The Wisdom of the Ancients/3
INTRODUCTION - The fable of Orpheus, though trite and common, has never been well interpreted, and seems to hold out a picture of universal philosophy; for to this sense may be easily transferred what is said of his being a wonderful and perfectly, divine person, skilled in all kinds of harmony, subduing and drawing all things after him by sweet and gentle methods and modulations. For the labours of Orpheus exceed the labours of Hercules, both in power and dignity, as the works of knowledge exceed the works of strength.
FABLE - Orpheus having his beloved wife snatched from him by sudden death, resolved upon descending to the infernal regions, to try if, by the power of his harp, he could reobtain her. And, in effect, he so appeased and soothed the infernal powers by the melody and sweetness of his harp and voice, that they indulged him the liberty of taking her back, on condition that she should follow him behind, and he not turn to look upon her till they came into open day; but he, through the impatience of his care and affection, and thinking himself almost past danger, at length looked behind him, whereby the condition was violated, and she again precipitated to Pluto's regions. From this time Orpheus grew pensive and sad, a hater of the sex, and went into solitude, where, by the same sweetness of his harp and voice, he first drew the wild beasts of all sorts about him; so that, forgetting their natures, they were neither actuated by revenge, cruelty, lust, hunger, or the desire of prey, but stood gazing about him, in a tame and gentle manner, listening attentively to his music. Nay, so great was the power and efficacy of his harmony, that it even caused the trees and stones to remove, and place themselves in a regular manner about him. When he had for a time, and with great admiration, continued to do this, at length the Thracian women, raised by the instigation of Bacchus, first blew a deep and hoarse-sounding horn, in such an outrageous manner, that it quite drowned the music of Orpheus. And thus the power which, as the link of their society, held all things in order, being dissolved, disturbance reigned anew; each creature returned to its own nature, and pursued and preyed upon its fellow, as before. The rocks and woods also started back to their former places; and even Orpheus himself was at last torn to pieces by these female furies, and his limbs scattered all over the desert. But, in sorrow and revenge for his death, the river Helicon, sacred to the Muses, hid its waters under ground, and rose again in other places.
EXPLANATION - The fable receives this explanation. The music of Orpheus is of two kinds; one that appeases the infernal powers, and the other that draws together the wild beasts and trees. The former properly relates to natural, and the latter to moral philosophy, or civil society. The reinstatement and restoration of corruptible things is the noblest work of natural philosophy; and, in a less degree, the preservation of bodies in their own state, or a prevention of their dissolution and corruption. And if this be possible, it can certainly be effected no other way than by proper and exquisite attemperations of nature; as it were by the harmony and fine touching of the harp. But as this is a thing of exceeding great difficulty, the end is seldom obtained; and that, probably, for no reason more than a curious and unseasonable impatience and solicitude.
And, therefore, philosophy, being almost unequal to the task, has cause to grow sad, and hence betakes itself to human affair, insinuating into men's minds the love of virtue, equity, and peace, by means of eloquence and persuasion; thus forming men into societies; bringing them under laws and regulations; and making them forget their unbridled passions and affections, so long as they hearken to precepts and submit to discipline. And thus they soon after build themselves habitations, form cities, cultivate lands, plant orchards, gardens, &c. So that they may not improperly be said to remove and call the trees and stones together.
And this regard to civil affairs is justly and regularly placed after diligent trial made for restoring the mortal body; the attempt being frustrated in the end - because the unavoidable necessity of death, thus evidently laid before mankind, animates them to seek a kind of eternity by works of perpetuity, character, and fame.
It is also prudently added, that Orpheus was afterwards averse to women and wedlock, because the indulgence of a married state, and the natural affections which men have for their children, often prevent them from entering upon any grand, noble, or meritorious enterprise for the public good; as thinking it sufficient to obtain immortality by their descendants, without endeavouring at great actions.
And even the works of knowledge, though the most excellent among human things, have their periods; for after kingdoms and commonwealths have flourished for a time, disturbances, seditions, and wars, often arise, in the din thereof: first the laws are silent, and not heard; and then men return to their own depraved natures - whence cultivated lands and cities soon become desolate and waste. And if this disorder continues, learning and philosophy is infallibly torn to pieces; so that only some scattered fragments thereof can afterwards be found up and down, in a few places, like planks after a shipwreck. And barbarous times succeeding, the river Helicon dips under-ground; that is, letters are buried, till things having undergone their due course of changes, learning rises again, and show its head, though seldom in the same place, but in some other nation.
