Barbarian and Judean wisdom: Clement of Alexandria [V] on the sources of Plato’s thought (late second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Barbarian and Judean wisdom: Clement of Alexandria [V] on the sources of Plato’s thought (late second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 5, 2023,

Ancient authors: Various authors in Clement of Alexandria (late second century CE), Exhortation to the Greeks 6.60-61 (link).

Comments: In the first post on Clement’s Exhortation to the Greeks (link), I have clarified the overall purpose of Clement’s work, which is to undermine, and call for the abandonment of, Greek ancestral customs and the acceptance of the Hebrew prophets’ direction towards Jesus. In this final ethnographic section, Clement turns to the concept that he develops (or had developed, depending on when they were written) more fully in his Tapestries (link), namely the idea that wisdom is indeed to be found among barbarian peoples and that the Hebrews (whose prophets point to Jesus) were at the forefront of such wise barbarians. Clement develops the notion that Plato (but also the Stoic Plenthes), unlike many other Greek philosophers (see previous post), was most in line with truth in several respects, but that the reason for this was his education in foreign and, especially, Hebrew wisdom. In the Tapestries, Clement more fully develops this idea of Greek philosophy deriving its truth from Moses and the Hebrews (alongside other barbarians).

Clement of Alexandria ethnographic series (primarily dealing with Exhortation to the Greeks but also with Tapestries) in order:

  • part 1 on Scythians (link)
  • part 2 on Egyptians (link)
  • part 3 on Taurians and Greek human sacrifice (link)
  • part 4 on Persian Magians and Scythians (link)
  • part 5 on barbarian and Hebrew / Judean wisdom (link).
  • part 6 on barbarian and Hebrew philosophy, dealing with Tapestries (link)
  • part 7 on Brahmans and other Indians (link)

Source of the translation: G. W. Butterworth, Clement of Alexandria (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1919), public domain, adapted by Harland.


[For the previous substantial ethnographic engagement in Clement, with discussion of Persian Magians, go to this link]

[Relation of Plato to the truth about God]

Demokritos is not unreasonable when he says that “a few men of reason stretch out their hands towards what we Greeks now call air and speak of it in legend as Zeus. This is because Zeus knows all, he gives and takes away all, and he is king of all things.” Plato also has a similar thought, when he says darkly about God: “All things are around the king of all things, and that is the cause of everything good” [Plato, Epistles 2.312E].

Who, then, is the king of all things? It is God, the measure of the truth of all existence. As therefore things measured are comprehended by measure, so also by the perception of God the truth is measured and comprehended. The truly sacred Moses says, “There shall not be in your bag diverse weights, a great and a small, neither shall there be in your house a great measure and a small, but your measures shall have a true and just weight” [Deuteronomy 25:13-15]. Here he is assuming God to be the weight and measure and number of the universe. For the unjust and unfair idols find a home hidden in the depths of the bag, or, as we may say, the polluted soul. But the one true God, who is the only just measure, because he is always uniformly and unchangeably impartial, measures and weighs all things, encircling and sustaining in equilibrium the nature of the universe by his justice as by a balance. “Now God, as the ancient saying has it, holding the beginning and end and middle of all existence, keeps an unswerving path, revolving according to nature; but ever there follows along with him right, to take vengeance on those who forsake the divine law” [Plato, Laws 715E, 716A].

[Barbarian and especially Hebrew or Judean sources of Plato’s philosophy]

“What is the source of your hints at the truth, Plato? What is the source of this abundant supply of words proclaiming, as in an oracle, the fear of God?”:

“The barbarian races,” he answers, “are wiser than the Greeks.” I know your teachers, even if you would attempt to conceal them. You learn land-measurement from the Egyptians, astronomy from the Babylonians, healing incantations you obtain from the Thracians, and the Assyrians have taught you much.

Yet as to your laws – in so far as they are true – and your belief about God, you have been helped by the Hebrews themselves: “Who honour not with vain deceit man’s works / Of gold and silver, bronze and ivory, / And dead men’s statues carved from wood and stone, / Which mortals in their foolish hearts revere; / But holy hands to heaven each morn they raise / From sleep arising, and their flesh they cleanse / With water pure; and honour Him alone. / Who guards them alway, the immortal God” [Sibylline Oracles 3.586-588, 590-594].

And now, O philosophy, promptly set before me not only this one man Plato, but many others who declare the one only true God to be his own inspiration, if they have laid hold of the truth. Antisthenes, for instance, had perceived this, not as a Cynic doctrine, but as a result of his intimacy with Socrates. For he says, “God is like nothing else, wherefore none can know him thoroughly from a likeness.”

And Xenophon the Athenian would himself have written explicitly concerning the truth, bearing his share of witness as Socrates did, had he not feared the poison which Socrates received; nonetheless he hints at it. At least, he says: “He who moves all things and brings them to rest again is plainly some great and mighty one; but what his form is we cannot see. Even the sun, which appears to shine on everyone, even he seems not to allow himself to be seen. But if a man impudently gazes at him, he is deprived of sight.”

From what source, I ask, does the son of Gryllos [Xenophon] draw his wisdom? Is it not clearly from the Hebrew prophetess [the Sibyl], who utters her oracle in the following words?: “What eyes of flesh can see immortal God, / Who inhabits the heavenly firmament? / Not even against the sun’s descending rays / Can men of mortal birth endure to stand” [Sibylline Oracles, preface, 10-13].

Kleanthes of Pedasis, the Stoic philosopher, presents no genealogy of the gods, after the manner of poets, but a true discourse about god. He did not conceal what thoughts he had about god: “You ask me what the good is like? Then hear! / The good is ordered, holy, pious, just, / Self-ruling, useful, beautiful, and right, / Severe, without pretence, expedient ever, / Fearless and griefless, helpful, soothing pain, / Well-pleasing, advantageous, steadfast, loved, / Esteemed, consistent . . . Renowned, not puffed up, careful, gentle, strong, / Enduring, blameless, lives from age to age.” “Slavish the man who listens to vain opinion, / In hope to light on any good from that.” In these passages he teaches clearly, I think, what is the nature of God, and how common opinion and custom make slaves of those who follow them instead of searching after God.

Nor must we conceal the doctrine of the Pythagoreans, who say that “God is One, and God is not, as some suspect, outside the universal order, but within it, being wholly present in the whole circle, the supervisor of all creation, the blending of all the ages, the wielder of his own powers, the light of all his works in heaven and the father of all things, mind and living principle of the whole circle, movement of all things.”

These sayings have been recorded by their authors through God’s inspiration, and we have selected them. As a guide to the full knowledge of God they are sufficient for every person who is able, even in small measure, to investigate the truth. . . . [remainder omitted, including an extensive discussion of Hebrew prophecy in book seven].

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