Philolaus of Croton

Life and Works of Philolaus of Croton

Philolaus was a philosopher and pre-Socratic born in the city of Croton in 470 B.C. From his date of birth it is possible to infer that he was a contemporary of Socrates.

Philolaus of Croton is considered one of the 3 most important proponents of Pythagoreanism, a philosophical and religious doctrine created by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras. He was a disciple of Lysis, an important Greek philosopher belonging to the Pythagorean school.

His main work is called On Nature. In this work we can find, through the few fragments that remain, the oldest description of the Pythagorean doctrine, which is very important, since the Pythagoreans did not used to write anything about the doctrine of the great master Pythagoras, everything was taught orally. Therefore, On Nature is the first work written by a Pythagorean.

Philosophy of Philolaus: the unlimited and limited

Philolaus, like other pre-Socratics, was interested in rationally explaining the structure of the cosmos, and to this end, he elaborated the concepts of unlimited and limited.

According to him, the cosmos and everything in it was ordered with unlimited and limited elements. Therefore, all existing things are composed of either limited or unlimited elements.

However, Philolaus does not explain the concepts of unlimited and limited in detail. Some scholars believe that the limited is a geometric shape and the unlimited, substances such as copper, oil, vinegar.

The numbers and knowledge

We know that numbers have great importance for Pythagoreanism. Philolaus holds that all things are made of numbers, and human knowledge depends on numbers. For him, one could not think or know anything without numbers. He says:

The nature of number enables us to know, is our master and guide, in all that is doubtful and obscure. If there were no number, none of the things could be known, either in themselves or in their relations to others.

When numbers harmonize in the soul with sensibility it makes things cognizable.

Everything that exists is made of numbers. The power of number can be seen in demonic and divine things, in actions, in human words, in technique and in music.

In number there is no falsehood, only truth.

Furthermore, the philosopher states that numbers have 3 forms:

  • Even number: representing the unlimited;
  • Odd number: the limited
  • even-odd: the harmony between even and odd


Philolaus also maintained that there were 5 elements of the world sphere:

  • fire;
  • water;
  • earth;
  • air;
  • and the sphere wrapper;

According to an ancient source, Philolaus believed that the fire was in the center, secondly the counter-earth, and then the earth which is inhabited, opposite to that which rotates with the counter-earth.

While other philosophers held that the earth was at rest, Philolaus believed that the earth made its rotation around the fire, in an oblique circle, like the moon and the sun.  He is therefore believed to have devised a heliocentric theory, albeit a very rudimentary one.

The conception of man

Philolaus states that man is composed of 4 principles:

  • Brain (head): responsible for human understanding. This principle is proper to man.
  • Heart: principle of the soul and sensibility, proper to animals.
  • Navel: principle of rooting and growth of the embryo, proper to plants.
  • Generative organs: responsible for semination and creation, a principle belonging to all.


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