The Wisdom of the Ancients/1
THE earliest antiquity lies buried in silence and oblivion, excepting the remains we have of it in sacred writ. This silence was succeeded by poetical fables and these, at length, by the writings we now enjoy; so that the concealed and secret learning of the ancients seems separated from the history and knowledge of the following ages by a veil, or partition-wall of fables, interposing between the things that are lost and those that remain.
Many may imagine that I am here entering upon a work of fancy; or amusement, and design to use a poetical liberty, in explaining poetical fables. It is true, fables in general are composed of ductile matter, that may be drawn into great variety by a witty talent or an inventive genius, and be delivered of plausible meanings which they never contained. But this procedure has already been carried to excess; and great numbers, to procure the sanction of antiquity to their own notions and inventions, have miserably wrested and abused the fables of the ancients.
Nor is this only a late or unfrequent practice, but of ancient date and common even to this day. Thus Chrysippus, like an interpreter of dreams, attributed the opinions of the Stoics to the poets of old; and the chemists, at present, more childishly apply the poetical transformations to their experiments of the furnace. And though I have well weighed and considered all this, and thoroughly seen into the levity which the mind indulges for allegories and allusions, yet I cannot but retain a high value for the ancient mythology. And, certainly, it were very injudicious to suffer the fondness and licentiousness of a few to detract from the honour of allegory and parable in general. This would be rash, and almost profane; for, since religion delights in such shadows and disguises, to abolish them were, in a manner, to prohibit all intercourse betwixt things divine and human.
Upon deliberate consideration, my judgment is, that a concealed instruction and allegory was originally intended in many of the ancient fables. This opinion may, in some respect, be owing to the veneration I have for antiquity, but more to observing that some fables discover a great and evident similitude, relation, and connection with the thing they signify, as well in the structure of the fable as in the propriety of the names whereby the persons or actors are characterized; insomuch, that no one could positively deny a sense and meaning to be from the first intended, and purposely shadowed out in them. For who can hear that Fame, after the giants were destroyed, sprung up as their posthumous sister, and not apply it to the clamour of parties and the seditious rumours which commonly fly about for a time upon the quelling of insurrections? Or who can read how the giant Typhon cut out and carried away Jupiter's sinews - which Mercury afterwards stole and again restored to Jupiter - and not presently observe that this allegory denotes strong and powerful rebellions, which cut away from kings their sinews, both of money and authority; and that the way to have them restored is by lenity, affability, and prudent edicts, which soon reconcile, and as it were steal upon the affections of the subject? Or who, upon hearing that memorable expedition of the gods against the giants, when the braying of Silenus's ass greatly contributed in putting the giants to flight, does not clearly conceive that this directly points at the monstrous enterprises of rebellious subjects, which are frequently frustrated and disappointed by vain fears and empty rumours?
Again, the conformity and purport of the names is frequently manifest and self-evident. Thus Metis the wife of Jupiter, plainly signifies counsel; Typhon, swelling; Pan, universality; Nemesis, revenge, &c. Nor is it a wonder, if sometimes a piece of history or other things are introduced, by way of ornament; or if the times of the action are confounded; or if part of one fable be tacked to another; or if the allegory be new turned; for all this must necessarily happen, as the fables were the inventions of men who lived in different ages and had different views; some of them being ancient, others more modern; some having an eye to natural philosophy, and others to morality or civil policy.
It may pass for a farther indication of a concealed and secret meaning, that some of these fables are so absurd and idle in their narration as to show and proclaim an allegory, even afar off. A fable that carries probability with it may be supposed invented for pleasure, or in imitation of history; but those that could never be conceived or related in this way must surely have a different use. For example, what a monstrous fiction is this, that Jupiter should take Metis to wife, and as soon as he found her pregnant eat her up, whereby he also conceived, and out of his head brought forth Pallas armed. Certainly no mortal could, but for the sake of the moral it couches, invent such an absurd dream as this, so much out of the road of thought!
