Library For Kids Logo

Pythagoras: the World’s First Hippie?

Today, a hippie is someone who likes to go against the grain of society. They aren’t swayed by mainstream ideas, they are open to new possibilities, and they aren’t afraid of being labeled as weird or strange. 

Our understanding of modern hippies comes from the 1960s cultural revolution that took place mostly in the United States and the United Kingdom. But when we look back in history, we see that there were always people willing to go against the norm and do something different. 

One of the first people to do this and gain recognition for it was Pythagoras, an ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician who lived mostly in the 6th century BC.

Many of his ideas were radical at the time, and not widely accepted. But he was significant enough to influence later philosophers, and a few of his discoveries have gone on to influence our modern world.  

Metempsychosis

One of the primary ideas offered by Pythagoras was the idea of metempsychosis. 

It sounds scary, but it’s really just the Greek version of reincarnation. It states that when the body dies, the soul, which is immortal, simply migrates to another body. 

Trippy stuff, man. 

Although not an overwhelmingly new idea in today’s world, it was pretty different back then. And it piqued the interest of enough philosophers at the time that it became a key topic of debate amongst Greece’s academic class. 

Pythagoras also proposed the idea that the movement of the planets could be described using mathematical equations, something that scientists would continue to try and do for centuries. 

Making Philosophy Cool

One of the things that Pythagoras did, although it’s doubtful this was his intention, was make philosophy “cool.” His ideas were new and different, and so he attracted a group of followers, who would later become known as the Pythagoreans. 

They worked together to explore the questions posed by Pythagoras and other members of the group, and recorded much of what they discussed. In fact, there is some debate about how much of the work attributed to Pythagoras actually comes from his disciples. 

Later on in Greek history, this tradition of uniting behind a particular philosopher to expand upon and spread his beliefs became quite popular and contributed significantly to the growth of philosophy across ancient Greece.

The Power of Numbers

Another big idea of Pythagoras and his followers was that numbers could be used to describe everything. He emerged onto the Greek philosophical scene at a time when the big question everyone was trying to answer was: what is all of this? And by “this” they meant life, i.e. reality.

Different schools of thought emerged around different answers to this question, and the one led by Pythagoras believed that “numbers are everything.” They felt that all of reality could be explained using numbers, mainly mathematical equations. 

One of the reasons Pythagoras and his followers came up with this idea was because of their study of music. They measured the tones produced by different string lengths and figured out that certain ratios sounded better than others. In other words, musical harmony could be understood using numbers! Because, remember, they are everything!

The Pythagoreans also discovered what is now known as the Pythagorean Theorem. This speaks to the relationship between the three sides of a right  triangle and remains a core concept of modern geometry.  Put simply, if you make three squares using the three sides of a right triangle, the area of the largest square will be equal to the area of the two smaller squares. 

Such knowledge makes it possible to calculate heights of large objects without having to actually measure them.

These concepts were revolutionary at the time and remain at the core of much of our modern understanding of the world.

Over time, the Pythagoreans’ approach to explaining reality started believing in things that were hard to prove: they lacked the mathematical knowledge to truly explain reality as completely as they thought they could. But while their specific ideas may not have survived, this idea that numbers can be used to explain the universe certainly has.

In pursuing this idea, however, they discovered Making Philosophy Cool

One of the things that Pythagoras did, although it’s doubtful this was his intention, was make philosophy “cool.” His ideas were new and different, and so he attracted a group of followers, who would later become known as the Pythagoreans. 

They worked together to explore the questions posed by Pythagoras and other members of the group, and recorded much of what they discussed. In fact, there is some debate about how much of the work attributed to Pythagoras actually comes from his disciples. 

Later on in Greek history, this tradition of uniting behind a particular philosopher to expand upon and spread his beliefs became quite popular and contributed significantly to the growth of philosophy across ancient Greece.

Forming a New Way of Life

Another reason why Pythagoras gained fame in the ancient world, and why he might be the first hippie, is because he was a big fan of living in communes. 

Unafraid to challenge the status quo, Pythagoras took some of his supporters out into the countryside and established a new way of life. 

There, they lived together on the land, owned everything collectively, and made decisions democratically. At the time, they were mocked. But this model has remained until this day as a potential alternative to modern, individualistic lifestyles. 

A Philosopher or a God?

Today, we know Pythagoras as a philosopher and a mathematician. But if we went back to ancient times, it’s possible we would find people who thought of him as something much more. 

Due to his unique ideas and cult followings, as well as his dedication to this idea of eternal souls, some people started to worship Pythagoras as a god, particularly in the decades after his death. 

Today, we don’t quite see him this way. But given all that he has contributed to ancient Greek and world culture, it’s hard to say he wasn’t at least a little special, if not the world’s first hippie.

Written by Matthew Jones

Illustrated by Pablo Velarde Diaz-Pache