Features

The Pythagoras Myth?

  • By James Barry

The Pythagoras Myth?

Who is this guy? The triangle man or a Greek super-mathematician/ philosopher/ vegetarian/ spiritual cult leader whose name passes around classrooms some 2300 years after his death? Did he have anything to do with creating mathematical formulas? Did he abstain from eating beans because farts were the soul escaping the body? No you didn’t misread that, there is a deep rabbit hole to tumble down when you start learning about this man… The Vanilla Ice of ancient greek philosophy. 

Pythagoras… A name that most of us, who paid attention in maths at least, are familiar with. The ol' Pythagoras theorem A^2+B^2=C^2 racked our brains most of the way through high school! For most of us that is as far as we read into the name but the deeper you dive the more profound this Greek man’s life seems. 


Pythagoras himself didn’t write anything down which means all we know of him comes to us indirectly through the writings of others, so obviously there is going to be some embellishment. The most detailed accounts of his life and thoughts were written around 800 years after his death, at a time when Pythagoras’ achievements had become HUGELY exaggerated. 


After spending his early years in Samos off the coast of modern Turkey he jumped ship over to a city named Croton in southern Italy, this is where most of his philosophical activity occurred. Pythagoras came to be regarded, in some circles, as the master philosopher, from whom all that was true in Greek philosophical tradition was derived. You could say he set the scene for Plato and Aristotle as they derived most of their important ideas from the Pythagorean way of thinking. However, it wasn’t mathematics or geometry that earned Pythagoras his fame, it was his views on what happened after death! 


He believed that the soul was immortal and existed through a series of reincarnations and this belief led to himself and the people who followed his way of life, Pythagoreans, to become the first documented vegetarians. As the story goes, it is said that Pythagoras once heard his friend’s voice in the yelping of a beaten dog. He then demanded that the beating stop, he knew that within the dog was the soul of his long-lost friend. Historically people who abstained from meat would call themselves Pythagorean until September 29, 1847 when in Ramsgate, England the first “Vegetarian” society was established.

 

One of the stranger myths around the Pythagorean diet was that they didn’t eat beans. An  anecdote that went with this myth was that Pythagoreans believed every time you passed gas you would lose part of your soul… Just think about how much of your soul that burrito would cost you! This was, of course, either a misunderstanding or a misinterpretation of Pythagoras himself saying “beware of the bean” in relation to his views on voting! In ancient Greece beans were used as part of the voting system, a white bean for yes and a black bean for no.


Although scepticism surrounds his mathematical prowess Pythagoras did quite like numbers, it is said he believed that the universal consistency is numbers as all things can be counted. This was the birth of a semi-divine way of looking at numbers themselves and their relation to… well… everything. Numbers are found in music, harmonies, octaves, in the cosmos and all throughout life itself although the question still stands as to how much Pythagoras actually developed these philosophies and how much was written in his name by others. 

 

 

In the face of this, all we can assume is that Pythagoras was a deep thinker and speaker who gained fame for his thoughts and teachings. The most reliable source we have states that in around 510BCE a general persecution of the Pythagoreans occurred as many of the followers were killed or driven away from Croton, potentially due to the exclusive nature of the Pythagorean way of life. The Pythagorean meeting place was burned to the ground and Pythagoras was forced to flee with his followers. It is believed that the society regrouped and continued their activities but not much was heard from them after this time.


So did he even devise this triangle theory that was named after him and is still used to this day? Most likely no… This is not to take away from the influence he had on the philosophy of our past and present but it serves as a glance into how the ripples of his actions and words have spread further than imaginable. One day you’re sitting on a rock guessing at the very fabric of existence and another day math teachers around the globe are using your name for a mathematical theory that has little to nothing to do with you at all.


There were many references in the writing of this article but if you wish to learn more about this mysterious man this is one of the best non biased articles I found:

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pythagoras/



Older Post