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What Was the School of Pythagoras in Ancient Greece?

Depiction of Pythagoras from School of Athens, by Raphael, 1511
The ancient Greek philosopher and scientist Pythagoras had established a school. What was it like, and what became of it after his death? Credit: Wikipedia Commons, Public Domain

Some of the most influential and noteworthy philosophers and scientists in history were from Ancient Greece. Pythagoras is one of the most famous and definitive of such examples. His discoveries regarding several mathematical principles are still profoundly useful to us today, but this is only one of many of his contributions to society.

What some people do not know is that Pythagoras made intensive efforts to also teach others what he had learned. He established a school to teach his philosophical and scientific ideas. What do we know about this school, though?

The Near Eastern influence on Pythagoras

Pythagoras was born approximately in the year 570 BCE and was allegedly from the island of Samos in Greece. One of the reasons why his thinking was deemed to be so radical among the Greeks was because he incorporated certain concepts from Near Eastern intellectuals. According to Diodorus Siculus and Diogenes Laertius, Pythagoras learned some things from the Egyptians. Diodorus wrote:

Pythagoras learned from Egyptians his teachings about the gods, his geometrical propositions and theory of numbers, as well as the transmigration of the soul into every living thing.

Diodorus and Diogenes do not specify whether Pythagoras had traveled to Egypt or whether some Egyptians had gone to Samos. The first scenario is usually assumed to be the most likely one, but there is evidence of Egyptian presence on Samos in the sixth century BCE as well.

Therefore, theoretically, either option could be possible. In any case, it is no surprise that the ideas he developed were quite different from those with which Greek thinkers were familiar with up until that point.

Other traditions claim that Pythagoras traveled as far as Babylon. This must have exposed him to an even greater variety of ideas.

The establishment of ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras’ school

After traveling extensively and learning from a variety of sources, he settled in what is today Italy. He arrived in the city of Croton in the southern part of the country, where there was already an extensive Greek community. There, Pythagoras, the ancient Greek philosopher and scientist established a school.

However, his school was quite different from our idea of what constitutes a school nowadays. This was in fact much more like an intellectual and religious community or society. Pythagoras began teaching impressive concepts to the people of Croton. He quickly acquired followers, who constructed a simple building of white marble for his students.

It wasn’t long before Pythagoras became known in neighboring areas. Many people flocked to Croton to hear him teach and join his school and society of followers. Within this school, Pythagoras taught his followers his beliefs on philosophy, mathematics, science, morality, mysticism, and much more.

What did Pythagoras teach?

There are not many contemporary sources that explain those concepts taught by Pythagoras. However, there are many sources from later centuries that make all sorts of claims. Something which scholars generally accept is that Pythagoras had a mystical view of numbers. He believed that certain numbers had special meanings and that the number three was particularly important.

Pythagoras also promoted rather traditional religious teachings. The followers of Pythagoras believed in reincarnation, for example. Supposedly, Pythagoras taught that it was possible to escape from this cycle.

According to Pythagoras, if his followers could prove themselves pure enough, their souls would be allowed to ascend to heaven to be with the gods after death. One way of attaining purity was by following certain rituals, which his followers religiously did.

A record from later centuries provides a list of ‘Golden Verses’ by Pythagoras. These are essentially a series of simple but profound proverbs, or wise sayings, for the members of his school to follow. Examples include: ‘Avoid as much as possible hating your friend for a slight fault’ and ‘Consult and deliberate before you act, that you may not commit foolish actions.’

The division of Pythagoras’ school after his death

After some years, Pythagoras and his school met with severe political opposition. Eventually, a prominent figure of Croton named Cylon led anti-Pythagorean revolts. These revolts climaxed in the burning of Pythagoras’ meeting place. There are various accounts of what exactly happened and whether Pythagoras died in this attack, but it is believed he most likely passed away shortly thereafter.

Pythagoras’ teachings survived his death. Yet, his school by no means survived intact. His followers were divided between two different interpretations of his teachings. One group was known as the Akousmatikoi, meaning ‘Listeners,’ while the other group was known as the Mathematikoi, meaning ‘Mathematicians’ or ‘Learners.’

The Mathematikoi viewed the Akousmatikoi as legitimate followers of Pythagoras. Yet, the opposite was not the case. To outsiders, however, both groups were followers of Pythagoras.

The Listeners

The Akousmatikoi school had profound respect for the teachings of Pythagoras—so much so in fact that they viewed them essentially as divine sayings. They did not want to deviate from them whatsoever. To the Akousmatikoi, following Pythagoras meant not changing anything he had taught about science, philosophy, or any of his other teachings.

Because they were so intent on listening to their master’s teachings (hence the meaning of their name), they allegedly practiced a vow of silence. For the first five years of their initiation into the school, they would listen to the teachings of Pythagoras in silence. They were not allowed to speak at all during this period of five years for fear that they would reveal the secrets of Pythagoras’ teachings.

According to at least one ancient source, the Akousmatikoi only had a general understanding of their master’s teachings. They focused mostly on the moral, ritual, and mystical side of Pythagoreanism and strove to live within modest means.

The Mathematicians / Learners

In contrast, the Mathematikoi school had a very different perspective on what it meant to be a follower of Pythagoras. For one thing, they focused on the more scientific areas of study. Unlike the Akousmatikoi, they did not focus on the moral or ritual side of things. Instead, they dedicated themselves to the pursuit of scientific and philosophical understanding.

Another contrast between the two groups was that the Mathematikoi believed Pythagoras wanted his followers to continue making progress. Therefore, they did not adhere strictly to what Pythagoras himself had believed. They felt it was appropriate to continue searching for new knowledge and change their scientific beliefs as needed.

Due to this, a bunch of mathematical principles and discoveries usually associated with Pythagoras were actually developed by his followers within the Mathematikoi school.

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