Until now, we have groped our way, having to guide us in the obscurity of remote ages only feeble lights, scattered here and there at long intervals. But now we have reached an epoch, where science is striped of its mystic vail, and reveals her secrets in open day. The priests who had so long been in possession of the doctrine of the people, yield now the grasp of the scientific scepter to the philosophers: they retained only the exclusive control of sacred rites, the monopoly oi religious ceremonies. Never was a happier revolution accomplished with less effusion of blood ; the mind rests with satisfaction on the circumstances which prepared and accompanied it.
It is a fact worthy of remark, and which has not escaped the attention of ancient observers, that the inhabitants of Asia, after having discovered the first elements of the sciences and the arts, and after having carried them to a certain degree of development, paused in the pathway of improvement, or even retrograded ; while the inhabitants of Europe, though entering much later into the career of civilization, promptly surpassed their predecessors, and raised themselves to a hight that the former were never able to attain.
Hippocrates signalized this remarkable phenomenon in his treatise on “Airs, Waters, and Places.” He sought its cause, and traced it with an admirable sagacity, to the combined influences of climate, manners, and government. A temperature, mild and uniform, which dispenses in man to provide against sudden vicissitudes of the seasons ; a soil, unbroken and fertile, from which he obtains, with but little labor, a sufficient alimentation ; the use of food almost exclusively vegetable ; a despotic government, under which the fortunes and the lives of the people are at the mercy of the caprices of the monarch, where advancement depends on favor rather than on merit; civil and religious institutions, which parcel off the various classes of society, like flocks, and assign to each individual, from his birth, a rank out of which it is impossible for him to move ; all these circumstances appeared to the the philosopher of Cos, eminently calculated to enervate the physical constitution of the people, to blunt their intelligence, and extinguish their moral energy ; while the opposite conditions, such as a temperature extremely variable, a broken soil, and a government surrounded by liberal institutions, seemed to him calculated to produce on the body and the mind, effects entirely contrary. In this he explains the cause of the superiority of the nations of Europe over the greater part of those of Asia.
To these considerations, taken outside of the nature of man, the modern physiologists add others, very important, drawn from his original conformation. They teach, from numerous observations, and in particular from the researches in comparative anatomy, that the development of the intellectual faculties is always proportionate to the volume of the cerebral hemispheres, and especially of the anterior lobes. This law, they say, governs not only all the species and varieties of the great family of man, but also the entire animal scale. Now in this anatomical aspect, it appears that the Mongolian race, to which belong the natural inhabitants of Egypt, the East Indies, and China, share much less in these physical advantages than the Caucasian race, from which most of the inhabitants of Europe take their origin. It would follow from this view, that the inferiority of the first, compared with the last, holds to an imperfect innate organic constitution, as much, at least, as to external influences.
However true or false this theory may be, the ancient Creeks found themselves, at the commencement of the period which we named Philosophic, in the most favorable condition, according to the views of Hippocrates, for the development of their physical and moral faculties. They occupied, besides Greece proper, Rhodes, Crete, Sicily, and a multitude of other islands. They possessed an immense extent of coast in Europe, Asia, and Africa. The Hellenic peninsula, which does not equal in extent the half of France, had an exceedingly irregular and broken surface ; great extremes of temperature, mountains covered with eternal snow, narrow gorges excavated by torrents, fertile plains, delightful valleys, arid hillsides scorched by the rays of a tropical sun, a sea subject to frequent tempests, a coast full of dangers, and indented with deep gulfs. In short, this nation was endowed, if we judge from their statuary, with the most noble physical forms, calculated to display, according to modern views, beauty, genius, and power.
The political institutions prevalent in most of the Grecian states, were in harmony with that happy concourse of circumstances to which we have alluded. Nearly everywhere a republican government or a limited monarchy had replaced the absolute power of kings. As the inhabitants were not very numerous in these small states, they could know, watch, and mutually estimate each other, so that public opinion was not much exposed to error. Public honor generally followed merit, and to obtain this it was necessary to show oneself worthy by some important act, by skill in counsel, by extraordinary talents, or by eminent virtue.
The era of brute force, of combat hand to hand with monsters and brigands, had passed away, and the reign of intelligence, of strategy in war and in politics, was conspicuous. The Mythological heroes whose prodigious labors were so much boasted, such as a Hercules, a Perseus, and a Bellerophon, were succeeded by those great men, whose lofty acts have been celebrated in history, such as Leonidas, Miltiades, and Themistocles.
The gymnasiums were no longer, as formerly, places devoted entirely to bodily exercise ; they were surrounded by halls and porticos where philosophers, rhetoricians, artists, and physicians, assembled to hold their schools and dispute on questions of art.
The theaters and public amusements, also, realized this social transformation. Strength and address no longer solely excited the admiration of the multitude ; a taste had been created, at least in some cities, for the charms of the productions of the mind. We touch that epoc when the spectators of the Olympic games, filled with enthusiasm on hearing the reading of the books of Herodotus, gave to each of them the name of one of the nine muses. If Crotona was proud in sending the most vigorous Athletus to those national solemnities which attracted a concourse from all Greece, Athens was not less so of the crowns that were obtained there by her poets, her painters, and her sculptors.
