Persian wisdom: Aristoxenos of Tarentum on Pythagoras and Zoroaster (fourth century BCE)

Authors: Aristoxenus of Tarentum (fourth century) as cited by Hippolytos, Refutation of All Heresies 1.2 (ca.170-236 CE).

Comments: Hippolytos was a Christian author about whom we know little beyond what is in his writings. Here he speaks of a legend involving the meeting of Pythagoras of Samos (sixth century BCE) and Zoroaster of Persia (Zaratas seems to be a transliteration from Aramaic) and he attributes this legend to two main authors. While scholars doubt the attribution to Diodoros of Eretria, the connection with Aristoxenos is usually taken seriously. Aristoxenos was a student of Aristotle and a philosopher in the tradition of the Peripatetics who is known for his musical theories, but who is also said to have written a Life of Pythagoras (Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 1.62.2-3). The legend presented here proposes that Pythagoras learned crucial aspects of his philosophy from Zoroaster, including cosmic dualism. The idea that Zoroaster was Chaldean (or Babylonian) rather than Persian is a further example of Greeks simplifying generalizations about peoples from the east (or elsewhere).

Source of translation: J.H. MacMahon. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5. Edited by A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, and A. C. Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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Diodoros the Eretrian and Aristoxenos the musician assert that Pythagoras came to Zaratas [Zarathustra or Zoroaster] the Chaldean, and that he explained to him that there are two original causes of things, father and mother, and that father is light, but mother darkness. He explained that the components of the light are warmth, dryness, lightness, and quick movement, but that the components of darkness are cold, moisture, weight, and slowness.  He explained that out of all these, from female and male, the world consists. They say that the world is a musical harmony because the sun follows a circuit in accordance with harmony. Concerning the things that are produced from earth and from the cosmic system, they claim that Zaratas makes the following statements: that there are two deities (daimones), the one celestial and the other terrestrial (chthonic). The terrestrial one sends up a production from earth, and that this is water; and the celestial one is a fire, partaking of the nature of air and is hot and cold. Therefore it is affirmed that none of these destroys or defiles the soul, for these constitute the substance of all things. And it is reported that he ordered his followers not to eat beans, because Zaratas said that the bean was already in existence at the origin and concretion of everything when the earth was still undergoing its process of being compounded and formed.

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