THE poets relate, that Cœlum was the most ancient of all the gods; that his parts of generation were cut off by his Son Saturn; that Saturn had a numerous offspring, but devoured all his sons, as soon as they were born; that Jupiter at length escaped the common fate; and when grown up, drove his father Saturn into Tartarus; usurped the kingdom; cut off his father’s genitals, with the same knife wherewith Saturn had dismembered Cœlum, and throwing them into the sea, thence sprung Venus.
Before Jupiter was well established in his empire, two memorable wars were made upon him: the first by the Titans, in subduing of whom, So1, the only one of the Titans who favoured Jupiter, performed him singular service; the second by the giants, who being destroyed and subdued by the thunder and arms of Jupiter, he now reigned secure.
EXPLANATION. - This fable appears to be an enigmatical account of the origin of all things, not greatly differing from the philosophy afterwards embraced by Democritus, who expressly asserts the eternity of matter, but denies the eternity of the world; thereby approaching to the truth of sacred writ, which makes chaos, or uninformed matter, to exist before the six days’ works.
The meaning of the fable seems to he this: Cœlum denotes all the concave space, or vaulted roof that incloses all matter, and Saturn the matter itself, which cuts off all power of generation from his father; as one and the same quantity of matter remains invariable in nature, without addition or diminution. But the agitations and struggling motions of matter, first produced certain imperfect and illjoined compositions of things, as it were so many first rudiments, or essays of worlds; till, in process of time, there arose a fabric capable of preserving its form and structure. Whence the first age was shadowed out by the reign of Saturn; who, on account of the frequent dissolutions, and short durations of things, was said to devour his children. And the second age was denoted by the reign of Jupiter; who thrust, or drove those frequent and transitory changes into Tartarus - a place expressive of disorder. This place seems to be the middle space, between the lower heavens and the internal parts of the earth, wherein disorder, imperfection, mutation, mortality, destruction, and corruption, are principally found.
Venus was not born during the former generation of things, under the reign of Saturn; for whilst discord and jar had the upper hand of concord and uniformity in the matter of the universe, a change of the entire structure was necessary. And in this manner things were generated and destroyed, before Saturn was dismembered. But when this manner of generation ceased, there immediately followed another, brought about by Venus, or a perfect and established harmony of things; whereby clues were wrought in the parts, whilst the universal fabric remained entire and undisturbed. Saturn, however, is said to be thrust out and dethroned, not killed, and become extinct; because, agreeably to the opinion of Democritus, the world might relapse into its old confusion and disorder, which Lucretius hoped would not happen in his time.
But now, when the world was compact, and held together by its own bulk and energy, yet there was no rest from the beginning; for first, there followed considerable motions and disturbances in the celestial regions, though so regulated and moderated by the power of the Sun, prevailing over the heavenly bodies, as to continue the world in its state. Afterwards there followed the like in the lower parts, by inundations, storms, winds, general earthquakes, &c., which, however, being subdued and kept under, there ensued a more peaceable and lasting harmony, and consent of things. It may be said of this fable, that it includes philosophy; and again, that philosophy includes the fable; for we know, by faith, that all these things are but the oracle of sense, long since ceased and decayed; but the matter and fabric of the world being justly attributed to a creator.
PROTEUS, according to the poets, was Neptune's herdsman; an old man, and a most extraordinary prophet, who understood things past and present, as well as future; so that besides the business of divination, he was the revealer and interpreter of all antiquity, and secrets of every kind. He lived in a vast cave, where his custom was to tell over his herd of sea-calves at noon, and then to sleep. Whoever consulted him had no other way of obtaining an answer, but by binding him with manacles and fetters; when he, endeavouring to free himself, would change into all kinds of shapes and miraculous forms; as of fire, water, wild beasts, &c.; till at length he resumed his own shape again.
EXPLANATION. - This fable seems to point at the secrets of nature, and the states of matter. For the person of Proteus denotes matter, the oldest of. all things, after God himself; that resides, as in a cave, under the vast concavity of the heavens. He is represented as the servant of Neptune, because the varies operations and modifications of matter are principally wrought in a fluid state. The herd, or flock of Proteus, seems to be no other than the several lands of animals, plants, and minerals, in which matter appears to diffuse and spend itself; so that after having formed these several species, and as it were finished its task, it seems to sleep and repose, without otherwise attempting to produce any new ones. And this is the moral Proteus's counting his herd, then going to sleep.
