Philosopher, Mathematician, Astronomer (c.470 BC – c.385 BC)

Philolaus was a second generation Pythagorean philosopher from Tarentum (or Croton) of Magna Graecia. An initiate of the Greek meditation (Ἐλληνικός ΔΙΑ-Λογισμός) and the mystery schools, Philolaus was involved with astronomy, cosmology, music, medicine and metaphysics. As one of the most influential Pythagoreans, he contributed significantly to the spread of Pythagorean philosophy.

Philolaus was born 100 years after his teacher Pythagoras. He founded his own Pythagorean School of philosophy in Thebes and Phlious. Upon returning to Tarentum, he initiated Archytas into Pythagoreanism, who in turn initiated Plato. Furthermore, two students of Philolaus, Simmias and Ceves became Socrates’ students. It is believed that Philolaus and Plato met each other during their lifetimes.

As every Pythagorean philosopher, Philolaus taught through aenigmata (riddles). He His first and most notable book De Naturae (On Nature), is considered to be the first book written by a Pythagorean. He is credited to have written another book, Bacchae. The founder of the theory of numbers that became a basic concept in Pythagorean philosophy, Philolaus taught that numbers are the only constant characteristic of matter. Everything in the universe is ordained by numbers and their relations. We can only can gain knowledge of the universe insofar we can understand the numbers from which it is built because numbers define the essence of things.

According to Philolaus, the universe is one and eternal. The world and everything in it are composed of a combination of two types of things: unlimited and limited. Nor modern science nor modern philosophy have yet understood what Philolaus meant with these two terms. Perhaps he sought the 4 elements on which the cosmic bodies were formed: fire represented by the tetrahedron, wind represented by the octahedron, water, represented by the eicosahedron and earth, represented by the cube. Limited and unlimited combine together forming a harmony. Philolaus compared harmony to a musical scale, the Pythagorean diatonic, where the combination of limited and unlimited are in accordance with ratios of numbers. He saw the natural world as a cosmos, an order governed by numbers.

Philolaus introduced his own astronomical system. The universe is spherical and at its centre is the central fire, around which all celestial bodies orbit, arranged in 10 concentric circles. These include the stars in the first circle, the five known planets of antiquity, the Sun, the Moon, the Earth, which rotates around its own axis and the Counter-Earth (Aντίχθων/Antichthon). He explained the creation of the cosmos by drawing an analogy with the birth of the human embryo. Not only did Philolaus’ astronomical system and his cosmogony have a scientific background, but also a mythological/philosophical one.

His contributions in psychology and medicine are noteworthy as well. He distinguished four parts of the soul. Nous (intellect), limited to human beings, psyche, defined as emotions and desires of the soul, the third responsible for growth and the fourth for generation. These he termed the four psychic faculties. He associated each one with the head, the heart, the umbilicus and the genitals respectively as their seats. Plato later expanded this philosophy in his books. Furthermore, soul was a harmony of limited and unlimited was capable of transmigration and was immortal. He explained the concept of disease based on the disequilibrium of the three constituents of the human body: blood, bile and phlegm.

Philolaus’ books were widely popular in antiquity and his books were sold at very high prices. One of his books was studied by Plato and influenced him in writing his magnum opus Timaeus. His work has tremendous influence not only on Plato, but also on the Pythagorean successors. As the precursor of most astronomers of the Renaissance, including Copernicus, Galileo and Bruno, he was one of the first to place the Earth away from the centre of the universe, giving it the characteristics of a planet.


  1. Georgakopoulos, Konstantinos. Ancient Greek Scientists. Georgiades: Athens, 1996. Print.
  2. Huffman, Carl. “Philolaus”. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Summer 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.
  3. Pleures, Konstantinos. Greek Philosophers. Hilektron Publications: Athens, 2013. Print.

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