Past Event

Humanities West Presents Pythagoras to Plato: The Ancient Greek Revolution in Human Thought

Numbers and mathematics were in use long before Pythagoras was born in the mid-sixth century BC, but few if any suspected that beyond practical use these were keys to unlock doorways to vast hidden knowledge. The discovery made by Pythagoras or his earliest followers—that there is pattern and order hidden behind the apparent variety and confusion of nature and that it is possible to understand it through numbers—was one of the most profound and significant discoveries in the history of human thought.   

Humanities West highlights this fundamental shift by focusing on that initial jolt of intellectual energy, even though most of the details have been lost or distorted, and on three exemplars of the Pythagorean emphasis on math and on logic: Philolaus, Archytas and Plato.    

The Pythagorean intellectual revolution spread by these early pioneers progressed until the advances in math and in detailed observation reached a critical mass, causing one scientific revolution after another—accomplished by scientists such as Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Newton, Einstein and Heisenberg, who were all influenced by Pythagorean ideas (including the idea of not trusting traditional explanations―even Pythagorean ones).

We know very little about the man Pythagoras and the philosophy he lived by and taught, but the revolutionary influence on human thinking of one great insight, carried forward by such geniuses as Philolaus, Archytas and Plato, has shaped our world ever since. Humanity has only rarely crossed such a threshold.

Kitty Ferguson will speak on "What Do We Really Know about Pythagoras?"; Edward Frenkel will speak on "From Pythagoras to Plato: Philolaus and Archytas"; Joshua Landy will speak on "Plato’s Use of Irony: How does Plato Really Teach us?"


A Humanities Member-led Forum program. Forums at the Club are organized and run by volunteer programmers who are members of The Commonwealth Club, and they cover a diverse range of topics. Learn more about our Forums.

In association with Humanities West.

Photos courtesy the speakers.

February 24, 2023

The Commonwealth Club of California
110 The Embarcadero
Taube Family Auditorium
San Francisco, CA 94105
United States

Image - Kitty Ferguson

Kitty Ferguson

Author, The Music of Pythagoras: How an Ancient Brotherhood Cracked the Code of the Universe and Lit the Path from Antiquity to Outer Space, and Pythagoras: His Lives and the Legacy of a Rational Universe

Image - Edward Frenkel

Edward Frenkel

Professor of Mathematics, University of California, Berkeley; Author, Love and Math

Image - Joshua Landy

Joshua Landy

Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French, Professor of Comparative Literature, co-director of the Literature and Philosophy Initiative, Stanford University; Co-Host, "Philosophy Talk"

Image - George Hammond

George Hammond

Author, Conversations With Socrates—Moderator