Greek Analects

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The works of many early Greek philosophers, orators, and poets (630-400  BCE) exist only as small fragments or analects—literally, the crumbs that fall to the floor. They nevertheless give us a glimpse of events in one of the most important eras in European thought, as attempts were made to understand whether some sort of unity could underlie the observed changing physical world. And as concepts for this unity evolved, rules governing the events that transformed it also became the subject of speculation. Some attempts were also made to extend these rules to individual human and social behavior. However, such attempts were rarely convincing and turned attention to more direct consideration of psychology and ethics. There was a blossoming of humanistic studies, and at this point, the record of Greek speculation became much better preserved.


Early speculation on an underlying unity focused on changes such as the evaporation and condensation of water and the conversion of solids into smoke by fire. Developments in geometry and astronomy indicated rules that governed terrestrial calculations such as the height of a building or the year of an eclipse. Later, various logical arguments were used as a means of affirming or denying an underlying unity. At the end the period, the atomic theory provided a means of resolving how change could occur through recombination of unchanging, everlasting, particles that formed the substrate of the world. But by this time, studies of the art of rhetoric and drama were becoming much more popular than physical theory.


The extracts that follow have been selected for their relevance to human affairs rather than to physical theory. Very often the fragments are from reports of other writers.





Solon (Circa 630-560 BCE) was a poet and one of a group of philosophers called the Seven Sages. The best-known sayings attributed to them are "Know thyself" and "Nothing too much". In Athens, Solon founded Athenian democracy and carried out economic and political reforms that mitigated the evils of poverty. He also instituted a humane legal code that replaced the previous Draconian laws.


1     No mortal is blest with happiness; wretched are all human souls on whom the sun looks down.


2     Distribution of Wealth: For many unworthy men are rich, while good men are poor; but we will not barter with them our worth for their wealth, since the one stands ever unshaken, whereas riches pass now into one man’s hands, now into another’s.


3     The Ages of Man: A child in his infancy grows his first set of teeth and loses them within seven years. For so long he counts as only a child.

    When God has brought to accomplishment the next seven-year period, one shows upon his body the signs of maturing youth.

    In the third period he is still getting his growth, while on his chin the beard comes, to show he is turning from youth to a man.

    The fourth seven years are the time when every man reaches his highest point of physical strength where men look for prowess achieved.

    In the fifth period the time is ripe for a young man to think of marriage and children, a family to be raised.

    The mind of a man comes to full maturity in the sixth period, but he cannot now do as much, nor does he wish that he could.

    In the seventh period of seven years and in the eighth also for fourteen years in all, his speech is best in his life. He can still do much in his ninth period, but there is a weakening seen in his ability both to think and to speak.

    But if he completes ten ages of seven years each, full measure, death, when it comes, can no longer be said to come too soon.





Thales (Circa 624-546 BCE), born in Miletus, was another of the seven wise men of Greece. He is said to have brought geometry and astronomy to Greece, and to have predicted the solar eclipse of 585 BCE. He is noteworthy for his rejection of mythology as an explanation of the origination of the universe.


4     Plato states that Thales the Milesian declared the first principle of things to be water.


5     Eudemus relates in the Astronomy that Thales discovered the eclipse of the sun and the variable period of its solstices.


6     Aristotle and Hippeas say that Thales gave a share of soul even to inanimate objects, using lodestone and amber as indications.





Anaximander (circa 611-547 BCE), born in Miletus, proposed that the universe originated with the separation of opposites from a primordial material, referred to as the "non-limited". He considered that phenomena such as heat cold were held in balance in the way that justice operates to balance different human interests. He is said to have discovered the angle between the ecliptic and the celestial equator and to have introduced the sundial to Greece.


7     The non-limited is the original material of existing things. Furthermore, the source from which existing things derive their existence is also that to which they return at their destruction, according to necessity; for they give justice and make reparation to one another for their injustice, according to the arrangement of time.


