An Anti-Democratic Philosopher Who Suffered When Democracy Was Restored
From the perspective of pro-democracy Athenians, Socrates was not a harmless old philosopher who merely asked uncomfortable questions. Instead, he was a pernicious guru who taught a subversive philosophy that catered to aristocrats hostile to democracy. Many of Socrates’ students had committed treason Most infamous among them was Alcibiades. Athens lost that war, and Socrates’ acolytes overthrew the democratic government and replaced it with the with the Thirty Tyrants regime, which engaged in widespread murder.
When democracy was restored, people looked back at Athens’ glory days only three decades past, when their polis was at the height of its power and prosperity. They contrasted those days with their reduced circumstances in the aftermath of catastrophic defeat and violent repression, and asked themselves “what went wrong?“ Socrates and his boat rocking were among the answers. Athens became unhealthy for Socrates’ students, and Plato fled to travel around the Mediterranean. He returned years later, after passions had cooled, and founded The Academy in the 380s BC. It is in that context that Plato penned his sympathetic account of Socrates.
There Was Way More to Pythagoras Than “A Squared Plus B Squared Equals C Squared”
As seen in a previous entry, Pythagoras was not your everyday philosopher. It is unfortunate that the first thing that comes to people’s mind when they think of him – probably the only thing that comes to mind – is the Pythagorean theorem from grade school. There was so much more to the man than “for right angled triangles, side A squared plus side B squared equals side C (hypotenuse) squared“. The real Pythagoras was actually more of an eccentric – or even lunatic – cult leader, who was good at math and got his followers to worship numbers.
However, the theorems and equations competed with Pythagoras’ other weird beliefs. For example, he launched a crusade against beans: he equated eating them to cannibalism and to eating one’s parents. Pythagoras was not just a mathematician: he was a full blown cult leader. Those who followed him were not just people who liked math, but adherents of a full-blown religion that revolved around math. Pythagoras preached that the world was based and built on numbers. He taught his followers that reality and the entire universe were controlled by mathematical harmonies.
A Philosopher Who Believed That People Lost a Bit of Their Soul Whenever They Farted
Pythagoras also preached that math was holy, and that numbers were sacred and godlike. The number seven, for example, was associated with wisdom, and eight was associated with justice. Ten was the universe’s holiest number, and the Pythagoreans worshipped it with a prayer that began: “Bless us divine number, who created gods and men“. Their most sacred symbol was the Tetractys, a triangle with ten points across four rows. Pythagoras advanced many reasons to avoid beans, especially fava beans. One of the funnier ones was his belief that human beings lost a part of their soul whenever they farted, with a bit of their inner being exiting along with the expelled gasses.
More seriously, the influential mathematician and philosopher believed that beans contained the souls of the dead. He got there after a “scientific” experiment to prove that humans and beans were spawned from the same source. Pythagoras buried beans in mud, and left them for a few weeks before retrieving them. When he dug them up, he saw a resemblance to human fetuses. So he convinced himself of an intimate relationship between beans and humans, and reasoned that eating beans was akin to eating human flesh. Thus, Pythagoras equated eating beans with cannibalism, and not just as any cannibalism, but cannibalism of one’s father and mother. As he explained it to his followers: “Eating fava beans and gnawing on the heads of one’s parents are one and the same“.
In addition to his great dislike of beans, Pythagoras taught his followers that meat should never be eaten under any circumstances. That made this strange philosopher one of the earliest known vegetarians in Western civilization. His stance was based on a belief in the transmigration of souls – the notion that souls pass from one body to another, whether human or animal. As such, Pythagoras refrained from eating meat out of fear that he might end up accidentally eating a deceased friend or relative. The belief in the transmigration of souls also led Pythagoras to advocate for kindness towards animals.
In one instance, he came across a man beating a dog. He recognized in its yelps of pain the voice of a recently deceased friend. So he physically intervened and got the man to release the dog, and thus spared it a life of misery with a cruel owner. Members of Pythagoras’ cult worshipped him as a demigod, and referred to him as “the divine Pythagoras“. They believed that he possessed supernatural powers that allowed him to write words on the face of the moon. They also thought that Pythagoras could tame the wild animals of the earth and the birds of the sky by stroking them, and that he could control them with his voice.
Pythagoras’ followers claimed that he was the son of the god Apollo, or according to some sources, that he was fathered by the god Hermes. As a sign of his divinity, they claimed that he had a golden thigh, whose shimmering sight turned doubters into believers. Pythagoras encouraged such beliefs, and claimed that the gods had blessed him with the ability to return to life after death via a divine rebirth. He allegedly murdered his most famous acolyte, Hippasus, a genius in his own right, in a dispute over math. Pythagoras’ math religion revolved around the belief that numbers could explain all in life. Central to that was the belief that everything in the universe could be explained by rational numbers that could be expressed as fractions.
Then Hippasus demonstrated the existence of irrational numbers. It turned out to be a bad move on his part. For Pythagoras and his closest adherents, Hippasus’ irrational numbers were like a turd dropped into their punch bowl. Unfortunately for Hippasus, although a genius, he was not very smart. He demonstrated his irrational numbers while on a boat that contained only him, Pythagoras, and a bunch of other Pythagoreans. He wrestled Hippasus to the side of the boat, and dunked his head underwater until his struggling student ceased to breathe. The homicidal philosopher then tossed the corpse overboard, and warned his other followers to never mention what they had seen or heard.
Like most cults, that of Pythagoras and his followers alarmed the rest of the community in which they dwelt. At first, the people of Croton, where Pythagoras lived with his followers, put up with the math weirdos in their midst. Then the Pythagoreans stepped over the line. Overestimating their power – and the appeal of their beliefs – they made a bid for power, and tried to compel ordinary citizens to adopt the Pythagorean lifestyle. It did not end well for Pythagoras and his adherents.
The Pythagoreans morphed into an ancient Greek math ISIS or Boko Haram. They tried to prevent the people of Croton from eating beans, and directed that at all costs, they must not eat meat. The good people of Croton reacted violently, and it ended in a general persecution of Pythagoreans. By the time the dust had settled, many of the cultists had been killed, while the rest were forced to flee. The survivors attempted to regroup and carry on elsewhere, but they never again achieved as much prominence or power as they had secured in Croton, and they cult soon faded away.
As to Pythagoras himself, the mathematician and philosopher was killed in the backlash against his cult. A number of different accounts depict his end. One of them has it that, as he fled for his life with angry pursuers hot on his heels, Pythagoras flight took him to a field of beans. Beans were sacred to Pythagoras, so he stated that he would rather die than step on a single bean. That is what happened when his pursuers caught up with him at the edge of the bean field, and slit his throat.
In another version, the people of Croton attacked a house in which Pythagoras and his followers were conducting a meeting, and set it on fire. Pythagoras escaped with a small group of followers, and eventually took shelter in a temple. There, he was besieged, and eventually starved to death. He had refused to eat the only food available: beans. Contra his claims, Pythagoras was not a god, and contra his and his followers’ prediction, he did not return from the dead.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading