The Wisdom of the Ancients/2

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Chapter VI[edit]

Pan, or Nature[1] Explained of Natural Philosophy


THE ancients have, with great exactness, delineated universal nature under the person of Pan. They leave his origin doubtful; some asserting him the son of Mercury, and others the common offspring of all Penelope's suitors. The latter supposition doubtless occasioned some later rivals to entitle this ancient fable Penelope; a thing frequently practised when the earlier relations are applied to more modern characters and persons, though sometimes with great absurdity and ignorance, as in the present case; for Pan was one of the ancientest gods, and long before the time of Ulysses; besides, Penelope was venerated by antiquity for her matronal chastity. A third sort will have him the issue of Jupiter and Hybris, that is, Reproach. But whatever his origin was, the Destinies are allowed his sisters.

He is described by antiquity, with pyramidal horns reaching up to heaven, a rough and shaggy body, a very long beard, of a biform figure, human above, half brute below, ending in goat's feet. His arms, or ensigns of power, are, a pipe in his left hand, composed of seven reeds; in his right a crook; and he wore for his mantle a leopard's skin.

His attributes and titles were the god of hunters, shepherds, and all the rural inhabitants; president of the mountains; and, after Mercury, the next messenger of the gods. He was also held the leader and ruler of the Nymphs, who continually danced and frisked about him, attended with the Satyrs and their elders, the Sileni. He had also the power of striking terrors, especially such as were vain and superstitious; whence they came to be called panic terrors.[2]

Few actions are recorded of him, only a principal one is, that he challenged Cupid at wrestling, and was worsted. He also catched the giant Typhon in a net, and held him fast. They relate farther of him, that when Ceres, growing disconsolate for the rape of Proserpine, hid herself, and all the gods took the utmost pains to find her, by going out different ways for that purpose, Pan only had the good fortune to meet her, as he was hunting, and discovered her to the rest. He likewise had the assurance to rival Apollo in music; and in the judgment of Midas was preferred; but the judge had, though with great privacy and secrecy, a pair of ass's ears fastened on him for his sentence.[3]

There is very little said of his amours; which may seem strange among such a multitude of gods, so profusely amorous. He is only reported to have been very fond of Echo, who was also esteemed his wife; and one nymph more, called Syrinx, with the love of whom Cupid inflamed him for his insolent challenge; so he is reported once to have solicited the moon to accompany him apart into the deep woods.

Lastly, Pan had no descendant, which also is a wonder, when the male gods were so extremely prolific; only he was the reputed father of a servant-girl called Iambe, who used to divert strangers with her ridiculous prattling stories.

This fable is perhaps the noblest of all antiquity, and pregnant with the mysteries and secrets of nature. Pan, as the name imports, represents the universe, about whose origin there are two opinions, viz., that it either sprung from Mercury, that is, the divine word, according to the Scriptures and philosophical divines, or from the confused seeds of things. For they who allow only one beginning of all things, either ascribe it to God; or, if they suppose a material beginning, acknowledge it to be various in its powers; so that the whole dispute comes to these points; viz., either that nature proceeds from Mercury, or from Penelope and all her suitors.[4]

The third origin of Pan seems borrowed by the Greeks from the Hebrew mysteries, either by means of the Egyptians, or otherwise; for it relates to the state of the world, not in its first creation, but so made subject to death and corruption after the fall; and in this state it was and remains, the offspring of God and Sin, or Jupiter and Reproach. And therefore these three several accounts of Pan's birth may seem true, if duly distinguished in respect of things and times. For this Pan, or the universal nature of things, which we view and contemplate, had its origin from the divine Word and confused matter, first created by God himself, with the subsequent introduction of sin, and consequently corruption.

The Destinies, or the natures and fates of things, are justly made Pan's sisters, as the chain of natural causes links together the rise, duration, and corruption; the exaltation, degeneration, and workings; the processes, the effects, and changes, of all that can any way happen to things.

Horns are given him, broad at the roots, but narrow and sharp at the top, because the nature of all things seems pyramidal; for individuals are infinite, but being collected into a variety of species, they rise up into kinds, and these again ascend, and are contracted into generals, till at length nature may seem collected to a point. And no wonder if Pan's horns reach to the heavens, since the sublimities of nature, or abstract ideas, reach in a manner to things divine; for there is a short and ready passage from metaphysics to natural theology.

