Did Pythagoras exist?
February 14, 2009 7:13 PM   Subscribe

Did Pythagoras exist?

In Simon Critchley's The Book of Dead Philosophers, he writes, "Sadly, it is now almost universally assumed by classical scholars that Pythagoras never existed. It seems that there was a group of people in southern Italy called Pythagoreans who invented a "Founder" for their beliefs who, accordingly, lived and died in a manner consistent with those beliefs." I have never heard this. Is this true? (There are two questions here: is it true that Pythagoras probably didn't exist? And: is it true that this is almost universally assumed by classical scholars?)

Annoyingly, Critchley doesn't provide a citation. He writes in the introduction, "I have decided not to clutter the text with footnotes. The reader will have to trust me." If he's wrong about this, which I fear he is, he's lost my trust entirely. And that would be unhappy, because there are a lot of cute little "facts" about philosophers in this book that I'd like to hand on to. So I hope that I'm wrong.

BTW, here's a really interesting article about Pythagoras, by M. F. Burnyeat, that I found when looking for information on this topic. Burnyeat doesn't mention anything about Pythagoras being a myth, even though it seems like the sort of thing that would be mentioned in this article were it an acceptable hypothesis.
posted by painquale to Religion & Philosophy (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Wikipedia provids a good starting point: Pythagoras.

Towards the bottom of the article:

No primary sources about Pythagoras have survived. This article describes the classical interpretation of Pythagoras, which is based on a small set of texts written between 150 AD and 450 AD. As these texts were written 600 to 1000 years after Pythagoras is said to have lived, their accuracy is uncertain.

It is postulated that the classical Pythagoras did not exist prior to these biographies: many of the discoveries and life details they attributed to Pythagoras may have been those of other Pythagoreans, if not fiction. This would explain the lack of reference to a man Pythagoras until 150 AD, given that he would have been of interest to contemporary philosophers (Aristotle referred to the so-called Pythagoreans). It is suggested that the mathematical significance of the early Pythagoreans (pre-450 BC) has been exaggerated (with the exception of their theory of harmonics), and that the Pythagoreans were an Orphic-like cult with an emphasis on numerology who only later evolved into serious mathematicians as geometry became popular across Greece.

posted by zippy at 7:17 PM on February 14, 2009

I can tell you that at the least, the majority of mathematicians (inc. at least one whose focus is the history of mathematics) assume that he existed. I've never heard such a statement on that side of things.

If I recall correctly, Heraclitus had multiple disagreements with him over and above the beliefs of the Pythagoreans, which would imply that he existed. But I'm not sure about that.
posted by Lemurrhea at 7:20 PM on February 14, 2009

A professor at DePauw labels them contemporaries.

The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy accepts him as a real, historical figure. The SEP is pretty damn reputable, and I'd definitely take their word over Wikipedia.
posted by oddman at 8:11 PM on February 14, 2009

According to Bertrand Russell:
Pythagoras is one of the most interesting and puzzling men in history. Not only are the traditions concerning him an almost inextricable mixture of truth and falsehood, but even in their barest and least disputable form they present us with a very curious psychology. He may be described, briefly, as a combination of Einstein and Mrs. Eddy. He founded a religion, of which the main tenets were the transmigration of souls and the sinfulness of eating beans. His religion was embodied in a religious order, which, here and there, acquired contol of the State and established a rule of the saints. But the unregenerate hankered after beans, and sooner or later rebelled.
posted by homunculus at 9:10 PM on February 14, 2009 [5 favorites]

Here's a nice source.

Fundamentally this is an undecidable type of question. Apparently there are no contemporaneous writings of Pythagoras or accounts of meetings or exchanges with him.

So all knowledge about him goes back to the accounts maintained by the Pythagoreans, and apparently those accounts postdate Pythagoras by at least 150 years.

So you're left with basically three possibilities:

1. Actual historical figure, history somewhat or very much mythologized by his followers.
2. Conflation of a few more or less dimly remembered actual figures into one mythologized figure.
3. Totally mythologized figure who never actually lived.