8    Animals came into being through vapors raised by the sun. Man, however, came into being from another animal, namely the fish, for at first he is like a fish.





Pythagoras (circa 580-500 BCE), was born in Samos, Ionia, moving to Italy in about 532 BCE to establish an academy at Croton devoted to religious and philosophical studies, which continued after his death. His philosophy involved simplicity of possessions, abstinence, self-examination, and mysticism. None of his writings survive and it is difficult to determine who among the Pythagoreans provided specific advances to their thought.


9     The heavens are a universe and the earth, round.


10    Fire is at the center and earth is one of the stars, and moving in a circle about the center it produces night and day.


11     Wise men ought not to sacrifice animals to gods, nor eat what has life, or beans, nor drink wine.


12     Reciprocity is absolutely just, because the just is defined as that which is reciprocal to another.


13     Because many qualities of numbers are seen in bodies perceived by the senses, objects can be regarded as numbers—not as separate numbers, but as derived numbers; because the qualities of numbers exist in the musical scale, in the heavens, and in many other things.


14     Number is the first principle, a thing which is undefined, incomprehensible, having in itself all numbers which could reach infinity in amount. And the first principle of numbers is in substance the first monad, which is a male monad, begetting as a father all other numbers. Secondly the dyad is a female number, and the same is called by the arithmeticians "even".





Xenophanes (circa 560-478 BCE) was born in Colophon, Ionia, lived in Sicily for a time, and settled in Elea in southern Italy. He is regarded by many as the founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy. Fragments of his poetry show contempt for mythology and ridicule of the notion of transmigration of souls.


15     Both Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods things that are shameful and a reproach among mankind: theft, adultery, and mutual deception.


16     But if oxen (and horses) and lions had hands or could draw with hands and create works of art like those made by men, horses would draw pictures of gods like horses, and oxen of gods like oxen, and they would draw their bodies in accordance with the form that each species itself possesses.


17     Ethiopians have gods with snub noses and black hair. Thracians have gods with gray eyes and red hair.


18     For now the floor is clean, the hands of all and the cups are clean; one puts on the woven garlands, another-passes around the fragrant ointment in a vase; the mixing bowl stands full of good cheer, and more wine, mild and of delicate bouquet, is at hand in jars, which says it will never fail. In the midst frankincense sends forth its sacred fragrance, and there is water, cold, and sweet, and pure; the yellow loaves are near at hand, and the table of honor is loaded with cheese and rich honey. . . then it is no unfitting thing to drink as much as will not prevent your walking home without a slave, if you are not very old. 


19     And one ought to praise that man who, when he has drunk, unfolds noble things as his memory and his toil for virtue suggest; but there is nothing praiseworthy in discussing battles of Titans or of Giants or Centaurs, fictions of former ages, nor in plotting violent revolutions.


20     All things come from earth, and all things end by becoming earth.


21     The phenomena of the heavens come from the warmth of the sun as the principle cause. For when moisture is drawn up from the sea, the sweet water separated by reason of its lightness becomes mist and passes into clouds, and falls as rain when compressed, and the winds scatter it. . . The sea is the source of water.


22     Once the earth was mingled with the sea, but in the course of time it became freed from moisture. The proofs are such as these: that shells are found in the midst of the land and among the mountains, that in the quarries of Syracuse the imprints of a fish and of seals have been found, and in Paros the imprint of an anchovy at some depth in the stone, and in Melite shallow impressions of all sorts of sea products. These imprints were made when everything long ago was covered with mud, and then the imprint dried in the mud. Further, all men will be destroyed when the earth sinks into the sea and becomes mud, and that the race will begin anew from the beginning; and this transformation takes place for all worlds.





Heraclitus (circa 540-480 BCE), born in Ephesus in Anaolia, considered fire the basic material of the universe but extended the notion of fire to the smoke that rises from it and thence to the atmosphere as a whole. In turn the atmosphere returned water to the ocean. So water and fire were connected. He noted that opposites defined each other. He was said by Diogenese Laertes to have written his thoughts in an obscure style so that competent men alone would understand him, thus preventing his exposure to ridicule by the common people.


