The Philosopher who Trolled Himself to Death and Other Philosophical Oddities from History
The Philosopher who Trolled Himself to Death and Other Philosophical Oddities from History

The Philosopher who Trolled Himself to Death and Other Philosophical Oddities from History

Khalid Elhassan - September 27, 2022

The Philosopher who Trolled Himself to Death and Other Philosophical Oddities from History
Pythagoras Advocating Vegetarianism, by Rubens. Royal Collection Trust

Pythagoras’s Followers Thought He Was Divine

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.

The Philosopher who Trolled Himself to Death and Other Philosophical Oddities from History
Pythagoras and the Fishermen, by Salvatore Rosa. Wikimedia

This Philosopher Took Numbers Extremely Seriously

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.

The Philosopher who Trolled Himself to Death and Other Philosophical Oddities from History
Pythagoras. Pixels

Pythagoras Led a Cult That Took Over a City

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.

The Philosopher who Trolled Himself to Death and Other Philosophical Oddities from History
Pythagoras turns away from beans in disgust, as depicted by an early sixteenth century French illustration. National Gallery of Art

How Beans Got Pythagoras Killed

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

Adams, Mark – Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City (2015)

All That is Interesting – Is Death From Laughter Real? Chrysippus and Others Say Yes

All That is Interesting – The Tragic Life of Kurt Godel

Ancient Origins – Heraclitus Died When He Covered Himself in Cow Dung

Bussanich, John, and Smith, Nicholas D. – The Bloomsbury Companion to Socrates: The Politics of Impiety – Why Was Socrates Prosecuted by the Athenian Democracy? (2013)

Classical Wisdom – The Cult of Pythagoras

Cracked – 5 Badass (and Bonkers) Moments in Philosophy History

Daily Beast – From Communing With Animals to Obsessive Bean Hatred, Pythagoras Was One Weird Dude

Encyclopedia Britannica – Socrates

Encyclopedia Britannica – Thirty Tyrants

Famous Trials – The Trial of Socrates

Fuhrman, Manfred – Cicero and the Roman Republic (1992)

Gizmodo – Was Pythagoras Really a Murderer?

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe, Volumes 1 – 7: From the Big Bang to Alexander the Great (1990)

History Collection – 11 Things the Ancient Greeks Did Better Than the Modern High Tech World

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Chrysippus

Krentz, Peter – The Thirty Tyrants at Athens (1982)

Listverse – 10 Strange Facts About Pythagoras: Mathematician and Cult Leader

Live Science – ‘Lost City’ of Atlantis: Facts & Fable

Mehring, Franz – Karl Marx: The Story of His Life (2003)

Mookerji, Radhakumud – Chandragupta Maurya and His Times (1966)

Morrison, Donald R. – The Cambridge Companion to Socrates: Socrates and Democratic Athens (2010)

National Geographic – Atlantis

Nomad, Max – Apostles of Revolution (1961)

Sihler, Ernest Gottlieb – Cicero of Arpinum: A Political and Literary Biography (1914)

Singh, Upinder – A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century (2008)

Scullard, Howard Hayes – From the Gracchi to Nero (1982)

Sherwood, Andrew N., et al Greek and Roman Technology, a Sourcebook of Translated Greek and Roman Texts (2019)

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Heraclitus

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Kurt Godel

Vine Pair – The Pythagorean Cup Will Keep You From Drinking Too Much

Waterfield, Robin – Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths (2009)