The first question that must be addressed by anyone setting out to discuss the life and philosophy of Zetoxis of Delos, is whether or not he ever really lived. Over the centuries, scholars have debated the likelihood of his existence, with many of them coming down on one side of the debate before switching to the other and then sometimes back again. The search for Zetoxis is a difficult enterprise because the sources for both the man and his philosophy are fragmentary, contradictory, and, almost without exception, of dubious provenance.
The most reliable evidence of his existence can perhaps be found in The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, by Diogenes Laërtius. Diogenes did not write a biography of Zetoxis himself, but he does mention him in three places. The first of these is in his entry on Pythagoras where he says, “It was at this time that Zetoxis of Delos was exiled from Croton, for, following a disagreement with Pythagoras about the nature of infinity, he declared, ‘I eat your mother, I eat your father, I eat your grandmother,’ and so on, while tossing one bean after another into his mouth, a mouth that was known throughout Italy for its riot of crooked teeth.” The second reference can be found in the essay on Empedocles where he writes, “It was Zetoxis who convinced Empedocles that he was a divine being, and that to prove it he must throw himself into the fires of Mount Etna.” Finally, Zetoxis is also briefly mentioned in the biography of Plato: “One night, while Zetoxis and Alcibiades wandered drunkenly through the streets of Athens, looking for trouble, they spied Plato, whereupon Alcibiades shouted ‘Look! It’s the perfect form of an ass!’ and Zetoxis pelted him with some rotten cabbages that had been dumped in the road.”
The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers is a dubious source for various reasons, principal among them being the fact that the book was written in the third century AD, hundreds of years after the events described in it. Also, Diogenes is known for favoring interesting stories over the truth, and students of the pre-Socratics have questioned the validity of these excerpts based on internal inconsistencies. They ask, for example, how Zetoxis could have been a presence in the lives of both Pythagoras and Plato when the two men were born 140 years apart. This disparity led some Victorian scholars to posit the two-Zetoxis theory, although fashionable modern opinion rejects the Platonic Zetoxis out of hand and holds that there was, at most, only one. A few historians doubt the existence of even the earlier pre-Socratic Zetoxis, however, claiming that he is an entirely fictional literary character, used by ancient philosophers to represent opposition and hostility. Regardless of whether one or more of the references to Zetoxis by Diogenes are false, and despite his origins in Delos, it is clear that if he existed he was influenced by the mystical forms of philosophy typical of the Greeks in Southern Italy and embodied by men such as Pythagoras and Empedocles. This is confirmed by the fact that he is thought to have sometimes strayed from the purely philosophical into divination and prophecy.
Heraclitus of Ephesus, also known as “Heraclitus The Obscure,” may have referred to Zetoxis in one of his aphorisms where he wrote, “Consider the Delian, the wise man and the fool reside in the same fluctuating body.” Unfortunately, there is no way to be certain that the Delian being referred to by Heraclitus is Zetoxis, although he is considered the most likely candidate by those who have studied the matter. The question may be moot, however, as this quotation is widely considered to be spurious and is generally omitted from published editions of the sayings of Heraclitus.
In their extant writings neither Plato nor Aristotle ever mention Zetoxis, either to endorse or refute him, but he was at various times claimed by the Skeptics, the Stoics, the Cynics, and the Epicureans. He was also, at other times, condemned by all of them. In the early Christian era his books were frequently burned as blasphemous, although many of the anchorites of Asia Minor were said to have walled themselves into their caves with nothing but Christian scripture and copies of Zetoxis’s ethical and metaphysical writings. In a footnote to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon claims that Simon Stylites read The Meditations of Zetoxis on the Infinite Soul while sitting atop his column in Syria. According to Gibbon, Simon enjoyed the book so much that he decided it must be sinful, and he threw it from his perch in disgust. No scholar since Gibbon’s time has been able to verify his source for this story.