23     One cannot step twice into the same river.


24     A man’s character is his destiny.


25     When you have listened, not to me but to the ordering principle of the universe [the logos, Greek "reason"], it is wise to agree that all things are one


26     This ordered universe, which is the same for all, was not created by any one of the gods or by mankind, but it was always, and is now, and shall be, ever-living fire, kindled in measure and quenched in measure.


27     To those who are awake, there is one ordered, shared universe; whereas in sleep each man turns away to a world of his own. . .we should not speak and act as if we were asleep.


28     Therefore one must follow the universal law, namely, that which is common to all. But although the law is universal, the majority live as if they had an understanding peculiar to themselves.


29     Not understanding, although they have heard, they are like the deaf. The proverb bears witness to them: "Present yet absent".


30     Many do not consider their experiences, nor do they recognize the things they learn, but they think they do.


31     You will not uncover the unexpected unless you are expecting it, for finding it is hard and difficult.


32     Gold prospectors dig up much earth to find little gold


33     All of the men whose ideas I have listened to fail to recognize that wisdom is different from all other things . . .It is a single thing. It is understanding the mind through which all things are guided by all things.


34     Let us not speculate at random about important things. Men who love wisdom must investigate very many things.


35     One day is equal to any other day


36     That which is in opposition is in concert, and from things that differ comes the most beautiful harmony. They do not understand how that which differs with itself is in agreement: harmony consists of opposing tensions, like that of the bow and lyre.


37     Seawater combines the purest and the foulest. For fish it is drinkable and life-preserving; for men it is undrinkable and deadly.


38     Things would not get better if men’s desires were satisfied. Disease makes health pleasant and good. Hunger does this for eating one’s fill. And weariness makes rest welcome.


39     A drunken man, having a wet soul, is led by a young boy, stumbling and not knowing where he goes . . A dry soul is wisest and best.


40     Hiding ignorance is to be preferred; but it is difficult to do so while relaxing and over wine.


41     All adult Ephesians would do well to strangle themselves and leave their city to the young, because they threw out Hermodorus—the best among them—declaring "Let no one amongst us be the best; if there is any such person, let them go away to other people."


42     People should fight for their laws as they do their walls.


43     Insolence should be doused faster than a fire.





Alcmaeon (active in the Sixth Century), born at Croton in southern Italy, may have been the first to dissect human bodies to seek greater understanding of man. He is said to have concluded that the brain was the organ digesting the information from the senses and that health depended on the balance of opposite components of the body, such as dryness and humidity.


44 Man differs from the other [creatures] in that he alone understands; the others perceive, but do not understand.





Parmenides (Born about 515 BCE in Elea) argued that attempting to explain change by transmutations of individual substances such as fire or water must fail because most things are not fire or water. Instead, he suggested a universal substance, called "it is", (or, in later philosophy, "being") which was essential to existence. Absence of it is automatically meant non-existence. From this standpoint, he denied the existence of change, motion, generation and destruction, particularly spontaneous existence or annihilation.

    His pupil, Zeno, is famous for his logical paradoxes displaying the non-existence of motion.


45     You shall inquire into everything: both the motionless heart of well-rounded truth, and also the opinions of mortals, in which there is no true reliability. But nevertheless you will learn these things also—how one should go through all the things-that-seem, without exception, and test them.


46     One should both say and think that it is; for to be is possible, and nothingness is not possible. This I command you to consider; for from the latter way of search first of all I debar you. But next I debar you from that way along which mortals wander knowing nothing, in two minds; for perplexity in their bosoms steers their intelligence astray, and they are carried along as deaf as they are blind, amazed, uncritical hordes, by whom "it is" and "it is not" are regarded as the same and not the same, and in everything there is a way of opposing stress.


