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Medieval woodcut depicting Pythagoras and Philolaus conducting musical investigations

Philolaus (/ˌfɪləˈləs/; Greek: Φιλόλαος; c. 470 – c. 385 BCE[1]) was a Greek Pythagorean and Presocratic philosopher. He argued that at the foundation of everything is the part played by the limiting and limitless, which combine together in a harmony. He is also credited with originating the theory that the earth was not the center of the universe.


Philolaus is variously reported as being born in either Croton,[2] or Tarentum,[3] or Metapontum[4] — all part of Magna Graecia (the name of the coastal areas of Southern Italy on the Tarentine Gulf that were extensively colonized by Greek settlers). It is most likely that he came from Croton.[5][6] He may have fled the second burning of the Pythagorean meeting-place around 454 BCE,[7] after which he migrated to Greece. According to Plato's Phaedo, he was the instructor of Simmias and Cebes at Thebes, around the time the Phaedo takes place, in 399 BCE.[8] This would make him a contemporary of Socrates, and agrees with the statement that Philolaus and Democritus were contemporaries.[9] The various reports about his life are scattered among the writings of much later writers and are of dubious value in reconstructing his life. He apparently lived for some time at Heraclea, where he was the pupil of Aresas, or (as Plutarch calls him) Arcesus.[10] Diogenes Laërtius is the only authority for the claim that Plato, shortly after the death of Socrates, traveled to Italy where he met with Philolaus and Eurytus.[11] The pupils of Philolaus were said to have included Xenophilus, Phanto, Echecrates, Diocles and Polymnastus.[12] As to his death, Diogenes Laërtius reports a dubious story that Philolaus was put to death at Croton on account of being suspected of wanting to be the tyrant;[13] a story which Laërtius even took the trouble to put into verse.[14]


Diogenes Laërtius speaks of Philolaus composing one book,[15] but elsewhere he speaks of three books,[16] as do Aulus Gellius and Iamblichus. It may have been one treatise, divided into three books. Plato is said to have procured a copy of his book, from which, it was later claimed, Plato composed much of his Timaeus.[17] One of the works of Philolaus was called On Nature,[15] which seems to be the same work which Stobaeus calls On the World, and from which he has preserved a series of passages.[18] Other writers refer to a work entitled Bacchae, which may have been another name for the same work.


Further information: Pythagorean astronomical system

Philolaus did away with the ideas of fixed direction in space, and developed one of the first non-geocentric views of the universe. His new way of thinking quite literally revolved around a hypothetical astronomical object he called the Central Fire.

Philolaus says that there is fire in the middle at the centre ... and again more fire at the highest point and surrounding everything. By nature the middle is first, and around it dance ten divine bodies — the sky, the planets, then the sun, next the moon, next the earth, next the counterearth, and after all of them the fire of the hearth which holds position at the centre. The highest part of the surrounding, where the elements are found in their purity, he calls Olympus; the regions beneath the orbit of Olympus, where are the five planets with the sun and the moon, he calls the world; the part under them, being beneath the moon and around the earth, in which are found generation and change, he calls the sky.

Stobaeus, i. 22. 1d

In Philolaus's system a sphere of the fixed stars, the five planets, the Sun, Moon and Earth, all moved round his Central Fire. According to Aristotle writing in Metaphysics, Philolaus added a tenth unseen body, he called Counter-Earth, as without it there would be only nine revolving bodies, and the Pythagorean number theory required a tenth. However according to Greek scholar George Burch, Aristotle was lampooning Philolaus's ideas. In reality, Philolaus' ideas predated the idea of spheres by hundreds of years.[19] Nearly two-thousand years later Nicolaus Copernicus would mention in De revolutionibus that Philolaus already knew about the Earth's revolution around a central fire.


Philolaus argued at the foundation of everything is the part played by the ideas of limit and the unlimited. One of the first declarations in the work of Philolaus was that all things in the universe result from a combination of the unlimited and the limiting;[20] for if all things had been unlimited, nothing could have been the object of knowledge.[21] Limiters and unlimiteds are combined together in a harmony (harmonia):

This is the state of affairs about nature and harmony. The essence of things is eternal; it is a unique and divine nature, the knowledge of which does not belong to man. Still it would not be possible that any of the things that are, and are known by us, should arrive to our knowledge, if this essence was not the internal foundation of the principles of which the world was founded, that is, of the limiting and unlimited elements. Now since these principles are not mutually similar, neither of similar nature, it would be impossible that the order of the world should have been formed by them, unless the harmony intervened . . .

—Philolaus, Fragment DK 44B 6a.


  1. ^ "The most likely date for Philolaus' birth would then appear to be around 470, although he could have been born as early as 480 or as late as 440. He appears to have lived into the 380s and at the very least until 399." Carl A. Huffman, (1993) Philolaus of Croton: Pythagorean and Presocratic, pages 5-6. Cambridge University Press
  2. ^ Iamblichus, Vita Pythagorica, 148
  3. ^ Iamblichus, Vita Pythagorica, 267; Diogenes Laërtius, viii, 46
  4. ^ Iamblichus, Vita Pythagorica, 266-67
  5. ^ Philolaus entry by Carl Huffman in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  6. ^ Carl A. Huffman, (1993) Philolaus of Croton: Pythagorean and Presocratic, page 6. Cambridge University Pres
  7. ^ Not to be confused with the first burning of the meeting place, in the lifetime of Pythagoras, c. 509 BC
  8. ^ Plato, Phaedo, 61DE
  9. ^ Apollodorus ap. Diogenes Laërtius, ix. 38
  10. ^ Iamblichus, Vita Pythagorica; comp. Plutarch, de Gen. Socr. 13, though the account given by Plutarch involves great inaccuracies
  11. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, iii. 6
  12. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, viii. 46
  13. ^ "The story at D.L. 84 that Philolaus was killed because he was thought to be aiming at a tyranny is clearly a confusion with Dion who is mentioned in the context and did have such a death." Carl A. Huffman, (1993) Philolaus of Croton: Pythagorean and Presocratic, page 6. Cambridge University Press
  14. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, iii. 84; cf. Suda, Philolaus
  15. ^ a b Diogenes Laërtius, viii. 85
  16. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, iii. 9, viii. 15
  17. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, viii. 15, 55, 84, 85, iii. 9; Aulus Gellius, iii. 17; Iamblichus, Vita Pythagorica; Tzetzes, Chiliad, x. 792, xi. 38
  18. ^ DK 44 B 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
  19. ^ Burch, George Bosworth. The Counter-Earth. Osirus, vol. 11. Saint Catherines Press, 1954. p. 267-294
  20. ^ Fragment DK 44B 1
  21. ^ Fragment DK 44B 3

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