Clearchus, Aristotle, Theophrastus and a Jewish Philosopher

Ed Reither – Beezone

I’m investigating any links (information) about:

  1.  Hindu expansion before 3rd century BC
  2.  Connection with Aristotle’s reference in meeting a ‘Jewish Philosopher’
  3. India’s colonial influence in the west especially as it relates to the ‘Christian’ and ‘Hebrew’ world (view).
  4. India being the ‘spiral origin of world cultures’


Notes – March 26, 2022

In the late fourth century BCE, historians and ethnographers began to notice the Jews. Megasthenes, Clearchus of Soli and Theophrastus, the Syrian all identify Jews with philosophers; while Megasthenes and Clearchus mention these Jewish philosophers in the context of Indians, it is Theophrastus of Eresos who provides the most extensive witness.

Jews view of India changed completely in the Hellenistic period. Numerous Greek-speaking Jews who lived not in Judea but in the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly Alexandria, traded with India.

India and its mysterious wisdom fascinated Jews in the Hellenistic world. Not only Jews bu Greek legends had Greek philosophers meeting with famous wise men from the East to gain profound insights into nature.

Although Alexander conquered Coele-Syria and Eygpt in 332 before swinging east to take India around 325, Greek writers were far more interested in the Indians than the Judaeans, ‘who had been situated far away from the high road of world history’.

Two early Hellenist authors saw a particular link between Jews and India, a connection of philosophical wisdom. Megasthenes (ca. 290 BCE), who lived in India at the court of the ruling Mauryan dynasty, insisted that the opinions of ancient Greek philosophers about nature were already known in the East, particularly by Jews and Indian Brahmins. (note: Not a good nor accurate picture of India once you read his report).

Aristotle and Jew of Coele-Syria

Clearchus of Soli (ca. 300 BCE), a disciple of Aristotle, asserted that Aristotle met a Jew of Coele-Syria who was “at once strangely marvelous and philosophical” and who “imparted to us something of his own.” Clearchus was the scholar of Aristotle, (Greek: Kλέαρχoς ὁ Σολεύς, Klearkhos ho Soleus) was a Greek philosopher of the 4th–3rd century BC, belonging to Aristotle’s Peripatetic school. He was born in Soli in Cyprus) and inferior to no one of the Peripatetics whomsoever, in his first book concerning sleep (out of body experiences), says that “Aristotle his master related what follows of a Jew,” and sets down Aristotle’s own discourse with him.

Aristotle is then said to have added that the Jews “descended from the Indian philosophers.” There is no trace of these comments in what survives of Aristotle’s work but reflects a Hellenistic commonplace that linked Jews to Indians.

Clearchus’ only known comment on the Jews – which he places in the mouth of Aristotle – has been preserved for us by the famous and Jewish historian Josephus (Flavius Josephus)  in his philippic against the anti-jewish Alexandrian Greek scholar Apion: ‘Against Apion’or ‘On the Antiquity of the Jews’ (Apion Pleistoneices – Apíōn Pleistoníkēs; 30–20 BC – c. AD 45–48), also called Apion Mochthos, was a Hellenized Egyptian grammarian, sophist, and commentator).

Clearchus, a disciple of Aristotle, and in the very first rank of peripatetic philosophers, relates, in his first book on Sleep (out of body experience), the following anecdote told of a certain Jew by his master.

“I warn you, Hyperochides’, he said, ‘that what I am about to say will seem to you as wonderful as a dream.’

Hyperochides respectfully replied, ‘That is the very reason why we are all anxious to hear it.’

‘Well’, said Aristotle, ‘in accordance with the precepts of rhetoric, let us begin by describing his race (to genos autou), in order to keep the rules of our masters in the art of narration.’

‘Tell the story as you please’, said Hyperochides.

‘Well,’ he replied,‘the man was a Jew of Coele-Syria. These people are descended from the Indian philosophers. The philosophers, they say, are in India called Calani, in Syria by the territorial name of Jews; for the district which they inhabit is known as Judaea. Their city has a remarkably odd name: they call it Hierusaleme. Now this man, who was entertained by a large circle of friends and was on his way from the interior to the coast, not only spoke Greek, but had the soul of a Greek. During my stay in Asia, he visited the same places as I did, and came to converse with me and some other scholars, to test our learning. But as one who had been intimate with many cultivated persons, it was rather he who imparted to us something of his own.’


