On Pythagoras

the golden verses

Declining from the public ways, walk in unfrequented paths - Pythagoras

The ancients had the habit of comparing with gold all that they deemed without defects and pre-eminently beautiful: thus, by the Golden Age they understood, the age of virtues and of happiness; and by the Golden Verses, the verses, wherein was concealed the most pure doctrine. They constantly attributed these Verses to Pythagoras, not that they believed that this philosopher had himself composed them, but because they knew that his disciple, whose work they were, had revealed the exact doctrine of his master and had based them all upon maxims issued from his mouth. This disciple, commendable through his learning, and especially through his devotion to the precepts of Pythagoras, was called Lysis. 

After the death of this philosopher and while his enemies, momentarily triumphant, had raised at Crotona and at Metaponte that terrible persecution which cost the lives of so great a number of Pythagoreans, crushed beneath the débris of their burned school, or constrained to die of hunger in the temple of the Muses, Lysis, happily escaped from these disasters, retired into Greece, where, wishing to spread the sect of Pythagoras, to whose principles calumnies had been attached, he felt it necessary to set up a sort of formulary which would contain the basis of morals and the principal rules of conduct given by this celebrated man.

It is to this generous movement that we owe the philosophical verses below. These verses, called golden, contain the sentiments of Pythagoras and are all that remain to us, really authentic, concerning one of the greatest men of antiquity. Hierocles, who has transmitted them to us with a long and masterly Commentary, assures us that they do not contain, as one might believe, the sentiment of one in particular, but the doctrine of all the sacred corps of Pythagoreans and the voice of all the assemblies. He adds that there existed a law which prescribed that each one, every morning upon rising and every evening upon retiring, should read these verses as the oracles of the Pythagorean school.

One sees, in reality, by many passages from Cicero, Horace, Seneca, and other writers worthy of belief, that this law was still vigorously executed in their time. We know by the testimony of Galen in his treatise on The Understanding and the Cure of the Maladies of the Soul, that he himself read every day, morning and evening, the Verses of Pythagoras; and that, after having read them, he recited them by heart. However, I must not neglect to say that Lysis, who is the author of them, obtained so much celebrity in Greece that he was honored as the master and friend of Epaminondas. 

If his name has not been attached to this work, it is because at the epoch when he wrote it, the ancient custom still existed of considering things and not individuals: it was with the doctrine of Pythagoras that one was concerned, and not with the talent of Lysis which had made it known. The disciples of a great man had no other name than his. All their works were attributed to him. This is an observation sufficiently important to make and which explains how Vyasa in India, Hermes in Egypt, Orpheus in Greece, have been the supposed authors of such a multitude of books that the lives of many men would not even suffice to read them.


First honor the immortal Gods, as the law demands;

Then reverence thy oath, and the illustrious heroes;

Then venerate the divinities under the earth, due rites performing,

Then honor your parents, and all of your kindred;

Among others make the most virtuous thy friend;

Love to make use of his soft speeches, and learn from his deeds that are useful;

But alienate not the beloved comrade for trifling offences,

Bear all you can, what you can, for power is bound to necessity.

Take this well to heart: you must gain control of your habits;

 First over stomach, then sleep, and then luxury, and anger.

 What brings you shame, do not unto others, nor by yourself.

 The highest of duties is honor of self.

Let Justice be practiced in words as in deeds;

 Then make the habit, never inconsiderately to act;

 Neither forget that death is appointed to all;

 That possessions here gladly gathered, here must be left;

Whatever sorrow the fate of the Gods may here send us,

 Bear, whatever may strike you, with patience unmurmuring.

 To relieve it, so far as you can, is permitted,  

 But reflect that not much misfortune has Fate given to the good.  

The speech of the people is various, now good, and now evil;

So let them not frighten you, nor keep you from your purpose.

If false calumnies come to your ear, support it in patience;

Yet that which I now am declaring, fulfill it faithfully:

Let no one with speech or with deeds ever deceive you

To do or to say what is not the best.

Think, before you act, that nothing stupid results;

To act inconsiderately is part of a fool;

Yet whatever later will not bring you repentance, that you should carry through.

Do nothing beyond what you know,

Yet learn what you may need; thus shall your life grow happy.

Do not neglect the health of the body;

Keep measure in eating and drinking, and every exercise of the body;

By measure, I mean what later will not induce pain;

Follow clean habits of life, but not the luxurious;

Avoid all things which will arouse envy.

At the wrong time, never be prodigal, as if you did not know what was proper;

Nor show yourself stingy, for a due measure is ever the best.  

Do only those things which will not harm thee, and deliberate before you act.

Never let slumber approach thy wearied eye-lids,

Ere thrice you reviewed what this day you did;

Wherein have I sinned? What did I? What duty is neglected?

All, from the first to the last, review; and if you have erred, grieve in your spirit, rejoicing for all that was good.

With zeal and with industry, this, then repeat; and learn to repeat it with joy.

Thus wilt thou tread on the paths of heavenly virtue.

Surely, I swear it by him who into our souls has transmitted the Sacred Quaternary 

The spring of  eternal Nature.

Never start on your task until you have implored the blessing of the Gods.

If this you hold fast, soon will you recognize of Gods and mortal men

The true nature of existence, how everything passes and returns.

Then will you see what is true, how Nature in all is most equal,

So that you hope not for what has no hope, nor that anything should escape you.

Men shall you find whose sorrows themselves have created,

Wretches who see not the Good, that is too near, nothing they hear;

Few know how to help themselves in misfortune.

That is the Fate that blinds humanity; in circles,

Hither and yon they run in endless sorrows;

For they are followed by a grim companion, disunion within themselves;

Unnoticed; never rouse him, and fly from before him!

Father Zeus, O free them all from sufferings so great,

Or show unto each the Genius who is their guide!

Yet, do not fear, for the mortals are divine by race,

To whom holy Nature everything will reveal and demonstrate;

 Whereof if you have received, so keep what I teach you;

Healing your soul, you shall remain insured from manifold evil.

Avoid foods forbidden, reflect that this contributes to the cleanliness

And redemption of your soul. Consider all things well:

Let reason, the gift divine, be thy highest guide;

Then should you be separated from the body, and soar in the aether,

You will be imperishable, a divinity, a mortal no more. 

The ripe sayings of the Ancient Wisdom, as spoken again in the world of Greece--a world so much vaster than the area of the Greek peninsula--are somewhat fading from the minds born anew into the hurrying life of the West. But the West cannot afford to let them fade away, for more than ever are they needed now to breathe their undying music into the ears stunned with the clashing discords of a materialistic and luxurious civilization. Life grows too crowded and too showy; crowded, not full-for crowd is from without, fullness from within; showy, not splendid-for show is the veneer of wealth covering a base metal, while splendor is the gleam of the golden thread of stateliness interwoven with the silken web of noble character.

Sorely is needed in such a life the strong, pure teaching of the elder days, when learning was held to be richer than wealth, and simplicity finer than lavishness. The Greece of Pythagoras, with its mathematics and music-order and harmony-has a message for the modern nations, disorderly and discordant, and this message may best come through those who, their own natures attuned by brooding over the Pythagorean wisdom, can teach by life more than by word "the Beauty which was Greece."