What It Was Really Like Being A Follower Of Pythagoras

A2 + B2 = C2 . The good old Pythagorean Theorem. It seems pretty likely that just about everyone learned this at some point in school, and maybe seeing it again just resurrected the image of a right triangle printed in a math textbook. Suffice to say, it's a pretty famous theorem and probably the most well known thing associated with the ancient Greek mathematician Pythagoras.

But there's a lot more to Pythagoras than that one little equation, and some of it is pretty wild. Namely, he was actually the leader of a group (or a cult, some people might call it) that led a pretty peculiar lifestyle and has spawned some insane-sounding stories. An example? A revolt might've caused a fire in a building that housed Pythagoras and some of his students. Most died in that fire, but Pythagoras survived, because his students laid down to form a human bridge with their bodies, sacrificing themselves so that Pythagoras could cross the flames and live another day.

It's a dramatic tale, but no one actually knows if it's true. To be honest, there aren't a lot of direct records from that time. That, combined with a strange mysticism that surrounded Pythagoras even in life, means that the exact truth of the Pythagoreans is lost to time, mixing with fiction and rumor over the years. Even so, there are a few things that are generally thought to be true about Pythagoras and his followers.

Reincarnation was important to the followers of Pythagoras

The Pythagoreans didn't follow an especially unique lifestyle for no reason, and there's a decent chance that the Pythagoreans acted the way they did in order to guarantee a better next life, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. That's right, the followers of Pythagoras believed in reincarnation.

To be a little more specific about it, Pythagoras taught his followers that the human soul was immortal. After death, it would transmigrate into other animals, which basically meant that all life was, at its core, the same. Still, stricter adherence to the rules would up the chances of being reborn into a better life, but this version of reincarnation came with an escape clause — the discovery of knowledge would eventually allow a person to be freed from that cycle, as explained by Classical Wisdom.

Pythagoras himself was pretty open about this particular belief. On one occasion, he stopped people from beating a dog, claiming that he could recognize the soul of a friend in the animal. In Christoph Riedweg's Pythagoras: His Life, Teaching, and Influence, Pythagoras was said to have reminded someone of their past life as King Midas, and there is a varied list of figures Pythagoras believed to be his past lives. That list includes Euphorbus, a Trojan warrior mentioned in the Iliad, and Aethalides, a son of the god Hermes who was revered for his mind and memory. Given Pythagoras' own mental capabilities, the latter kind of makes sense.

Another core belief of the Pythagoreans had to do with numbers

Maybe it's not a surprise that the Pythagoreans had a fascination with numbers. The name Pythagoras probably brings a lot of right triangles to mind, after all. But it wasn't all about calculating the length of a hypotenuse, because the Pythagoreans looked at numbers in a more philosophical sense.

In general, the Pythagoreans wanted to describe the world around them, Classical Wisdom says, but trying to qualify everything had limits. For example, a stone might be round and gray, but what shape was water? Or what color was air? Not everything could be physically described using the same set of rules, but everything had a set quantity. Everything could be counted.

Because of that, they centered part of their philosophy around numbers. The number one held special importance to them, probably stemming from their theory that the universe was born in chaos before settling into a uniform "oneness," which humans could understand. Even and odd numbers fell into their ideals of harmony, balance, and opposites. Even numbers could be divided in half until they eventually equalled one, making them unlimited, while odd numbers were limited, because they couldn't be reduced to one via the same process. Besides that, eight represented justice, and seven represented wisdom, although the reasoning behind those aren't entirely known.

There were intense admission requirements to join the Pythagoreans

The followers of Pythagoras didn't make it easy to join their community. Actually, it was nearly a ten-year-long process. Gabriele Cornelli's book, In Search of Pythagoreanism: Pythagoreanism as an Historiographical Category, describes the first three years as being despised, quite literally. New recruits would be under intense scrutiny, their personal lives put under a microscope. Pythagoras wanted to know everything about them — who their families were, whether they talked too much, and any number of other things. The whole ordeal was essentially a test of character, which supposedly showed that the candidates cared more for learning than for their reputation. Anyone willing to deal with this situation must care only about knowledge.

But the three years of being despised wasn't the end of the test, and the next step was a five-year period of complete silence. According to Christoph Riedweg, candidates took a temporary vow of silence so that they could demonstrate their degree of self-control. Not speaking was seen as especially difficult but also viewed as particularly necessary to the Pythagoreans.

At the very least, though, those who reached the five years of silence were allowed to listen — and only listen — to Pythagoras speak, hearing him through a curtain. Only those who passed the five years of silence were actually allowed to see him.

Oh, and candidates also had their personal belongings taken from them at the start. Just another part of the process.

