Murray Eiland

Murray Eiland

Dr. Murray Eiland is an archaeologist and the Managing Editor of Antiqvvs Magazine.


Pherecydes and Pythagoras


Pherecydes was a native of the island of Syros, and he lived in the 6th century BCE; almost nothing else is known for certain about his life, but tradition supports he lived in caves in the northern part of the island. Pherecydes taught his philosophy through mythic representations, largely lost, but fragments survive.

Pherycydes is a transitional figure between the mythological cosmogonies of Hesiod and the first pre-Socratic philosophers. He was most often linked with Pythagoras as one of his teachers. Aristotle stated in the 4th century BC that both were friends. Other tradtions record that in Pythagoras’ youth on Samos, he is said to have visited Pherecydes on Delos and later buried him. An early variant of this story places this event later in Pythagoras’ life when he lived in Croton. Many sources say Pherecydes was the first to teach the Pythagorean doctrine of metempsychosis, the transmigration of human souls. Both Cicero and Augustine thought of him as having given the first teaching of the immortality of the soul.

This is the story of two great minds, but not only that, what unfolds is how two intellects of an antique age helped one another grow into the men history made them be. This is the story of how their relationship began and how it ended. This is the story of transformation and development; some may also see reincarnation. These ideas lie at the core of all philosophy as well as imagination. Here, where history has failed, imagination might be the best guide.

In Greece, there were many contradictions in the land now known as the home of ancient philosophy. It was home to myths, towering temples, and fearless warriors, minds, and bodies more fantastic than most could today imagine; it was a time when gods and goddesses ruled the skies, priests pondered the mysteries of the universe, and artists created works of timeless beauty. In Greece, brutal warriors and elaborate thinkers grew together in a symbiotic, beautiful manner.

The rugged landscape of Greece was home to some of the most significant debates about questions that seek an answer to this day. The Ionian Sea gently kissed the Greek coast on the East, and the Aegean Sea mercilessly pounded its waves onto the karst ridges from the West. The landscape was stark yet beautiful, small and connected enough to engender some sense of a unified culture.

But at the time of ancient civilizations, within Greece and the hundreds of islands surrounding its coast, great minds feasted on the intellect of distant cultures in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The human being, since birth, had strived for more. For something purposeful. For a meaning. Questions arose about who we are, why we are, and what makes us what we are. These questions were being asked in light of a new openness to inquiry. War and revolutions, led by writers, thinkers, and scientists, were recorded by painters and sculptors. All came from the city-state in Greece. The ideas from this culture shaped debate for ages to come.

One of those islands housed one of the most influential yet largely unknown Greek philosophers – Pherecydes of the island Syros.

He was one of the odd ones. Pherecydes looked into the skies, trying to find a reason, an answer, yet predictably did not see what lay beneath his feet. Like most of them at that time, he thought about the arche, the beginning of all things. It was the origin, the beginning, and the source of all existence. It was the birth of life or life itself since it could exist or be born from something known or unknown to humans. Arche could be anything, so the answer to it could be anything, any time, any place. Pherecydes was just one of the many who thought about it endlessly as it crept up into their minds, never leaving them alone.

It was a life of deep contemplation, rigorous debate, and intellectual curiosity. It took an unnatural commitment driven by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and a deep passion for everything unknown, which was, by nature, a passion unrewarded by the world at large. Few were to pursue this sort of life, by their own will or perhaps even against it. One of those was a man called Pythagoras, to whom the teachings of Pherecydes became of immense importance.

The young and inexperienced thinker Pythagoras met Pherecydes very early in his life. Although young, Pythagoras had great will for learning. He thought in a way that no peer could match, and not only that, but he was also excelling at the arts of exercise, mathematics, and oration. He had a flame within him that was, at first, not too large, but it had the potential to be one of the largest. Yet, time was needed, and just like for any flame, the timber of an old tree was also necessary.

The pair met at a typical Greek symposium – a place where thinkers and sportsmen alike meet and enjoy meals, beverages, and food. It was an engrained tradition garnished over the centuries of Greek civilization and intensely embroidered into the fiber of the Greek national ethos.

Something sparked Pherecydese’s interest as soon as they first spoke. For there was something within that young man called Pythagoras, an ember that could light up the entire Athenian polis and beyond.

During the symposium, many ideas were shared. Some were just mentioned, some were discussed, and some stayed in the air for the rest of the evening. The conversation had the two strangers that met each other – Pherecydes of Syros and Pythagoras, blossoming into a mature friendship that, little did they know at the time, would grow into a brotherhood.

As everything had to end, so did the symposium where Pythagoras and Pherecydes met. The two philosophers, one just growing out and one growing old, made a promise to one another to keep in touch through writings.

