Reprinted with permission of the author himself, who years ago had to deal with yours truly as a student. Errors in transcription accrue to the latter.
(Titular honours shared with policeman-cook Henry Crabbe)
“Every mathematics master dreads the day when he will have to explain the Theorem of Pythagoras” – HF Ellis, The World of A. J. Wentworth, B.A. (Penguin, 1964), p18.
Not that the square on the hippotamus, as we schoolboys dubbed it, plays any part here (anyway, the Babylonians had cracked it long before). Go to Plato’s Meno for an ancient geometry lesson, and for a modern novel Arturo Sarigalli, Pythagoras’ Revenge: A Mathematical Mystery, (Princeton, 2009). Pythagoras (below), who like Socrates and Christ wrote nothing — some late forgeries did circulate — was the archetypal numbers rather than letters man, thinking them key to the Universe (touch of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and everything else – good man to have beside you when doing the lottery.
Sources for Pythagoras (sixth-century BC. no precise dates) date long after his death, Plato largely ignoring him and Aristotle’s treatise on Pythagoreans being lost. Chiefly the biographies of lamblichus, Porphyry, and (most detailed) Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers (bk8). Best modern thumbnail sketch is Bertrand Russell’s (History of Western Philosophy, NY, 1945, p31): “He may be described as a combination of Einstein and Mrs Eddy. He founded a religion, of which the main tenets were the transmigration of souls and the sinfulness of eating beans.”
Our sage claimed several pre-existences, including that of Trojan War warrior Euphorbus. He once stopped someone beating a dog, claiming to hear an old friend’s voice in its yelps – a very doggy dogma. Living acquaintances included his slave Zamolxis, later equated with Saturn and worshipped by the Getæ tribe (Herodotus – sceptically, Histories, bk 4 ch93).
The bean-ban, one of a long list of his sectarian taboos, coming oddly from the strict vegetarian Pythagoras (direct link with Adolf H here), was variously explained by their flatulence potential or physical similarity to testicles – a lot of balls?). It was his eventual downfall. “‘The unregenerate hankered after beans” (Russell), Crotoniates rebelled, the fleeing Pythagoras refused to cross a bean field to safety, and was lynched – thus the no-have-bean became a has-been.
Another reason for local discontent was probably his ideological objection to fucking, declaring it a sin, especially if indulged in summertime – no beach-orgies on the Costa del Pyth, then.
Admirers called him the wisest man who ever lived. However, his near contemporary, Heraclitus “The Weeping Philosopher’, gibed (1140) “Much learning does not bring intelligence, otherwise it would have taught Pythagoras” – classic academic back-biting, a bit rich from one who (Diogenes Laertius, bk9 chl) thought being buried in cow-dung would cure his dropsy – literally in the shit.
Born on Samos, Pythagoras spent time on Lesbos and Crete, learned his lore in Egypt, and ended up heading a pre-Platonic dictatorship of the philosophers at Croton in southern Italy. For good measure, he is credited with an educational trip to the Underworld. Samos was then ruled by Polycrates, famous for flinging a ring into the sea and having it returned via the belly of a fish (Herodotus, bk3 ch42 – “The ring lost in a lake, and what was found when a fish was caught…” – Fort, Books, p864).
Apart from his trip to Hades, Pythagoras was also credited with space and time travel and omnipresence, making him an ancient combination of Dr Who and Hermione Granger: When terrestrially crossing the River Nessus, bystanders swore they heard it address him by name. Though no ordinary author, he claimed the ability to write on the Moon, achieving this lunography by tracing letters in blood on a looking-glass, which he then reflected on to its disc. He comported a glowing bodily aura, along with a publicly displayed golden thigh. This gained literary gloss through his public utterances, written down by his disciples with the pioneering tag Autos Epha (Ipse Dixit), and circulated as his “Golden Sayings. “…Tomorrow we must have a real go at Pythagoras…” – Ellis, p21
Classical Corner 134: Fortean Times 272 (March, 2011), p. 17