Pan's body, or the body of nature, is, with great propriety and elegance, painted shaggy and hairy, as representing the rays of things; for rays are as the hair, or fleece of nature, and more or less worn by all bodies. This evidently appears in vision, and in all effects or operations at a distance; for whatever operates thus may be properly said to emit rays.[5] But particularly the beard of Pan is exceeding long, because the rays of the celestial bodies penetrate, and act to a prodigious distance, and have descended into the interior of the earth so far as to change its surface; and the sun himself, when clouded on its upper part, appears to the eye bearded.

Again, the body of nature is justly described biform, because of the difference between its superior and inferior parts, as the former, for their beauty, regularity of motion, and influence over the earth, may be properly represented by the human figure, and the latter, because of their disorder, irregularity, and subjection to the celestial bodies, are by the brutal. This biform figure also represents the participation of one species with another; for there appear to be no simple natures; but all participate or consist of two: thus man has somewhat of the brute, the brute somewhat of the plant, the plant somewhat of the mineral; so that all natural bodies have really two faces, or consist of a superior and an inferior species.

There lies a curious allegory in the making of Pan goatfooted, on account of the motion of ascent which the terrestrial bodies have towards the air and heavens; for the goat is a clambering creature, that delights in climbing up rocks and precipices; and in the same manner the matters destined to this lower globe strongly affect to rise upwards, as appears from the clouds and meteors.

Pan's arms, or the ensigns he bears in his hands, are of two kinds - the one an emblem of harmony, the other of empire. His pipe, composed of seven reeds, plainly denotes the consent and harmony, or the concords and discords of things, produced by the motion of the seven planets. His crook also contains a fine representation of the ways of nature, which are partly straight and partly crooked; thus the staff, having an extraordinary bend towards the top, denotes that the works of Divine Providence are generally brought about by remote means, or in a circuit, as if somewhat else were intended rather than the effect produced, as in the sending of Joseph into Egypt, &c. So likewise in human government, they who sit at the helm manage and wind the people more successfully by pretext and oblique courses, than they could by such as are direct and straight; so that, in effect, all sceptres are crooked at the top.

Pan's mantle, or clothing, is with great ingenuity made of a leopard's skin, because of the spots it has; for in like manner the heavens. are sprinkled with stars, the sea with islands, the earth with flowers, and almost each particular thing is variegated, or wears a mottled coat.

The office of Pan could not be more livelily expressed than by making him the god of hunters; for every natural action, every motion and process, is no other than a chase: thus arts and sciences hunt out their works, and human schemes and counsels their several ends; and all living creatures either hunt out their aliment, pursue their prey, or seek their pleasures, and this in a skilful and sagacious manner.[6] He is also styled the god of the rural inhabitants, because men in this situation live more according to nature than they do in cities and courts, where nature is so corrupted with effeminate arts, that the saying of the poet may be verified -

- pars minima est ipsa puella sui.[7]

He is likewise particularly styled President of the Mountains, because in mountains and lofty places the nature of things lies more open and exposed to the eye and the understanding.

In his being called the messenger of the gods, next after Mercury, lies a divine allegory, as next after the Word of God, the image of the world is the herald of the Divine power and wisdom, according to the expression of the Psalmist, "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork."[8]

Pan is delighted with the company of the Nymphs; that is, the souls of all living creatures are the delight of the world; and he is properly called their governor, because each of them follows its own nature as a leader, and all dance about their own respective rings, with infinite variety and never-ceasing motion. And with these continually join the Satyrs and Sileni; that is, youth and age: for all things have a kind of young, cheerful, and dancing time; and again their time of slowness, tottering, and creeping. And whoever, in a true light, considers the motions and endeavours of both these ages, like another Democritus, will perhaps find them as odd and strange as the gesticulations and antic motions of the Satyrs and Sileni.

The power he had of striking terrors contains a very sensible doctrine; for nature has implanted fear in all living creatures; as well to keep them from risking their lives, as to guard against injuries and violence; and yet this nature or passion keeps not its bounds, but with just and profitable fears always mixes such as are vain and senseless; so that all things, if we could see their insides, would appear full of panic terrors. Thus mankind, particularly the vulgar, labour under a high degree of superstition, which is nothing more than a panic-dread that principally reigns in unsettled and troublesome times.

The presumption of Pan in challenging Cupid to the conflict, denotes that matter has an appetite and tendency to a dissolution of the world, and falling back to its first chaos again, unless this depravity and inclination were restrained and subdued by a more powerful concord and agreement of things, properly expressed by Love or Cupid; it is therefore well for mankind, and the state of all things, that Pan was thrown and conquered in the struggle. His catching and detaining Typhon in the net receives a similar explanation; for whatever vast and unusual swells, which the word typhon signifies, may sometimes be raised in. nature, as in the sea, the clouds, the earth, or the like, yet nature catches, entangles, and holds all such outrages and insurrections in her inextricable net, wove as it were of adamant.