But the argument of most weight with me is this, that many of these fables by no means appear to have been invented by the persons who relate and divulge them, whether Homer, Hesiod, or others; for if I were assured they first flowed from those later times and authors that transmit them to us, I should never expect anything singularly great or noble from such an origin. But who-ever attentively considers the thing, will find that these fables are delivered down and related by those writers, not as matters then first invented and proposed, but as things received and embraced in earlier ages. Besides, as they are differently related by writers nearly of the same ages, it is easily perceived that the relators drew from the common stock of ancient tradition, and varied but in point of embellishment, which is their own. And this principally raises my esteem of these fables, which I receive, not as the product of the age, or invention of the poets, but as sacred relics, gentle whispers, and the breath of better times, that from the traditions of more ancient nations came, at length, into the flutes and trumpets of the Greeks. But if any one shall, notwithstanding this, contend that allegories are always adventitious, or imposed upon the ancient fables, and no way native or genuinely contained in them, we might here leave him undisturbed in that gravity of judgment he affects (though we cannot help accounting it somewhat dull and phlegmatic), and if it were worth the trouble, proceed to another kind of argument.
Men have proposed to answer two different and contrary ends by the use of parable; for parables serve as well to instruct or illustrate as to wrap up and envelop, so that though, for the present, we drop the concealed use, and suppose the ancient fables to be vague, undeterminate things, formed for amusement, still the other use must remain, and can never be given up. And every man, of any learning, must readily allow that this method of instructing is grave, sober, or exceedingly useful, and sometimes necessary in the sciences, as it opens an easy and familiar passage to the human understanding, in all new discoveries that are abstruse and out of the road of vulgar opinions. Hence, in the first ages, when such inventions and conclusions of the human reason as are now trite and common were new and little known, all things abounded with fables, parables, similes, comparisons and allusions, which were not intended to conceal, but to inform and teach, whilst the minds of men continued rude and unpractised in matters of subtilty and speculation, or even impatient, and in a manner uncapable of receiving such things as did not directly fall under and strike the senses. For as hieroglyphics were in use before writing, so were parables in use before arguments. And even to this day, if any man would let new light in upon the human understanding, and conquer prejudice, without raising contests, animosities, opposition, or disturbance, he must still go in the same path, and have recourse to the like method of allegory, metaphor, and allusion.
To conclude, the knowledge of the early ages was either great or happy; great, if they by design made this use of trope and figure; happy, if, whilst they had other views, they afforded matter and occasion to such noble contemplations. Let either be the case, our pains, perhaps, will not be misemployed, whether we illustrate antiquity or things themselves.
The like indeed has been attempted by others; but to speak ingenuously, their great and voluminous labours have almost destroyed the energy, the efficacy, and grace of the thing, whilst being unskilled in nature, and their learning no more than that of commonplace, they have applied the sense of the parables to certain general and vulgar matters, without reaching to their real purport, genuine interpretation, and fill depth. For myself, therefore, I expect to appear new in these common things, because, leaving untouched such as are sufficiently plain and open, I shall drive only at those that are either deep or rich.
THE Poets relate, that Apollo, falling in love with Cassandra, was still deluded and put off by her, yet fed with hopes, till she had got from him the gift of prophecy; and having now obtained her end, she flatly rejected his suit. Apollo, unable to recall his rash gift, yet enraged to be outwitted by a girl, annexed this penalty to it, that though she should always prophesy true, she should never be believed; whence her divinations were always slighted, even when she again and again predicted the ruin of her country.
EXPLANATION. - This fable seems invented to express the insignificance of unseasonable advice. For they who are conceited, stubborn, or intractable, and listen not to the instructions of Apollo, the god of harmony, so as to learn and observe the modulations and measures of affairs, the sharps and flats of discourse, the difference between judicious and vulgar ears, and the proper times of speech and silence, let them be ever so intelligent, and ever so frank of their advice, or their counsels ever so good and just, yet all their endeavours, either of persuasion or force, are of little significance, and rather hasten the ruin of those they advise. But, at last, when the calamitous event has made the sufferers feel the effect of their neglect, they too late reverence their advisers, as deep, foreseeing, and faithful prophets.
Of this we have a remarkable instance in Cato of Utica, who discovered afar off, and long foretold, the approaching ruin of his country, both in the first conspiracy, and as it was prosecuted in the civil war between Cæsar and Pompey yet did no good the while, but rather hurt the commonwealth, and hurried on its destruction, which Cicero wisely observed in these words: "Cato, indeed, judges excellently, but prejudices the state; for he speaks as in the commonwealth of Plato, and not as in the dregs of Romulus."
