Pythagoras of Samos

Pythagoras of Samos (570–490 BC) stands in a class all his own. Often described as the first "pure mathematician," his philosophy was grounded in the beauty of numerical logic. He considered the subjects of goodness and justice to be his personal business, and spent much time pondering and teaching them together with his ongoing mathematical research.

Pythagoras was born in Samos, Ionia, traveled with his father to Tyre and was taught there by the Chaldaeans and the learned men of Syria. Iamblichus, in his Life of Pythagoras, said that as a young man, Pythagoras visited Thales in Miletus, who advised him to learn mathematics and astronomy in Egypt. Porphyry’s account suggests that Pythagoras visited many temples there, but was accepted into the priesthood only at Diospolis.


“Pythagoras was the first to call himself a philosopher,
literally a lover of wisdom.” – Porphyry of Tyre


Pythagoras founded a school in Croton (now Crotone, in southern Italy), wherein he taught his philosophy. According to Iamblichus, his followers occupied an inner circle (esoterikoi) called the mathematikoi ("learners") and an outer circle (exoterikoi) called the akousmatikoi ("listeners"), according to their degree of intimacy 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."

Porphyry of Tyre wrote, "Pythagoras was indeed the first man to call himself a philosopher. Others before had called themselves wise (sophos), but Pythagoras was the first to call himself a philosopher, literally a lover of wisdom. More importantly, for Pythagoras and his followers, philosophy was not merely an intellectual pursuit, but a way of life, the aim of which was the assimilation to God. … Such things taught he, though advising above all things to speak the truth, for this alone deifies men. For as he had learned from the Magi, who call God Oremasdes [Ormuzd], God’s body is light, and his soul is truth. He taught much else, which he claimed to have learned from Aristoclea at Delphi."


Pythagoreans celebrate sunrise image by Bronnikov
Pythagoreans Celebrate Sunrise
by Fyodor Bronnikov

The beliefs ascribed to Pythagoras (Encyclopedia Britannica) included: At its deepest level, reality is mathematical in nature. Philosophy can be used for spiritual purification. The soul can rise to union with the divine. Certain symbols have a mystical significance. All brothers of the order should observe strict loyalty and secrecy. Of Pythagoras of Samos, Ovid wrote:

There was a man here, Samian born, but he
Had fled from Samos, for he hated tyrants
And chose, instead, an exile’s lot. His thought
Reached far aloft, to the great gods in Heaven,
And his imagination looked on visions
Beyond his moral sight. All things he studied
With watchful eager mind, and he brought home
What he had learned and sat among the people
Teaching them what was worthy, and they listened
In silence, wondering at the revelations
How the great world began, the primal cause,
The nature of things, what God is, whence the snows
Come down, where lightning breaks from, whether wind
Or Jove speaks in the thunder from the clouds,
The cause of earthquakes, by what law the stars
Wheel in their course, all the secrets hidden
From man’s imperfect knowledge. –
Ovid, Metamorphoses

Historiographer Robert Taylor wrote of him, "Pythagoras was a teacher of the purest system of morals ever propounded to man." We agree. Significantly, early sources attest that Plato had studied the teachings of Pythagoras.

Aulus Gellius described "What the method and what the order of the Pythagorean training was, and the amount of time which was prescribed and accepted as the period for learning and at the same time keeping silence":

"It is said that the order and method followed by Pythagoras, and afterwards by his school and his successors, in admitting and training their pupils were as follows: At the very outset he ’physiognomized’ the young men who presented themselves for instruction. That word means to inquire into the character and dispositions of men by an inference drawn from their facial appearance and expression, and from the form and bearing of their whole body. Then, when he had thus examined a man and found him suitable, he at once gave orders that he should be admitted to the school and should keep silence for a fixed period of time; this was not the same for all, but differed according to his estimate of the man’s capacity for learning quickly. But the one who kept silent listened to what was said by others; he was, however, religiously forbidden to ask questions, if he had not fully understood, or to remark upon what he had heard. Now, no one kept silence for less than two years, and during the entire period of silent listening they were called ἀκουστικοί or ’auditors.’ But when they had learned what is of all things the most difficult, to keep quiet and listen, and had finally begun to be adepts in that silence which is called ἐχεμυθία or ’continence in words,’ they were then allowed to speak, to ask questions, and to write down what they had heard, and to express their own opinions. During this stage they were called μαθηματικοί or ’students of science,’ evidently from those branches of knowledge which they had now begun to learn and practise; for the ancient Greeks called geometry, gnomonics,1 music and other higher studies μαθήματα or ’sciences’; but the common people apply the term mathematici to those who ought to be called by their ethnic name, Chaldaeans.2 Finally, equipped with this scientific training, they advanced to the investigation of the phenomena of the universe and the laws of nature, and then, and not till then, they were called φυσικοί or ’natural philosophers.’

