[Pythagoras] was born on the island of Samos about 580 B.C. Like many another ancient philosopher he journeyed in his youth to Egypt, where for an indefinite number of years he pursued studies in astronomy, geometry, and theology under the tutelage of Egyptian priests. After further extensive travels, which some ancient commentators say took him as far east as India (a claim which lacks adequate support, however) he returned to his native insular province only to find it in the grip of a dictatorship. So now, as a man of mature years, he migrated to Crotona in southern Italy, probably accompanied by younger men who had become his disciples.
The city of Crotona, which had been founded as early as the eighth century B.C. by Greek colonists, possessed a good natural harbor, which made it a center of sea trade and thereby economically prosperous. Moreover it was said to possess the best school of medicine in any of the Greek colonies of the west. In this attractive location Pythagoras established a school of his own, distinguished by its pursuit of higher studies in mathematics, astronomy, music, metaphysics, and polydaemonistic theology; by a disciplined community life, which included both a daily regimen of activities and studies and the practice of non-possession by sharing unreservedly all the necessities of living; and by carefully guarded conditions of membership which nevertheless allowed (for the first time in history, so far as is known) the admission of women as members. Unfortunately the inhabitants of Crotona regarded the school as an intruder and its head as a dangerous wizard who was rumored to have a golden thigh and to possess various queer magical powers. Hostilities mounted, and at length when Pythagoras had become a very old man there was a mob uprising, which made a vicious attack upon the school, burned the buildings, and murdered or exiled the members.
The nature of daily living in the school, both its moral and its intellectual disciplines, can perhaps best be understood as an intellectualized development from earlier mystery cults such as the Eleusinian. The main Eleusinian practices involved two steps—undergoing purification and revelation, the ritualistic sea-bathing by boys undergoing initiation and the dramatic exhibition in a dark room of the sacred grain stalk in a flash of light. Granted that the ritual and the mystery had a symbolic character for the ancient Eleusinian worshipers, Pythagoras in talking over the basic pattern minimized the ritual and stressed the symbolic character of the religions formulations. Ritual gave way to purposively guided action. The practice of silence each morning, between rising from bed and the ascetically sparse community breakfast, was a means on the one hand of reawakening one’s inner affinity with the divine, and on the other hand of exercising and strengthening one’s power of memory by daily practice in recalling the ordered events of the preceding day, then of the day before that, and so on. Community meals, readings aloud, and the practice of sharing were at once a zestful part of daily living and a symbolic reaffirmation of the participative nature of life—the human soul’s participation in the divine reality that envelops us and thereby in the aims and needs of the Pythagorean brotherhood. Within this harmonious social framework the higher studies—philosophical, mathematical, musical—were pursued, with the hope (and perhaps the occasional realization) of the ultimate Pythagorean aim—to hear in its full glory, and with an intuitive grasp of its hidden meaning, the Music of the Spheres.
From The Presocratics by Philip Wheelwright, the start of chapter 7 “Pythagoreanism” (200-202).