After leaving his native Samos
, which was ruled by the tyrant Polycrates
at the time, Pythagoras
is said to have traveled, visiting Egypt
, and then settled in the city of Croton
in southern Italy, at around 530 BC, where he acquired followers and set up a school. Sometime before his death, having upset the citizens of Croton in some way, he moved to the nearby city of Metapontion
No one really knows exactly what doctrine Pythagoras taught to his disciples, but it is thought to be a reformist brand of Orphism. The Pythagoreans were famous for believing in the 'transmigration of souls' -- metempsychosis, or reincarnation, and for the belief that 'the whole heaven is a harmony and a number', that number was 'the substance of all things,' as Aristotle wrote of them.
The Pythagoreans lived communally, regarding property as shared and treating men and women equally. Scientific discoveries and mathematical theories were also regarded as group property, and even after his death were mystically credited to Pythagoras himself.
They were required to follow a code of conduct in their daily life, some elements of which were:
- Not to eat beans. (Still good advice for those living communally!)
- Not to pick up what has fallen.
- Not to touch a white cock.
- Not to break bread.
- Not to step over a crossbar. (Hmm. cf. knights templar?)
- Not to stir the fire with iron.
- Not to eat from a whole loaf. (Don't eat bread then - or have someone break it for you..)
- Not to pluck a garland.
- Not to sit on a quart measure.
- Always put on the right shoe first.
- Not to eat the heart.
- Not to walk on the highway.
- Not to look back when crossing a border.
- Not to let swallows share one's roof.
- When the pot is taken off the fire, not to leave the mark of it in the ashes, but to stir them together.
- Do not look in a mirror beside a light.
- When you rise from the bedclothes, roll them together and smooth out the impress of the body.
The school continued after Pythagoras' death and its views been very influential - perhaps most visibly through the works of Plato
, who is thought by many to have been Pythagorean in doctrine and inspiration - his theory of ideas and the "allegory of the cave
" are both suggestive of this.
As an indication of just how influential, consider that the word theory was originally an Orphic term indicating a kind of ecstatic contemplation: "the spectator is identified with the suffering God, dies in his death, and rises again in his new birth." For the Pythagoreans, this became an intellectual contemplation, though retaining its 'ecstatic' connotations, and resulted in new mathematical knowledge. It is this usage that has given us the modern sense, and the correlate, theorem.
Information from Bertrand Russell - A History of Western Philosophy and Rudy Rucker - Infinity and the Mind. The quotes about Orphic 'theory' are Russell quoting Cornford.