"Having thus expressed himself about Pythagoras, my friend Taurus continued: ’But nowadays these fellows who turn to philosophy on a sudden with unwashed feet,3 not content with being wholly "without purpose, without learning, and without scientific training," even lay down the law as to how they are to be taught philosophy. One says, "first teach me this," another chimes in, "I want to learn this, I don’t want to learn that"; one is eager to begin with the Symposium of Plato because of the revel of Alcibiades,4 another with the Phaedrus on account of the speech of Lysias.5 By Jupiter!" said he, ’one man actually asks to read Plato, not in order to better his life, but to deck out his diction and style, not to gain in discretion, but in prettiness.’ That is what Taurus used to say, in comparing the modern students of philosophy with the Pythagoreans of old.

"But I must not omit this fact either — that all of them, as soon as they had been admitted by Pythagoras into that band of disciples, at once devoted to the common use whatever estate and property they had, and an inseparable fellowship was formed, like the old-time association which in Roman legal parlance was termed an ’undivided inheritance.’"6


Life of Pythagoras: The biography of Pythagoras written by Iamblichus, a student of Porphyry, is a comprehensive study of the Pythagoric Life, translated by Thomas Taylor, 1818.
» Read it here »


The Life of Pythagoras of Samos: Diogenes Laertius’ biographical sketch of Pythagoras in his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, translated by Robert D. Hicks, 1925.
» Read it here »


Pythagoras: A recent (2018) scholarly study, by Carl A. Huffman, PhD.
» Read it here »


Pythagoras and the Delphic Mysteries: By Edouard Schuré, translated by F. Rothwell.
» Read it here »


Pythagoras on Moral Law

There is no greater wonder than to range the starry heights, to leave the earth’s dull regions, to ride the clouds, to stand on Atlas’ shoulders, and see, far off, far down, the little figures wandering here and there, devoid of reason, anxious, in fear of death, and so advise them, and so make fate an open book. – Pythagoras, Ovid, Metamorphoses


I tell you that your bodies can never suffer evil, whether fire consumes them, or the waste of time. Our souls are deathless; always, when they leave our bodies, they find new dwelling-places. – Pythagoras, Ovid, Metamorphoses


All things are always changing, but nothing dies. The spirit comes and goes, is housed wherever it wills, shifts residence … but always it keeps on living. As the pliant wax is stamped with new designs, and is no longer what once it was, but changes form, and still is pliant wax, so do I teach that spirit is evermore the same, though passing always to ever-changing bodies. – Pythagoras, Ovid, Metamorphoses


Nothing is permanent in all the world. All things are fluid; every image forms, wandering through change. Time is itself a river in constant movement, and the hours flow by like water, wave on wave, pursued, pursuing, forever fugitive, forever new. That which has been, is not; that which was not, begins to be; motion and moment always in process of renewal. – Pythagoras, Ovid, Metamorphoses


“Sobriety is the strength of the soul,
for it preserves its reason unclouded by passion.”


Our bodies also change. What we have been, what we now are, we shall not be tomorrow. Not even the so‑called elements are constant. – Pythagoras, Ovid, Metamorphoses


Nothing remains the same: the great renewer, Nature, makes form from form, and, oh, believe me that nothing ever dies. What we call birth is the beginning of a difference, no more than that, and death is only ceasing of what had been before. The parts may vary, shifting from here to there, hither and yon, and back again, but the great sum is constant. – Pythagoras, Ovid, Metamorphoses


Remember this: The heavens and all below them, earth and her creatures, all change, and we, part of creation, also must suffer change. We are not bodies only, but winged spirits. – Pythagoras, Ovid, Metamorphoses


The soul of man is divided into three parts, intelligence, reason, and passion. Intelligence and passion are possessed by other animals, but reason by man alone. – Pythagoras, in Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers


We ought so to behave to one another as to avoid making enemies of our friends, and at the same time to make friends of our enemies. – Pythagoras, in Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers


In anger we should refrain both from speech and action. – Pythagoras, in Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers


Reason is immortal, all else mortal. – Pythagoras, in Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers


The most momentous thing in human life is the art of winning the soul to good or to evil. – Pythagoras, in Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers


Number is the ruler of forms and ideas, and the cause of gods and daemons. – Pythagoras, in Iamblichus’ Life of Pythagoras


Sobriety is the strength of the soul, for it preserves its reason unclouded by passion. – Pythagoras, in Enfield’s The History of Philosophy


