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This webpage reproduces one of the
Lives of the Eminent Philosophers

Diogenes Laërtius

published in the Loeb Classical Library, 1925

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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(Vol. I) Diogenes Laërtius
Lives of the Eminent Philosophers

Book I

 p121  Chapter 11
Pherecydes (flor. c. 540 B.C.)

[link to original Greek text] 116 Pherecydes, the son of Babys, and a native of Syros according to Alexander in his Successions of Philosophers, was a pupil of Pittacus. Theopompus  p123 tells us that he was the first who wrote in Greek on nature and the gods.

Many wonderful stories are told about him. He was walking along the beach in Samos and saw a ship running before the wind; he exclaimed that in no long time she would go down, and, even as he watched her, down she went. And as he was drinking water which had been drawn up from a well he predicted that on the third day there would be an earthquake; which came to pass. And on his way from Olympia he advised Perilaus, his host in Messene, to move thence with all belonging to him; but Perilaus would not be persuaded, and Messene was afterwards taken.1

[link to original Greek text] 117 He bade the Lacedaemonians set no store by gold or silver, as Theopompus says in his Mirabilia. He told them he had received this command from Heracles in a dream; and the same night Heracles enjoined upon the kings to obey Pherecydes. But some fasten this story upon Pythagoras.

Hermippus relates that on the eve of war between Ephesus and Magnesia he favoured the cause of the Ephesians, and inquired of some one passing by where he came from, and on receiving the reply "From Ephesus," he said, "Drag me by the legs and place me in the territory of Magnesia; and take a message to your countrymen that after their victory they must bury me there, and that this is the last injunction of Pherecydes." [link to original Greek text] 118 The man gave the message; a day later the Ephesians attacked and defeated the Magnesians; they found Pherecydes dead and buried him on the spot with great honours. Another  p125 version is that he came to Delphi and hurled himself down from Mount Corycus. But Aristoxenus in his work On Pythagoras and his School affirms that he died a natural death and was buried by Pythagoras in Delos; another account again is that he died of a verminous disease, that Pythagoras was also present and inquired how he was, that he thrust his finger through the doorway and exclaimed, "My skin tells its own tale," a phrase subsequently applied by the grammarians as equivalent to "getting worse," although some wrongly understand it to mean "all is going well." [link to original Greek text] 119 He maintained that the divine name for "table" is θυωρός, or that which takes care of offerings.

Andron of Ephesus says that there were two natives of Syros who bore the name of Pherecydes; the one was an astronomer, the other was the son of Babys and a theologian, teacher of Pythagoras. Eratosthenes, however, says that there was only one Pherecydes of Syros, the other Pherecydes being an Athenian and a genealogist.

There is preserved a work by Pherecydes of Syros, a work which begins thus: "Zeus and Time and Earth were from all eternity, and Earth was called Γῆ because Zeus gave her earth (γῆ) as guerdon (γέρας)." His sun‑dial is also preserved in the island of Syros.

[link to original Greek text] 120 Duris in the second book of his Horae gives the inscription on his tomb as follows:2

All knowledge that a man may have had I;

Yet tell Pythagoras, were more thereby,

That first of all Greeks is he; I speak no lie.

Ion of Chios says of him:3

p127 With manly worth endowed and modesty,

Though he be dead, his soul lives happily,

If wise Pythagoras indeed saw light

And read the destinies of men aright.

There is also an epigram of my own in the Pherecratean metre:4

The famous Pherecydes, to whom Syros gave birth, [link to original Greek text] 121 when his former beauty was consumed by vermin, gave orders that he should be taken straight to the Magnesian land in order that he might give victory to the noble Ephesians. There was an oracle, which he alone knew, enjoining this: and there he died among them. It seems then it is a true tale: if anyone is truly wise, he brings blessings both in his lifetime and when he is no more.

He lived in the 59th Olympiad. He wrote the following letter:

Letter of Pherecydes to Thales5

[link to original Greek text] 122 "May yours be a happy death when your time comes. Since I received your letter, I have been attacked by disease. I am infested with vermin and subject to a violent fever with shivering fits. I have therefore given instructions to my servants to carry my writing to you after they have buried me. I would like you to publish it, provided that you and  p129 the other sages approve of it, and not otherwise. For I myself am not yet satisfied with it. The facts are not absolutely correct, nor do I claim to have discovered the truth, but merely such things as one who inquires about the gods picks up. The rest must be thought out, for mine is all guess-work. As I was more and more weighed down with my malady, I did not permit any of the physicians or my friends to come into the room where I was, but, as they stood before the door and inquired how I was, I thrust my finger through the handhold and showed them how plague-stricken I was; and I told them to come to‑morrow to bury Pherecydes."

So much for those who are called the Sages, with whom some writers also class Pisistratus the tyrant. I must now proceed to the philosophers and start with the philosophy of Ionia. Its founder was Thales, and Anaximander was his pupil.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 These stories no doubt come from Theopompus, whose work on Marvels is cited in the next paragraph.

2 Anth. Pal. VII.93.

3 Fr. 4 Bergk.

4 Anth. Plan. III.128.

5 This forgery is easily analysed. There is the tradition of the malady which proved fatal to Pherecydes (cf. Porphyry, Vit. Pyth. § 55), with the anecdote of his protruding his finger through the door. There is also an allusion to the alleged obscurity of the work on the gods which passed current as written by him.

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Page updated: 28 Feb 18