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...