47     There is only one other description of the way remaining, that what is is. To this way there are very many sign-posts: that being has no coming-into-being and no destruction, for it is whole of limb, without motion, and without end. And it never was, nor will be, because it is now, a whole all together, one, continuous; for what creation of it will you look for? Where could it have sprung from, and how? Nor shall I allow you to speak or think of it as springing from not-being; for it is neither expressible nor thinkable that what-is-not is. Also, what necessity impelled it, if it did spring from nothing, to be produced later or earlier?

    Thus it must be absolutely, or not at all. Nor will the force of credibility ever admit that anything should come into being, beside being itself, out of not-being. . . . The decision on these matters depends on the following: it is, or it is not. It is therefore decided—as is inevitable—ignore the one way as unthinkable and inexpressible (for it is no true way) and take the other as the way of being and reality. How could being perish? How could it come being? If it came into being, it is not; and so too if it is about-to-be at some future time. Thus coming-into-being is quenched, and also destruction into the unseen.





Epicharmus (circa 530-440 BCE), born at Syracuse, was a Greek dramatist credited with staging the earliest Greek comedies. Interspersed with the comedy were many philosophical maxims that led to a later reputation as a philosopher. In many of the plays the gods were satirized.


48     A mortal should think mortal thoughts, not immortal thoughts.


49     The best thing a man can have, in my view, is health.


50     The hand washes the hand: give something and you may get something.


51     Then what is the nature of men? Blown up bladders!





Empedocles (circa 494-434 BCE), born in Acragas, Sicily, proposed that all things were composed of earth, water, air and fire. Some mixtures of these everlasting elements are more stable than others because of the way they fit together. Forces that mix and separate the elements are affinity and antipathy, or love and hate. He suggested that animals and humans evolved from earlier more primitive forms.


52     But come, examine by every means each thing how it is clear, neither putting greater faith in anything seen than in what is heard, nor in a thundering sound more than in the clear assertions of the tongue, nor keep from trusting any of the other members in which there lies means of knowledge, but know each thing in the way in which it is clear.


53     All these [elements] are equal and of the same age in their creation; but each presides over its own office, and each has its own character, and they prevail in turn in the course of time. And besides these, nothing else comes into being, nor does anything cease. For if they had been perishing continuously, they would be no more; and what could increase the whole? And when could it have come? In what direction could it perish, since nothing is empty of these things? No, but these things alone exist, and running through one another they become different things at different times, and are ever continuously the same.


54     And a second thing I will tell you: There is no origination of anything that is mortal, nor yet any end in baneful death; but only mixture and separation of what is mixed, but men call this "origination."


55     Fools! for they have no far-reaching studious thoughts who think that what was not before comes into being or that anything dies and perishes utterly.


56     A man of wise mind could not divine such things as these, that so long as men live what indeed they call life, so long they exist and share what is evil and what is excellent, but before they are formed and after they are dissolved, they are really nothing at all.





Anaxagoras (circa 500-425 BCE), born at Clazomenae, Anatolia, established himself as a philosopher at Athens. He was tried on a charge of impiety for asserting that the sun was an incandescent rock and the moon was made of earth. He believed change came about by mixture and separation, but of an infinity of imperishable seeds or germs. He postulated the nous ("reason" or "mind") as forming the universe, first by mixing, then by the activity of living things.


57     The Greeks have an incorrect belief on coming into being and passing away. No thing comes into being or passes away, but it is mixed together or separated from existing things. Thus they would be correct if they called the coming into being ‘mixing’, and passing away ‘separation-off’.


58     All things were together, infinite both in number and in smallness; for the small was also infinite. And when they were all together, nothing was clear and distinct because of their smallness; for air and ether comprehended all things, both being infinite; for these are present in everything, and are greatest both as to number and as to greatness.


59     In all things there is a portion of everything except mind [nous]; and there are things in which there is mind also.