That part of the fable which attributes the discovery of lost Ceres to Pan whilst he was hunting - a happiness denied the other gods, though they diligently and expressly sought her - contains an exceeding just and prudent admonition; viz., that we are not to expect the discovery of things useful in common life, as that of corn, denoted by Ceres, from abstract philosophies, as if these were the gods of the first order, - no, not though we used our utmost endeavours this way, - but only from Pan, that is, a sagacious experience and general knowledge of nature, which is often found, even by accident, to stumble upon such discoveries whilst the pursuit was directed another way.

The event of his contending with Apollo in music affords us a useful instruction, that may help to humble the human reason and judgment, which is too apt to boast and glory in itself. There seem to be two kinds of harmony - the one of Divine Providence, the other of human reason; but the government of the world, the administration of its affairs, and the more secret Divine judgments, sound harsh. and dissonant to human ears or human judgment: and though this ignorance be justly rewarded with asses' ears, yet they are put on and worn, not openly, but with great secrecy; nor is the deformity of the thing seen or observed by the vulgar.

We must not find it strange if no amours are related of Pan besides his marriage with Echo; for nature enjoys itself, and in itself all other things. He that loves desires enjoyment, but in profusion there is no room for desire; and therefore Pan, remaining content with himself, has no passion unless it be for discourse, which is well shadowed out by Echo or task, or when it is more accurate, by Syrinx or writing.[9] But Echo makes a most excellent wife for Pan, as being no other than genuine philosophy, which faithfully repeats his words, or only transcribes exactly as nature dictates; thus representing the true image and reflection of the world without adding a tittle.

It tends also to the support and perfection of Pan or nature to be without offspring; for the world generates in its parts, and not in the way of a whole, as wanting a body external to itself wherewith to generate.

Lastly, for the supposed or spurious prattling daughter of Pan, it is an excellent addition to the fable, and aptly represents the talkative philosophies that have at all times been stirring, and filled the world with idle tales, being ever barren, empty, and servile, though sometimes indeed diverting and entertaining, and sometimes again troublesome and importunate.



Chapter VII[edit]

Perseus,[10] or War Explained of the Preparation and Conduct Necessary to War


THE fable relates, that Perseus was despatched from the cast by Pallas, to cut off Medusa's head, who had committed great ravage upon the people of the west; for this Medusa was so dire a monster as to turn into stone all those who but looked upon her. She was a Gorgon, and the only mortal one of the three, the other two being invulnerable. Perseus, therefore, preparing himself for this grand enterprise, had presents made him from three of the gods: Mercury gave him wings for his heels; Pluto, a helmet; and Pallas, a shield and a mirror. But though he was now so well equipped, he posted not directly to Medusa, but first turned aside to the Greæ, who were half-sisters to the Gorgons. These Greæ were gray-headed, and like old women from their birth, having among them all three but one eye, and one tooth, which, as they had occasion to go out, they each wore by turns, and laid them down again upon coming back. This eye and this tooth they lent to Perseus, who now judging himself sufficiently furnished, he, without farther stop, flies swiftly away to Medusa, and finds her asleep. But not venturing his eyes, for fear she should wake, he turned his head aside, and viewed her in Pallas's mirror; and thus directing his stroke, cut off her head; when immediately, from the gushing blood, there darted Pegasus, winged. Perseus now inserted Medusa's head into Pallas's shield, which thence retained the faculty of astonishing and benumbing all who looked on it."

This fable seems invented to show the prudent method of choosing, undertaking, and conducting a war; and, accordingly, lays down three useful precepts about it, as if they were the precepts of Pallas.

(1.) The first is, that no prince should be over-solicitous to subdue a neighbouring nation; for the method of enlarging an empire is very different from that of increasing an estate. Regard is justly had to contiguity, or adjacency, in private lands and possessions; but in the extending of empire, the occasion, the facility, and advantage of a war, are to be regarded instead of vicinity. It is certain that the Romans, at the time they stretched but little beyond Liguria to the west, had by their arms subdued the provinces as far as Mount Taurus to the east. And thus Perseus readily undertook a very long expedition, even from the east to the extremities of the west.

The second precept is, that the cause of the war be just and honourable; for this adds alacrity both to the soldiers, and the people who find the supplies; procures aids, alliances, and numerous other conveniences. Now there is no cause of war more just and laudable, than the suppressing of tyranny, by which a people are dispirited, benumbed, or left without life and vigour, as at the sight of Medusa.

