Monday, November 14, 2016
Final Report Installment Pt. 1- Pythagoras' Philosophy
I’ve waited an entire semester for our class to discuss one of Greece’s most interesting philosophers, Pythagoras. There was only a passing mention of him by Bertrand Russell in our curriculum, so it seems like i’m going to be the one to have to tell you all about Pythagoras of Samos.
Odds are all of you have heard of him, just not in a philosophy class. Most people hear about Pythagoras in their 6th grade math class when they first learned about triangles. A2+B2=C2 ring any bells? The Pythagorean Theorem was one of his many contributions to math. He was one of the first to bring up the idea of “Mathematical Beauty”, and thought that the universe could be explained through geometry. As analytical as he seemed, he was also the same person who refused to eat beans and would not look into a mirror that had a light beside it. The school that he founded, the School of Pythagoreanism, represented mystic tradition in contrast with the scientific. After his death, the cause and date of which is still a subject of debate among historians, the Movement lasted another three centuries before the many members were put to death and simply let the tradition fade away. Pythagoras, validating his almost unreal accomplishments, was considered divine, specifically one of Apollo’s sons, by himself and everyone around him- a man with completely new beliefs for his time but so charismatic that everyone could not help but listen to him. For a man of such humble views, his contributions created chaos almost everywhere he went. He developed a strong political structure in Italy, where his community of Pythagoreans settled in Crotona. They grew so strong that eventually a rebellion took place, which left Pythagoras to flee back to Greece before his death. He contributed to science and math in many ways, but also created his own exclusive belief system that tore entire cities apart. Part 1 of this report on his scientific contributions to philosophy and mathematics, and part 2 will focus on his mystic beliefs.
In general, Pythagoras is known for his simple yet very thought-provoking mathematical-based philosophy. He was one of the first men to refer to himself as a philosopher, or lover of wisdom. One of my favorite quotes by him, “The oldest, shortest words — "yes" and "no" — are those which require the most thought,” perfectly summarizes his take on philosophy. The philosophy of Pythagoras was all about the secrecy of simplicity and virtue. Pythagoras was a soft spoken man who traveled across Europe and Asia in search of life meanings. He eventually found comfort in living minimally in all aspects. After his travels he became a vegetarian, and while he enjoyed conversation and philosophizing, he came to enjoy silence more. None of his writings have survived, although there are still many forgeries under his name. Most of what we know about Pythagoras today comes from one of his most famous students- Plato. Otherwise, we only get to read from other authors’ commentaries on Plato’s views of Pythagoras. As far as we know, what we read now is true to what Pythagoras actually believed and did (Ok, maybe he didn’t have a golden thigh).Most of Pythagoras’ contributions to philosophy, science, and music were mathematically based. Pythagoras wanted to bring about universal harmony, and that true harmony was a symphony.
For Pythagoras, life was centered around balance and harmony: Domestic harmony to the family, individual harmony to oneself, and social harmony between all people. Living a life of harmonia, one could achieve a world of inner balance. In ethics, this was a strict was of balancing relationships, in politics by creating a harmonious and just society, in religion this meant having a balance with God, and in mysticism harmonia was the tuning of one’s soul. This could only be attained by continuous effort and to make the effort as simple as possible, it meant to live a strict, disciplined, and ascetic life. This inner balance also could be found in music, which was derived from arithmetics, which is not unlike anything else Pythagoras has contributed. Pythagoras was a big lover of music, and was said to have discovered the main intervals of music: 2:1, the fifth, that of 3:2, and the fourth, that of 4:3.
This was discovered when Pythagoras passed a blacksmith’s shop and heard the harmonious sounds of the hammers beating a piece of iron. The sounds produced followed a pattern that Pythagoras said soothed his soul. He played a great role in the discovery of mathematical proportions underlying in music. One of Pythagoras’ later students, Claudius Manert, is quoted: “Before treating the substance of the soul, Philolaus, according to geometric principles, treats of music, arithmetic, measures, weights, numbers, insisting that these are the principles which support the existence of the universe.” These discoveries led to Pythagoras’ ideas on the elements and the universe.
This aspect of pythagoras is the most respected in our scientific, modern age, but also most poorly interpreted. This problem with studying ancient philosophers is we have to be careful to not view their ideas in our modern way of thinking, or else we will try to squeeze their ideas into a framework that will misconstrued what they were trying to convey.
Pythagoras believed in two primal causes of creation: God (the mind), and Necessity. Matter was first created in a pure state, then form that could only be perceived by the mind. Then the deity (which I should point out, Pythagoras uses the term ‘God’ throughout his works, but is not referring to the Christian god, and unless mentioned specifically, not the Greek gods either. He was often said to worship mathematics as a deity. Numbers were more than a unit of measurement, but an essence, or Monad.) created the cosmos in a perfect sphere. This ties in with his ideas on music, where the proportions of the cosmos were created along geometrical and musical lines.
(For sake of mass confusion, i’m not going to attempt to explain his theories without proper visual aids.)
As everything else was centered around mathematics, Pythagoras made numerous advances in physics and science. He was the first to expound upon the common Greek belief of the four elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. He said that not only was there four substances, but four essence, or qualities, that created harmony (an explanation) between them: heat, dryness, moistness, and cold. These all could be added and subtracted as such to get one another.
Fire=heat+dry+moist(-dry) = heat+moist=air
Later on Aristotle went on to further prove these ideals and progress their further. Without Pythagoras, we would not be where we were today in the fields of physics and cosmogony.
Pythagoras, despite being superstitious, went out of his way to justify all of his beliefs through mathematics. His contributions to music, science, and ethics only echo his belief that the meaning of life through connection and harmony with everything around oneself. This is evident even through his bizarre theological beliefs and influence on mysticism which we will discuss in part 2.