Among scholars, there is what is known as the “Pythagorean Question”. This can be asked in a number of different ways, but they should all give similar results. For instance, one might simply ask, who was Pythagoras? To be more specific, what were his personal beliefs and practices? Simple questions like these have become the daunting Pythagorean Question for several reasons. For one thing, Pythagoras never wrote anything down, so the accounts about him are entirely derived from the reports of others. To make matters worse, there was no extensive or authoritative contemporary account of Pythagoras ever produced. Unfortunately, only fragments of the first detailed accounts of Pythagoras, written about 150 years after his death, have survived. As if that wasn’t bad enough, these accounts disagree with one another on many significant points. Plus, by the 3rd century CE, when the first detailed accounts of Pythagoras that survive intact were finally written, the accounts of Pythagoras had become almost entirely hagiographical. Thus, the problem comes in trying to determine the biography of someone who is more myth than man at this point. Given these circumstances, the only reliable approach to answering the Pythagorean question is to start with the earliest evidence, whenever possible. The rest of the story has to be woven together with sound reason, thus giving the most accurate answer to the Pythagorean Question.
With that being said, here’s what I think really happened. In the year 570 BCE, the Pythia prophesied to Pythagoras’ mother that she would give birth to a man supremely beautiful, wise, and beneficial to mankind. Months later, a deceased fisherman from Delos named Pyrrhus was reborn as Pythagoras on the Ionian Greek island of Samos in the eastern Aegean, off the coast of modern Turkey. Following that, during Pythagoras’ most formative years, Samos became a thriving cultural hub known for its architectural marvels, including the Tunnel of Eupalinos. Samos was a major center of trade in the Aegean where merchants brought goods from the Near East. Along with this, Pythagoras’ early life also coincided with the flowering of Ionian natural philosophy. So, Pythagoras was a contemporary of the philosophers Anaximenes and Anaximander, as well as the historian Hecataeus. They all lived across the sea from Samos, in Miletus, the birthplace of Western philosophy.
Throughout his life, Pythagoras traveled far and wide in search of meaning and purpose. He came to learn geometry from the Egyptians, as well as arithmetic from the Phoenicians, and astronomy from the Chaldeans. This all went into what Pythagoreanism would later become. As a perfect example, according to Herodotus, the Egyptians believed that the soul was reborn as every sort of animal before returning to human form after 3,000 years. Learning of this, Pythagoras soon became a Greek expert on the fate of the soul after death. He was a master of metempsychosis who valued the immortality of the soul just as much as the prominence of numbers, if not more. In line with this, as part of the doctrine of “eternal recurrence”, Pythagoras believed that after certain periods of time the things that have already happened will happen again and again, so nothing is really new. This was often symbolized by the ouroboros.
Regardless, in 530 BCE, when Pythagoras was forty years old, he left Samos to escape the tyranny of Polycrates. He settled in the Greek colony of Croton, in what is now southern Italy. However, he continued to travel in search of sages. As such, Pythagoras’ greatest influence was undoubtedly his mentor, the great bard Orpheus. Along with this, upon Pythagoras’ initiation into the Orphic Mysteries at Leibethra, a priest named Aglaophamus dictated a sacred discourse about the gods to him. Then, the Greek sorcerer Pherecydes of Syros taught Pythagoras thaumaturgic ideas. Thus, Pythagoras ultimately became a polytheistic miracle-worker. Soon, the people of Croton began to call him the “Hyperborean Apollo”. The Mongolian shaman Abaris even came a very long way to see the wisdom of the West catch up with the East. The renowned Asian priest quickly recognized Pythagoras as an incarnation of Apollo and presented Pythagoras with his arrow, which was a token of divine power.
Having achieved all of these things, Pythagoras became a cult leader. Of course, there was a long initiation process to get in though. Anyone seeking to meet Pythagoras and become a Pythagorean had to first observe a five-year vow of silence. This just made the secret society that much more desirable to join. Then, once admitted into the order, Pythagoreans didn’t rule as a group. Instead, they made their political impact through individual members who gained positions of authority in the Greek city-states in southern Italy. More importantly, there were lots of rules that they had to follow as a whole. Pythagoras advised Pythagoreans to pour libations to the gods from the handle of the cup, to refrain from wearing the images of the gods on their fingers, not to sacrifice a white cock, and to sacrifice and enter the temple barefoot. Furthermore, Pythagoras was not a vegetarian. He only forbade the eating of certain parts of animals and certain species of animals rather than all animals. Pythagoras argued that it was legitimate to kill and eat sacrificial animals, on the grounds that the souls of men do not enter into those animals.
The thing is that although Pythagoras coined the term “philosophy”, he wasn’t actually the first philosopher. There were countless lovers of wisdom long before he arrived on the scene. Those presocratic intellectuals set the stage for modern thought, and Pythagoras was just one among many. To further complicate things, Pythagoras never wrote anything down, nor were there any detailed accounts of his thoughts written by his contemporaries. This makes it very difficult to understand what he truly believed. Still, as far as I can tell, Pythagoras learned most of his moral doctrines from the Delphic priestess Aristoclea. The way I see it, he never really had any big ideas of his own. In fact, he didn’t even discover the so-called “Pythagorean theorem” for which he has become internationally famous. The truth is that while he was in Babylon, Pythagoras learned that in a right-angled triangle the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the two other sides. In other words, a² + b² = c². So, although it had been known about in Mesopotamia and India for centuries, he introduced the concept to the Greeks as the “Pythagorean theorem”.
In many ways, the poet Heraclitus of Ephesus was right to mock Pythagoras as a charlatan. At the same time though, Pythagoras did discover the study of irrational magnitudes and the construction of the five regular solids. Plus, for the first time in human history, the study of proportion tied together arithmetic, geometry, and harmonics. Still, if anything, Pythagoras was much more of a numerologist than a mathematician. Pythagoras was known for the high honor that he gave to numbers and for removing them from the practical realm of trade. Instead, he pointed to correspondences between the behavior of numbers and the behavior of things. Thus, Pythagoras’ cosmology embodied mathematical relationships that had a basis in fact and combined them with moral ideas tied to the fate of the soul. So, he was primarily a figure of religious and ethical significance, who left behind an influential way of life and for whom number and cosmology primarily had significance in a religious and moral context. As part of this, the Tetrad became a mystical symbol that was central to the secret worship of Pythagoreanism.
The “Tetractys of the Decad” is a triangular figure consisting of ten points arranged in four rows: one, two, three, and four points in each row, which is the geometrical representation of the fourth triangular number. So, the first four numbers symbolize the musica universalis as the Monad (1), Dyad (2), Triad (3), and Tetrad (4). The Tetractys also symbolizes the four classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water. The Pythagorean musical system is also based on the Tetractys as the rows can be read as the ratios of 4:3 (perfect fourth), 3:2 (perfect fifth), 2:1 (octave), forming the basic intervals of the Pythagorean scales. Moreover, the four rows add up to ten, which is the unity of a higher order, the Dekad (10). For all of these reasons and more, Pythagoras revered the sacred image so much that he even prayed to it. Unfortunately for him, all of his bizarre occult behavior made Pythagoras a social outcast. So, by extension, every Pythagorean was seen to be a nuisance in society. As a consequence of this, there was a great deal of violence directed toward Pythagoras and his followers in Croton beginning in 510 BCE. This happened in part because of the exclusive nature of the Pythagorean way of life, and in part for their extreme eccentricities. This all eventually led Pythagoras to flee to another Greek city in southern Italy, named Metapontum. So, in the end, the enigmatic figure lived out the rest of his life as a self-exiled social pariah until he finally died in 490 BCE.