Zetoxis is believed to have been particularly interested in time, and Saint Augustine quoted him as saying, “Well you may ask what time is, for it is a river of perplexity. A fish swims in water, but does not know it is water, so we swim in time. A worm burrows in the soil, but does not know it is soil, so we burrow in time. The wise man rises above both water and soil, and breaths the air.” (This quotation appears in some of the earliest printed editions of The Confessions of Saint Augustine, but it is now generally considered to be an eighth century interpolation and is included in modern editions of the Confessions as an endnote, or not at all.)
Because none of his books survive intact, almost all that we know of Zetoxis’s thought comes from quotations by other ancient writers, some of whom are hostile to him and may have deliberately misrepresented his work. He appears to have been interested in natural philosophy, ethics, and metaphysics, but because of the fragmentary nature of his existing writing, it’s hard to find any sort of organizing principle in his thought. The following are a collection of some of his more comprehensible aphorisms:
Thales said that water is the universal element from which all matter is composed. Others have said fire, air, or nous. But they are all wrong. The fundamental element is time.
A man is a disturbance of water and soil, presumptuous mud that walks as if it had somewhere to go.
Tantalus was cursed to forever hunger, and never be filled. He was cursed to forever thirst, and never be quenched. In other words, he was cursed to the common fate of mankind.
Of all the things men desire, the strangest is fame. Why seek to have a life in the minds of others? A life of your own should be enough. It is an empty pursuit, and time will swallow all regardless of the statues we carve and the words we write. And yet, I am compelled to admit that I hope my railing against fame will raise me to it.
You cannot travel from there to here without also travelling from then till now. The difference is that you can choose to travel from there to here, but are compelled to travel from then till now. Time is the eternal tyrant.
The art of accurate divination is easy: foretell disaster.
In 1953, a palimpsest, long lost amid the jumble of old records at the monastery of Saint-Jean-le-Berger in Provence, was discovered to contain what was believed to be one of Zetoxis’s lost works. Raoul Dupont, A professor of medieval history at a minor college in Narbonne, was combing through the monastery’s documents when he came across the small book which at first glance appeared to simply contain a pedestrian list of the monastery’s housekeeping records. He soon noticed, however, that beneath the vellum’s two hundred year old layer of writing in Occitan, a dim layer of much older writing in Latin could still be read. At the top of the first page the partially effaced older writing said, “The Meditations of Zetoxis on the Infinite Soul.”
Dupont was well versed in the philosophy of the ancient Greeks and he immediately understood the significance of his discovery. In his hands he held an important work of Greek thought, a Latin translation of a book that had been utterly lost for two thousand years. He spent months carefully going over the manuscript with all the methods available at the time. He scrutinized the text with a magnifying glass, exposed it do different kinds of light, and even treated the vellum with ammonium bisulfate. In the end, he was able to read and transcribe almost ninety percent of the text that hid beneath the newer writing superimposed upon it. When he had finished, he took his work to a colleague in the philosophy department and showed him what he had discovered.
The colleague began reading the text with intense eagerness. Here are the first six lines he read:
He who sees all creatures in the self
And the self in all creatures, knows no fear.
He who sees all creatures in the self
And the self in all creatures, knows no grief.
How can there be painful delusions
For one who sees this universal oneness?
The look of excitement on the face of Dupont’s friend vanished as he read and was replaced with confusion and then a sort of gloom. The gloom deepened as the man continued and Dupont’s heart fell as it became clearer that something had gone wrong. After a few minutes of reading the friend looked up at Dupont with amused sympathy on his face, and said, “I think you’ve been had.”
“What do you mean?”
“This isn’t Zetoxis. All of this stuff, except for the title, appears to be from the Upanishads.”
“The ancient Hindu scriptures.”
“I know what the Upanishads are!”
“Well, that’s what it is, with all the explicitly Hindu words, such as ‘atman’ removed and replaced with more European sounding analogs. It seems that somebody has also tweaked it in small ways, perhaps to make it more acceptable to Christians. Someone has pranked you.”
“But that’s not possible! Why would anyone do this?”