60     These things then I have said concerning the separation, that not only among us would the separation take place, but elsewhere too. But before these were separated, when all things were together, not even was any color clear and distinct; for the mixture of all things prevented it, the mixture of moist and dry, of the warm and the cold, and of the bright and the dark (since much earth was present), and of germs infinite in number, in no way like each other; for none of the other things at all resembles the one the other. Since these things are so, we must suppose that all things are in the entire mass.


61     Conditions being thus, one must believe that there are many things of all sorts in all composite products, and the seeds of all things, which contain all kinds of shapes and colors and pleasant savors. And men too were fitted together [on other worlds], and all other creatures which have life. And the men possessed both inhabited cities and artificial works just like ourselves, and they had sun and moon and the rest, just as we have, and the earth produced for them many and diverse things, of which they collected the most useful, and now use them for their dwellings. This I say concerning separation, that it must have taken place not only with us, but elsewhere.


62     It is the sun that endows the moon with its brilliance.


63     The moon is eclipsed when the earth goes in front of it . . . and the sun is eclipsed when the new moon goes in front of it.





Protagoras (circa 480-410 BCE), born in Abdera, Thrace, spent most of his life in Athens as a Sophist, teaching rhetoric, grammar, and the appreciation of poetry. His humanist philosophy centered on the subjective nature of human perception and judgment of the world. He argued that people will often view things in very different ways and so one should expect there to be two sides to every question. As an extension of this, he introduced the idea of the Socratic dialogue.


64     Of all things the measure is Man: of all things that are, that they are; and of the things that are not, that they are not.


65     About the gods, I am not able to know whether they exist or do not exist, nor what they are like in form; for the factors preventing knowledge are many: the obscurity of the subject, and the shortness of human life.


66     When his sons, who were fine young men, died within eight days, he [Pericles] bore it without mourning. For he held on to his serenity, from which every day he derived great benefit in happiness, freedom from suffering, and honor in the people’s eyes—for all who saw him bearing his griefs valiantly thought him great-souled and brave and superior to themselves, well knowing their own helplessness in such a calamity.


67     Art without practice, and practice without art, are nothing.


68     Education does not take root in the soul unless one goes deep.





Thrasymachus (fifth century BCE), born in Chalcedon, became a teacher of rhetoric. As nothing of his writings remain, his ideas come to us through other writers. The two extracts below are from Philosophus Hermias and from Plato.


69     Gods do not see human matters, for they would not overlook the greatest of all human goods, justice. For we see that men do not make use of it.


70     And now I will not have you say that justice is duty or advantage or profit or gain or interest, for this sort of nonsense will not do for me; I must have clearness and accuracy .... I proclaim that justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger .... Forms of government differ; there are tyrannies, and there are democracies, and there are aristocracies. . . And the government is the ruling power in each state. . . And the different forms of government make laws democratical, aristocratical, tyrannical, with a view to their several interests; and these laws, which are made by them for their own interests, are the justice which they deliver to their subjects, and him who transgresses them they punish as a breaker of the law, and unjust. And that is what I mean when I say that in all states there is the same principle of justice, which is the interest of the government; and as the government must be supposed to have power, the only reasonable conclusion is, that everywhere there is one principle of justice, which is the interest of the stronger.





Diogenes (circa 420-325 BCE), born in Apollonia, which might have been in Crete or Phyrygia (Turkey). He spent some time in Athens, where his apparent eccentricity was tolerated. He honored practical good and the simple life, with coarse clothing, simple foods, and no permanent home. He was critical of social conventions, often flouting them, and of literature and oratory that did not improve the human condition.


71     In starting any thesis, it seems to me, one should put forward as one’s point of departure something incontrovertible; the expression should be simple and dignified.


72     It seems to me, to sum up the whole matter, that all existing things are created by the alteration of the same thing, and are the same thing. This is very obvious. For if the things now existing in this universe—earth and water and air and fire and all the other things which are seen to exist in this world: if any one of these were different in its own [essential] nature, and were not the same thing which was transformed in many ways and changed, in no way could things mix with one another, nor could there be any profit or damage which accrued from one thing to another, nor could any plant grow out of the earth, nor any animal or any other thing come into being, unless it were so compounded as to be the same. But all these things come into being in different forms at different times by changes of the same thing, and they return to the same.