Gradually science unrobed herself of the grave and mysterious forms with which she had always been clothed in the East, to assume a dress less severe and more transparent, and of the taciturnity that she had had in Egypt, to become more communicative and even somewhat loquacious. The vestiges of this antique Egypto-Indian civilization which had served as a model for that of Greece was insensibly disappearing. Soon the sages of Greece ceased their journeys in search of light in foreign countries, for their own country became in its turn a center of illumination for all nations.
Pythagoras affords us the last celebrated example of distant peregrinations in search of wisdom. He is, also, the last of the sages who have transmitted their doctrines in an unusual language, and who made use
of hieroglyphical writing. As he was desirous to continue in Greece the traditions of the Egyptian school, the history of his life, and of the society that he founded, interests us in a very high degree ; for it shows us the contrast and the transition, from an old to a new and more perfect social state.
Born at Samos, one of the most flourishing of the islands of the Aegean sea, Pythagoras was, at first, an Athlete, hut having heard one day Pherecydes lecture on the immortality of the soul, he was so charmed, that he renounced every other occupation to devote himself, exclusively, to philosophy. After having followed the course of this eminent master for some time, he felt desirous of knowing, for himself, the customs and manners of other nations. He traveled in Egypt, in Phenicia, and in Chaldea ; and it is said, that he pushed his travels as far as India, where he communed with the Brahmins and Magi, and was initiated into the secrets of their worship, laws and doctrines. After a great number of years employed in schooling his mind by the practice of virtue, and enriching it with the most varied knowledge, he returned to his country, and was honorably received by the tyrant Polycrates, who endeavored to efface his usurpation by the mildness of his government, and by the prosperity he brought upon the citizens who had become his subjects. Notwithstanding the efforts of the usurper, the philosopher, not being able to habituate himself to the servitude of his country, left it to seek an asylum in some other land, from which liberty had not been banished. Whilst traversing the Peloponnesus, he assisted at the Olympic games, and being recognized, he was greeted with universal acclamations.
From this place he sailed for the southern part of Italy, or Great Greece. He landed at Crotona, say the biographers, and lodged with Milo, the Athlete, with whom his family was united by the bond of hospitality. It was in this city that he commenced his mission as a reformer. His discourses had such success that in a very little time he drew around him a great number of disciples. He required of them a very severe noviciate, which lasted for five or six years. During the season of trial, they were required to abstain almost entirely from conversation. They ate in common, using a very frugal diet ; they assisted the master in his lessons, executed the orders they received without making any observations, and in a word, led a pure, modest, temperate life. Those, only, who persevered, were admitted to a participation in the mysteries of the order.
The veneration of the disciples of Pythagoras, for their master, was so great, that many sold their property and gave the proceeds to him, for the general good.
An end was put to all discussion by the words, " The master has said it." This philosopher joined to an immense knowledge, an easy and attractive elocution. It is said, that he invented the theorem of the square of the hypothenuse ; that he was the first to divide the year into 365 days, 6 hours; that he had an idea of our planetary system; that is to say, that he suspected the movement of the other planets around the sun. But the greater part of these assertions have no solid foundation. The sect of which he was the founder, is called the Italian, from the name of the country in which it originated.
Pythagoras did not limit his teachings to the city of Crotona : he visited the principal cities of Great Greece, among others, Heraclea, Tarentum, Metapontum, and established Communities in each of them, subject to the common rules. These institutions exercised, at first, the happiest influence: a sensible reform was developed in the dissolute manners of the inhabitants of those cities. The Pythagorians gained the esteem of the magistrates and the people ; they were consulted on all difficult matters, and the superiority of their knowledge, joined to a rare abnegation, drew upon them the public confidence.
It appears that their success rendered them bold. Some of them began to mingle in intrigues and cabals, which was against the formal precept of their master, who often repeated to them, " abstain from party interests, according to the general understanding of that term, and do not frequent public assemblies at periods of elections." The politicians, who felt that their presence was injurious to their projects, accused them of aspiring to domination in public affairs ; the priesthood launched their anathemas at them, because they did not share the superstitious prejudices of the multitude. The simplicity of their costume, their symbolical language, their habitual silence, their avoidance of pleasure parties, and every thing, even to the purity of their lives, became a subject of reproach or umbrage. Mobs were excited against them ; they were menaced and pursued by the populace in every city, and because they were obliged to seek concealment, in order to save their lives, the greater number expatriated themselves: in this way their society was broken up, even during the life time of its founder, who never again attempted its reconstruction.
Before detailing the results of the dispersion of the Pythagorians, we shall present a sketch of the doctrine of their chief, a doctrine very important in the history of medicine and philosophy ; for it is the source of many theories which have exerted a great influence on the march of the human mind; and moreover, it is a key to the pretended occult sciences, the reign of which extended down, even as far as the close of the eighteenth century.
From History of medicine by P.V. Renouard M.D.