By reading the manuscript side by side with a copy of the Upanishads, however, Dupont was able to determine that his friend had been correct. Some idiot of a medieval monk had scribbled the title of Zetoxis’s great lost work on a manuscript and then copied fragments from the Upanishads beneath it. It made no sense. Dupont felt humiliated. As he’d been transcribing the text he had noticed that it sounded a lot like eastern philosophy, but he had never studied Hinduism or read any of its major texts and he placed the thought aside as a connection that could be explored later.
Although it hadn’t been written by Zetoxis, the palimpsest was still an important discovery because it proved that the Upanishads had been known in Europe much earlier than had been previously thought. The document soon faded into obscurity however, when historians, philosophers, and religious scholars simply refused to believe in its authenticity. When Dupont died, only one person in the world was still interested in the Berger Palimpsest, his granddaughter Mireille.
The watchman waved Mireille onto the site, which was closed for the holiday. As she got out of her car, he asked, “What are you doing here? It’s Christmas, you should be with someone you love!”
“I’m here with you, aren’t I?”
He laughed, “I wish! If I were a young man it would be no joke, I’m telling you.”
“Who says it’s a joke now?” She smiled. The flirtatious banter between the thirty-nine-year-old woman and the seventy-one-year-old man was a standing joke that they both enjoyed.
“You shouldn’t come here so often. This place, it drives some people crazy. Coming here on Christmas Day, that’s not a good sign.”
“You’re here on Christmas.”
“But I don’t want to be! That’s an important difference. Not wanting to be here is a sign of good sense.”
“If you want, you can go home and I’ll make sure nobody blows the place up for a few hours.”
“You joke, but there are people who would do just that.”
“I know it.”
“I’ll let you through the gate to the temple. If the rock is safe with anyone, it’s safe with you.”
“Thank you. It means a lot to me. I come here on Christmas because it gives me some time alone with the rock, and that makes me feel close to my grandfather.”
The watchman unlocked the gate and it swung open without a squeak. Mireille thanked him and continued up the paved path to the site, the Temple of Zetoxis. She stood just outside the ruin for a moment and looked, yet again, for some kind of significance in it’s layout. No new inspiration came to her.
The temple had been built when the Greeks controlled southern Italy, and it had stood for eight hundred years before it was deliberately demolished during the Dark Ages. It’s connection with the pagan past had been used as an excuse for the destruction, but the locals living in the nearby village had also been motivated by a desire to steal the stones it had been made of. Religious violence frequently has secondary motives. Many of the older homes in the area still incorporated incongruous chunks of marble that had been torn from the temple and then used repeatedly as stone houses were built and then toppled down again over the long centuries.
The foundation of the temple was visible, as were the pedestals where its columns had once rested. In the center of the structure a huge granite stone still stood where workmen had placed it well over two thousand years earlier. It was this monolith that Mireille had come to see.
After his discovery of the Berger Palimpsest, Mireille’s grandfather had become obsessed with Zetoxis. Over the years he convinced himself that the palimpsest wasn’t just proof that some monk had put the wrong title to an ancient manuscript all those hundreds of years ago; he thought that Zetoxis had done it himself, that he had traveled to India long before Alexander the Great made the trip, and had acquainted himself with Eastern religion before returning to the west. He had been alone in this belief. Even Mireille, who loved her Grandfather completely, could not bring herself to accept these ideas, but she did pick up his obsession with the philosopher, and when she was only eight years old she would sit next to him in his smoky book-lined study and read ancient texts, in French at first, but soon in Ancient Greek and Latin as well.
She went on to become a professor of Greek literature, and she continued to nurse her obsession with Zetoxis. Early in her career she wrote several papers on the long forgotten philosopher, all of which were ignored.Nobody cared.
