Monday, 30 April 2007


Like millions of children the world over I was forced into studying Pythagoras and his familiar theorem of Euclidean geometry which states that in a right triangle, the square of the hypotenuse equals the sum of the squares of the two opposite sides. Pythagoras' influence in the field of mathematics is undoubted and given my ineptitude in that particular field I shall say little more about it, what interests me about this ancient philosopher is how he inspired a form of mysticism as bizarre and influential as the Homeric poems. Quite little is known of his early life other than to say that he was born on the island of Samos around 532 B.C. and lived under the despotic rule of the tyrant Polycrates. He was a genuinely odd chap, Bertrand Russell described him as 'a combination of Einstein and Mrs Eddy'.

Pythagoras wrote on a number of fields from Mathematics and logic through to metaphysics and religion. It is important to remember that he came a couple of hundred years before Aristotle, the man who was responsible for the categorisation of different spheres of thought, physics, metaphysics and politics. Therefore the early, pre-Socratic philosophers wrote on anything and everything, they truly lived up to the etymology of the word; philo sophia, the love of knowledge.

Pythagoras was the St. Francis of his time in that he preached to the animals which is quite understandable when you understand that one of the central tenets of his religion (yes he began a religion) was the concept of the transmigration of souls, or metempsychosis for those of you who are familiar with Joyce's Ulysses. In his time Pythagoras' religion exerted considerable authority and became responsible for unusual rules, for instance:

  • One must always abstain from beans (not even Aristotle could understand this one, he mused that perhaps the reason Pythagoras ban their eating was that they looked like genitals.
  • One must not break bread or eat from a whole loaf.
  • One must not let Swallows share one's roof.
  • One must never look in a mirror besides a light (probably a sign of the general mathematicians fear of the concept of infinity).
  • On rising from bed one must smooth out the imprint that the body has left, etc...
There were some more progressive sides to his religion, for instance in his society men and women were considered equals. Property was held in common (Plato wrote a book on Pythagoras, now lost, perhaps he was inspiration for 'the Republic') and the advances made by that society were considered as a result of collective rather than individual achievement, I like him all the more already. Mathematics provide axiomatic truths and form the basis of our understanding of ourselves and the external world. There are elements in Newton's Principa mathematica which can be directly traced back to Pythagoras so he is one of the giants upon whose shoulders modern science stands, the fact that he was something of a loon makes him all the more endearing.


Heather said...

they say genius always comes at a price.

the illustrious Time magazine had an article awhile back on just this topic if you're interested. They mention Joyce's daughter, Lucia, as well as our good friend Sylvia Plath.

Paolo said...

That was a fascinating article. James Joyce seemed obsessed by fatherhood and it is theme that comes up often in Ulysses with frequent references to Hamlet and its operatic equivalent, Don Giovanni. One can imagine him as being a doting father but you can also imagine that his success cast a shadow that his children could never escape.

As for Plath, do you believe she would have eclipsed Ted Hughes' fame if she hadn't committed suicide? I suppose I have an inflated sense of Ted Hughes' importance for geographic reasons and for having grown up with 'The Iron Man', which I understand he wrote to comfort his own children following Plath's death.

gary thomson said...

Did you mention vegetarianism? It ties in with the metempsychosis I believe. If they didn't eat beans I wonder what they did for protein. Dairy perhaps.

I believe there was also a rule about putting on your left sandal first. I can't help observing that I always put my left sock on first. I must be a pythagorean:)

But "All is number" (and god is a mathematician) was a tremendous insight. Of course nowadays we believe "All is information" and that god is a programmer:)

Paolo said...

I didn't mention his vegetarianism but you're right to bring it up because he abhorred the consumption of flesh:

'all things that are born with life in them ought to be treated as kindred'

There are some of his rules which could make sense for health reasons and I think a lot of religious dogma came about for that like the rules forbidding Jews from eating pork and dictating how Jews and Muslims slaughter animals for instance and Pythagoras had similar examples but other rules were just plain odd.

I think your pronouncement is right, 'all is information'.

Heather said...

Sad to say I'd never heard of Ted Hughes or his works before reading Plath's Bell Jar. So if anything, i'm on the opposite, underappreciation / underinformed end of the spectrum here.

Then again, The Bell Jar is also all I've read of Plath, so to proclaim her as an uneclipsable genius just based on that alone might be stretching it.

From what I've read about her personality, it wouldn't shock me if her suicide was something of a staged drama, if that makes sense. In which case the idea that her death was intended to and successfully did serve to boost her fame doesn't seem too far fetched.

p.s. - cheers to Gary :) - good comments on vegetarianism and number theory.

Paolo said...

It is always interesting to read what the remaining Pythons say about Graham Chapman following his death and it almost seems as if they're slightly jealous. It's not that they wished they had died, it is that death freezes you in a period of life so that if you die relatively young then people don't see your fall into the obscurity and decay of old age, you're always remembered at and around your prime.

Even though it is a children's book, I would seriously recommend reading the Iron Man as it is wonderful.


gary thomson said...

I think I know who heather is:)

Looking at this post again, the rule against looking in a mirror beside a light reminded me that G H Hardy had a dislike of mirrors.

Hardy was known for his eccentricities. He could not endure having his photograph taken and only five snapshots are known to exist. He also hated mirrors and his first action on entering any hotel room was to cover any mirror with a towel. He always played an amusing game of trying to fool God (which is also rather strange since he claimed all his life not be believe in God). For example, during a trip to Denmark he sent back a postcard claiming that he had proved the Riemann hypothesis. He reasoned that God would not allow the boat to sink on the return journey and give him the same fame that Fermat had achieved with his "last theorem".

Paolo said...

I rather like the sound of Hardy and his contempt for the 'large bottomed' English bourgeois. Mathematics seems to attracts some individual thinkers.