These are the words of Aristotle as reported by Clearchus, and he went on to speak of the great and astonishing endurance and sobriety displayed by this Jew in his manner of life. 

One of the first remaining Greek accounts of the Indians is ascribed to Onesicritus.  Onesicritus would not stand out for the rigour of his texts, but he would have the privilege of being chosen by Alexander for a very particular mission: to meet some wise men from India whom the Greeks first called brahmins and later gymnosophists (naked philosophers), who lived in an ascetic way rejecting clothes and food, and practicing some curious postures of a millenary meditation discipline called yoga.

According to the fragment found in Strabo, Onesicritus finds them naked in various ascetic poses under a broiling sun, and then engages in conversation with one, Calanus. Calanus urges Onesicritus to remove his clothes, arguing that Zeus desires human self-control (sophrosynes), to the point of having destroyed the first, ideal human civilization due to human arrogance and luxurious living. Clothing, he implies, is a sign of continuing human luxury.

Onesicritus then summarises an ensuing conversation with Mandanis, who advocates a series of doctrines (e.g. the best teaching removes pleasure and suffering from the soul) and practices (e.g. abstaining from eating meat) that Onesicritus remarks are similar to those of Pythagoras, Socrates, and Diogenes.

The Jewish scholar Flavius Josephus (37 – 100 AD) quotes from Clearchus’s fragment in his Contra Apionem [Against Apion], which has Aristotle say: “Jews are derived from the Indian philosophers; they are named by the Indians Calami, and by the Syrians Judaei, and took their name from the country they inhabit, which is called Judea.” (Book I:22.)

The account is this, as written down by him:

“Now, for a great part of what this Jew said, it would be too long to recite it; but what includes in it both wonder and philosophy it may not be amiss to discourse of. Now, that I may be plain with thee, Hyperochides, I shall herein seem to thee to relate wonders, and what will resemble dreams themselves.

Hereupon Hyperochides answered modestly, and said, For that very reason it is that all of us are very desirous of hearing what thou art going to say.

Then replied Aristotle, For this cause it will be the best way to imitate that rule of the Rhetoricians, which requires us first to give an account of the man, and of what nation he was, that so we may not contradict our master’s directions.

Then said Hyperochides, Go on, if it so pleases thee.

This man then, [answered Aristotle,] was by birth a Jew, and came from Celesyria; these Jews are derived from the Indian philosophers; they are named by the Indians Calami, and by the Syrians Judaei, and took their name from the country they inhabit, which is called Judea; but for the name of their city, it is a very awkward one, for they call it Jerusalem. Now this man, when he was hospitably treated by a great many, came down from the upper country to the places near the sea, and became a Grecian, not only in his language, but in his soul also; insomuch that when we ourselves happened to be in Asia about the same places whither he came, he conversed with us, and with other philosophical persons, and made a trial of our skill in philosophy; and as he had lived with many learned men, he communicated to us more information than he received from us.”

This is Aristotle’s account of the matter, as given us by Clearchus; which Aristotle discoursed also particularly of the great and wonderful fortitude of this Jew in his diet, and continent way of living, as those that please may learn more about him from Clearchus’s book itself; for I avoid setting down any more than is sufficient for my purpose. Now Clearchus said this by way of digression, for his main design was of another nature.

Further notes:

Megasthenes on the“Physics”of the Greeks, Brahmans, and Jews

Bezalel Bar-Kochva

This chapter studies the theories about how much the Indian thought and ways of life may have influenced Greek thought, and also considers the supposed connection of the Jews with India and the Indians. It begins with a study on the interpretations of Megasthenes’ reference to the Jews, followed by an account of Megasthenes’ life and works, as well as his comment on the Jews, which has survived thanks to Clement of Alexandria. The chapter then discusses Megasthenes’ comparison of the opinions of the Brahmans and the Greeks, and also identifies the similarities and dissimilarities among the Brahmans, the Jews, and the “Ancient” Greeks.

Against Apion or The Antiquity of the Jews– Flavius Josephus

Megasthenes’ Indica
A New Translation of the Fragments with Commentary

By Richard Stoneman