Clearchus of Soli, Aristotle and the Jews

Clearchus of Soli, Aristotle and the Jews

Clearchus of Soli is an obscure figure today as he is barely known publicly and then only really for his comments on the subject of the jews. That lack of popular knowledge does not belie Clearchus' importance in either the ancient world or to the modern scholar of Greek philosophy; since in Clearchus we find one of the most important thinkers who sat at the feet of the great Aristotle who had in turn sat at the feet of the even greater thinker: Plato. Thus Clearchus is an important figure to understand for many classical scholars as he - like his colleague Theophrastus - is the intellectual through which much of Aristotle's and Plato's philosophy came to be transmitted down to us.

Clearchus' only known comment on the jews - which he places in the mouth of Aristotle - has been preserved for us by the famous and unashamedly partisan jewish historian Josephus in his philippic against the anti-jewish Alexandrian Greek scholar Apion: 'Against Apion'.

I quote the entire passage to give the necessary context to the assertion:

'For Clearchus, who was the scholar of Aristotle, and inferior to no one of the Peripatetics whomsoever, in his first book concerning sleep, says that "Aristotle his master related what follows of a Jew," and sets down Aristotle's own discourse with him. 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.' (1)

Now it is unfortunate that we have no other sources for this assertion made by Clearchus, because as we can see from the narrative sounding Josephus' reproduction of Clearchus: the former is quoting him only in small part and the contents of which are ripped from their original context. We can see this in Josephus' non-reproduction of Clearchus' actual comments, his presentation of a suspicious summary of them and ascription of them to Aristotle: a partisan hand trying desperately to 'prove' that the jews and their religion were of great antiquity and therefore disproving Apion's own argument (which was centred around the then modernity of the jewish religion).

This systematic distortion of Clearchus' comments on the jews can most easily be seen in the last sentence of the quoted text whereby Josephus claims that Aristotle 'discoursed also particularly of the great and wonderful fortitude of this Jew in his diet, and continent way of living'.

The problem with this sentence is twofold:

Firstly Clearchus - as let us remember that the ascription of a master having said something was and is a common literary device (not to mention the lack of any mention of jews by Aristotle himself) - is here talking about Aristotle having known a single jew whom to him seemed somewhat praiseworthy and is not talking about the jews as a whole positively. (2)

Secondly Clearchus' alleged positivity about the diet of this individual jew is contrary to all known writing about the jews as this is one of the features of the jews that inevitably was singled out for attack by their opponents in that the jews followed an early version of Kashrut and were not allowed to eat such staple foods as pork and shellfish. Clearchus is clearly not saying - in the context of what we have of his actual comments - what Josephus is trying to imply: in so far as the jewish dietary habits (which let us remember Josephus is defending from Apion) are not being viewed positively by Aristotle or by Clearchus.

What might Aristotle or Clearchus have found praiseworthy about this jew's dietary habits?

I would propose that the answer is actually staring us in the face in so far as while kashrut has very strict and rather sadistic rules around the eating of animal flesh: it has no such proscription on vegetables and fruits. We know that Aristotle was a vegetarian as well as that Clearchus probably also was: so what if this jew was in fact a vegetarian and that is what Aristotle and Clearchus are praising?

This interpretation is confirmed by Clearchus' own words that Josephus quotes in so far as he says that the jews are descended from 'Indian philosophers' and what were the philosophers of India well-known then as now for?

Vegetarianism and rejection of the consummation of animal flesh.

Precisely what Aristotle himself believed and argued for. This praise Clearchus allegedly extends to the jew's mode of living, but this again can be easily explained by the jew's adoption of values and practices that Aristotle and Clearchus advocated, which is explained by Clearchus statement that the jew Hyperochides 'became Greek'.

Meaning - of course - that before Hyperochides travelled to see Aristotle he was under the sway of incorrect (jewish) ideas and that under the tutelage of notable Greek thinkers - such as Plato and Aristotle - Hyperochides abandoned his jewish ideas and tried to become like his Greek tutors. We can thus see that Clearchus is referring to the possibility for intellectual change among the jews and not referring in any positive way to the jews as a people.

This directly contradicts the common assert that Clearchus/Aristotle called the jews 'a nation of philosophers', (3) while this has subsequently become transliterated in the nonsensical claim that Clearchus 'thought highly of the jews' as represented by Gustavo Perenik in his irrational book 'Judeophobia'. (4)

This idea is based upon a - quite probably deliberate - misunderstanding of Josephus' quotation of Clearchus - precisely as Josephus himself probably intended it to appear - in so far as it takes Clearchus' and Aristotle's comments out of their individual context of a note of praise in reference to a Hellenizing jew and extrapolates them incorrectly into being direct praise of the jews as a people.

Indeed if we but pause to think about the necessary consequence of Clearchus' statement that Hyperochides was praiseworthy in coming to Greek philosophy from the jewish mode of thought: then it is clear that Clearchus - and potentially Aristotle - is actually saying that Judaism is an irrational superstition of a people much given to philosophizing but doing so ignorantly.

It is clear then that Clearchus' comments have been badly misrepresented by Josephus as being something they are not and that Clearchus instead of being complimentary about jews is actually being directly derogatory about them!

Clearchus of Soli was hardly then a friend of the jews, but rather their enemy.


(1) Joseph. Cont. Ap. 1:22
(2) As pointed out by Hans Lewy, 1938, 'Aristotle and the Jewish Sage according to Clearchus of Soli', Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 31, No. 3, pp. 205-207
(3) Edwyn Bevan, 1948, 'Hellenistic Judaism', p. 33 in Edwyn Bevan, Charles Singer, 1948, 'The Legacy of Israel', 3rd Edition, Clarendon Press: Oxford; a comment also frequently reproduced in the Jewish Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia Judaica as well as more recently on the Jewish Virtual Library.