THE fable runs, that Juno, enraged at Jupiter's bringing forth Pallas without her assistance, incessantly solicited all the gods and goddesses, that she might produce without Jupiter: and having by violence and importunity obtained the grant, she struck the earth, and thence immediately sprung up Typhon, a huge and dreadful monster, whom she committed to the nursing of a serpent. As soon as he was grown up, this monster waged war on Jupiter, and taking him prisoner in the battle, carried him away on his shoulders, into a remote and obscure quarter: and there cutting out the sinews of his hands and feet, he bore them off, leaving Jupiter behind miserably maimed and mangled.
But Mercury afterwards stole these sinews from Typhon, and restored them to Jupiter. Hence, recovering his strength, Jupiter again pursues the monster; first wounds him with a stroke of his thunder, when serpents arose from the blood of the wound: and now the monster being dismayed, and taking to flight, Jupiter next darted Mount Ætna upon him, and crushed him with the weight.
EXPLANATION. - This fable seems designed to express the various fates of kings, and the turns that rebellions sometimes take, in kingdoms. For princes may be justly esteemed married to their states, as Jupiter to Juno : but it sometimes happens, that, being depraved by long wielding of the sceptre, and growing tyrannical, they would engross all to themselves; and slighting the counsel of their senators and nobles, conceive by themselves; that is, govern according to their own arbitrary will and pleasure. This inflames the people, and makes them endeavour to create and set up some head of their own. Such designs are generally set on foot by the secret motion and instigation of the peers and nobles, under whose connivance the common sort are prepared for rising: whence proceeds a swell in the state, which is appositely denoted by the nursing of Typhon. This growing posture of affairs is fed by the natural depravity, and malignant dispositions of the vulgar, which to kings is an envenomed serpent. And now the disaffected, uniting their force, at length break out into open rebellion, which, producing infinite mischiefs, both to prince and people, is represented by the horrid and multiplied deformity of Typhon, with his hundred heads, denoting the divided powers; his flaming mouths, denoting fire and devastation; his girdles of snakes, denoting sieges and destruction; his iron hands, slaughter and cruelty; his eagle's talons, rapine and plunder; his plumed body, perpetual rumours, contradictory accounts, &c. And sometimes these rebellions grow so high, that kings are obliged, as if carried on the backs of the rebels, to quit the throne, and retire to some remote and obscure part of their dominions, with the loss of their sinews, both of money and majesty.
But if now they prudently bear this reverse of fortune, they may, in a short time, by the assistance of Mercury, recover their sinews again; that is, by becoming moderate and affable; reconciling the minds and affections of the people to them, by gracious speeches, and prudent proclamations, which will win over the subject cheerfully to afford new aids and supplies, and add fresh vigour to authority. But prudent and wary princes here seldom incline to try fortune by a war, yet do their utmost, by some grand exploit, to crush the reputation of the rebels: and if the attempt succeeds, the rebels, conscious of the wound received, and distrustful of their cause, first betake themselves to broken and empty threats; like the hissings of serpents; and next, when matters are grown desperate, to flight. And now, when they thus begin to shrink, it is safe and seasonable for kings to pursue them with their forces, and the whole strength of the kingdom; thus effectually quashing and suppressing them, as it were by the weight of a mountain.
IT is related that the Cyclops, for their savageness and cruelty, were by Jupiter first thrown into Tartarus, and there condemned to perpetual imprisonment: but that afterwards, Tellus persuaded Jupiter it would be for his service to release them, and employ them in forging thunderbolts. This he accordingly did; and they, with unwearied pains and diligence, hammered out his bolts, and other instruments of terror, with a frightful and continual din of the anvil.
It happened long after, that Jupiter was displeased with Æsculapius, the son of Apollo, for having, by the art of medicine, restored a dead man to life: but concealing, his indignation, because the action in itself was pious and illustrious, he secretly incensed the Cyclops against him, who, without remorse, presently slew him with their thunderbolts: in revenge whereof, Apollo, with Jupiter's connivance, shot them all dead with his arrows.
EXPLANATION. - This fable seems to point at the behaviour of princes, who, having cruel, bloody, and oppressive ministers, first punish and displace them; but afterwards, by the advice of Tellus, that is, some earthly-minded and ignoble person, employ them again, to serve a turn, when there is occasion for cruelty in execution, or severity in exaction: but these ministers being base in their nature, whet by their former disgrace, and well aware of what is expected from them, use double diligence in their office; till, proceeding unwarily, and over-eager to gain favour, they sometimes, from the private nods, and ambiguous orders of their prince, perform some odious or execrable action: When princes, to decline the envy themselves, and knowing they shall never want such tools at their back, drop them, and give them up to the friends and followers of the injured person; thus exposing them, as sacrifices to revenge and popular odium: whence with great applause, acclamations, and good wishes to the prince, these miscreants at last meet with their desert.