None but God is wise. – Pythagoras, in Taylor’s The Diegesis


Friends are as companions on a journey, who ought to aid each other to persevere in the road to a happier life. – Pythagoras, in Northend’s Gems of Thought


Anger begins in folly, and ends in repentance. – Pythagoras, in Ballou’s Treasury of Thought


Choose always the way that seems the best, however rough it may be; custom will soon render it easy and agreeable. – Pythagoras, in A Dictionary of Thoughts


It is better wither to be silent, or to say things of more value than silence. Sooner throw a pearl at hazard than an idle or useless word; and do not say a little in many words, but a great deal in a few. – Pythagoras, in A Dictionary of Thoughts


Truth is so great a perfection, that if God would render himself visible to men, he would choose light for his body and truth for his soul. – Pythagoras, in A Dictionary of Thoughts


There is no word or action but has its echo in Eternity. Thought is an Idea in transit, which when once released, never can be lured back, nor the spoken word recalled. Nor ever can the overt act be erased All that thou thinkest, sayest, or doest bears perpetual record of itself, enduring for Eternity. – Pythagoras, in Pythagoron: The Religious, Moral, and Ethical Teachings of Pythagoras


Above and before all things, worship God.Pythagoras, in The Sayings of the Wise



Tetractys

Above all things reverence thy Self. Work at these things, practice them … they are what will put you on the path of divine virtue — yes, by the one who entrusted our soul with the tetraktys, source of ever‑flowing nature. Meditate upon my counsels; love them; follow them; To the divine virtues will they know how to lead thee. … Holding fast to these things, you will know the worlds of gods and mortals which permeates and governs everything. You will know, as is right, nature similar in all respects, so that you will neither entertain unreasonable hopes nor be neglectful of anything. – Pythagoras, in Divine Harmony: The Life and Teachings of Pythagoras


Honor first the immortal gods, in the manner prescribed, and respect the oath. Next, honor the reverent heroes and the spirits of the dead by making the traditional sacrifices. Honor your parents and your relatives. As for others, befriend whoever excels in virtue. Yield to kind words and helpful deeds, and do not hate your friend for a trifling fault as you are able. For ability is near to necessity. – Pythagoras, in Divine Harmony: The Life and Teachings of Pythagoras


Above the cloud with its shadow is the star with its light. Above all things reverence thy self. – Pythagoras, in Divine Harmony: The Life and Teachings of Pythagoras


Practice justice in word and deed, and do not get in the habit of acting thoughtlessly about anything. – Pythagoras, in Divine Harmony: The Life and Teachings of Pythagoras


Know that death comes to everyone, and that wealth will sometimes be acquired, sometimes lost. Whatever griefs mortals suffer by divine chance, whatever destiny you have, endure it and do not complain. But it is right to improve it as much as you can, and remember this: Fate does not give very many of these griefs to good people. – Pythagoras, in Divine Harmony: The Life and Teachings of Pythagoras


Many words befall men, mean and noble alike; do not be astonished by them, nor allow yourself to be constrained. If a lie is told, bear with it gently. But whatever I tell you, let it be done completely. Let no one persuade you by word or deed to do or say whatever is not best for you. – Pythagoras, in Divine Harmony: The Life and Teachings of Pythagoras


Do not let sleep close your tired eyes until you have three times gone over the events of the day. ’What did I do wrong? What did I accomplish? What did I fail to do that I should have done?’ Starting from the beginning, go through to the end. Then, reproach yourself for the things you did wrong, and take pleasure in the good things you did. – Pythagoras, in Divine Harmony: The Life and Teachings of Pythagoras


Holding fast to these things, you will know the worlds of gods and mortals which permeates and governs everything. And you will know, as is right, nature similar in all respects, so that you will neither entertain unreasonable hopes nor be neglectful of anything. – Pythagoras, in Divine Harmony: The Life and Teachings of Pythagoras


Wretched men are the cause of their own suffering, who neither see nor hear the good that is near them, and few are the ones who know how to secure release from their troubles. – Pythagoras, in Divine Harmony: The Life and Teachings of Pythagoras


All men assert that wisdom is the greatest good, but that there are few who strenuously seek out that greatest good. – Pythagorean Ethical Sentences From Stobæus


Do not even think of doing what ought not to be done. – Pythagorean Ethical Sentences From Stobæus


Choose rather to be strong in soul than in body. – Pythagorean Ethical Sentences From Stobæus


It is difficult to walk at one and the same time many paths of life. – Pythagorean Ethical Sentences From Stobæus


This is the Law of God, that virtue is the only thing that is strong; and that every thing else is a trifle. – Pythagorean Ethical Sentences From Stobæus


It is requisite to defend those who are unjustly accused of having acted injuriously, but to praise those who excel in a certain good. – Pythagorean Ethical Sentences From Stobæus


