Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Pythagoras


A 6th-century BCE Greek philosopher and mathematician, originally from Samos (an island off the coast of Asia Minor settled by the Greeks), and born about 570 BCE, he left home and “by his own choice / Became an exile” (Ovid 354) around 530 BCE to escape the tyranny of the autocrat Polycrates. He lived in southern Italy, influencing city politics until the turn of the century when the citizens revolted against his influence and forced him to settle in Metapontum instead. Followers venerated him and they formed some sort of quasi-religious order. Although he did not set down his ideas in written form, Pythagorean centers sprang up throughout the Greek mainland during the 5th century BCE, including in Thebes and Athens, so he certainly influenced Socrates and therefore Plato. Legends include an instance of a superhuman voice wishing Pythagoras good morning as he was crossing the river Casas, and his being able to appear in both Croton and Metapontum on the same day at the same hour.

Pythagoras’ concepts included the mathematical order of the cosmos, and he may have been led to this assessment from the mathematical order of music (consonants of octaves, fifths, and fourths being produced by simple ratios in the lengths of the vibrating strings). We know “the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the sides containing the right angle.” But Pythagoras had an all-inclusive vision, which also included the “music of the spheres” (the sound that no doubt had to be produced by the planets encircling earth). These principles signified that the universe does make sense and that we have the potential to understand it. He supposedly coined the term “Philosophy” first as a word to signify the love and pursuit of wisdom, which helps the soul bring itself into attunement with the cosmos.

Pythagoras believed in reincarnation and claimed to remember previous incarnations. [Transmigration of souls is not a Greek leaning, so one school of thought says Pythagoras travelled east beyond Egypt and came back with the notion (but they say this of Jesus too).] A later report claims he told followers that he has once been Aethalides, a son of Hermes, who allowed him one wish excluding immortality. He wished to remember what happened to him, alive and dead. One of his remembered incarnations was as Euphorbus, who was wounded by Menelaus in Homer’s Iliad. Afterwards, he became Hermotimus, who in a temple of Apollo identified the shield of Menelaus (dedicated to Apollo when he sailed back from Troy). His next incarnation was as Pyrrhus the Delian fisherman, and then Pythagoras.

There is a famous story that he once stopped an animal from being beaten because he insisted he recognized the voice of a dead friend. (I wonder if that might not have been merely a humane device to stop the beating of an animal.) (Asimov 535)

“He was first to ban / As for for men the flesh of living things” (354). Due partly to his belief in metempsychosis, he opposed the taking of life, the eating of flesh, and association with those who benefit by the slaughter business. Ovid provides a lengthy, humane, and eloquent explanation for vegetarianism, citing the beneficence of the earth and its animals, not requiring slaughter. “Nor is that crime enough. Even the gods / They enroll to share their guilt and make believe / The powers of Heaven are gladdened by the blood / Of bullocks, patient slaughtered labourers” (355-356). [Var.: “We call the gods as partners of the feast” — quoted from Virgil.]

  • Do you agree with the philosophy of Pythagoras?
  • Without transmigration of souls as a foundation, Metamorphoses still works because of its notions of the earth being generous, its commentary on pollution, and in general its environmentalism which seems almost modern in essence.

  • But we don’t sacrifice to the gods anymore.
  • Uh huh, well, in celebration of puritan freaks in funny hats disgruntled because they couldn’t oppress people enough on their side of the Atlantic Ocean and therefore infiltrated North America, we butcher countless turkeys every November; and there is a trend of celebrating the birth and rebirth of our Lord and Saviour with roasted pigs; and there’s this sanctimony about grilling ground flesh in honor of “the boys” who died in the big war; and we certainly sacrifice millions of animals now to the “god” Science. So what we consider “religion” may have changed more than the nature of the practices or the excuses.

  • The final connection to all the previous books?
  • Metamorphoses celebrates the joy of change, of the natural world being animated, and in the ongoing process of wondrous creation. The stories are intended to inspire respect for the wonders of nature (however based in speciesistic assumptions that stories must be about humans). In this ongoing creation and active context, we have responsibilities too — according to Pythagoras. The world, its flora, and its fauna: all have past lives and life stories worthy of some respect.


Barnes, Jonathan. Early Greek Philosophy. 2nd ed. NY: Penguin Books, 2001.

Ferguson, Kitty. The Music of Pythagoras. NY: Walker & Co., 2008.