Pythagoras: Mathematician and Magician

The story of how mathematics began, in the hands of Pythagoras, combines the rational with the magical. In fact, this man was more of a magician than a scientist. Nevertheless, he made fundamental contributions to the field of human thought.
Pythagoras: Mathematician and Magician

Last update: 08 April, 2021

Like other geniuses in history, Pythagoras was both a deeply rational man and, at the same time, full of strange and mystical ideas. In fact, he was living proof that genius and madness often go hand in hand.

It’s difficult to reconstruct the biography of Pythagoras. We know he was the first pure mathematician in history to ever write. However, all the information we have about him came from his followers. In addition, the first writings about him date back to 150 years after his death and are full of contradictions.

“I prefer the cane of experience than the fast car of fortune. The philosopher travels on foot.”

-Pythagoras-

Pythagoras loved secrecy. In fact, he founded a secret society. As well as mathematics, members of this society engaged in esoteric and mystical activities. They were called Pythagoreans and formed a kind of impenetrable religious cult. For this reason, they didn’t want anyone meddling in their affairs.

Pythagoras's theorem.

A genius in the making

We know that Pythagoras was born in Samos around 569 BC. Apparently, he was the son of a merchant and accompanied his father on many of his adventures. He received a good education that included poetry and learning to play the lyre.

It’s likely that his two great teachers were Thales of Miletus and Anaximander, a disciple of Thales. In fact, it seems that Pythagoras sought them out to train with them when he was between 18 and 20 years old. They were extremely impressed by his knowledge of mathematics and cosmology. For this reason, Thales advised him to go to Egypt to delve deeper into the world of numbers.

Everything seems to suggest that Pythagoras traveled for several years. He did what his teacher suggested and went to Egypt. However, he also traveled to Phenicia, Babylon, Arabia, and undoubtedly more places. He was apparently imprisoned in Babylon and it was there that he came into contact with a sect of magicians.

We don’t know how he managed to get out of prison, but he then traveled to Crotona in Southern Italy. There, he started his own school which had more than 300 members at one point.

Pythagoras in Croton

Contact with magicians, or magi, left its mark on Pythagoras. They worked with astrology, demonology, and magic and practiced mysticism. Due to his beliefs, Pythagoras started to live in a secret cave. Here, he devoted himself to his private study.

In Crotona, Pythagoras founded the School of Pythagoras. Many thought of this as a cult. It was certainly difficult to gain admission, which was mediated by a number of initiation rites. In addition, the school imposed rigid and severe practices on its members. The most prominent members lived together, while others came just to listen.

Pythagoreans didn’t eat meat. They also didn’t wear clothes made from animal skins and they practiced asceticism. Furthermore, they kept their activities secret, deplored democracy, and devoted themselves to studying cosmology, mathematics, and mysticism.

They also believed in metempsychosis. This idea suggests that the psychic elements of a  dead person pass to another body after death. In fact, it’s a variation on the belief of reincarnation, also known as the “transmigration of souls”. This was partly why it was important for the Pythagoreans not to eat meat or make garments with animal skins. Because the soul would seek another body after death to dwell in until it finally became free. Consequently, the Pythagoreans followed a set of ethical guidelines.

Writing math on a whiteboard.

The death of Pythagoras

There are many doubts surrounding the death of Pythagoras. The most widely accepted version is that, due to his opposition to democracy, his school was attacked by some of its supporters. They say the aggressors set fire to the school and Pythagoras had to escape. However, during his escape, he ran into a fava bean field, a vegetable he had a phobia of. There, he was hit and killed.

His further contributions

To date, we don’t know exactly what Pythagoras’s specific contributions were to the field of mathematics. In fact, knowledge was built collectively in his school (or cult). For this reason, we don’t know whether Pythagoras was actually responsible for all the contributions attributed to him. However, we do know that the school developed the foundations of arithmetic, geometry, and mathematics.

The Pythagoreans also made significant advances in the field of music. In fact, many of these remain in force today. They also made discoveries in the field of astronomy. Pythagoras claimed that the sun was a dangerous sphere and that the universe rotated around it. Furthermore, he identified the Earth as a sphere.

The Pythagoreans prayed to the number ten. They considered this number represented totality. Pythagoras said that animals spoke to him and that he could control them with his voice. He also claimed to be able to write on the face of the moon. They even say he killed a man who demonstrated the existence of irrational numbers.

In reality, his life still remains a bit of a mystery today. Furthermore, he probably wasn’t responsible for all the contributions attributed to him. However, there’s no doubt that he was one of the most outstanding philosophers and mathematicians of all time.

Today, centuries later, we continue to study Pythagoras and his rather strange school in our own educational systems and many of his theories remain in force. Indeed, without a doubt, Pythagoras and his school made great strides in combining the disciplines of magic and rationality and spirituality and science.

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  • Guijarro, S. G., & Sánchez, Á. N. (2013). Vidas de filósofos y Hechos apócrifos de los apóstoles: algunos contactos y elementos comunes. Estudios clásicos, (143), 65-92.