This is said to be done at noon, not in the morning or evening; by which is meant the time best fitted and disposed for the production of species, from a matter duly prepared, and made ready beforehand, and now lying in a middle state, between its first rudiments and decline; which, we learn from sacred history, was the case at the time of the creation; when, by the efficacy of the divine command, matter directly came together, without any transformation or intermediate changes, which it affects; instantly obeyed the order, and appeared in the form of creatures.
And thus far the fable reaches of Proteus, and his flock, at liberty and unrestrained. For the universe, with the common structures and fabrics of the creatures, is the face of matter, not under constraint, or as the flock wrought upon and tortured by human means. But if any skilful minister of nature shall apply force to matter, and by design torture and vex it, in order to its annihilation, it, on the contrary, being brought under this necessity, changes and transforms itself into a strange variety of shapes and appearances; for nothing but the power of the Creator can annihilate, or truly destroy it; so that at length, running through the whole circle of transformations, and completing its period, it in some degree restores itself, if the force be continued. And that method of binding, torturing, or detaining, will prove the most effectual and expeditious, which makes use of manacles and fetters; that is, lays hold and works upon matter in extremest degrees.
The addition in the fable that makes Proteus a prophet, who had the knowledge of things past, present, and future, excellently agrees with the nature of matter; as he who knows the properties, the changes, and the processes of matter, must of necessity understand the effects and sum of what it does, has done, or can do, though his knowledge extends not to all the parts and particulars thereof.
THE poets made Memnon the son of Aurora, and bring him to the Trojan war in beautiful armour, and flushed with popular praise; where, thirsting after farther glory, and rashly hurrying on to the greatest enterprises, he engages the bravest warrior of all the Greeks, Achilles, and falls by his hand in single combat. Jupiter, in commiseration of his death, sent birds to grace his funeral, that perpetually chanted certain mournful and bewailing dirges. It is also reported, that the rays of the rising sun, striking his statue, used to give a lamenting sound.
EXPLANATION. - This fable regards the unfortunate end of those promising youths, who, like sons of the morning, elate with empty hopes and glittering outsides, attempt things beyond their strength: challenge the bravest heroes; provoke them to the combat; and proving unequal, die in their high attempts.
The death of such youths seldom fails to meet with infinite pity; as no mortal calamity is more moving and afflicting, than to see the flower of virtue cropped before its time. Nay, the prime of life enjoyed to the full, or even to a degree of envy, does not assuage or moderate the grief occasioned by the untimely death of such hopeful youths; but lamentations and bewailings fly, like mournful birds, about the tombs, for a long while after; especially upon all fresh occasions, new commotions, and the beginning of great actions, the passionate desire of them is renewed, as by the sun's morning rays.
IT is elegantly fabled by Tythonus, that being exceedingly beloved by Aurora, she petitioned Jupiter that he might prove immortal, thereby to secure herself the everlasting enjoyment of his company; but through female inadvertence she forgot to add, that he might never grow old; so that, though he proved immortal, he became miserably worn and consumed with age, inasmuch that Jupiter, out of pity, at length transformed him to a grasshopper.
EXPLANATION. - This fable seems to contain an ingenious description of pleasure; which at first, as it were in the morning of the day, is so welcome, that men pray to have it everlasting, but forget that satiety and weariness of it will, like old age, overtake them, though they think not of it; so that at length, when their appetite for pleasurable actions is gone, their desires and affections often continue; whence we commonly find that aged persons delight themselves with the discourse and remembrance of the things agreeable to them in their better days. This is very remarkable in men of a loose, and men of a military life; the former whereof are always talking over their amours, and the latter the exploits of their youth; like grasshoppers, that show their vigour only by their chirping.
THE poets tell us, that Jupiter, to carry on his love-intrigues, assumed many different shapes; as of a bull, an eagle, a swan, a golden shower, &c.; but when he attempted Juno, he turned himself into the most ignoble and ridiculous creature, - even that of a wretched, wet, weather-beaten, affrighted, trembling, and half-starved cuckoo.
EXPLANATION. - This is a wise fable, and drawn from the very entrails of morality. The moral is; that men should not be conceited of themselves, and imagine that a discovery of their excellences will always render them acceptable; for this can only succeed according to the nature and manners of the person they court, or solicit; who, if he be a man not of the same gifts and endowments, but altogether of a haughty and contemptuous behaviour, here represented by the person of Juno, they must entirely drop the character that carries the least show of worth, or gracefulness; if they proceed upon any other footing, it is downright folly; nor is it sufficient to act the deformity of obsequiousness, unless they really change themselves, and become abject and contemptible in their persons.
