Friday, April 22, 2011

Zoroastrian-Persian Influence on Greek Philosophy and Sciences

[Also see the companion pages:
» Greek Perceptions of Zoroaster, Zoroastrianism & the Magi
» Ostanes - Persian Sage
» Alcibiades, Plato & Some Amazing Insights. Part 1 The Historical Alcibiades
» Alcibiades, Plato & Some Amazing Insights. Part 2 Selections from Plato]

Introductory Comments
In reading the works of classical Hellenic (Greek) authors it appears that in some regards, the Greeks were almost obsessed with Persian culture. They journeyed, studied and practiced Persian-Magian-Zoroastrian philosophy and skills, but then unfortunately either claimed this knowledge as their own or disparaged the Persians.

According to Roger Beck in Zoroaster, as Perceived by the Greeks at Iranica (2003), in much of their writings, the Hellenic authors were "flagrantly dishonest". It is not too difficult to see through the distortions and tease out the foundational facts, if only because the Hellenic authors did a good job in criticizing and contradicting one another.

Nevertheless, when we peel away the layers of bias, hyperbole and old-fashioned fantasy, the Hellenic authors do begrudgingly acknowledge that Zoroaster was an original philosopher and wise - one from whom the Greek's learnt much. In all likelihood, the Greeks learnt about Zoroaster's teachings, philosophy and science through contemporaneous Zoroastrian priests, the Magi. Existing records speak of this transfer of information taking place between about 600 BCE and the reign of Alexander in the 300s BCE.

Some of the Persian information transferred to the Greeks was reputed to have been stored in the great library of Alexandria in Egypt. That library, founded by Ptolemy II Philapdephius, was said to have contained two million lines (that would mean 800 or so rolls) attributed to Zoroaster (most probably committed to writing via the Magi) by Hermippus, a Greek scholar working in Alexandria in about 200 BCE, and who is cited by Pliny in Natural History 30.2.4.

We see Persian influence on the Greeks not just in philosophy and the natural sciences, but in manifestations of culture as well. For instance, Greek food is in many ways more Persian than it is European (or at the least influenced by food from the Persian Empire including Asia Minor).

Zoroastrian Influence on Greek Philosophy and its Origins
Influence on Philosophy and the Sciences
Hermippus of Smyrna, who lived about 200 BCE and who wrote on "Zoroaster’s writings", believed in the Oriental / Magian / Zoroastrian origins of Greek thought (cf. David Livingstone in The Hidden History of Western Civilization p.149).

Synesius of Cyrene (4th cent.CE) considered Zoroaster as among the greatest philosophers.

Michael Stausberg in an article, Zoroaster as a Figure of Authority, cites an anonymous scholiast to the Platonic Alcibiades I as noting that Zoroaster who lived 6,000 years before Plato had left behind various writings showing that there were three kinds of philosophy, namely, physics, economics and politics.

According to Diogenes Laertius (3rd cent. CE) at 1.8 of Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Hermippus also published Peri Magon, On the Magi, a multi-volume work on the Magi who were viewed as Oriental wisdom-teachers. The Magi were Zoroastrian priests.

According to Eric Gerlach of Berkeley City College, In the Renaissance, the two greatest philosophers, Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, both Neo-Platonists, believed that there was one true philosophy which was passed from the Egyptian priests and Persian magi to Greek philosophers and Indian sages, and that this wisdom was incarnated on earth as Jesus.

Influence on the first Greek Thinkers - The Milesian School of Thales, Anaximander & Anaximenes
The first ancient Greek philosophers, Thales (c. 624 BC–546 BCE), Anaximander (c. 610–546 BCE) and Anaximenes (585 BC-528 BCE), were all from Miletus, and so they are known as the Milesian School. Pythagoras (see below) was Anaximander's student.

Miletus was an ancient Greek city on the western coast of Anatolia. It was situated near the mouth of the Maeander River in ancient Caria. By the middle of the 6th century BCE, Miletus had become the greatest and wealthiest of Greek cities. Nowadays, the ruin are found near the town of Balat in Aydin Province, Turkey. The Ionian city states such as Miletus were settled by the Greeks around 1000 BCE.