Nor is the man worthy who possesses great wealth, but he whose soul is generous. – Pythagorean Ethical Sentences From Stobæus


When the wise man opens his mouth, the beauties of his soul present themselves to the view, like the statues in a temple. – Pythagorean Ethical Sentences From Stobæus


Despise all those things which when liberated from the body you will not want. – Pythagorean Ethical Sentences From Stobæus


Those alone are dear to Divinity who are hostile to injustice. – Pythagorean Ethical Sentences From Stobæus


None can be free who is a slave to, and ruled by, his passions. – Pythagoras, Florilegium, XVIII, 23


It is not proper … to use freedom of speech ineffectually. Neither is the sun to be taken from the world, nor freedom of speech from erudition.Pythagoras in The Diegesis


Endnotes

1^ The science of dialling, concerned with the making and testing of sun-dials (γνώμονες).

2^ Chaldaei and mathematici were general terms for astrologers at Rome; see e.g. Suetonius, Lives, Domitian, xiv. 1, xv. 3; Tiberius lxix; etc.

3^ Proverbial for "without preparation."

4^ Ch. 30.

5^ Ch. 6.

6^ See Servius, In Vergilii Aeneidem commentarii viii. 612, "ercto non cito," id est, hereditate non divisa; nam citus divisus siqnificat.

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Pythagoras of Samos (582-500 B.C.)
The premier mystic of Ancient Greece,
and the father of philosophy


References

Baldwin, William. The Sayings of the Wise: Or, Food for Thought. A Christian Library, Edward Arber, editor. London: Elliot Stock, 1908. This text is in the public domain.

Ballou, Maturin Murray. Treasury of Thought: An Encyclopædia of Quotations from Ancient and Modern Authors. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1881. This text is in the public domain.

The Complete Pythagoras. Opensource collection of Pythagoras biographies and fragments, Kenneth S. Guthrie, trans., Patrick Rousell, editor. Internet Archive, 2011.

Edwards, Tyron. The New Dictionary of Thoughts: A Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors of the World, both Ancient and Modern. Charlotte, NC: Britkin Publishing Co., 1927. This text is in the public domain.

Enfield, William. The History of Philosophy: From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Present Century, vol 2 of 2 vols. London: J. Johnson, 1819. This text is in the public domain.

Gellius, Aulus. The Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius. John C. Rolfe, trans. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1927. This text is in the public domain.

Huffman, Carl, "Pythagoras", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. First published February 23, 2005; substantive revision October 17, 2018. (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), [Accessed April 14, 2021].

Huson, Hobart. Pythagoron: The Religious, Moral, and Ethical Teachings of Pythagoras. Refugio, Texas, 1947. This text is in the public domain.

Iamblichus of Chalcis. Life of Pythagoras. Thomas Taylor, translator. Los Angeles: Theosophical Publishing House, 1818. This text is in the public domain.

Laertius, Diogenes. "Pythagoras," Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. Robert Drew Hicks, trans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1925. This text is in the public domain.

Northend, Charles. Gems of Thought: Being a Collection of More Than a Thousand Choice Selections, Or Aphorisms. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1888. This text is in the public domain.

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Ovid. "Pythagoras Teaches His Philosophy," Metamorphoses, Book 15, lines 60‑477. Brookes More, trans., Boston, Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922. [Theoi Project, Aaron J. Atsma, New Zealand, retrieved November 13, 2017.]

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Porphyry, "Life of Pythagoras," in Heroes and Gods, Moses Hadas and Morton Smith (eds.), New York: Harper and Row, 1965. This text is in the public domain.

Porphyry of Tyre. The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library: An Anthology of Ancient Writings which Relate to Pythagoras and Pythagorean Philosophy. Kenneth S. Guthrie and David R. Fideler, trans. Public Domain: 1919. This text is in the public domain.

Pythagoras. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved February 19, 2011.

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Pythagoras. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved February 19, 2011.

Pythagoras. The Golden Verses of Pythagoras and other Pythagorean Fragments. Selected and arranged by Florence M. Firth, 1904. This text is in the public domain.

Pythagoras. The Golden Verses of Pythagoras and other Pythagorean Fragments. Fabre d’Olivet, 1917. This text is in the public domain.

Strohmeier, John and Peter Westbrook. Divine Harmony: The Life and Teachings of Pythagoras. Harmonia Books, 2011.

Taylor, Robert. The Diegesis: Being a Discovery of the Origin, Evidences, and Early History of Christianity. Boston: A. Kneeland, 1834. This text is in the public domain.


Note: We do not endorse the doctrine of transmigration of the soul from human to animal, which some writers have ascribed to Pythagoras.