Silence was important to the Pythagoreans

The followers of Pythagoras would test their prospective recruits with a period of silence — called the "Pythagorean silence" by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy — but that did more than demonstrate self-control. It was actually training for a pretty integral part of their lifestyle, and one that Christoph Riedweg counts as a defining feature of the Pythagoreans overall.

In general, the Pythagoreans were a minority group, insular and maybe a little elitist. They believed that only a certain group of people were deserving of their knowledge, and so that famed silence was used to keep their teachings a secret. Really, they did an exceptionally good job of it. Even thousands of years later, it's hard to find any concrete documentation from Pythagoras' lifetime. Most of the information historians have comes from later writers, like Aristotle.

The importance that the Pythagoreans placed on silence is also strangely unique to them and not just in terms of the extent to which they valued it. Much of ancient Greece actually placed value in the exact opposite, seeing the power of public speaking instead, though it seemed that even the majority could admire what the Pythagoreans saw in silence.

The followers of Pythagoras practiced communal living

The Pythagoreans acted as more than just a bunch of people gathering to discuss math or philosophy, instead coming together to form a surprisingly tight-knit community. Part of that was literal communal living, with many of the members following the same schedule and traveling with Pythagoras as a large group, as shown by Gabriele Cornelli. So then, it's really not that great of a leap to learn that new recruits had their personal belongings taken from them by higher ranking members of the group, and those items became communal property, meant for use by all.

It was actually something that Pythagoras emphasized, saying that they weren't living with him, but rather that they were living together. He saw justice and friendship as essential parts of the community that formed around him, and so his view of material property just relates to that. Material things should be shared among friends, which means that they should be shared amongst the community. Honestly, the idea sounds really wonderfully utopian.

But the best thing about this? It actually worked well, at least as far as the stories go. The Pythagoreans didn't just practice communal living. They fostered an incredibly strong community among their followers, with members immediately and unquestioningly helping their own. They would give aid when another member had financial difficulties, and one story even mentions a Pythagorean repaying the kindness that a good Samaritan had shown one of their friends.

Pythagoras' care for ritual meant there were some strange rules

Although it's easy to associate Pythagoras solely with math and logic, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains that he actually had a fascination with religion and the rituals associated with it. He valued adherence to those rituals, and his followers viewed him as the expert on the topic.

So this meant that there were quite a few everyday rules that the group had to follow, although some of them sound strangely arbitrary. According to Christoph Riedweg, some of those rules included refraining from wearing the image of the gods on a ring or pouring drinks to those gods by specifically using the handle of a drinking cup. It all sounds unnecessarily specific, but there were reasons behind them that later scholars try to explain. Having the image of a god on a ring supposedly defiled them by making them too easily accessible to mere humans. And libations had to be poured by the handle so that people weren't touching the part of the cup that was meant only for the gods.

But some of the other rules or sayings that are ascribed to the Pythagorean way of life sound weirder and weren't as obviously tied to religion. Apparently, they weren't supposed to travel on public roads and had to put on their right shoe before their left. The former might have something to do with purity, but the latter seems harder to explain.

The Pythagoreans had to follow a strict diet

One of the central tenets of the Pythagorean belief system was reincarnation, and the idea that all living things are, at their core, basically the same. Following that, any animal might actually just be a reincarnated human soul, so it makes  sense that the Pythagoreans would be vegetarians, as explained by Classical Wisdom. Supposedly, Pythagoras wouldn't even go near butchers or hunters for this same reason.

Aside from meat, it was also said that the Pythagoreans weren't allowed to eat beans, although the reason for this isn't exactly known. It might stem from some strange connection between beans and Hades, an idea that people are actually reincarnated through beans, or the fact that some people just couldn't properly digest the type of beans that were being used at the time, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes.

Honestly, the exact diet of the Pythagoreans is a matter of debate. The stance of the followers of Pythagoras on beans is especially questionable, with some sources doubting it was true, or some writers from antiquity denying it entirely. Even when it came to meat, no one is entirely sure. Greek culture at the time practiced animal sacrifice, which would've been hard to avoid entirely. Some believe that Pythagoras did allow for the eating of sacrificial animals (humans wouldn't be reborn into animals meant for sacrifice), or maybe the Pythagoreans did let themselves taste — but not eat — the few animals they did sacrifice.

Followers saw Pythagoras as something close to a god-like figure

There was a definite imbalance of power within the Pythagoreans, but it wasn't one that they necessarily disliked. Namely, Pythagoras was seen as the enlightened leader of the group, as Christoph Riedweg says, and almost the closest thing that they had to their own god.

