Pythagoras is probably one of the most famous names in mathematics; almost all high school students will know the beloved Pythagoras Theorem. But did he really exist?
“Sadly, it is now almost universally assumed by classical scholars that Pythagoras never existed. It seems that there was a group of people in southern Italy called Pythagoreans who invented a “Founder” for their beliefs who, accordingly, lived and died in a manner consistent with those beliefs.”
–The Book of Dead Philosophers by Simon Critchely
There are, in fact, no primary sources about Pythagoras which have survived. The only piece of literature that we have of him is from a small set of texts that was written between 150AD and 450AD. That is, 600 to 1000 years AFTER Pythagoras is said to have lived. So, their accuracy is questionable.
The existence of a group called the Pythagoreans is undebatable. They were an orphic-like cult, obsessed with numerology. There are indeed many stories of Pythagoras, however most include supernatural occurrences rather than significant accounts of his life. For example. one tale describes him as possessing a golden thigh; another declares he was the son of the god Apollo. This turns Pythagoras into a rather mystical figure in ancient history and “for some, these lies and contradictions hint that Pythagoras was simply an exaggerated or even fictional leader concocted by the members of a religious sect.”
Furthermore, many historians suggest that Pythagoras was not even the first to develop his famous theorem, but that in fact the Egyptians discovered it long before he did. It can be argued that the mathematical significance of the early Pythagoreans (pre-450 BC) has been exaggerated, apart from their contribution to harmonics, and that they only later evolved into serious mathematicians as geometry became popular across Greece.
What do you think? M x