THE particulars related by the poets of Cupid, or Love, do not properly agree to the same person; yet they differ only so far, that if the confusion of persons be rejected, the correspondence may hold. They say, that Love was the most ancient of all the gods, and existed before everything else, except Chaos, which is held coeval therewith. But for Chaos, the ancients never paid divine honours, nor gave the title of a god thereto. Love is represented absolutely without progenitor, excepting only that he is said to have proceeded from the egg of Nox; but that himself begot the gods, and all things else on Chaos. His attributes are four; viz,, 1. perpetual infancy; 2. blindness; 3. nakedness; and 4. archery.
There was also another Cupid, or Love, the youngest son of the gods, born of Venus; and upon him the attributes of the elder are transferred, with some degree of correspondence.
EXPLANATION. - This fable points at, and enters, the cradle of love seems to be the appetite, or incentive, of the primitive matter; or, to speak more distinctly, the natural motion, or moving principle, of the original corpuscles, or atoms; this being the most ancient and only power that made and wrought all things out of matter. It is absolutely without parent, that is, without cause; for causes are as parents to effects; but this power or efficacy could have no natural cause; for, excepting God, nothing was before it; and therefore it could have no efficient in nature. And as nothing is more inward with nature, it can neither be a genus nor a form; and therefore, whatever it is, it must be somewhat positive, though inexpressible. And if it were possible to conceive its modus and process, yet it could not be known from its cause, as being, next to God, the cause of causes, and itself without a cause. And perhaps we are not to hope that the modus of it should fall, or be comprehended, under human inquiry. Whence it is properly feigned to be the egg of Nox, or laid in. the dark.
The divine philosopher declares, that "God has made everything beautiful in its season; and has given over the world to our disputes and inquiries: but that man cannot find out the work which God has wrought, from its beginning up to its end." Thus the summary or collective law of nature, or the principle of love, impressed by God upon the original particles of all things, so as to make them attack each other and come together, by the repetition and multiplication whereof all the variety in the universe is produced, can scarce possibly find full admittance into the thoughts of men, though some faint notion may be had thereof. The Greek philosophy is subtile, and busied in discovering the material principles of things, but negligent and languid in discovering the principles of motion, in which the energy and efficacy of every operation consists. And here the Greek philosophers seem perfectly blind and childish; for the opinion of the Peripatetics, as to the stimulus of matter, by privation, is little more than words, or rather sound than signification. And they who refer it to God, though they do well therein, yet they do it by a start, and not by proper degrees of assent; for doubtless there is one summary, or capital law, in which nature meets, subordinate to God, viz., the law mentioned in the passage above quoted from Solomon; or the work which God has wrought from its beginning up to its end.
Democritus, who farther considered this subject, having first supposed an atom, or corpuscle, of some dimension or figure, attributed thereto an appetite, dire, or first motion simply, and another comparatively, imagining that all things properly tended to the centre of the world; those containing more matter falling faster to the centre, and thereby removing, and in the shock driving away, such as held less. But this is a slender conceit, and regards too few particulars; for neither the revolutions of the celestial bodies, nor the contractions and expansions of things, can be reduced to this principle. And for the opinion of Epicurus, as to the declination and fortuitous agitation of atoms, this only brings the matter back again to a trifle, and wraps it up in ignorance and night.
Cupid is elegantly drawn a perpetual child; for compounds are larger things, and have their periods of age; but the first seeds or atoms of bodies are small, and remain in a perpetual infant state.
He is again justly represented naked; as all compounds may properly be said to be dressed and clothed, or to assume a personage; whence nothing remains truly naked, but the original particles of things.
The blindness of Cupid, contains a deep allegory; for this same Cupid, Love, or appetite of the world, seems to have very little foresight, but directs his steps and motions conformably to what he finds next him, as blind men do when they feel out their way; which renders the divine and overruling Providence and foresight the more surprising; as by a certain steady law, it brings such a beautiful order and regularity of things out of what seems extremely casual, void of design, and, as it were, really blind.
The last attribute of Cupid is archery, viz., a virtue or power operating at a distance; for everything that operates at a distance, may seem, as it were, to dart, or shoot with arrows. And whoever allows of atoms and vacuity, necessarily supposes that the virtue of atoms operates at a distance; for without this operation, no motion could be excited, on account of the vacuum interposing, but all things would remain sluggish and unmoved.
As to the other Cupid, he is properly said to be the youngest sons of the gods, as his power could not take place before the formation of species, or particular bodies. The description given us of him transfers the allegory to morality, though he still retains some resemblance with the ancient Cupid; for as Venus universally excites the affection of association, and the desire of procreation, her son Cupid applies the affection to individuals; so that the general disposition proceeds from Venus, but the more close sympathy from Cupid. The former depends upon a near approximation of causes, but the latter upon deeper, more necessitating and uncontrollable principles, as if they proceeded from the ancient Cupid, on whom all exquisite sympathies depend.
