Sacred Texts  Classics  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

The Golden Verses of Pythagoras, by Fabre d'Olivet, [1917], at

17. That which thou dost not know, pretend not that thou dost.
Instruct thyself: for time and patience favour all.

Lysis has enclosed in these two lines the summary of the doctrine of Pythagoras regarding science: according to this philosopher, all science consists of knowing how to distinguish what one does not know and of desiring to learn that of which one knows nothing. c Socrates had adopted this idea, as simple as profound; and Plato has consecrated several of his dialogues to its development. d

But the distinction between what one does not know and the desire to learn that of which one is ignorant, is a thing much rarer than one imagines. It is the golden mean of science, as difficult to possess as that of virtue, and without which it is, however, impossible to know oneself. For, without knowledge of oneself, how can one acquire knowledge of others? How judge them if one cannot be one’s own judge? Pursue this reasoning. It is evident

p. 189

that one can know only what one has learned from others, or what one has found from oneself: in order to have learned from others, one must have wished to receive lessons; in order to have found, one must have wished to seek; but one cannot reasonably desire to learn or to seek only for what one believes one does not know. If one imposes upon oneself this important point, and if one imagines oneself knowing that of which one is ignorant, one must judge it wholly useless to learn or to seek, and then ignorance is incurable: it is madness to style oneself doctor concerning things that one has neither learned nor sought after, and of which one can consequently have no knowledge. It is Plato who has made this irresistible reasoning, and who has drawn this conclusion: that all the mistakes that man commits come from that sort of ignorance which makes him believe that he knows what he does not know. a

From time immemorial this sort of ignorance has been quite considerable; but I believe that it will never again show itself to the extent it did among us some centuries ago. Men hardly free from the mire of barbarism, without being given the time either to acquire or to seek after any true knowledge of antiquity, have offered themselves boldly as its judges and have declared that the great men who have made it illustrious were either ignorant, imposters, fanatics, or fools. Here, I see musicians who seriously assure me that the Greeks were rustics in the way of music; that all that can be said of the wonders effected by this art is idle talk, and that we have not a village fiddler who could not produce as much effect as Orpheus, Terpander, or Timotheus, if he had similar auditors. b There, are the critics who

p. 190

tell me with the same phlegmatic air that the Greeks of the time of Homer knew neither how to read nor how to write; that this poet himself, assuming that he really existed, did not know the letters of the alphabet a; but that his existence is a fancy, b and that the works attributed to him are the crude productions of certain plagiarist rhapsodists. c Further on I see, to complete the singularity, a research worker who finds, doubtless to the support of all this, that the first editor of the poems of Homer, the virile legislator of Sparta, Lycurgus in short, was a man ignorant and unlettered, knowing neither how to read nor write d: quite an original idea and a comparison wholly bizarre, between the author and the editor of the Iliad! But this is nothing. Here is an archbishop of Thessalonica, who, animated by a righteous indignation, declared that Homer may have been an instrument of the devil, e and that one may be damned in reading him. That one shrugs the shoulders at the allegories of this poet, that one finds them not in the least interesting, that one falls asleep even, let all that pass; but to be damned! I have said that Bacon, drawn along unfortunately by that fatal prejudice which makes one judge without understanding, had calumniated the philosophy of the Greeks; his numerous disciples have even surpassed him upon this point. Condillac, the coryphée of modern empiricism, has seen in Plato only delirious metaphysics unworthy of occupying his time, and in Zeno only logic deprived of reasoning and principles. I would that Condillac, so great an amateur of analysis, had endeavoured to analyse the metaphysics of the one and the logic of the other,

p. 191

to prove to me that he understood at least what he found so unworthy of taking up his time; but that was the thing about which he thought the least. Open whatever book you will; if the authors are theologians, they will say to you that Socrates, Pythagoras, Zoroaster, Kong-Tse or Confucius, as they call him, are pagans, a whose damnation is, if not certain, at least very probable; they will treat their theosophy with the most profound contempt: if they are physicists, they will assure you that Thales, Leucippus, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Aristotle, and the others are miserable dreamers; they will jeer at their systems: if they are astronomers, they will laugh at their astronomy: if they are naturalists, chemists, botanists, they will make jest of their methods, and will take into consideration their credulity, their stupidity, their bad faith, the numerous wonders that they no longer understand in Aristotle and in Pliny. None will take the trouble to prove their assertions; hut, like people blinded by passion and ignorance, they state as fact what is in question, or putting their own ideas in place of those that they do not understand they will create phantoms for the sake of fighting them. Never going back to the principles of anything, stopping only at forms, adopting without examination the commonest notions, they will commit on all sides the same mistake that

p. 192

they have committed with respect to the genethliatical science, the principles of which I have shown in my last Examination; and confounding this science of the ancients with the astrology of the moderns, they will consider in the same light Tiresias and Nostradamus, and will see no difference between the oracle of Ammon, or of Delphi, and the lucky chance of the most paltry fortune-teller.

