Did Pythagoras Really Exist?

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

 

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5 comments

  1. I was just discussing this with my Geometry students over the past week, as we’ve been looking at the Pythagorean Theorem. It’s amazing that a theorem with so many wonderful proofs, and a concept with applications so important that it was developed (though not necessarily proven) by almost every major civilization, is named after one person who may be completely fictional. There are so many great stories and great proofs to explore that the history of it takes up a week or so of my class. I’m sure you’re familiar with many of them, but some of my favorite proofs/stories are Euclid’s Bride’s Chair, the proof by Bhaskara, and the proof by President Garfield. Every year I tell the story of Garfield’s proof, it gets more exaggerated and more astounding (though I do make sure to tell my students about my embellishments for the purpose of a great story).

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  2. For example: You write nice articles under penname of Mathsbyagirl (so in general, nobody can identify you or become biased). But people still appreciate your posts because they like your ideas.

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  3. As per my current philosophical ideologies, it really doesn’t matter if a person existed or not . What matters, are the ideas. The name attached to a theorem just adds fake pride, real thing is the theorem itself (which itself is just a logical deduction from accepted facts). If Babylonians would have been able to popularize this theorem we would have called it Babylonian Theorem.

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    1. Yes, I completely agree! I just thought that it was an interesting anecdote because Pythagoras is championed as a pioneer in Mathematics, and is probably one of the most famous figures in Ancient mathematics, when in fact most evidence points towards the fact that he was not a real man and that in fact his ideas and proofs were done by a collection of people whose identity is still unknown.

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