Things had changed dramatically when a farmer working his field in southwestern Italy discovered the rock. Rather than exciting him, the farmer had only been annoyed by his discovery. Italy is crusted with a thick layer of history, and over the centuries priceless artifacts have grown across the topography like barnacles on a sluggish whale. After his plow struck the stone (which had been buried by the silt brought by a series of floods in the 1300s) the farmer tried to dig it up so he could get rid of it and go back to growing wheat, but as he dug he quickly realized that it was simply too big and he could never move it unless he smashed it to pieces first. He was tempted to do so, but couldn’t quite bring himself to commit the crime. So he simply avoided the immovable artifact, letting his sea of wheat grow around the island of stone.
He kept the rock a secret for six years, dreading the swarm of preservationists, bureaucrats, and archeologists that its discovery must inevitably bring. But keeping a secret is hard, and eventually he told two or three people about it, then they each told two or three people, who also told two or three people, and the secret leaked out at an exponential rate from there. Soon, all that he had dreaded had come to pass. It turned out the stone wasn’t merely one of the many minor archaeological discoveries that are made in Italy on almost a daily basis; it was unique and important. Teams of archaeologists swarmed his land, a portion of which became property of the state, while the stone and the remains of the temple were painstakingly excavated over the next couple years before becoming a tourist attraction.
The monolith was excavated first. It was a huge piece of charcoal-black granite that had been shaped and then lugged from a quarry hundreds of miles away. It was a seven foot tall cube and each side of the cube bore the same inscription in Ancient Greek:
These are the words of Zetoxis of Delos. I have written, and whispered, and screamed many words, but these are the words that matter most. After a lifetime of travel, gathering the philosophy of all the ancients from Egypt to Babylon, after learning from and arguing with the greatest thinkers of my age and every age, and after listening to the wisdom of nature itself, I have sent this stone to bear my words to the men of the future. I wish to share my knowledge with them, and to tell them that the purpose of existence is . . .
And there the Ancient Greek text ended and was replaced by a series of mysterious symbols. There were triangles, circles, and crescent moons. There were crosses and squiggly lines. There were shapes that almost appeared to represent men or animals, and there were shapes out of a mad expressionist’s nightmares. Some of these symbols appeared only once, while others were repeated several times.
The Rock of Zetoxis captured the public imagination. People were intrigued at the way the rock seemed to be addressed to them, “the men of the future.” It felt eerie to receive so direct a message from a man who had lived so long ago. Also, the haunting hubris of Shelly’s Ozymandias emanated from the stone. The rock was clearly the product of a tremendous ego, and the fact that it had been relegated to oblivion gave it a sweet flavor of irony. And finally, what really caught people’s attention was the strange series of symbols. It was clear to everyone that this ancient philosopher had written them a message in code, and puzzle enthusiasts from all over the world rushed to crack it.
Mireille had been brought to the site before the message was revealed to the public. Once the stone’s connection to Zetoxis had been discovered, calling upon the knowledge of the world’s greatest (and only) expert on the man just made sense. Mireille had been electrified by the discovery, and she had relished the opportunity to have the first crack at breaking the code. She had spent hours staring at the string of symbols,and traced many of them to their origins in Egyptian hieroglyphics and various lost ancient languages (although many of the symbols appeared to be entirely unique). She had searched for clues among the scraps of the writings of Zetoxis that had survived the passage of centuries, and she developed one theory after another only to have to reject each idea in turn. She failed to crack the code.
Then the writing on the stone was shared with the public, and a large chunk of that public was fascinated by it. Every newspaper, magazine, and news website ran a story or two and for a solid month everyone on Earth seemed to be talking about the stone and its mysterious message. After the initial furor died down, a core of enthusiasts dedicated themselves to cracking the code. Websites and social media pages sprang up as places where obsessed nerds could share their ideas and list every possible meaning of each individual symbol. It was said that the code-breakers at the CIA and the NSA would occasionally divert computing power from national security issues to try to solve the code using theories proposed by important government officials. Two tech billionaires made a public bet as to which of them would figure out the message out first, and then they dumped resources commensurate with their egos into the project. Cults were born, mad street prophets screamed their interpretations to passers by, and students of ancient philosophy spent about fifteen minutes every semester having a professor drone to them about the message.