NARCISSUS is said to have been extremely beautiful and comely, but intolerably proud and disdainful; so that, pleased with himself, and scorning the world, he led a solitary life in the woods; hunting only with a few followers, who were his professed admirers, amongst whom the nymph Echo was his constant attendant. In this method of life it was once his fate to approach a clear fountain, where he laid himself down to rest, in the noonday heat; when, beholding his image in the water, he fell into such a rapture and admiration of himself, that he could by no means be got away, but remained continually fixed and gazing, till at length he was turned into a flower, of his own name, which appears early in the spring, and is consecrated to the infernal deities, Pluto, Proserpine, and the Furies.
EXPLANATION. - This fable seems to paint the behaviour and fortune of those, who, for their beauty, or other endowments, wherewith nature (without any industry of their own) has graced and adorned them, are extravagantly fond of themselves: for men of such a disposition generally affect retirement, and absence from public affairs; as a life of business must necessarily subject them to many neglects and contempts, which might disturb and ruffle their minds whence such persons commonly lead a solitary, private, and shadowy life; see little company, and those only such as highly admire and reverence them; or, like an echo, assent to all they say.
And they who are depraved, and rendered still fonder of themselves by this custom, grow strangely indolent, unactive, and perfectly stupid. The Narcissus, a spring flower, is an elegant emblem of this temper, which at first flourishes, and is talked of, but when ripe, frustrates the expectation conceived of it.
And that this flower should be sacred to the infernal powers, carries out the allusion still farther; because men of this humour are perfectly useless in all respects: for whatever yields no fruit, but passes, and is no more, like the way of a ship in the sea, was by the ancients consecrated to the infernal shades and powers.
THE only solemn oath, by which the gods irrevocably obliged themselves, is a well-known thing, and makes a part of many ancient fables. To this oath they did not invoke any celestial divinity, or divine attribute, but only called to witness the river Styx; which, with many meanders, surrounds the infernal court of Dis. For this form alone, and none but this, was held inviolable and obligatory: and the punishment of falsifying it, was that dreaded one of being excluded, for a certain number of years, the table of the gods.
EXPLANATION. - This fable seems invented to show the nature of the compacts and confederacies of princes; which, though ever so solemnly and religiously sworn to, prove but little the more binding for it: so that oaths in this case seem used, rather for decorum, reputation, and ceremony, than for fidelity, security, and effectuating. And though these oaths were strengthened with the bonds of affinity, which are the links and ties of nature, and again, by mutual services and good offices, yet we see all this will generally give way to ambition, convenience, and the thirst of power: the rather, because it is easy for princes, under various specious pretences, to defend, disguise, and conceal their ambitious desires, and insincerity; having no judge to call them to account. There is, however, one true and proper confirmation of their faith, though no celestial divinity; but that great divinity of princes, Necessity; or, the danger of the state; and the securing of advantage.
This necessity is elegantly represented by Styx, the fatal river, that can never be crossed back. And this deity it was, which Iphicrates the Athenian invoked in making a league: and because he roundly and openly avows what most others studiously conceal, it may be proper to give his own words. Observing that the Lacedæmonians were inventing and proposing a variety of securities, sanctions, and bonds of alliance, he interrupted them thus: "There may indeed, my friends, be one bond and means of security between us; and that is, for you to demonstrate you have delivered into our hands, such things as that if you had the greatest desire to hurt us you could not be able." Therefore, if the power of offending be taken away, or if by a breach of compact there be danger of destruction or diminution to the state or tribute, then it is that covenants will be ratified, and confirmed, as it were by the Stygian oath, whilst there remains an impending danger of being prohibited and excluded the banquet of the gods; by which expression the ancients denoted the rights and prerogatives, the affluence and the felicities, of empire and dominion.
- ^ Varro distributes the ages of the world into three periods; viz. the unknown, the fabulous, and the historical. Of the former we have no accounts but in Scripture; for the second we must consult the ancient poets, such as Hesiod, Homer, or those who wrote still earlier, and then again come back to Ovid, who in his Metamorphoses, seems, in imitation perhaps of some ancient Greek poet, to have intended a complete collection, or a kind of continued and connected history of the fabulous age, especially with regard to changes, revolutions, or transformations.