The Golden Verses of Pythagoras, by Fabre d'Olivet, , at sacred-texts.com
Lysis, after having indicated the route by which Pythagoras conducted his disciples to virtue, goes on to teach them the use that this philosopher wished them to make of this celestial gift, once they had mastered it. Up to this point it is confined in the purgative part of the doctrine of his teacher; he now passes to the unitive part, that is to say, to that which has as object the uniting of man to the Divinity, by rendering him more and more like unto the model of all perfection and of all wisdom, which is God. The sole instrument capable of operating this union has been placed at his disposition by means of the good usage that he has made of his will: it is virtue which must serve him at present to attain truth. Now, Truth is the ultimate goal of perfection: there is nothing beyond it and nothing this side of it but error; light springs from it; it is the soul of God, according to Pythagoras, a and God himself, according to the legislator of the Indians. b
The first precept that Pythagoras gave to his disciples on entering the course of perfection tended to turn their thoughts upon themselves, to bring them to interrogate their actions, their thoughts, their discourse, to question the motives, to reflect in short upon their exterior movements and seek thus to know themselves. Knowledge of self was the most important knowledge of al(, that which must conduct them to all others. I will not weary my readers by adding anything to what I have already said pertaining to the importance of this knowledge, and the extreme value set upon it by the ancients. They know unquestionably
that the morals of Socrates and the philosophy of Plato were only the development of it and that an inscription in the temple of Greece, that of Delphi, commended it, after that of the golden mean, as the very teaching of the God whom they worshipped there a: Nothing in excess, and know Thyself, contained in few words the doctrine of the sages, and presented for their meditation the principles upon which reposed virtue and wisdom which is its consequence. Nothing further was necessary to electrify the soul of Heraclitus and to develop the germs of genius, which until the moment when he read these two sentences were buried in a cold inertia.
I will not pause therefore to prove the necessity of a knowledge without which all other is but doubt and presumption. I will only examine, in a brief digression, if this knowledge is possible. Plato, as I have said, made the whole edifice of his doctrine rest upon it; he taught, according to Socrates, that ignorance of ones self involves all ignorance, all mistakes, all vices, and all misfortunes; whereas knowledge of ones self, on the contrary, draws all virtue and all goodness b: so that it cannot be doubted that this knowledge might be considered possible, since its impossibility merely questioned would render its system null and void. However, as Socrates had said that he knew nothing, in order to distinguish himself from the sophists of his day who pretended to know everything; as Plato had constantly used in his teachings that sort of dialectic which, proceeding toward truth by doubt, consists in defining things for what they are, knowing their essence, distinguishing those which are real from those which are only illusory; and above all as the favourite maxim of these two philosophers had been that it was necessary to renounce all manner of prejudices, not pretending to know that of which one is ignorant, and giving assent only to clear and evident truths; it came to
pass that the disciples of these great men, having lost sight of the real spirit of their doctrine, took the means for the end; and imagining that the perfection of wisdom was in the doubt which leads to it, established as fundamental maxim, that the wise man ought neither to affirm nor deny anything; but to hold his assent suspended between the pro and con of each thing. a Arcesilaus, who declared himself the chief of this revolution, was a man of vast intellect, endowed with much physical and moral means, an imposing presence, and very eloquent, b but imbued with that secret terror which prevents concentrating upon the things that one regards as sacred and forbidden; audacious and almost impious to all outward appearance, he was, in reality, timid and superstitious. c Impressed with the inadequacy of his researches to discover the certainty of certain principles, his vanity had persuaded him that this certainty was undiscoverable, since he, Arcesilaus, did not find it; and his superstition acting in accord with his vanity, he finally believed that the ignorance of man is an effect of the will of God; and that, according to the meaning of a passage from Hesiod that he cited unceasingly, the Divinity has spread an impenetrable veil between it and the human understanding. d Also he named the effect of this ignorance, Acatalepsy, that is to say incomprehensibility, or impossibility to raise the veil. e His disciples in great numbers adopted this incomprehensibility and applied it to all sorts of subjects; now denying, then affirming the same thing; placing a principle, and overthrowing it the next moment; becoming entangled themselves in captious arguments in order to prove that they knew nothing, and making for themselves the calamitous glory of ignoring
