The Golden Verses of Pythagoras, by Fabre d'Olivet, , at sacred-texts.com
Lysis continues, in the name of Pythagoras, to trace for the philosopher the course that he must follow in the first part of his doctrine, which is the Purification. After having commended to him moderation and prudence in all things, having exhorted him to be as slow to censure as to approve, he seeks to put him on guard against prejudices and the routine of example, which are, in reality, the greatest obstacles that are encountered by science and truth. This is what Bacon, the regenerator of philosophy in modern Europe, so keenly felt, as I have already cited with praise at the opening of this work. This excellent observer, to whom we owe our freedom from scholastic leading-strings whose ignorance had stifled for us the name of Aristotle, having formed the difficult enterprise of disencumbering and, as it were, clearing the air belonging to the human understanding, in order to put it in a condition to receive an edifice less barbarous, remarked, that one would never attain to establishing there the foundation of true science, if one did not first labour to set aside prejudices. c He displayed all his forces against these formidable enemies of human perfectibility, and if he did not overthrow them all, at least he indicated them in such a manner as to make it easier to recognize and destroy them. The prejudices which obsess the human understanding and which he calls idols, are, according to him, of four kinds: these are the idols of the tribe; the idols of the den; the idols of society;
and the idols of theories. The first are inherent in human nature; the second are those of each individual; the third result from the equivocal definitions attached to words; the fourth and the most numerous are those that man receives from his teachers and from the doctrines which are current. a The last are the most tenacious and the most difficult to conquer. It seems even impossible wholly to resist them. The man who aspires to the perilous glory of improving the human mind, finds himself placed between two formidable dangers, which, like those of Scylla and Charybdis, threaten alternately to break his frail bark: upon one is irresistible routine, upon the other proud innovation. There is danger alike from both sides. He can save himself only by favour of the golden mean, so commended by all the sages and so rarely followed even by them.
This golden mean must needs be very difficult to hold in the course of life, since Kong-Tse himself, who has made it all his study, has lacked it in the most important part of his doctrine, in that concerning human perfectibility. Imbued unknowingly with the prejudices of his nation, he has seen nothing beyond the doctrine of the ancients and has not believed that anything might be added thereunto! b Instead of pushing the mind of the Chinese forward toward the goal where nature unceasingly tends, which is the perfection of all things, he has, on the contrary, thrown it backward and, inspiring it with a fanatical respect for works of the past, has prevented it from meditating upon anything great for the future. c Filial piety itself, pushed, to excess changed to a blind imitation, has also augmented the evil. So that the greatest people of the world, the richest in principles of all kinds, not daring to draw from these same principles any development, through fear of profaning them,
continually on their knees before a sterile antiquity, have remained stationary, whereas all around is progression; and for nearly four thousand years have really not advanced a step more towards the civilization and perfection of the arts and sciences.
The side on which Bacon has departed from the juste milieu has been precisely the opposite from that which prevented Kong-Tse from remaining there. The Chinese theosophist had been led astray by his excessive veneration for antiquity and the English philosopher, by his profound disdain for it. Warned against the doctrine of Aristotle, Bacon has extended his prejudice to everything that came from the ancients. Rejecting in a moment the labour of thirty centuries and the fruit of the meditation of the greatest geniuses, he has wished to admit nothing beyond what experience could confirm in his eyes. a Logic to him has seemed useless for the invention of the sciences. b He has abandoned the syllogism, as an instrument too gross to penetrate the depths of nature. c He has thought that it could be of no avail either in expression of words or in the ideas which flow from it. d He has believed the abstract principles deprived of all foundation; and with the same hand with which he fights these false ideas he has fought the results of these principles, in which he has unfortunately found much less resistance. e Filled with contempt for the philosophy of the Greeks, he has denied that it had produced anything either useful or good f; so that after having banished the natural philosophy of Aristotle, which he called a jumble of dialectic terms, g he has seen in the metaphysics of Plato only a dangerous and depraved philosophy, and in the theosophy of Pythagoras only a gross and shocking superstition. h Here indeed is
a case of returning again to the idea of Basil, and of exclaiming with him, that no man is without sin. Kong-Tse has been unquestionably one of the greatest men who has honoured the earth, and Bacon one of the most judicious philosophers of Europe; both have, however, committed grave mistakes whose effect is more or less felt by posterity: the former, filling the Chinese literati with an exaggerated respect for antiquity, has made of it an immobile and almost inert mass, that Providence, in order to obtain certain necessary movements, has had to strike many times with the terrible scourge of revolutions; the latter, inspiring, on the contrary, a thoughtless contempt for everything that came from the ancients, demanding the proof of their principles, the reason for their dogmas, subjecting all to the light of experience, has broken the scientific body, has deprived it of unity, and has transformed the assemblage of thinkers into a tumultuous anarchy from whose irregular movement has sprung enough violent storms. If Bacon had been able to effect in Europe the same influence that Kong-Tse had effected in China, he would have drawn philosophy into materialism and absolute empiricism. Happily the remedy is born of the evil itself. The lack of unity has taken away all force from the anarchical colossus. Each supposing to be in the right, no one was. A hundred systems raised one upon the other clashed and were broken in turn. Experience, invoked by all parties, has taken all colours and its opposed judgments were self-destructive.
If, after having called attention to the mistakes of these great men, I dared to hazard my opinion upon the point where both of them have failed, I would say that they have confused the principles of the sciences with their developments; it must be so, by drawing the principles from the past, as Kong-Tse; by allowing the developments to act throughout the future, as Bacon. Principles hold to the Necessity of things; they are immutable in themselves; finite, inaccessible to the senses, they are proved by reason:
their developments proceed from the power of the Will; these developments are free, indefinite; they affect the senses and are demonstrated by experience. Never is the development of a principle finished in the past, as Kong-Tse believed; never is a principle created in the future, as Bacon imagined. The development of a principle produces another principle, but always in the past; and as soon as this new principle is laid down, it is universal and beyond the reach of experience. Man knows that this principle exists, but he knows not how. If he knew, he would be able to create it at his pleasure; which does not belong to his nature.
Man develops, perfects, or depraves, but he creates nothing. The scientific golden mean commended by Pythagoras, consists therefore, in seizing the principles of the sciences where they are and developing them freely without being constrained or driven by any false ideas. As to that which concerns morals, it is forcibly enough expressed by all that has preceded.
The man who recognizes his dignity, says Hierocles, is incapable of being prejudiced or seduced by anything. a Temperance and force are the two incorruptible guardians of the soul: they prevent it from yielding to the allurements of things pleasing and being frightened by the horrors of things dreadful. Death suffered in a good cause is illustrious and glorious.
177:c Bacon, Novum Organum.
178:a Novum Organ., Aphor., 38 et seq.
178:b Voyez La Vie de Kong-Tzée et le Ta-Hio, cité dans les Mém. concern. les Chinois, t. i., p. 432.
178:c Mém. concern. les Chin., t. iv., p. 286.
179:a Novum Organum in Præf. et Aph., 1.
179:b Ibid., Aph., 11.
179:c Ibid., Aph., 13.
179:d Ibid., Aph., 14 et 15.
179:e Ibid., Aph., 38 et seq.
179:f Novum Organum in Præf. et Aph., 73.
179:g Ibid., Aph., 63.
179:h Ibid., Aph., 65.
181:a Aurea Carm., v. 25.