History of Pythagoras

Fred M. Moore, Jr. Union Grand Council Knights of Pythagoras

The period around 500-600 B.C. was extraordinary for the number of men whose thought would profoundly affect the world from that time forward.

In India, Prince Siddhartha was becoming the Gautama Buddha. In China, it was the time of Lao-tse and Confucius. In the western world, it was the time of Pythagoras.

In our modern perspective on "history", everything before Plato and Aristotle is murky, and even semi-mythic. We tend to see everything before the rise of Periclean Athens as primitive; an arrogant and fallacious perspective. Pythagoras, some seven generations before Plato, was a philosopher/scientist in a line of teaching already thousands of years old, the Orphic tradition.

The major names we know from this ancient line are Orpheus (semi-mythological), Hermes Trismegistus of Egypt (legendary), Pythagoras, (historical personage), and Plato. The classic writers regarded Orpheus as the greatest spiritual master, Pythagoras the greatest scientist, and Plato the greatest philosopher in this line of teaching.

From our perspective we see the historical Pythagoras as an originator, but it would be more accurate to see him as the inheritor of a very ancient body of teaching, as is demonstrated in his own biography Most of his life was spent traveling, studying the accumulated wisdom of the ancient world from Egypt to India.

We can trace his path fairly accurately from Roman and Greek sources. Pythagoras left his birth island of Samos (in the third year of the 53rd Olympiad), at the age of 18, to spend the next 40 years studying with the greatest teachers of all schools in the ancient world. He spent 22 years in Egypt, and another 12 years in Babylon. He also studied in India, and with teachers in Crete and Sparta.

It was not until the age of 56 (in the 62nd Olympiad) that Pythagoras settled in the Italian city of Crotona. Crotona was one of the many Greek colonies around the northern Mediterranean, the autonomous cities of Magna Graecia.

In Crotona he established his Academy and its religious-scientific- philosophical-political movement, the secret wisdom school known as the Pythagorean Brotherhood. The Academy was to endure, in some form, for approximately 200 years after Pythagoras' death.

At about the same time Pythagoras married for the first time. His wife Theano was the daughter of Pythagoras' most famous disciple, Milo of Crotona, from whose house Pythagoras managed his school. (Men and women were admitted to the Academy on an equal basis, and Theano was a disciple at the Academy in her own right. Pythagoras' father-in-law and eminent disciple, Milo of Crotona, was the most famous wrestler of antiquity, winner of six Olympic Games.)

Pythagoras and Theano had seven children, four girls and three boys. After the murder of Pythagoras, Theano took over management of the Academy and one of the daughters, Damo, was entrusted with preserving, and keeping secret, her father's writings.

The Pythagorean Brotherhood was the archetypal Secret Society, whose inner teachings were available only to the initiates. It was a severe and authoritarian discipline. For the first five years of apprenticeship the applicants were not permitted to speak or to ask questions. Their teacher spoke to them from the other side of a curtain. When students, male or female, were initiated into the esoteric inner school, they joined an active dialogue "behind the curtain."

The body of Pythagorean teaching is known through the writings of others. Only two preserved letters are believed to have been directly written by Pythagoras. The wisdom of the initiates was never intended as public knowledge.

It was probably resentment of this elitist discipline of the Brotherhood that led to Pythagoras' murder at 80. The most frequent story goes that the richest, most powerful citizen of Crotona, named Cylon, applied to Pythagoras for discipleship, and was refused for reasons of bad personal character -- specifically, being "of a harsh, violent, turbulent Humor."

Enraged by the rejection, Cylon assembled a small private army. Waiting until a meeting at the disciple Milo's house, Cylo's thugs set the house afire, killing Pythagoras and forty of his disciples. This was in the 4th year of the 70th Olympiad, after Pythagoras had lived in Crotona for 20 years.

Other sources claim Pythagoras' murder was a simple political assassination, owing to the enormous political influence the Brotherhood had acquired in the colonies of Magna Graecia.