DIOMED acquired great glory and honour at the Trojan war, and was highly favoured by Pallas, who encouraged and excited him by no means to spare Venus, if he should casually meet her in fight. He followed the advice with too much eagerness and intrepidity, and accordingly wounded that goddess in her hand. This presumptuous action remained unpunished for a time, and when the war was ended he returned with great glory and renown to his own country, where, finding himself embroiled with domestic affairs, he retired into Italy. Here also at first he was well received, and nobly entertained by King Daunus, who, besides other gifts and honours, erected statues for him over all his dominions. But upon the first calamity that afflicted the people after the stranger's arrival, Daunus immediately reflected that he entertained a devoted person in his palace, an enemy to the gods, and one who had sacrilegiously wounded a goddess with his sword, whom it was impious but to touch. To expiate, therefore, his country's guilt, he, without regard to the laws of hospitality, which were less regarded by him than the laws of religion, directly slew his guest, and commanded his statues and all his honours to be razed and abolished. Nor was it safe for others to commiserate or bewail so cruel a destiny; but even his companions in arms, whilst they lamented the death of their leader, and filled all places with their complaints were turned into a kind of swans, which are said, at the approach of their own death, to chant sweet melancholy dirges.
EXPLANATION. - This fable intimates an extraordinary and almost singular thing for no hero besides Diomed is recorded to have wounded any of the gods. Doubtless we have here described the nature and fate of a man who professedly makes any divine worship or sect of religion, though in itself vain and light, the only scope of his actions, and resolves to propagate it by fire and sword. For although the bloody dissensions and differences about religion were unknown to the ancients, yet so copious and diffusive was their knowledge, that what they knew not by experience they comprehended in thought and representation. Those, therefore, who endeavour to reform or establish any sect of religion, though vain, corrupt, and infamous (which is here denoted under the person of Venus), not by the force of reason, learning, sanctity of manners, the weight of arguments, and examples, but would spread or extirpate it by persecution, pains, penalties, tortures, fire and sword, may perhaps be instigated hereto by Pallas, that is, by a certain rigid, prudential consideration, and a severity of judgment, by the vigour and efficacy whereof they see thoroughly into the fallacies and fictions of the delusions of this kind; and through aversion to depravity and a well-meant zeal, these men usually for a time acquire great fame and glory, and are by the vulgar, to whom no moderate measures can be acceptable, extolled and almost adored, as the only patrons and protectors of truth and religion, men of any other disposition seeming, in comparison with these, to be lukewarm, mean-spirited, and cowardly. This fame and felicity, however, seldom endures to the end; but all violence, unless it escapes the reverses and changes of things by untimely death, is commonly unprosperous in the issue; and - if a change of affairs happens, and that sect of religion which was persecuted and oppressed gains strength and rises again, then the real and warm endeavours of this sort of men are condemned, their very name becomes odious, and all their honours terminate in disgrace.
As to the point that Diomed should be slain by his hospitable entertainer, this denotes that religious dissensions may cause treachery, bloody animosities, and deceit, even between the nearest friends.
That complaining or bewailing should not, in so enormous a case, be permitted to friends affected by the catastrophe without punishment, includes this prudent admonition, that almost in all kinds of wickedness and depravity men have still room left for commiseration, so that they who hate the crime may yet pity the person and bewail his calamity, from a principle of humanity and good nature; and to forbid the overflowings and intercourses of pity upon such occasions were the extremest of evils; yet in the cause of religion and impiety the very commiserations of men are noted and suspected. On the other hand, the lamentations and complainings of the followers and attendants of Diomed, that is, of men of the same sect or persuasion, are usually very sweet, agreeable, and moving, like the dying notes of swans, or the birds of Diomed. This also is a noble and remarkable part of the allegory, denoting that the last words of those who suffer for the sake of religion strongly affect and sway men's minds, and leave a lasting impression upon the sense and memory.
- ^ Thus we see that Orpheus denotes learning; Eurydice, things, or the subject of learning; Bacchus, and the Thracian women, men's ungoverned passions and appetites, &c. And in the same manner all the ancient fables might be familiarly illustrated, and brought down to the capacities of children.
- ^ "Quod procul a nobis flectat Fortuna gabernans; Et ratio potius quam res persuadeat ipsa."
- ^ Proteus properly signifies primary, oldest, or first.