In This Article Pythagoreanism

  • Introduction
  • General Works on Pre-Socratic Philosophy
  • Reference Works
  • Encyclopedia Articles
  • Collections of Source Materials
  • Introductions
  • General Works on Ancient Pythagoreanism
  • Collections of Essays and Conference Proceedings
  • Bibliographies
  • Biographies of Pythagoras
  • Pythagorean Societies. Politics
  • Medicine and Physiology

Classics Pythagoreanism
Leonid Zhmud
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0319


Pythagoreanism is a modern term referring to a multifaceted phenomenon that covered different aspects of the ancient world such as political life, religion, philosophy, and science and existed in only partly overlapping forms. Its originator, Pythagoras of Samos, moved c. 530 BCE to Italian Croton, where his followers, the Pythagoreans, organized a political society, whose participants were at the same time encouraged to undertake various intellectual pursuits. Pythagoras’s best attested doctrine is transmigration of the soul, whereas philosophical theories and scientific discoveries ascribed to him are highly disputed. Often he is regarded as a purely religious thinker, though not a single religious figure is known of among his followers. All known ancient Pythagoreans belong to five overlapping categories: politicians, athletes, doctors, natural philosophers, and mathematical scientists. After Pythagoras’s death the Pythagorean societies politically dominated in Croton, Metapontum, Tarentum, and other cities of Southern Italy until the anti-Pythagorean uprising (c. 450), when many Pythagoreans were killed or forced to flee to mainland Greece. The last center of Pythagoreanism in Italy remained in Tarentum, led in 367–361 by Archytas, a successful general and brilliant mathematician. The Pythagorean school created theoretical arithmetic and mathematical harmonics and greatly contributed to natural philosophy, geometry, and astronomy. Its disappearance after 350 BCE marked the end of ancient Pythagoreanism. A new form of Pythagoreanism without the Pythagoreans were the pseudo-Pythagorean writings ascribed to Pythagoras and his fictitious family members. The first wave of Pseudo-Pythagorica (late 4th to late 2nd centuries BCE) was neither numerous nor popular but since the early 1st century BCE it was superseded by the second, more successful wave that was part of the emerging Neopythagoreanism. These treatises written under the names of historical and fictional Pythagoreans and containing Stoic, Platonic, and Aristotelian doctrines aimed to present Pythagoras and his followers as the precursors of Plato and Aristotle. The first Neopythagoreans writing under their own names appeared in the mid-1st century CE and doctrinally belonged to Middle Platonism. The most important representatives of late antique Pythagoreanism were the Neoplatonists Porphyry and especially Iamblichus, who secured its existence until the end of Antiquity.

General Works on Pre-Socratic Philosophy

Zeller 1919 is still relevant due to the author’s excellent scholarship though the work is naturally dated. Zeller’s 20th-century counterpart Guthrie 1962 also tried to reconstruct a general system of Pythagorean philosophy, the existence of which is questionable. Kirk, et al. 1983 is useful as a quick introduction to Pythagorean philosophy based on early sources.

  • Guthrie, W. K. C. 1962. A history of Greek philosophy. Vol. 1, Earlier Presocratics and Pythagoreans. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    This classic history of Greek philosophy contains a competent, detailed, and sympathetic exposition of the Pythagorean thought with a helpful survey of the principal sources. It regards Pythagorean philosophy as a synthesis of religious and scientific thought and treats it as a whole. Does not always critically distinguish between Pythagoreanism and Platonism.

  • Kirk, G. S., J. Raven, and M. Schofield. 1983. The Presocratic philosophers. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Admirably clear and balanced introduction to pre-Socratic philosophy based on selected fragments and testimonia; contains chapters on Pythagoras and on Philolaus and 5th-century Pythagoreanism.

  • Zeller, Eduard. 1919. Die Philosophie der Griechen in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung. Vols. 1–3. Leipzig: Reisland.

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    This seminal but understandably outdated history of Greek philosophy that summed up the results of 19th-century scholarship is still relevant for current research (last reprint Darmstadt, 2006) due to Zeller’s sound judgement and in-depth elaboration of specific issues. Vol. 1:361–617: ancient Pythagoreanism, Vol. 3.2:92–175: Neopythagoreanism. Originally published 1852. English translation: London, 1881.

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