Which of those you choose likely depends on you as much as on the facts themselves, as the facts appear to be somewhat sparse on the ground and could be arranged so as to support each of the three hypotheses.
posted by flug at 9:29 PM on February 14, 2009

Here's a summary of some research by Carl Huffman of DePauw University, about what Heraclitus says about Pythagoras.

What's interesting for purpose of this discussion is that Heraclitus is a contemporary of Pythagoras (Heraclitus was somewhat younger). A contemporary reference certainly strengthens the argument that Pythagoras was a real person!
"Most people think of Pythagoras as a scientist and mathematician, but the best recent scholarship suggests that he was neither of these and was most of all an expert on the fate of the soul after death and religious ritual. Heraclitus says that Pythagoras 'engaged in historia more than all men.' The focus of my paper is what is meant by the word historia. It is, in fact, the origin of the English word 'history.' Some scholars have argued that, at the time of Heraclitus, it meant "scientific research," and have thus used Heraclitus as evidence that Pythagoras was engaged in scientific and mathematical research. My paper examines the early use of the term historia and shows that while it refers to active inquiry, usually by asking questions of others, it does not usually refer to scientific research and can include inquiry into myths and religious practices. Thus, this important early reference to Pythagoras by Heraclitus does not show that Pythagoras was a scientist or mathematician, and Heraclitus' use of historia in describing Pythagoras is consistent with the other early evidence, which suggests that Pythagoras was primarily an expert on religious ritual and the founder of a way of life."
There are other early or contemporary mentions of Pythagoras, including by Xenophanes--this book (starting on p. 48) examines a number of them.
posted by flug at 9:47 PM on February 14, 2009

It's comparable to the question of whether Homer existed: there's no proof, so it depends on how you evaluate the evidence and on your own presuppositions. To me, it seems more sensible in both cases to assume that someone of that name existed but that we can't know anything for sure about them because of all the later myths that grew up.

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posted by languagehat at 9:06 AM on February 15, 2009

Thanks, guys. It seems that there isn't enough evidence to affirm Pythagoras's existence with certainty. I get that. But are there any scholars that have gone on the record pushing for his inexistence? Who are they? Is there any positive evidence for the claim?

Critchley wrote, "it is now almost universally assumed by classical scholars that Pythagoras never existed." Why did he write this when the only support that anyone in this thread has found is from Wikipedia, with a [citation needed] flag no less? I hope this isn't why Critchley elected not to cite his sources...

I'm kinda pissed at this because this book is chock-full of gossipy little stories that would be fun to sling at a bar. But the very first fact I tried to deploy on my roommate was challenged, and it looks like he's right.

On the plus side, I did learn that the Pythagoreans' credentials as mathematicians are seriously overstated, so at least I came out of this learning something.
posted by painquale at 11:11 AM on February 15, 2009

You could email the guy and ask.

A side rant: I think "trust me" books like that are about as authoritative as Wikipedia. Take Bill Bryson, for example: his books are often mentioned as being authoritative on some subject or another, but in the few that I've read, I've come across enough facts and arguments that are either trivially or seriously (and provable-by-primary-source) wrong that I've just started crumbling salt everywhere as a rule.
posted by mail at 11:37 PM on February 15, 2009

Is the pythagoras quote in the entry on pythagoras? My guess would be that he's just being pithy and trying to make a joke about how the story of his (pythagoras') death is meaningless since he was probably never born anyway, but it could certainly have something to do with upping the sales of the book, since people actually don't like too many footnotes and references. The version I have access to doesn't mention his not existing and does mention Hippolytus, Porphyry, Hermippus and Diogenes Laertius as sources for the stories about Pythagoras...
posted by mdn at 12:02 PM on February 16, 2009

He writes in the introduction, "I have decided not to clutter the text with footnotes. The reader will have to trust me."

It's because of that kind of poor scholarship that we don't know whether Pythagoras existed or not (not to mention Jesus etc...)

I hate the obligation to reference when it's just an empty appeal to authority, but if you're doing history ffs...
posted by leibniz at 7:49 AM on February 20, 2009

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