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Greek Philosopher: Pythagoras

Updated on April 2, 2009

582 - 500 BC

Greek mathematican and philosopher, best known for his discovery that the square of the hypotenuse of a right angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.

Background of Pythagoras

Greek philosopher and mathematician, born in Samos. He was instructed in the teachings of the early Ionian philosophers, and in his later travels he also learned of the doctrines of the Egyptian priests. He is said to have been driven from Samos by his disgust for the tyranny of Polycrates.

About 530 BC he settled in Crotona, a Greek colony in southern Italy, where he founded the Pythagorean brotherhood, the moral and religious movement known as the Pythagorean School. It elevated mathematics to a religion, and his belief that the world was a vast mathematcial pattern was reflected in his dictum 'All is Number'.

He also taught the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, and a system of astronomy similar to Copernicus.

As a philosopher Pythagoras influenced Plato.

Pythagorean School

In his early years Pythagoras traveled throughout Egypt and Babylonia, where he studied mathematical and religious doctrines. He also drew on the teachings of the early Ionian philosophers and the Orphic mysteries. 530 BC he settled in Crotona, southern Italy, and established a religious and philosophical school that combined the study of nature with asceticism.

Members of the Pythagorean brotherhood were called Friends of Wisdom and practice obedience, silence, simplicity and self-observation. They believed in immortality and the reincarnation of human souls and investigated theories of mathematics and astronomy. The Pythagoreans were mistrusted by the Greek aristocrats and democrats alike and were frequently forced to flee from prosecution.

Pythagoras believed in the sanctity and perfection of certain numbers. The rational study of numbers underlaid Pythagorean principles of order, proportion and harmony in the universe and led to the formulation of Pythagoras' theorem, which states that, in any right-angled triangle, the square on the hypotenuse equals the sum of the squares on the other two sides, a specific example is one whose sides are in the ratio 3:4:5.

The Pythagoreans were the first to put forward the idea that the Earth, Sun and other planets are globes revolving in the heavens. They also discovered the numerical ratios determining the musical intervals on the tuned string and believed that the heavenly bodies were positioned in accordance with this, their movements giving rise to musical sounds.

Towards the end of the fifth century BC the Pythagorean order was violently put down by the powerful Democratic Party. Pythagoras was forced by a conspiracy of his enemies to flee to Metapontum, where he died.


  • Pears Cyclopaedia, Twenty-Ninth Edition, 1926
  • New Encyclopedia, Volume 20, 1971, Funk & Wagnalls
  • Library of Essential Knowledge, Volume 2, Readers Digest, 1980
  • New Knowledge Library - Universal Reference Encyclopedia, Volume 24, Bay Books, 1981


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