Podcast episode

Episode 17: The Enigma of Pythagoreanism

The sources about Pythagoras seem to tell us everything and nothing; we have a wealth of information from classical and late-antique sources, but, as we saw last week, when we try to sift through it all, we come up with very few writings about Pythagoras himself which we can confidently say tell us about him as he was historically, before the overlay of Platonistic interpretation which coloured nearly all post-Platonic reading of Pythagoras and led to the later currents known as ‘Neopythagorean’. The same is not true for Pythagoreanism. We have the fragmentary writings of one of the philosophic Pythagoreans of the fifth century BCE, Philolaos of Croton, who really was more or less what we think of when someone says ‘Pythagorean philosopher’: he saw mathematical ratios as key constituents of reality, privileging number and harmony as ontological principles. He investigated musical harmony, mathematics, and cosmology. Great.

But how do we get from Pythagoras and his earliest followers, whose way of life seems to have had very little to do with mathematics and everything to do with magic and mystery, to later thinkers like Philolaos, with their mathematical and harmonic concerns? That is the story we try to tell in this episode. It is a story with some holes in it, because our evidence is patchy, but the good news is that it involves a political takeover in southern Italy by the Pythagorean sect, followed by a massacre, which is more than you can say for most history of philosophy.

Works Discussed in this Episode:


If you are unclear about DK numbering, see the notes to episode 15 of the podcast.

  • Iamblichus: a good edition of Iamblichus’ De vita Pythagorica is Dillon, J. and Hershbell, J. P. (1991). Iamblichus: On the Pythagorean Way of Life, Scholars’ Press. Iamblichus, Comm. Math. 76.19, citing a lost Aristotelean original, on the split between the Pythagorean schools.
  • Philolaos of Croton: DK 44 B1-7, 13, 17 are generally thought to be the authentic fragments.
  • Plato Republic X 6ooa9-b5.
  • Polybius: I have used the translation found in Walbank, F. (Ed.), 1979. Polybius: The Rise of the Roman Empire. Penguin, London.


  • Burkert, W., 1972. Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. Page 119 quoted on the Pythagorean hegemony in southern Italy.


Recommended Reading:

  • Delatte, A., 1922. La vie de Pythagore de Diogène Laërce. M. Lamertin, Brussels.
  • Fritz, K. v. (1945). ‘The Discovery of Incommensurability by Hippasus of Metapontum’, The Annals of Mathematics, Second Series 46 : 242-64.
  • Huffman, C.A., 1993. Philolaus of Croton: Pythagorean and Presocratic: A Commentary on the Fragments and Testimonia with Interpretive Essays. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Huffman, C. A. (Ed.), 2014. A History of Pythagoreanism. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Kirk, G. S.; Raven, J. E. and Schofield, M., 1983. The Presocratic Philosophers. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Lévy, I., 1926. Recherches sur les sources de la légende de Pythagore. Éditions Ernest Leroux, Paris.
  • O’Meara, D., 1989. Pythagoras Revived : Mathematics and Philosophy in Late Antiquity. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Philip, J. A., 1966. Pythagoras and Early Pythagoreanism. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.
  • Rohde, E. (1871). ‘Die Quellen des Jamblichus in seiner Biographie des Pythagoras’, Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 26 : 554-76.
  • Thesleff, H., 1961. An Introduction to the Pythagorean Writings of the Hellenistic Period. Abo Akademi, Abo.
  • Von Fritz, K., 1940. Pythagorean Politics in Southern Italy. Columbia University Press, New York, NY.


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