Archytas (circa 428-348 BCE), born in Tarentum, was active in state affairs and several times an army commander. He was also a mathematician, developing a mechanics based on geometry and identifying the harmonic progression as distinct from the arithmetic and geometric progressions. He was an experimenter who steered his investigations by his theories of proportion, acoustics and music.


73     In subjects of which one has no knowledge, one must obtain knowledge either by learning from someone else, or by discovering it for oneself. That which is learnt, therefore, comes from another and by outside help; that which is discovered comes by one's own efforts and independently. To discover without seeking is difficult and rare, but if one seeks, it is frequent and easy; if, however, one does not know how to seek, discovery is impossible.





Anaxarchus ( fl. Circa 340 BCE), born in Abdera, followed the philosophy of Democritus. He accompanied Alexander on his campaigns in Asia, debunking his claim to be a god by pointing to Alexander’s wounded finger pointing out it was the blood of a mortal.


74     Much learning can help much, but also can greatly harm him who has it. It helps the clever man, but harms him who readily utters every word in any company. One must know the measure of the right time, for this is the boundary of wisdom. Those who recite a saying outside the right time, even if their saying is wise, are reproached with folly, because they do not mix intelligence with wisdom.





Antiphon (circa 470-410 BCE), born in Athens, wrote speeches for defendants in court. His greatest speech was in defense of his own life for his part in an attempt to overthrow Athenian democracy. He was executed for treason. A number his speeches survive, being retained by sophist teachers of rhetoric as models.


75     The whole of life is wonderfully open to complaint, my friend; it has nothing remarkable, great or noble, but all is petty, feeble, brief-lasting, and mingled with sorrows.


76     The first thing, I believe, for mankind is education. For whenever anyone does the beginning of anything correctly, it is likely that the end also will be right. As one sows, so can one expect to reap. And if in a young body one sows a noble education, this lives and flourishes through the whole of his life, and neither rain nor drought destroys it.


77     There are some who do not live the present life, but prepare with great diligence as if they were going to live another life, not the present one. Meanwhile time, being neglected, deserts them.


78     There is a story that a man seeing another man earning much money begged him to lend him a sum at interest. The other refused; and being of a mistrustful nature, unwilling to help anyone, he carried it off and hid it somewhere. Another man, observing him, filched it. Later, the man who had hidden it returning, could not find it; and being very grieved at the disaster—especially that he had not lent to the man who had asked him, because then it would have been safe and would have earned increment—he went to see the man who had asked for a loan, and bewailed his misfortune, saying that he had done wrong and was sorry not to have granted his request but to have refused it, as his money was completely lost. The other man told him to hide a stone in the same place, and think of his money as his and not lost: 'For even when you had it you completely failed to use it; so that now too you can think you have lost nothing.' For when a person has not used and will not use anything, it makes no difference to him either whether he has it or not. . .


79     Whoever, when going against his neighbor with the mention of harming him, is afraid lest by failing to achieve his wishes he may get what he does not wish, is wiser. For his fear earns hesitation, and his hesitation means an interval in which often his mind is deflected from his purpose. There can be no reversal of a thing that has happened: it is possible only for that is in the future not to happen. Whoever thinks he will ill treat his neighbors and not suffer himself is unwise. Hopes are not altogether a good thing; such hopes have flung down many into intolerable disaster, and what they thought to inflict on their neighbors, they have suffered themselves for all to see. Prudence in another man can be judged correctly by no one more than he who fortifies his soul against immediate pleasures and can conquer himself. But whoever wishes to gratify his soul immediately, wishes the worse instead of the better.





Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers, by Kathleen Freeman, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1948.


The Presocratic Philosophers by G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, Cambridge University Press, 1962.


Selections from Early Greek Philosophy by Milton C. Nahm. Prentice Hall, Inc. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1964.