Lastly, it is prudently added, that as there were three of the Gorgons, who represent war, Perseus singled her out for his expedition that was mortal; which affords this precept, that such kind of wars should be chose as may be brought to a conclusion, without pursuing vast and infinite hopes.

Again, Perseus's setting-out is extremely well adapted to his undertaking, and in a manner commands success; he received despatch from Mercury, secrecy from Pluto, and foresight from Pallas. It also contains an excellent allegory, that the wings given him by Mercury were for his heels, not for his shoulders; because expedition is not so much required in the first preparations for war, as in the subsequent matters, that administer to the first; for there is no error more frequent in war, than, after brisk preparations, to halt for subsidiary forces and effective supplies.

The allegory of Pluto's helmet, rendering men invisible and secret, is sufficiently evident of itself; but the mystery of the shield and the mirror lies deeper, and denotes, that not only a prudent caution must be had to defend, like the shield, but also such an address and penetration as may discover the strength, the motions, the counsels, and designs of the enemy; like the mirror of Pallas.

But though Perseus may now seem extremely well prepared, there still remains the most important thing of all; before he enters upon the war, he must of necessity consult the Greæ. These Greæ are treasons; half, but degenerate sisters of the Gorgons; who are representatives of wars: for wars are generous and noble; but treasons base and vile. The Greæ are elegantly described as hoary-headed, and like old women from their birth; on account of the perpetual cares, fears, and trepidations attending traitors. Their force, also, before it breaks out into open revolt, consists either in an eye or a tooth; for all faction, alienated from a state, is both watchful and biting; and this eye and tooth are, as it were, common to all the disaffected; because whatever they learn and know is transmitted from one to another, as by the hands of faction. And for the tooth, they all bite with the same; and clamour with one throat; so that each of them singly expresses the multitude.

These Greæ, therefore, must be prevailed upon by Perseus to lend him their eye and their tooth; the eye to give him indications, and make discoveries; the tooth for sowing rumours, raising envy, and stirring up the minds of the people. And when all these things are thus disposed and prepared, then follows the action of the war.

He finds Medusa asleep; for whoever undertakes a war with prudence, generally falls upon the enemy unprepared, and nearly in a state of security; and here is the occasion for Pallas's mirror: for it is common enough, before the danger presents itself, to see exactly into the state and posture of the enemy; but the principal use of the glass is, in the very instant of danger, to discover the manner thereof, and prevent consternation; which is the thing intended by Perseus's turning his head aside, and viewing the enemy in the glass.[11]

Two effects here follow the conquest: 1. The darting forth of Pegasus; which evidently denotes fame, that flies abroad, proclaiming the victory far and near. 2. The bearing of Medusa's head in the shield, which is the greatest possible defence and safeguard; for one grand and memorable enterprise, happily accomplished, bridles all the motions and attempts of the enemy, stupifies disaffection, and quells commotions.



Chapter VIII[edit]

Endymion, or a Favourite Explained of Court Favourites


THE goddess Luna is said to have fallen in love with the shepherd Endymion, and to have carried on her amours with him in a new and singular manner; it being her custom, whilst he lay reposing in his native cave, under Mount Latmus, to descend frequently from her sphere, enjoy his company whilst he slept, and then go up to heaven again. And all this while, Endymion's fortune was no way prejudiced by his unactive and sleepy life, the goddess causing his flocks to thrive, and grow so exceeding numerous, that none of the other shepherds could compare with him.


EXPLANATION - This fable seems to describe the tempers and dispositions of princes, who, being thoughtful and suspicious, do not easily admit to their privacies such men as are prying, curious, and vigilant, or, as it were, sleepless; but rather such as are of an easy, obliging nature, and indulge them in their pleasures, without seeking anything farther; but seeming ignorant, insensible, or, as it were, lulled asleep before them.[12] Princes usually treat such persons familiarly; and, quitting their throne like Luna, think they may with safety unbosom to them. This temper was very remarkable in Tiberius, a prince exceeding difficult to please, and who had no favourites but those that perfectly understood his way, and, at the same time, obstinately dissembled their knowledge, almost to a degree of stupidity.

The cave is not improperly mentioned in the fable; it being a common thing for the favourites of a prince to have their pleasant retreats, whither to invite him, by way of relaxation, though without prejudice to their own fortunes; these favourites usually making a good provision for themselves.

For though their prince should not, perhaps, promote them to dignities, yet, out of real affection, and not only for convenience, they generally feel the enriching influence of his bounty.



Chapter IX[edit]

The Sister of the Giants, or Fame Explained of Public Detraction


THE poets relate, that the giants, produced from the earth, made war upon Jupiter, and the other gods, but were repulsed and conquered by thunder; whereat the earth, provoked, brought forth Fame, the youngest sister of the giants, in revenge for the death of her sons.