According to Eric Gerlach of Berkeley City College, "That the first (Greek) philosophers came from Miletus suggests Persia had a particularly powerful influence, which would be corroborated by Christianity (influenced by Persian Zoroastrianism) spreading through Syria and Ionia to the rest of Greece and Egypt centuries later. There was not much difference between Miletus and Athens other than Miletus having been under the Persian Empire in the centuries before its greatest thinkers arose." "Greece was not yet a political entity at the time, but shared a Homeric culture with other Greek city states such as Athens."

Professor Mary Boyce in her A History of Zoroastrianism: Volume II: Under the Achaemenians (Leiden, 1982) at page 150 gives an overview of the influence of Zoroastrianism on the philosophers of Ionia.

Influence on Pythagoras, Empedocles, Democritus, and Plato
The greatly upset and nationalistic 1st century CE author, Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE), decries the great influence Zoroastrian philosophy and science had on the Greeks, saying that it gave them not only a "lust" (aviditatem) for the sciences ('magic' sic), but a downright "madness" (rabiem) for it. He further states that many of Hellenic philosophers, such as Pythagoras, Empedocles, Democritus, and Plato traveled abroad to study it, and then returned to teach it (30.2.8-10).

Pliny singles out the Magus Ostanes or Osthanes' [Old Iranian (H)ushtana] as having committed to writing this "monstrous craft". According to Pliny, Ostanes was also the teacher of Democritus, an influential pre-Socratic philosopher who formulated an atomic theory for the cosmos and is regarded as the father of science. Democritus was largely ignored by the Athenians, perhaps because he sympathized with the Persians (a medicizing Greek). The Persian Emperor Xerxes is reputed to have paid a personal visit to Democritus' home.

According to the Pythagorean tradition, the mathematician Pythagoras (c. 570-495 BCE) is said to have studied under Zoroaster in Babylonia [Porphyry (234-c 305 CE) Life of Pythagoras 12, Alexander Polyhistor (1st cent. BCE) in Clement of Alexandria's (c.150-215 CE) Stromata I.15, Diodorus of Eritrea, Aristoxenus (4th cent. BCE) cited by Hippolitus /Hippolytus of Rome (170-230 CE) VI32.2]. As we now know that Zoroaster (Zarathushtra / Zarathustra) lived long before Pythagoras' time (according to the Greeks themselves), the reference to Zoroaster here means Zoroastrians, the magi included, and not Zoroaster.

Aristotle / Antisthenes
David Livingstone in The Hidden History of Western Civilization p.147 informs us that "Magian (Zoroastrian) thought was also evidenced in Plato's most famous pupil, the teacher of Alexander, Aristotle. According to Diogenes Laertius, lists Aristotle as among the authorities* on the Magi (see below). In Book 1, Prologue, Section 8, " the first book of his dialogue On Philosophy, now lost, Aristotle declares that the "Magi are more ancient than the Egyptians." Diogenes credits Aristotle as being the author of a book Magicus (also attributed by Suda to a certain Antisthenes). According to Suda, this book explicitly states that Zoroaster is the originator of wisdom. While the works commonly attributed to Aristotle do not go on to speak at length of the Magi, some of Aristotle's philosophies such as those regarding dualism have magian overtones. It is unfortunate that Aristotle's own writings about the influence of Zoroastrianism are now known to us primarily through refernces, the original works now being lost.

On Nature
Neoplatonist philosopher Proclus Lycaeus / Diadochus (412–485 CE) attributed to Zoroaster (Zarathushtra/Zarathustra) a four-volume i.e. papyrus rolls, treatise On Nature (Peri physeos) dedicated to King Cyrus. Colotes of Lampsacus (c. 320-260 BCE), a notable Greek critic, accused Plato of plagiarizing Zoroaster, since the framework of On Nature's narrative reappears in Plato's Myth of Er in the concluding story of the Republic. The original work, On Nature (Peri physeos) mentioned by Proclus and Clement of Alexandria (see below) does not survive.

Clement of Alexandria, i.e. Titus Flavius Clemens (c.150-215 CE) and Proclus Lycaeus / Diadochus, the Neoplatonist philosopher (412–485 CE) quote from a work entitled On Nature, attributed to Zoroaster in which Zoroaster is equated with Plato's Er. Clement quotes the opening of On Nature as: "Zoroaster, then, writes: 'These things I wrote, I Zoroaster, the son of Armenius, a Pamphylian by birth: having died in battle, and been in Hades, I learned them of the gods.' This Zoroaster, Plato says, having been placed on the funeral pyre, rose again to life in twelve days. He alludes perchance to the resurrection, or perchance to the fact that the path for souls to ascension lies through the twelve signs of the zodiac; and he himself says, that the descending pathway to birth is the same. In the same way we are to understand the twelve labours of Hercules, after which the soul obtains release from this entire world."

