Who was Pythagoras? Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras
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Who was Pythagoras?

Greek temple
Greek temple at Paestum (ca. 550 BC)

December 2016 - Pythagoras lived in the 500s BC, and was one of the first Greek mathematical thinkers that we know about, after Thales. He spent most of his life in the Greek colonies in Sicily and southern Italy. He had a group of followers (like Taoists followed Lao Tzu, or Buddhists followed the Buddha) who followed him around and taught other people what he had taught them. Like Lao Tzu and the Buddha, Pythagoras was probably rich enough not to have to worry about money, thanks to the unpaid work of enslaved people and colonized people around him.

The Pythagoreans were known for their pure lives (they didn't eat beans, for example, because they thought beans were not pure enough). Like Buddhists and Zoroastrians at the same time, Pythagoreans questioned whether it was ever right to kill animals, even for religious sacrifices, and some of them said it wasn't right. Pythagoreans wore their hair long, and wore only simple clothing, and went barefoot. Both men and women were Pythagoreans.

Pythagoreans were interested in philosophy, but especially in music and mathematics, two ways of making order out of chaos. Music is noise that makes sense, and mathematics is rules for how the world works.

Pythagoras himself is best known for proving that the Pythagorean Theorem was true. The Sumerians and Egyptians, two thousand years earlier, already knew that the Pythagorean Theorem was generally true, and they used it in their measurements, but Pythagoras is said to have proved that it would always be true. We don't really know whether it was Pythagoras that proved it, because there's no evidence for it until the time of Euclid, several hundred years later, but that's the tradition. Some people think that the proof must have been written around the time of Euclid, instead.

Proving the Pythagorean Theorem
More about Greek mathematics
More about Greek philosophy

Bibliography and further reading about Pythagoras:

What's Your Angle, Pythagoras? A Math Adventure, by Julie Ellis and Phyllis Hornung (2004). For teens.

Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans: A Brief History, by Charles Kahn (2001).

History of Greek Mathematics: From Aristarchus to Diophantus, by Thomas L. Heath (1921, reprinted 1981). A lot of Euclid, but also describes who the other major Greek mathematicians were and what they did.

Episodes from the Early History of Mathematics, by Asger Aaboe (1997).


More about Thales
Ancient Greece
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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