EXPLANATION - The meaning of the fable seems to be this: the earth denotes the nature of the vulgar, who are always swelling, and rising against their rulers, and endeavouring at changes. This disposition, getting a fit opportunity, breeds rebels and traitors, who, with impetuous rage, threaten and contrive the overthrow and destruction of princes.

And when brought under and subdued, the same vile and restless nature of the people, impatient of peace, produces rumours, detractions, slanders, libels, &c., to blacken those in authority; so that rebellious actions and seditious rumours, differ not in origin and stock, but only as it were in sex; treasons and rebellions being the brothers, and scandal or detraction the sister.



Chapter X[edit]

Acteon and Pentheus, or a Curious Man Explained of Curiosity, or Prying into the Secrets of Princes and Divine Mysteries


THE ancients afford us two examples for suppressing the impertinent curiosity of mankind, in diving into secrets, and imprudently longing and endeavouring to discover them. The one of these is in the person of Acteon, and the other in that of Pentheus. Acteon, undesignedly chancing to see Diana naked, was turned into a stag, and torn to pieces by his own hounds. And Pentheus, desiring to pry into the hidden mysteries of Bacchus's sacrifice, and climbing a tree for that purpose, was struck with a phrensy. This phrensy of Pentheus caused him to see things double, particularly the sun, and his own city Thebes, so that running homewards, and immediately espying another Thebes, he runs towards that; and thus continues incessantly tending first to the one, and then to the other, without coming at either.


EXPLANATION - The first of these fables may relate to the secrets of princes, and the second to divine mysteries. For they, who are not intimate with a prince, yet against his will have a knowledge of his secrets, inevitably incur his displeasure; and therefore, being aware that they are singled out, and all opportunities watched against them, they lead the life of a stag, full of fears and suspicions. It likewise frequently happens that their servants and domestics accuse them, and plot their overthrow, in order to procure favour with the prince; for whenever the king manifests his displeasure, the person it falls upon must expect his servants to betray him, and worry him down, as Acteon was worried by his own dogs.

The punishment of Pentheus is of another kind; for they who, unmindful of their mortal state, rashly aspire to divine mysteries, by climbing the heights of nature and philosophy, here represented by climbing a tree, - their fate is perpetual inconstancy, perplexity, and, instability of judgment. For as there is one light of nature, and another light that is divine, they see, as it were, two suns. And as the actions of life, and the determinations of the will, depend upon the understanding, they are distracted as much in opinion as in will; and therefore judge very inconsistently, or contradictorily; and see, as it were, Thebes double: for Thebes being the refuge and habitation of Pentheus, here denotes the ends of actions: whence they know not what course to take, but remaining undetermined and unresolved in their views and designs, they are merely driven about by every sudden gust and impulse of the mind.



Endnotes[edit]

  1. ^  Homer's Hymn to Pan.
  2. ^  Cicero, Epistle to Atticus, 5.
  3. ^  Ovid, Metamorphoses, b. ii.
  4. ^  This refers to the confused mixture of things, as sung by Virgil: - Namque canebat uti magnum per inane coacta, Semina terrarumque animæque marisque fuissent; Et liquidi simul ignis; ut his exordia primis, Omnia, et ipse tener mundi concreverit orbis. - Ecl. vi. 31.
  5. ^  This is always supposed to be the case in vision, the mathematical demonstrations in optics proceeding invariably upon the assumption of this phenomenon.
  6. ^  Torva læna lupum sequitur, lupus ipse capellam: Florentem cytisum sequitur lasciva capella. - Virgil, Ecl. ii. 63.
  7. ^  Ovid, Rem. Amoris, v. 343. Mart. Epist.
  8. ^  Psalm xix. 1.
  9. ^  Syrinx signifying a reed, or the ancient pen.
  10. ^  Ovid, Metam. b. iv.
  11. ^  Thus it is the excellence of a general early to discover what turn the batty is likely to take, and looking prudently behind, as well as before, to pursue a victory so as not to be unprovided for a retreat.
  12. ^  It may be remembered that the Athenian peasant voted for the banishment of Aristides, because he was called the Just. Shakespeare forcibly expresses the same thought: "Let me have men about me that are fat; Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o' nights: Yond' Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous." If Bacon had completed his intended work upon "Sympathy and Antipathy," the constant hatred evinced by ignorance of intellectual superiority, originating sometimes in the painful feeling of inferiority, sometimes in the fear of worldly injury, would not have escaped his notice. - Ed.