[This author's note: There are several classical Greek works titled On Nature (Peri Physeos), authored by Thales of Miletus (c. 624–c. 546 BCE, Diogenes of Apollonia (400s BCE), and a poem by Parmenides of Elea (born 515 BCE). According to Martin J. Henn, the latter was said to have studied the teachings of Zoroaster and the magi, and then repudiated them.]

As an aside, we find it interesting to note that On Nature has the sun in the 'middle' position (in the solar system), while Plato's 4th century BCE version had the sun in second place above the moon.

Oracles of Zoroaster & Plato
Sapere Aude in a preface to William Westcott's The Chaldæan Oracles of Zoroaster states, that Berosus, a Babylonian, is said to be the first who introduced the writings concerning astronomy and philosophy among the Greeks, and it is certain that the tradition very largely influenced Greek thought. Aude further states that "Taylor considers that some of these mystical utterances are the sources whence the sublime conceptions of Plato were formed, and large commentaries were written upon them by Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus, Pletho and Psellus. That men of such great learning and sagacity should have thought so highly of these Oracles (of Zoroaster), is a fact which in itself should commend them to our attention."

Karl H. Dannenfeldt in his article The Pseudo-Zoroastrian Oracles in the Renaissance published in Studies in the Renaissance (Univ. of Chicago Press) states that "of special the close relationship between Plato and Zoroaster which existed in the minds of many ancient writers and even among some modern authorities (for a detailed discussion on this relationship, see Milton V. Anastos, Plaetho's Calendar and Liturgy, in Dumbarton Oaks Papers, No. 4, (Cambridge, Mass. 1948) 283-289; J. Bisdez, Eos ou Platon et l'Orient (Brussels, 1945).

For example, Zoroastrian dualism is said to be reflected in the struggle between good and evil world-souls found in Plato's Laws (10, 896E). "Plato's interest in Persia and Zoroastrianism is also evident in the First Alcibiades (121E-122A) [cf. Werner Jaeger in Aristotle, Fundamentals of the History of His Development (Oxford, 1934) pp.132-133; Paul Shorey in What Plato Said (Chicago, 1933), pp 147-654.].

Hermodorus, Eudoxus of Cnidus, and Herclides Ponticus, three disciples of Plato, were also known to be interested in Zoroastrianism [cf. Pliny's Natural Historia, 30, I, 3; Plutarch's Adversus Coloten, 14 (1115A); Bidez-Cumont in Mages, I, 12-15, 80-84, 113; II 2, 9. 25, 66, 68].

There is some suggestion that Plato's disciples or Academicians claimed that Plato was a 'reincarnation' of Zoroaster (Andre-Marie J. Festugiere in Platon et l'Orient, at Revue de Philologie 21 (1947) pp. 5-45) [Also see The Chaldaick Oracles of Zoroaster And his Followers With the Expositions of Pletho and Psellus]. The reference to reincarnation leads us to believe that Plato's disciple saw Plato as the inheritor of Zoroaster's teachings.

Plato's contemporary, Heraclides Ponticus wrote a text titled Zoroaster based on Zoroastrian philosophy in order to express his disagreement with Plato on natural philosophy.

Lydus (6th cent. CE) , in On the Months II.4, attributes the creation of the seven-day week to "the circle of Zoroaster and Hystaspes in Babylon," the basis being that there were then known seven planets.

According to Porphyry, a third-century CE Neoplatonist, Zoroaster instituted Mithras-worship in the archetypal mithraeum (De antro nympharum 6, trans. Arethusa edition). The notion of Zoroaster instituting Mithraism is fanciful. However, what may be significant here is a confirmation of the Persian, i.e. Iranian origins of European Mihtraism and the consequent influence of Persian theology on Europeans and ultimately Christianity (cf. Birth of Christ on December 25, the festival of lights etc.).