And so they did. Time passed, and the pair became best of friends, exchanging letters that may have survived for awile:

Dear Pythagoras of Samos,

I hope this letter finds you in good health and spirits. As for me, I have neither of those things. It has been some time since we last corresponded, and I have been eager to share my latest thoughts with you.

Recently, I have been pondering the nature of the cosmos and its relationship to the human soul. It seems to me that the cosmos is not simply a matter of passing and never returning time but rather a fundamental aspect of two other things; life and Earth. For what is life without Earth, and what is Earth without us, the living? Yet, both things intertwine with time to create what we all seek to know, which is the foundation of all things. Cosmos.

But this raises the question: how do things stay in part as all of the three aspects that I mentioned above have their way of working separately? The time comes and goes. It is out of our power, yet we use it as we want. About life, I could claim the same. I do not affect who lives and dies unless I unsheathe my sword and take it myself. And the Earth, our house, continues to exist even without us on it, yet we give it purpose and meaning. This is the nature of the cosmos, for it has always been the same – not knowing! What is the key to living a just and virtuous life I ask you? Is it simply an existence without the cosmos in mind, then? For if we are never to know something, should we even pursue it, I ask you, young Pythagoras?

I believe that the answer lies in cultivating a deep and abiding love for wisdom and truth. Following that path and making that path the only path one takes, one can never steer to the wrong road. Instead, we seek to understand the world around us, uncover its hidden mysteries, and align ourselves with the fundamental principles that underpin its very existence. This is why the path is essential. For we seek, and we had been seeking since our dawn!

Of course, this is a challenging task. It requires constant vigilance, self-reflection, and a willingness to be guided by reason and evidence rather than our desires and impulses. But I am convinced it is the key to living a life of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment.

I would be eager to hear your thoughts on this matter and to learn of any new insights or discoveries you may have made in your cosmological investigations, dear Pythagoras. Please write back soon, my friend.

With warm regards,

There are more letters and a few of those are the ones that Pythagoras sent to Pherecydes:

Dear Pherecydes,

It is with great pleasure that I received your letter, and I am glad to hear that you are deeply engaged in philosophical inquiries. Your thoughts on the cosmos, the human soul, and the purpose of living have certainly piqued my interest, and I agree that the cosmos is more than we may imagine. Perhaps it will only ever be understood partially by us, mere mortals.

I appreciate your emphasis on the cultivation of a deep and abiding love for wisdom and truth as the key to living a just and virtuous life. Indeed, this love for knowledge and truth motivates us as philosophers to delve deeper into the universe’s mysteries and seek answers to the most profound questions of existence.

I also agree that this is a challenging task and that it requires constant vigilance and self-reflection. It is too easy to be swayed by our desires and impulses and lose sight of the fundamental principles that govern the universe. But by striving towards a higher ideal, we can achieve a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment in our lives.

As for my philosophical investigations, I have been exploring the relationship between numbers and life, and I have already tried to explain much of life with patterns expressed numerically. I think openly about it, but a few numbers stand out to me, especially the number three. If you think of it that way, my friend, it can describe everything. Yet I am only a fraction of the mind that you are. So whenever I hear from you, dear friend, you stun me with new and balanced ideas. Oh, Pherecydes, allow me to acquire such knowledge, for what is life without it, and what would life be without those like you!

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me, my friend. I am eagerly awaiting the subsequent arrival of your letters and words. May my reply reach you safely, brother.

Sincerely, your friend Pythagoras

The pair continued to correspond for a few years, but as Pherecydes mentioned, time came for him. He grew older and wiser, yet his body fell apart quicker and harder. So there was a need for him to have a caretaker, yet he was living on the island of Syros.

And so, in his last letter, the age and years of wear of Pherecydes had been revealed. Pythagoras, a grown man in his full strength and best age, saw this as an opportunity for two things:

To help one of his best friends and to, at the same time, study one of the wisest philosophers that the world of that time had seen.

And so Pythagoras arrived on the island of Syros. The island’s rugged coastline was dotted with secluded coves and sandy beaches. Inland, the hills and valleys were covered with olive groves, vineyards, and wildflowers. The harsh terrain was cut through by winding roads and paths. Throughout this terrain, Pythagoras arrived to see his old friend, Pherecydes.

Pythagoras felt his heart rushing with joy as he approached his old friend, whose weathered face seemed tired and dry. Pherecyddeses’ eyes were deep-set and full of wisdom as if he had lived more than a hundred lives, which could be argued to be true. His skin was deeply lined, etched with the lines of a life well-lived. His hands were calloused and rough, the fingers bent and twisted with age. His clothes were worn and threadbare.

Yet he was still able to stand up and smile. And so he did. The two friends rejoined one another and spoke like never before. Their bond was as strong as ever, and the brotherly connection they had was as strong as the night they met at the symposium. And so their journey could be said begin there. Pythagoras spent moons living with Pherecydes, being his helping hand and a good friend, and in return, Pherecydes taught him and engaged in conversations with him, which would stoke the fire in Pythagoras even more. They enjoyed drinking and eating together, living and flourishing in wisdom and questions that never seemed to end, but for those who think, granted the elder a way out with dignity.

