on."

This legend has since proven to be false by virtue of the fact that these ratios are only relevant to string length (such as the string of a monochord), and not to hammer weight. However, it may be that Pythagoras was indeed responsible for discovering these properties of string length.

Pythagoreans elaborated on a theory of numbers, the exact meaning of which is still debated among scholars. Another belief attributed to Pythagoras was that of the "harmony of the spheres". Thus the planets and stars moved according to mathematical equations, which corresponded to musical notes and thus produced a symphony.

Tetractys

Pythagoras was also credited with devising the tetractys, the triangular figure of four rows, which add up to the perfect number, ten. As a mystical symbol, it was very important to the worship of the Pythagoreans, who would swear oaths by it:

   And the inventions were so admirable, and so divinised by those who understood them, that the members used them as forms of oath: "By him who handed to our generation the tetractys, source of the roots of ever-flowing nature."
   —Iamblichus, Vit. Pyth., 29

Pythagoreanism

Both Plato and Isocrates affirm that, above all else, Pythagoras was famous for leaving behind him a way of life.[55] Both Iamblichus and Porphyry give detailed accounts of the organisation of the school, although the primary interest of both writers is not historical accuracy, but rather to present Pythagoras as a divine figure, sent by the gods to benefit humankind.

Pythagoras set up an organization which was in some ways a school, in some ways a brotherhood (and here it should be noted that sources indicate that as well as men there were many women among the adherents of Pythagoras), and in some ways a monastery. It was based upon the religious teachings of Pythagoras and was very secretive. The adherents were bound by a vow to Pythagoras and each other, for the purpose of pursuing the religious and ascetic observances, and of studying his religious and philosophical theories. The claim that they put all their property into a common stock is perhaps only a later inference from certain Pythagorean maxims and practices.

As to the internal arrangements of the sect, we are informed that what was done and taught among the members was kept a profound secret towards all. Porphyry stated that this silence was "of no ordinary kind." Candidates had to pass through a period of probation, in which their powers of maintaining silence (echemythia) were especially tested, as well as their general temper, disposition, and mental capacity. There were also gradations among the members themselves. It was an old Pythagorean maxim, that every thing was not to be told to every body. Thus the Pythagoreans were divided into an inner circle called the mathematikoi ("learners") and an outer circle called the akousmatikoi ("listeners"). Iamblichus describes them in terms of esoterikoi and exoterikoi (or alternatively Pythagoreioi and Pythagoristai), according to the degree of intimacy which they enjoyed with Pythagoras. Porphyry wrote "the mathematikoi learned the more detailed and exactly elaborated version of this knowledge, the akousmatikoi (were) those who had heard only the summary headings of his (Pythagoras's) writings, without the more exact exposition."

There were ascetic practices (many of which had, perhaps, a symbolic meaning) in the way of life of the sect. Some represent Pythagoras as forbidding all animal food. This may have been due to the doctrine of metempsychosis. Other authorities contradict the statement. According to Aristoxenus, he allowed the use of all kinds of animal food except the flesh of oxen used for ploughing, and rams. There is a similar discrepancy as to the prohibition of fish and beans. But temperance of all kinds seems to have been urged. It is also stated that they had common meals, resembling the Spartan system, at which they met in companies of ten.

Considerable importance seems to have been attached to music and gymnastics in the daily exercises of the disciples. Their whole discipline is represented as encouraging a lofty serenity and self-possession, of which, there were various anecdotes in antiquity. Iamblichus (apparently on the authority of Aristoxenus) gives a long description of the daily routine of the members, which suggests many similarities with Sparta. The members of the sect showed a devoted attachment to each other, to the exclusion of those who did not belong to their ranks. There were even stories of secret symbols, by which members of the sect could recognise each other, even if they had never met before.

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Pythagoras of Samos's Timeline

-570
-570
Ancient Greece
-495
-495
Age 74
Metapontum, Gulf of Tarentum, Italy
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