By Norman Douglas
Public Domain Books
XXXVIII. THE SAGE OF CROTON
The popularity of this sage at Croton offers no problem: the inhabitants had become sufficiently civilized to appreciate the charm of being regenerated. We all do. Renunciation has always exercised an irresistible attraction for good society; it makes us feel so comfortable, to be told we are going to hell–and Pythagoras was very eloquent on the subject of Tartarus as a punishment. The Crotoniates discovered in repentance of sins a new and subtle form of pleasure; exactly as did the Florentines, when Savonarola appeared on the scene.
Next: his doctrines found a ready soil in Magna Graecia which was already impregnated with certain vague notions akin to those he introduced. And then–he permitted and even encouraged the emotional sex to participate in the mysteries; the same tactics that later on materially helped the triumph of Christianity over the more exclusive and rational cult of Mithra. Lastly, he came with a “message,” like the Apostle of the Gentiles; and in those times a preaching reformer was a novelty. That added a zest. We know them a little better, nowadays.
He enjoyed the specious and short-lived success that has attended, elsewhere, such efforts to cultivate the ego at the expense of its environment. “A type of aspiring humanity,” says Gissing, echoing the sentiments of many of us, “a sweet and noble figure, moving as a dim radiance through legendary Hellas.” I fancy that the mist of centuries of undiscriminating admiration has magnified this figure out of all proportion and contrived, furthermore, to fix an iridescent nimbus of sanctity about its head. Such things have been known to happen, in foggy weather.
Was Greece so very legendary, in those times? Why, on the contrary, it was full of real personages, of true sages to whom it seemed as if no secrets of heaven or earth were past fathoming; far from being legendary, the countryhad never attained a higher plane of intellectual curiosity than when Pythagoras made his appearance. And it cannot be gainsaid that he and his disciples gave the impetus away from these wise and beneficial researches into the arid regions of metaphysics. It is so much more gentlemanly (and so much easier) to talk bland balderdash about soul-migrations than to calculate an eclipse of the moon or bother about the circulation of the blood.
That a man of his speculative vigour, knowing so many extra-Hellenic races, should have hit upon one or two good things adventitiously is only to be expected. But they were mere by-products. One might as well praise John Knox for creating the commons of Scotland with a view to the future prosperity of that country–a consummation which his black fanaticism assuredly never foresaw.
The chief practical doctrine of Pythagoras, that mankind are to be governed on the principle of a community of eastern monks, makes for the disintegration of rational civic life.
And his chief theoretical doctrines, of metempsychosis and the reduction of everything to a system of numbers [Footnote: Vincenzo Dorsa, an Albanian, has written two pamphlets on the survival of Greco-Roman traditions in Calabria. They are difficult to procure, but whoever is lucky enough to find them will be much helped in his understanding of the common people. In one place, he speaks of the charm-formula of Otto-Nave! (Eight-Nine) It is considered meet and proper, in the presence of a suckling infant, to spit thrice and then call out, three times, Otto-Nove! This brings luck; and the practice, he thinks, is an echo of the number-system of Pythagoras.]–these are sheer lunacy.
Was it not something of a relapse, after the rigorous mental discipline of old, to have a man gravely assuring his fellows that he is the son of Hermes and the divinely appointed messenger of Apollo; treating diseases, like an Eskimo Angekok, by incantation; recording veracious incidents of his experiences during a previous life in Hell, which he seems to have explored almost as thoroughly as Swedenborg; dabbling in magic, and consulting dreams, birds and the smoke of incense as oracles? And in the exotic conglomerate of his teachings are to be found the prima stamina of much that is worse: the theory of the pious fraud which has infected Latin countries to this day; the Jesuitical maxim of the end justifying the means; the insanity of preferring deductions to facts which has degraded philosophy up to the days of Kant; mysticism, demon-worship and much else of pernicious mettle–they are all there, embryonically embedded in Pythagoras.
We are told much of his charity; indeed, an English author has written a learned work to prove that Pythagoreanism has close affinities with Christianity. Charity has now been tried on an ample scale, and has proved a dismal failure. To give, they say, is more blessed than to receive. It is certainly far easier, for the most part, to give than to refrain from giving. We are at last shaking off the form, of self-indulgence called charity; we realize that if mankind is to profit, sterner conceptions must prevail. The apotheosis of the god-favoured loafer is drawing to a close.
For the rest, there was the inevitable admixture of quackery about our reforming sage; his warmest admirers cannot but admit that he savours somewhat strongly of the holy impostor. Those charms and amulets, those dark gnomic aphorisms which constitute the stock-in-trade of all religious cheap-jacks, the bribe of future life, the sacerdotal tinge with its complement of mendacity, the secrecy of doctrine, the pretentiously-mysterious self-retirement, the “sacred quaternion,” the bean-humbug . . .