However, I do not pretend to say that all the modern savants indulge, in this same manner, in presumption and false notions with regard to antiquity; there have been many honourable exceptions among them: even those have been found who, drawn beyond the golden mean, by the necessity of effecting a useful reform or of establishing a new system, have returned there as soon as their passion or their interest have no longer commanded them. Such for example is Bacon, to whom philosophy has owed enough great favours to forget certain incidental prejudices; for I am, furthermore, far from attributing to him the errors of his disciples. Bacon, at the risk of contradicting himself, yielding to the sentiment of truth, although he subjected all to the light of experience, admitted, however, positive and real universals, which, by his method are wholly inexplicable. a Forgetting what he had said of Plato in one book, he declared in another: that this philosopher, endowed with a sublime genius, turning his attention upon all nature and contemplating all things from a lofty elevation, had seen very clearly, in his doctrine of ideas, what the veritable objects of science are. b Finally recognizing the principles of physics and the ensemble of things as the foremost to be considered, he made astrological science, which he likened to astronomy, depend upon it, in such a manner as to show that he did not confound it with vulgar astrology. This philosopher found that before his time, astronomy, well enough founded upon phenomena, utterly lacked soundness, and that astrology

p. 193

had lost its true principles. To be sure he agreed with astronomy presenting the exterior of celestial phenomena, that is to say, the number, situation, movement, and periods of the stars; but he accused it of lacking in understanding of the physical reasons of these phenomena. He believed that a single theory which contents itself with appearances is a very easy thing, and that one can imagine an infinity of speculations of this sort; also he wished that the science of astronomy might be further advanced.

Instead of revealing the reasons of celestial phenomena [he said], one is occupied only with observations and mathematical demonstrations; for these observations and these demonstrations can indeed furnish certain ingenious hypotheses to settle all that in one’s mind, and to make an idea of this assemblage, but not to know precisely how and why all this is actually in nature: they indicate, at the most, the apparent movements, the artificial assemblage, the arbitrary combination of all these phenomena, but not the veritable causes and the reality of things: and as to this subject [he continues], it is with very little judgment that astronomy is ranked among the mathematical sciences; this classification derogates from its dignity. a

Regarding astrological science, Bacon wished that it might be regenerated completely by bringing it back to its real principles, that is to say, that one should reject all that the vulgar had added thereto, both narrow and superstitious, preserving only the grand revolutions of the ancients. These ideas, as is quite obvious, are not at all in accord with those that his disciples have adopted since; also the greater part of them refrain from citing similar passages.


188:c Hierocl., In Aurea Carm., v. 31.

188:d Alcibiad., i. et ii.; Lachès, etc.

189:a In Alcibiad., i.

189:b Voyez Burette, Mém. de l’Acad. des Belles-Lett., t. v.; Laborde, Essai sur la Musique, t. i., introd., p. 20.

Our painters have hardly treated Greek painting better; and perhaps if the Pythian Apollo and the Chaste Venus had not again astonished Europe, but had disappeared as did the masterpieces of Polygnotus and of Zeuxis, p. 190 the modern sculptors would have said that the ancients failed as much in pattern as in colouring.

190:a Wood, Essai sur le Génie orig. d’Homère, p. 220.

190:b Bryant, cité par Desalles, Hist. d’Homère, p. 18.

190:c Wolf et Klotz, cités par le même. Ibid., p. 36 et 117.

190:d Paw, Recherches sur les Grecs, t. ii., p. 355.

190:e C’est un certain Grégoire, cité par Leo Allazi, dans son Livre de Patriâ Homeri. Voltaire, Dict. philos., art. EPOPÉE.

191:a The name of Pagan is an injurious and ignoble term derived from the Latin Paganus, which signifies a rustic, a peasant. When Christianity had entirely triumphed over Greek and Roman polytheism, and when by the order of the Emperor Theodosius, the last temple dedicated to the gods of the nations had been destroyed in the cities, it was found that the people in the country still persisted a considerable time in the ancient cult, which caused them and all their imitators to be called derisively Pagans. This appellation, which could suit the Greeks and Romans in the fifth century who refused to submit to the dominating religion in the Empire, is false and ridiculous when one extends it to other times, and to other peoples. It cannot be said without at once offending chronology and common sense, that the Romans or Greeks of the time of Cæsar, of Alexander, or of Pericles; the Persians, Arabs, Egyptians, Indians, the Chinese, ancient or modern, were Pagans; that is to say, peasants disobedient to the laws of Theodosius. These are polytheists, monotheists, mythologists, whatever one wishes, idolators perhaps, but not Pagans.

192:a Novum Organ., aph. 48.

192:b De Dign. et Increm. Science, l. iii., c. 4.

193:a Ut suprà.

Next: 18. Neglect not thy health