In a way, that's actually pretty well justified, because there are a number of stories of Pythagoras having mystical abilities. Some tales described him convincing animals not to harm each other, getting an ox not to eat beans, or calling down an eagle after speaking about signs from the gods. These particular tales might just be to showcase Pythagorean beliefs — their diet and a general worship of the divine — but there are others that aren't so easy to explain. Other accounts describe him correctly predicting the exact number of fish a fisherman would catch or foreseeing disasters like earthquakes, sinking boats, and disputes amongst the Pythagoreans. Sure, these things can be seen as luck, but it's not hard to see why the Pythagoreans saw their leader as enlightened.

This worship of Pythagoras meant his followers pretty rarely took claim for their own work. Instead, they usually just attributed all of their findings to their leader, making it impossible for later historians to know what Pythagoras truly did accomplish himself.

Women were actually treated as equals by the followers of Pythagoras

The followers of Pythagoras were surprisingly and amazingly egalitarian for their time. While most of the group was male, there were a number of women who were also allowed to take part. Supposedly, there were 28 of them studying as mathematicians, one of whom was Theano, the woman Pythagoras would later marry.

Granted, the situation wasn't perfect. Some of the women were turned over to Pythagoras by their husbands, according to Sarah B. Pomeroy's Pythagorean Women: Their History and Writings, and they weren't allowed to attend the meetings. But that mostly just reflects on the workings of society at the time.

Within the Pythagoreans, women were treated as complete equals. Despite being barred from meetings, they could attend lectures and were officially listed as members in the same way as the men. They were to be educated and respected just as much as any man, and they also had to follow the same rules as the men. Gender didn't really play a part.

In fact, upon arriving in Croton — a city in what would later become Italy — the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that Pythagoras asked for everyone to speak to him, young men, boys, and women alike. On top of that, it's also said that these Pythagorean women were the ones charged with educating Pythagoras' daughter.

Expulsion from the group was no joke

With the followers of Pythagoras being so secretive and insular, they treated violation of their rules very seriously, and those who didn't hold to the beliefs were expelled from the group permanently. Gabriele Cornelli describes the usual process, which is rather theatrical and rife with symbolism.

An expelled member would recover their personal belongings, which became communal property when they first joined. Actually, they were usually given even more than what they brought in. Then the rest of the members would raise a headstone for the person that they'd kicked out, essentially holding a funeral, and even if any of them saw that expelled member after that moment, they would act like that person was a complete stranger.

And that's just because, to the remaining followers of Pythagoras, that person was a complete stranger. The friend that they had known was dead and gone forever, and now all they could do was act accordingly.

In general, the Pythagoreans probably weren't too well liked

Being a follower of Pythagoras probably also meant being looked at less than fondly by other parts of society. Gabriele Cornelli describes the Pythagoreans as something like a large nomadic group. They were a bunch of people who decided to uproot their lives and begin following Pythagoras wherever he went, listening to him speak. The mobility that they had ended up meaning that they had influence in a decently large area, and, unsurprisingly, that scared established powers.

They saw the Pythagoreans arriving in cities and upsetting the status quo, bringing with them changes to local politics and accepted ethics. It wouldn't really be so far-fetched to think that these external sources would see the group as a cult. Classical Wisdom says that, in a general sense, they did act like one, swooping into towns and converting people to their ways. Doing so would lead to their persecution from town, and it wasn't uncommon that riots and troubles would follow them.

An outsider definitely had reasons to feel concern when and if the followers of Pythagoras arrived at their doorstep. It's probably why Pythagoras was actually later denied admission into a city called Locri, despite their acknowledgment of his legendary wisdom.

Mostly, the Pythagoreans were interested in knowledge

Sure, it's fun to talk about all the odd quirks of the Pythagoreans, but at their core, they really were just people with a vested interest in knowledge and improvement. Despite all the rules and specific beliefs that everyone can speculate on millenia later, Gabriele Cornelli describes the life of the followers of Pythagoras as quite serene and peaceful.

They would take quiet walks on their own in the morning, taking the time to ready themselves individually before ever seeing others. Then, much of the day would be spent reading or otherwise learning and discussing all of that information with other Pythagoreans. It's unbelievably tranquil and sounds like the dream of any introverted scholar — peace and knowledge.

The fact that initiates needed to prove their love of learning shows knowledge to be the true goal of the Pythagoreans, but even if that's not convincing, the wide range of accomplishments attributed to Pythagoras (and, most likely, his followers) says a lot. Of course, there's the Pythagorean Theorem, along with various geometrical relations. But the discovery of irrational numbers, as well as symmetrical shapes — tetrahedrons, dodecahedrons, and basically any commonly used dice shape — can be attributed to them. Even outside of math, the Pythagoreans made contributions, finding physical explanations for how musical pitches are made and forming theories about the organization of the universe. It's an impressive and varied body of work. That much seems true.