Pythagoras: World's Nerdiest Cult Leader

Historically, cults and their leaders haven't had much luck getting good publicity. Maybe it's because of their intense religious fervor or their creepy recruiting methods, but most people do their best to avoid these cliques (not to mention the punch they serve). But hey, they aren't all bad. Ancient mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras had his own cult (er, "brotherhood") and if it weren't for him, children today might not be stuck at their desks trying to understand the multiplication tables. While most of Pythagora's philosophical beliefs seem pretty normal now, his theories on mathematics, music, and astronomy truly salvaged his legacy from "total whackjob" to "the father of numbers."


Pythagoras was born on the island of Sámos (off what is now the western coast of Turkey) around 580 B.C.E. As a child, he spent most of his time writing poetry, reciting Homer, and learning to play the lyre. So he was a little precocious, to say the least. By the time Pythagoras turned 22, he pretty much absorbed everything his primary teacher, Pherecydes, had to offer in the areas of math and astronomy, so he was promptly shoved off to Egypt to further his studies. Luckily for our young scholar, this allowed him to get the heck out of Sámos, which was fast becoming a seething pit of unrest thanks to the ruling tyrant, Polycates.


Pythagoras made a quick beeline for the land of the Sphinx and immediately sought out the knowledgable priests of Egypt. But temple after temple turned him away, refusing to let him study with them because he didn't have the proper training in fasting and breathing. That is, until he arrived on the steps of the temple at Diospolis. There, Pythagoras was allowed to experience this training under their guidance, and, if able to endure the "hazing," would be admitted.

After completing the rites necessary for admission (and learning the extraordinariily complicated Diospolis handshake), Pythagoras was accepted into the priesthood. He spent the next 22 years there, learning geometry and cosmology while embracing the priesthood's other traditions, such as living life without personal possessions, adhering to a vegetarian diet, and, perhaps most famously, being strictly forbidden to eat beans. Although many historians are unsure why, some have postulated that the bean ban was due to the fact that they caused flatulence (still do), which destroyed the mental peace the priesthood of Diospolis felt was necessary for meditation. Another school of thought notes that black and white beans were used for voting at the time, and remaining sans beans was the equivalent of being apolitical. But, beans or not, during Pythagoras' time as a leader in this brotherhood, he began to develop philosophical beliefs that would one day become the cornerstone of his own teachings.


At Diospolis, Pythagoras wholeheartedly embraced the belief that the world was ruled by a harmony that could best be expressed in terms of numerical relationships. His first proof of this: the beloved Pythagorean Theorem, stating that, "the sum of the areas of the squares on the legs of a right triangle is equal to the area on the square of the hypotenuse." Or, more simply put, "a2+ b2 = c2."

Historians actualy suspect that older civilizations were aware of this relationship betweens the sides of a right triangle, but that Pythagoras was the first to confirm it mathematically. And although there's nothing in writing to prove such (Pythagoras was one of  those sneaky philosophers who kept nothing written down), it's somewhat supported by the fact that, during Pythagoras' time in Egypt, Egyptian architects began using the theorem to assist them in construction.

But keep in mind that Pythagoras wasn't one of those guys who simply holed himself up like an obsessed calculus student studying for finals (that would come later). He also spent much of his time in Egypt trying to better himself as a person. Building upon the priesthood's beliefs that each human should be pure and act only in a positive manner, Pythagoras began creating a list of "golden words." This was a selection of 71 phrases that would encourage people to attempt to ascend to the highest level of goodness -rules and guidelines from the best way to pray to how to stir a fire correctly. Although his quirky aphorisms reeked of an egomaniac overcome with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, his saying helped influence the Greek medical text, the Hippocratic Oath, which first required doctors to adhere to  professional standards to "do no harm."


Having spent half his lifetime away from home, Pythagoras finished his studies in Egypt and returned to Sámos. There, he quickly developed a following based on his ideals and philosophies, which were known as "the semicircle of Pythagoras." When not talking numbers with his semicircle crew, he was living in a cave. A really dark, lonely cave, but one in which he must have been able to do some darn good thinking.

During this period in his life, Pythagoras applied his theories on numbers and their ratios to his second love, music, creating the "first" modern musical scale. Like an ancient Good Will Hunting, Pythagoras saw numbers in everything. So when he looked next to the heavens, he was able to roughly determine how all the planets moved within the solar system, and that the Earth was indeed round. Such theories were adopted later by German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler, who is best known for one of the earliest and most accurate models of our solar system.


Much like modern hippies, Pythagoras and his posse practiced vegetarianism, wore no fur, and disavowed private property. Of course, also like modern hippies, his ideas were often approached with fear and derision. In fact, Pythagoras' beliefs were too mad for Sámos, and the group was eventually forced to leave town, ending up in southern Italy. In the city of Crotona (later Croton), Pythagoras founded a philosophical and religious school based on his life experiences and beliefs (and grew a long, white, phiosopher beard). Appointing himself head of the society (thank you very much), Pythagoras dubbed his inner circle of followers the mathematikoi. He was then quick to incorporate all that he had come to value, including the elaborate process one had to endure in order to gain acceptance in his "exclusive group." His Confucious-style sayings were accompanied by the strict belief that the substance of all things was a relationship of numbers, and without it, few things in the universe could exist. Before, Pythagoras had evolved from a learned man into a well-known and mystical leader of an oft-misunderstood cult.

Strangely, no one is absolutely sure how Pythagoras met his end. While some believe he died in the quiet darkness of his own temple, others suspect those who were threatened by his beliefs killed him in the most ironic of places: a bean field.


The above article by Paul Davidson is reprinted with permission from Volume 3 issue 5 of mental_floss magazine.

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