Other Authorities on the Magi & Their Influence
*The other authorities on the Magi listed by Diogenes are: Sotion, Succession of Philosophers, Diadoche, Book 23 (13); Hermodorus, the Platonist, Xanthus the Lydian; Dino in Histories, Book 5; Hermippus, On the Magi (see above); Eudoxus, Voyage Around the World; Theopompus, Philippica Book 8; Eudemus of Rhodes; Hecataeus [of Abdera] and Clearchus of Soloi's, On Education. [Also see Traditions of the Magi: Zoroastrianism in Greek and Latin Literature by Albert de Jong.

We can understand that the skills (especially their medical skills and knowledge of the natural sciences) of the Zoroastrian-Persian priests, the magi (through whom these authors understood Zoroastrianism), were of such a high level so as to appear as 'magic' to Pliny and others ignorant in these skills. Many basic modern science feats would have appeared as super-magic to them. The pejorative and negative value laden terms used by Pliny and a few others aside (most modern authors can see through the nationalistic bias of the authors), what we gather from these references is that Zoroaster and subsequent magi 'invented' many of the sciences including philosophy, medicine, chemistry, astronomy and others - astrology as well; and that several Greeks including Plato and Pythagoras travelled to study the subjects and then returned to Greece to teach them.

Dio Chrysostomus in Oration 36.41 says Greeks call Magi magicians out of ignorance.

We see the accusations of the enraged Pliny and others more as a compliment and a confirmation that some of the most notable Greek philosophers travelled to Persia to learn from ('infected' by, in Pliny's words) the Persians and more specifically the inheritance of Zoroaster.

Transfer of Persian Sciences and Philosophy by Alexander
The list is below is further catalogued and referenced in The Arabic Hermes: from Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science by Kevin Thomas Van Bladel, pp 33-35.. Also see our pages on Ostanes - Persian Sage in Egypt for further citations regarding the preservation and recovery of some texts in Egypt and on the Destruction & Compilation of the Avesta.

Mahankard (c. 750 CE. Translated from Middle Persian to Arabic): Alexander destroyed the original ancient Persian books after having them translated into Greek. (Other accounts below state that only certain topics/books were translated and the others, e.g. religious, were

Hamza al-Isfahani, wr. 961 [Eight collated translations of the Middle Persian Khwaday Namag (Khoda Namah also used by Ferdowsi) to Arabic] & supported by the account of Musa ibn Isa al-Kisrawi: Alexander, jealous of the unparalled knowledge of the Persian nation, first translated what he needed from the Persian, then destroyed the rest, killing the Magi too. Although he destroyed their books on religion, he translated their books dealing with philosophy, astrology, medicine, and agriculture from Persian into Greek and Egyptian, which he sent to Alexandria (cf. our page on Ostanes - Persian Sage in Egypt). This account confirms that the Avesta and supporting texts were encyclopaedic in knowledge as further confirmed by the Dinkard's summary of the 21 books of the Avesta.

Din Vijirgard (Persian in Pahlavi script): Alexander destroyed the Nasks (Books of the Avesta) except for those concerning medicine and the stars, with he had translated into Roman (i.e. Greek. Post Parthian period, the Persians called Europe 'Rome' since the interface with the Iranian / Persian Empire was the Roman Empire.)

Reciprocal Influence
The influence was of course reciprocal, with the Persians absorbing much of Greek culture as well. This mutual influence of one upon the others appears to have stretched back to the beginnings of time as recorded in mythology. We explore some of these connections in our page on the Olympic Flame and elsewhere. The Persians on their part were readily open to cultural influences from all the cultures with whom they had contact in their trading missions and the establishment of trading colonies along the Silk Roads from Greece and Egypt in the west, Scythia in the north, China in the east and India in the south. The result was an international influence and outlook in the superstructure of Persian culture including language and food, but, given this openness, a surprising resilience in maintaining core Aryan history and values including religion. This phenomenon is evident amongst the handful of Parsi (meaning Persian) Zoroastrians surviving in the world today. Unlike the Greek nation as a whole, this group of Persians refused to abandon their historic beliefs despite the oppression and coercion brought on by conquerors.

Albert de Jong in Traditions of the Magi: Zoroastrianism in Greek and Latin Literature

Companion Pages
» Greek Perceptions of Zoroaster, Zoroastrianism & the Magi
» Ostanes - Persian Sage
» Alcibiades, Plato & Some Amazing Insights. Part 1 The Historical Alcibiades
» Alcibiades, Plato & Some Amazing Insights. Part 2 Selections from Plato

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