He had the true maraboutic note.
And for me, this regenerator crowned with a saintly aureole remains a glorified marabout–an intellectual dissolvent; the importer of that oriental introspectiveness which culminated in the idly-splendid yearnings of Plato, paved the way for the quaint Alexandrian tutti-frutti known as Christianity, and tainted the well-springs of honest research for two thousand years. By their works ye shall known them. It was the Pythagoreans who, not content with a just victory over the Sybarites, annihilated their city amid anathemas worthy of those old Chaldeans (past masters in the art of pious cursings); a crime against their common traditions and common interests; a piece of savagery which wrecked Hellenic civilization in Italy. It is ever thus, when the soul is appointed arbiter over reason. It is ever thus, when gentle, god-fearing dreamers meddle with worldly affairs. Beware of the wrath of the lamb!
So rapidly did the virus act, that soon we find Plato declaring that all the useful arts are degrading; that “so long as a man tries to study any sensible object, he can never be said to be learning anything"; in other words, that the kind of person to whom one looks for common sense should be excluded from the management of his most refined republic. It needed courage of a rather droll kind to make such propositions in Greece, under the shadow of the Parthenon. And hand in hand with this feudalism in philosophy there began that unhealthy preoccupation with the morals of our fellow-creatures, that miasma of puritanism, which has infected life and literature up to this moment.
The Renaissance brought many fine things to England. But the wicked fairy was there with her gift: Pythagoras and Plato. We were not like the Italians who, after the first rapture of discovery was over, soon outgrew these distracted dialectics; we stuck fast in them. Hence our Platonic touch: our demi-vierge attitude in matters of the mind, our academic horror of clean thinking. How Plato hated a fact! He could find no place for it in his twilight world of abstractions. Was it not he who wished to burn the works of Democritus of Abdera, most exact and reasonable of old sages?
They are all alike, these humanitarian lovers of first causes. Always ready to burn something, or somebody; always ready with their cheerful Hell-fire and gnashing of teeth.
Know thyself: to what depths of vain, egocentric brooding has that dictum led! But we are discarding, now, such a mischievously narrow view of the Cosmos, though our upbringing is still too rhetorical and mediaeval to appraise its authors at their true worth. Youth is prone to judge with the heart rather than the head; youth thrives on vaporous ideas, and there was a time when I would have yielded to none in my enthusiasm for these mellifluous babblers; one had a blind, sentimental regard for their great names. It seems to me, now, that we take them somewhat too seriously; that a healthy adult has nothing to learn from their teachings, save by way of warning example. Plato is food for adolescents. And a comfort, possibly, in old age, when the judicial faculties of the mind are breaking up and primitive man, the visionary, reasserts his ancient rights. For questioning moods grow burdensome with years; after a strain of virile doubt we are glad to acquiesce once more–to relapse into Platonic animism, the logic of valetudinarians. The dog to his vomit.
And after Plato–the deluge. Neo-platonism. . . .
Yet it was quite good sport, while it lasted. To “make men better” by choice dissertations about Utopias, to sit in marble halls and have a fair and fondly ardent jeunesse doree reclining about your knees while you discourse, in rounded periods, concerning the salvation of their souls by means of transcendental Love–it would suit me well enough, at this present moment; far better than croaking, forlorn as the night-raven, among the ruins of their radiant lives.
Meanwhile, and despite our Universities, new conceptions are prevailing, Aristotle is winning the day. A fresh kind of thinker has arisen, whose chief idea of “virtue” is to investigate patiently the facts of life; men of the type of Lister, any one of whom have done more to regenerate mankind, and to increase the sum of human happiness, than a wilderness of the amiably-hazy old doctrinaires who professed the same object. I call to mind those physicians engaged in their malaria-campaign, and wonder what Plato would have thought of them. Would he have recognized the significance of their researches which, while allaying pain and misery, are furthering the prosperity of the country, causing waters to flow in dry places and villages to spring up in deserts–strengthening its political resources, improving its very appearance? Not likely. Plato’s opinion of doctors was on a par with the rest of his mentality. Yet these are the men who are taking up the thread where it was dropped, perforce, by those veritable Greek sages, whelmed under turbid floods of Pythagorean irrationalism. And are such things purely utilitarian? Are they so grossly mundane? Is there really no “philosophy” in the choice of such a healing career, no romance in its studious self-denial, no beauty in its results? If so, we must revise that classic adage which connects vigour with beauty–not to speak of several others.