good and evil, and of being unable to distinguish virtue from vice. a Dismal effect of an early error! Arcesilaus became the convincing proof of what I have repeated touching the golden mean and the similitude of extremes: once having left the path of truth, he became through weakness and through superstition the head of a crowd of audacious atheists, who, after having called in question the principles upon which logic and morals repose, placed there those of religion and overthrew them. Vainly he essayed to arrest the movement of which he had been the cause by establishing two doctrines: the one public, wherein he taught skepticism; the other secret, wherein he maintained dogmatism b: the time was no longer favourable for this distinction. All that he gained was to let another usurp the glory and to give his name to the new sect of doubters. It was Pyrrho who had this honour. This man, of a character as firm as impassive, to whom living or dying was a matter of indifference, who preferred nothing to something, whom a precipice opening beneath his feet would be unable to swerve from his path, gathered under his colours all those who made a philosophical profession of doubting everything, of recognizing nowhere the character of truth, and he gave them a sort of doctrine wherein wisdom was placed in the most complete uncertainty, felicity in the most absolute inertia, and genius in the art of stifling all kinds of genius by the accumulation of contradictory reasonings. c Pyrrho had much contempt for men, as was obvious from the doctrine which he gave them. He had constantly on his lips this
line of Homer: "Even as are the generations of leaves such are those likewise of men." a
I pause a moment here, in order that the reader may observe, that although the thought of Hesiod, concerning the veil that the gods had spread between them and men, and which gave rise to Arcesilaus establishing his acatalepsy, had originated in India, b it had never had the same results there; and this, because the Brahmans, in teaching that this veil existed and that it even bewildered the vulgar by a series of illusory phenomena, have never said that it was impossible to raise it; because this might have been an attack on the power of the will of man and its perfectibility, to which they put no limit. We shall see further on that such was also the idea of Pythagoras. Let us return to the Skeptics.
The writer to whom we owe a comparative history of the systems of philosophy, written with thought and impartiality, has felt keenly that skepticism ought to be considered under two relations: as skepticism of criticism and reform, necessary to correct the presumption of the human mind and to destroy its prejudices; as skepticism absolute and determined, which confounds in a common proscription both truth and error. c The first, of which Socrates gave the example, and which Bacon and Descartes have revived, is a sort of intellectual remedy that Providence prepares for healing one of the most fatal maladies of the human mind, that kind of presumptuous ignorance which makes one believe that he knows that which he does not know: the second, which is only the excess and abuse of the first, is this same remedy transformed into poison by an
aberration of the human reason which transports it beyond the circumstances which invoke its action, and employs it to devour itself and to exhaust in their source all the causes which coöperate in the progress of human understanding. a Arcesilaus was the first to introduce it into the Academy by exaggerating the maxims of Socrates, and Pyrrho made a special system of destruction in it, under the name of Pyrrhonism. This system, welcomed in Greece, soon infected it with its venom, notwithstanding the vigorous resistance of Zeno the Stoic, whom Providence had raised up to oppose its ravages. b Carried to Rome by Carneades, the head of the third academy, it alarmed with its maxims subversive of public morals, Cato the Censor, who confounding it with philosophy conceived for it an implacable hatred. c This rigid republican, hearing Carneades speak against justice, denying the existence of virtues, attacking the Divine Providence, and questioning the fundamental verities of religion, held in contempt a science which could bring forth such arguments. d He urged the return of the Greek philosophy, so that the Roman youth might not be imbued with its errors; but the evil was done. The destructive germs that Carneades had left, fermented secretly in the heart of the State, developed under the first favourable conditions, increased and produced at last that formidable colossus, which, after taking possession of the public mind, having obscured the most enlightened ideas of good and evil, annihilated religion, and delivered the Republic to disorder, civil wars, and destruction; and raising itself again
with the Roman Empire, withering the principles of the life it had received, necessitated the institution of a new cult and thus was exposed to the incursion of foreign errors and the arms of the barbarians. This colossus, victim of its own fury, after having torn and devoured itself was buried beneath the shams that it had heaped up; Ignorance seated upon its débris governed Europe, until Bacon and Descartes came and resuscitating, as much as was possible for them the Socratic skepticism, endeavoured by its means to turn minds toward the research of truth. But they might not have done so well, had they not also awakened certain remnants of Pyrrhonic skepticism, which, being sustained with their passions and their prejudices, soon resulted in bewildering their disciples. This new skepticism, naïve in Montaigne, dogmatic in Hobbes, disguised in Locke, masterly in Bayle, paradoxical but seductive in the greater number of the eighteenth-century writers, hidden now beneath the surface of what is called Experimental philosophy, lures the mind on toward a sort of empirical routine, and unceasingly denying the past, discouraging the future, aims by all kinds of means to retard the progress of the human mind. It is no more even the character of truth; and the proof of this character that the modern skeptics demand ad infinitum, a is the demonstration of the very possibility of understanding this character and of proving it: a new subtlety that they have deduced from the unfruitful efforts that certain thinkers have made recently in Germany, to give to the possibility of the knowledge of self, a basis which they have not given.