For what differentiates humans from all other living species is the power of will and the little things that many might take for granted, like the power of opinion. Because what are we if not thinking and rational beings? What made us into what we are, and our cities, civilizations, tales, and arts? And what is out there, in the dark, cosmological emptiness? These were the questions that the first philosophers asked themselves, which Pythagoras discussed with Pherecydes on the island of Syros.

Yet their opinions slowly went their separate way, as all things should, as Pherecydes taught. He was still interested in the cosmos and its connection with life, Earth, and time. Pythagoras was in his world then, working on his numerological theorems.

Despite this, Pythagoras still listened in awe to what his teacher had to say. Every time Pherecydes spoke, Pythagoras would open new sections in his mind, and further questions would arise, which would also be implemented in his own numerological thinking. This was because the cosmos was in the nature of all things, and whatever and whenever it happened, the cosmos was there, untouchable and unmarked by any disease or war that man may commit.

As Pherecydes said to Pythagoras, who wrote the penultimate words of his teacher:

In the vast expanse of the cosmos, there are wonders beyond measure. Worlds spin like pinwheels in a lattice, each containing billions of stars that twinkle like diamonds in the darkness. Those eyes of the cosmos watch us, or something else, and we may never know what it is. Instead, nearly invisible eyes dance like wispy clouds, their gaseous tendrils swirling and twisting in vibrant colors.

But there is more to the cosmos than just what we can see. The universe is alive with energy, from the tiniest forms of winds and waters to the vast expanses of life, death, and birth.

And yet, for all its vastness, the cosmos is also fragile, for it has to be, just like a man’s life, since I take the cosmos as a reflection of humanity. Since when he looks up into the skies, why does it sparkle interest in one’s self? Many things surround us, yet we take them for granted and forget about them, for they are no reflection of anything. They are on their own journey and path. But for those things that make us reconsider the matter of things, they are what matters and genuinely reflect us as beings.

Ultimately, the cosmos is both magnificent and humbling, a reminder that we only know that we know nothing.

And so he spoke with a raspy, old-toned voice that had creeping death coming to it. But as all things, once begun have to end, so did Pherecydes. And as winds blew and the sea splashed onto the coast of the islands, death knocked on his door. It was due to old age that Pherecydes passed away and left this world to join the powers of the cosmos, some other entity, or not entity at all for what we know. Because as he drew his last breaths, looking up at his best student and great friend, Pythagoras, he knew he would soon join the cosmos. Because a true philosopher is never afraid of death – for death is a way to rejoin one’s self with the cosmos. From whence we came, we shall return, as all thinkers at all times and places spoke and taught. To live is to think; to die is to rejoin what one thought of. Is life worth living if it consists of being afraid of the inevitable death? Certainly not, and so knew Pherecydes and Pythagoras and those before and those after them.

Yet after the death of Pherecydes of Syros, Pythagoras had much more to experience, for he, in time, regained consciousness of the structure beyond what can be seen. He mourned the loss of his beloved friend, brother, and master, thinking about the ways of the wise and how he shall become wise himself.

Upon his return to other islands and to Greece, upon his return to his old friends, he realized the nature of things. Among the countless numbers in his head, Pythagoras realized that he had become the reincarnation of his now-passed master. He recognized and embodied the idea that he must continue the teachings and the way of all learning, so he made his own school of thought – Pythagoreanism.

He set up his school in the city of Kroton, a Greek colony nestled along the coast of the Ionian Sea. There, Pythagoras set up what would become one of the greatest schools of philosophy. Pythagoreanism grew into a philosophy that holds within itself the secrets of the universe, the patterns that shape our world, and the mysteries of the human soul. Within the core of Pythagoras’ teaching throughout the years became the belief that all things in the universe are connected and can be understood through the study of numbers and mathematical relationships. This was the same stream of thought that Pherecydes helped Pythagoras to develop. Yet Pythagoras’ school became more and more abstract as its members spoke and communicated through numbers and mysterious symbols.

They slowly developed the way of viewing numbers as the key to unlocking the mysteries of the universe – or the cosmos, as Pherecydes would call it. Their research also placed great importance on the study of music, believing that music reflected the mathematical harmony underlying the universe.

Everything that his school became, and he himself and his thoughts, Pythagoras could thank Pherecydes. From the day the pair drank the fruit of the vine together at the symposium to the days they spent writing letters and then helping one another on the island of Syros. Pythagoras missed his teacher. His brother in mind. Yet not everything is so dark… Looking into the skies, knowing his time was soon to come too, Pythagoras rejoined thoughts with his friend who was not gone.

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