Some people hoped that the mysterious passage contained information on how to live a long life. Maybe there was a reason that Zetoxis had lived from the time of Pythagorous through the time of Plato. The stone itself was believed to have healing power, and people came to the Temple of Zetoxis in the hope of being healed of everything from athlete’s foot to Alzheimer’s.
Mireille wrote a book about the rock and it became a bestseller. Aspiring code-breakers from around the world viewed it as their bible, and would refer to it in almost spiritual terms. Mireille was surprised to watch her book get translated into 27 languages, and gratified by the pile of money she earned from it, but what she had really wanted was to provide the spark necessary for an answer. She hoped that her expertise in Ancient Greek, philosophy, history, and Zetoxis himself might provide some mathematical genius with the necessary tools to solve the mystery. She ached to find an answer. But years had passed and it still hadn’t happened. The riddle had become a permanent throbbing pain in her psyche, a spot that had been rubbed raw with agitation.
And now Mireille was back, staring at the rock again, wondering. She whispered, “Help me figure this out, grandpa, if you can hear me, help me figure this out.” But there was no answer to her prayer, and the rock sat as it had for over 2,000 years. Immovable. Mocking.
Although the old man was still conscious, his great mind refusing to shut itself down and accept the mystery of death, the room already carried a hint of decay. Philo was relieved to find his friend alive and he sat on the floor next to the straw mat where the aged philosopher rested. Zetoxis seemed to be asleep, though he was not. His eyes were closed and his face was relaxed with an almost-smile giving a slight curve to his pale lips. His beard and hair were both full and white, and his leathery face looked like it belonged to a man who was taking his last breath before being sucked under an infinite drift of snow. The brown eyes opened.
“I think you look a little better today,” Philo said, lying.
There was a dry rasp like the sound of a breeze blowing through dead leaves. Philo interpreted this as an attempt at a laugh. “I’ll be dead before the day is over,” Zetoxis said in a dry and shaky voice.
“You’re right. That is nonsense. I’ll be dead within the hour.”
Philo didn’t like talking about his friend’s imminent death, so he hurried on to another topic. “I have just returned from your temple. It’s construction is complete, and the rock is just as you asked.”
“Please don’t call it my temple. I’m not a god. Proof of my mortality will not be long in coming.”
“You may not be a god, but your words are divine. Building this temple, this monument to your work, has been the great task of my life.”
“And I thank you for it,” Zetoxis said as he placed his cold and bony hand on his friend’s forearm. “I have always been a difficult man, a tempest wrapped in skin and hair, and I thank you for all you’ve done for me.” This speech seemed to drain him, and the gnarled fingers slipped from the forearm.
“I just wish you would let me embellish the temple a bit more. It should have fine statuary! It should have gold leaf! The pediment should include dramatic reliefs depicting scenes from the Trojan War!”
“No. I wouldn’t have you waste your money on such trifles.”
“I’m a rich man. It would be my pleasure.”
“I know it would be your pleasure, but it would be a foolish pleasure all the same. The central stone is all that matters. Anything delicate will be smashed, anything valuable would be stolen, but the rock, the rock is a ship built to sail through time, to bear my message to a distant generation living in a world we cannot even imagine.”
“All your words have been carved, to a great depth, in the stone. Only the final secret sentence remains. Are you ready to share it? To share the purpose of existence?”
“Yes, here it is,” Zetoxis said as he rummaged under his blanket and retrieved a sheet of parchment.
Philo reached for it eagerly and snatched it from the withered hand. He scrutinized the jumble of symbols and then, in a burst of exasperation, asked, “But what does it mean?”
“It is meaningless: a puzzle without a solution, a riddle without an answer. Some will enjoy trying to decipher it, and others will be driven mad by the impossible search for meaning.”
Philo scowled at Zetoxis for a moment and then he burst out laughing. A moment later his laughter was joined by the sound of a breeze blowing through dead leaves.