I will relate in my next Examination, what has hindered these savants from finding this basis. I must, before terminating this one, show to my readers how I believe one can distinguish the two kinds of skepticism of which I have
just spoken. A simple question put to a skeptic philosopher will indicate whether he belongs to the school of Socrates or Pyrrho. He must before entering into any discussion reply clearly to this demand: Do you admit of any difference whatever between that which is and that which is not? If the skeptic belongs to the school of Socrates, he will necessarily admit a difference and he will explain it, which will make him recognized at once. If on the contrary, he belongs to that of Pyrrho, he will respond in one of three ways: either that he admits a difference, or that he admits none, or that he does not know whether one exists. If he admits it without explaining it, he is beaten; if he does not admit it, he falls into absurdity; if he pretends not to distinguish it, he becomes foolish and ridiculous.
He is beaten, if he admits a difference between that which is and that which is not; because that difference, admitted, proves the existence of being; the existence of being proves that of the skeptic who replies; and that existence proved, proves all the others, whether one considers them in him, or outside of him, which is the same thing for the moment.
He falls into absurdity, if he does not admit any difference between that which is and that which is not, for then one can prove to him that 1 is equal to 0, and that the part is as great as the whole.
He becomes foolish and ridiculous, if he dares to say that he does not know whether a difference really exists between that which is, and that which is not; for then one asks him what he did at the age of six months, at one year, two years, two weeks ago, yesterday? Whatever he replies, he will become the object of ridicule.
Behold the Pyrrhonian beaten, that is to say, the one who professes to doubt everything; since a single acknowledged difference bringing him irresistibly to a certainty, and since one certainty militates against all the others, there is no further doubt; and since, doubting no further, it is
only a question then of knowing what he ought, or ought not to doubt: this is the true character of the skeptic of the Socratic School.
198:a Porphyr., Vitâ Pythag., p. 27.
198:b Institutes of Manu, ch. 1, v. 5.
199:a Xénophon, Mém., l. iv., p. 796; Plat., in Alcib., i.; ibid., in Charm.; Pausan., l. x.; Plin., l. vii., c. 32.
199:b In Alcibiad., i.
200:a Cicér., Acad. Quæst., l. iv., c. 24; Sext. Empir., Hypotyp., l. i., c. 4 et 12.
200:b Diog. Laërt., l. iv., §10; Cicer., Acad. Quæst., l. iv., c. 18.
200:c Desland, Hist. Critiq. de la Philosoph., t. ii., p. 258.
200:d Euseb., Præp. Evan., l. xiv., c. 4.
200:e The Greek word is derived from the verb καλυπρεῖν, to cover with a veil.
201:a Bayle, Dict. crit., art. ARCÉSILAS.
201:b Sextus Empiricus, who was not a man to advance anything thoughtlessly, alleges that Arcesilaus was only a skeptic in semblance and that the doubts which he proposed to his listeners had no other aim than that of seeing if they had enough genius to understand the dogmas of Plato. When he found a disciple who evinced the necessary force of mind, he initiated him into the true doctrine of the Academy (Pyrrh. hypotyp., l. i., c. 33).
201:c Sext. Empir., Pyrrh. hypotyp., l. i., c. 4, 12, 15; l. ii., c. 4, etc.
202:a ὅιν περ φύλλων γενεή, τοίη δὲ καὶ ανδρῶν. Iliad, l. vi., v. 146.
202:b The Brahmans call the illusion which results from this veil maya. According to them, there is only the Supreme Being who really and absolutely exists; all the rest is maya, that is to say, phenomenal, even the trinity formed by Brahma, Vishnu, and Rudra.
202:c De Gérando, Hist. comp. des Systèmes de philos., t. iii., p. 360.
203:a De Gérando, Hist. comp. des Systèmes de philos., t. iii., p. 361.
203:b Zeno raving been thrown by a storm into the port of Piræus at Athens, all his life regarded this accident as a blessing from Providence, which had enabled him to devote himself to philosophy and to obey the voice of an oracle which had ordered him to assume "the colour of the dead"; that is, to devote himself to the study of the ancients and to sustain their doctrine.
203:c Plutarch, in Catone majore.
203:d Plutarch, ibid.; Cicér., de Rep., l. ii.; Apud Nonium voce Calumnia. Lactant. l. v., c. 14.
204:a Cétait à quoi se bornaient les sceptiques anciens. Voyez Sextus Empiricus, Pyrrh. hypotyp., l. i., c. 15, et l. ii., c. 4, 12, etc., cité par De Gérando, Hist. Comp. des Syst., t. iii., p. 395.