Pythagoras, one of the most renowned and contentious ancient Greek philosophers, flourished between 570 and 490 BCE. His early years were spent on the island of Samos, off the coast of current Turkey. At the age of forty, he relocated to the city of Croton in southern Italy, where he conducted the most of his philosophical work.

Pythagoras left no writings, and his contemporaries left no precise records of his ideas. In addition, by the first decades BCE, it had become customary to portray Pythagoras as a semi-divine character who founded much that was true in the Greek intellectual tradition, including many of Plato’s and Aristotle’s mature ideas. To support this viewpoint, a number of forgeries were written in the name of Pythagoras and other Pythagoreans.

The current conception of Pythagoras is that of a mathematician and scientist of the highest calibre. Pythagoras was popular in his own day and even 150 years later in the period of Plato and Aristotle, but the earliest evidence indicates that his fame was not based on mathematics or science.

Pythagoras was renowned as an expert on the fate of the soul after death, who believed that the soul was immortal and went through a series of reincarnations;  an expert on religious ritual; a wonder-worker with a golden thigh and the ability to be in two places at once; and the founder of a strict way of life that emphasised dietary restrictions, religious ritual, and rigorous self discipline.

It is still debatable if he also participated in the rational cosmology typical of Presocratic philosophers/scientists and whether he was a mathematician in any sense. Early evidence shows, however, that Pythagoras provided an universe structured according to moral principles and substantial numerical links and may have been comparable to cosmos concepts found in Platonic stories, such as those found at the conclusion of the Phaedo and Republic.

 In such a universe, the planets were viewed as weapons of divine wrath (“the dogs of Persephone“), the sun and moon are the islands of the blessed where we can go if we live a decent life, and thunder served to terrify the souls being tortured in Tartarus. The celestial bodies also appear to have moved in line with the mathematical ratios that regulate concordant musical intervals in order to make a melody of the sky, which evolved into “the harmony of the spheres” in later traditions.

It is unlikely that Pythagoras himself thought in terms of spheres, because the mathematics of the motions of the sky was not developed in great depth at the time. There is evidence that he valued number connections such as those represented in the so-called Pythagorean theorem, but it is unlikely that he proved it. Recent study has posed significant challenges to this prevailing perspective.

Philolaus and Archytas, his successors in the Pythagorean tradition, advanced the cosmology of Pythagoras in a more mathematical and scientific path. Pythagoras was successful in propagating a more hopeful perspective of the fate of the soul after death and in establishing a rigorous and disciplined style of life that attracted many loyal followers.

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