The Golden Verses

Category: Ancient Learning > Ethical Maxims > Pythagorean Maxims

1 Introduction

The early Greek philosopher Pythagoras is, rather famously, known to have left no writings. Nevertheless, a poem of ethical advice was widely circulated under (or associated with) his name in later centuries, and quoted by Stoic philosophers like Epictetus and Platonists like Ammonius alike. The poem was so widely taught that a whole series of commentaries were written on it. One, by the Plactonic philosopher Hierocles, still exists in the original Greek, and two others—ascribed to two other Platonic philosopher, Iamblichus and Proclus, and plausibly so—survive in Arabic translations. There is also an excellent modern commentary by Johan Carl Thom (The Golden Verses. With Introduction and Commentary, Brill 1995).

The first section of the poem (lines 1–8) give the core advice about ethical relationships: towards the divine, the law, parents, relatives and friends. Unlike in most maxim texts, however, the divine is divided into three categories, namely gods, heroes and daemons. In this case, gods are located in the Aether (the fiery realm of the stars), daemons (=the dead?) in the underworld, and heroes presumably in the air, between the higher and lower beings.

The second section (9–39) centers more on the individual and their behavior, going through a variety of topics, before landing on the topic of self-reflection: at the end of each day, we should ask ourselves whether we have lived up to the Pythagorean precepts (40–44); effort and practice in this will lead us to “divine virtue” (45–48).

With this, we transition to the final section (48–71), in which practical advice gives way to reflections about the nature of the human being and the possibility of transcending the human condition. By observing the rules of the Golden Verses, we are told, it will be possible to become a god and ascend to the Aether after death. Such a blessed afterlife among the stars was what many in the Greco-Roman world hoped for, but few claimed to know a sure way to achieve this.

2 Translation

(1–8) First of all, honor the immortal gods, as is prescribed by the law,
And honor the oath.1 Then, worship the glorious heroes
And the daemons below the earth to fulfil the law,
And honor your parents and your closest relatives.
Among other people, make whoever is most virtuous your friend.
Always emulate their gentle words and useful deeds,
But never hate your friend because of a small mistake,
As far as lies in your power; for power dwells nearby to necessity.

(9–20) Know that these things are so, and also accustom yourself to controlling these:
Firstly, your belly, and sleep, as well as sex
And anger. Practice nothing shameful, either with another
Or alone; indeed, have a sense of shame before yourself above all others.
Further, cultivate justice in deed as well as in word,
And do not accustom yourself to behave irrationally in any matter,
But know that everyone is destined to died,
And possessions are wont at one moment to be bought, to be lost at another.
All the pains that mortals must bear from their daemonic fortunes,2
Whatever fate you may have, bear it and do not be vexed,
Yet you should remedy what you can, and consider:
Fate does not assign most of these evils to the wholly good.

(21–26) Many words (logoi) come to us humans, both wretched and good,
Which you should neither reject nor yet allow
To come to you.3 If something false is said,
Bear it gently. But what I am telling you, this do in every case.
No one shall persuade you, whether by word or by deed,
To do or say anything that is worse for you.

(27–39) Deliberate before any work, so that nothing mindless is done,
Because it is the business of a wretched man to act and speak thoughtlessly.
Instead, do that which will not vex you afterwards.
Do nothing that you do not understand, but learn
All that you should, and thus, you will lead a most pleasant life.
You must not be careless concerning the health of the body,
But drink, eat and exercise within measure;
I mean the measure at which it does not vex you.
Accustom yourself to have a clean and simple way of life
And avoid to do any thing of the sort that brings envy.
Do not be extravagant in the wrong situation, like someone ignorant of nobility,4
But neither be illiberal.5 Moderation is best in all things.
Only do what does not harm you, and think before any work.

(40–48) Do not admit sleep upon your weak eyes,
Before going through each of the day’s deeds three times.
Where did I overstep? What did I accomplish? What obligation did I not fulfil?
Beginning from the first, go through them all, and then,
Rebuke yourself for the wretched things and take joy in the good.
Make an effort at this, practice these things, which you ought to love;
These things will set you in the path towards divine virtue,
I swear by him6 who gave us the Tetractys,7
The fount of ever-flowing Nature.

(48–60) But set out on any work
By praying that you will complete it.8 If you master these things
You will know the connection of immortal gods and mortal humanity,
by which all things are pervaded, and by which they are ruled.9
You will know, as is right, the similar nature in everything,
So that you do not hope for what cannot be hoped or be unaware of anything.
You will know that humans undergo their sufferings by free choice,
Wretches who do not see, although the goods are near them,
Nor do they hear, and few understand the freeing from evils.
Such is the Fate that harms the minds of mortals; like rolling stones
They are carried here and there, and undergo endless sufferings.
For baneful Strife (Eris), which harms them in secret,
Is our innate companion, and one must not carry it onwards, but flee it at sight.

(61–71) Father Zeus, you would free all from many evils
If you showed to them all what kind of daemon they have!10
But take courage, because the ancestry of mortals is divine,11
Sacred Nature displays and reveals each thing to them.
If you have any share in these things, you will master what I enjoin,
Mending and saving your soul from these troubles here.
But abstain from the foods which we have named in the Purifications
And in the Freeing of Soul;12 discern and consider them all,
Hand the reins to the most excellent guidance from above,
And when you leave behind the body, you will go to the free Aether,13
You will be an immortal undying god, and no longer a mortal.

3 Footnotes

1 This could mean either ‘honor the oaths you make’ or ‘do not make oaths at all’.
2 The personal daemon (not demon) is much the same as one’s fortune.
3 This sentence could be about rumors or, due to the many meanings of logos, about thoughts.
4 In this context, ‘etiquette’ or ‘restraint’ may be more fitting.
5 Illiberality is stinginess.
6 Pythagoras.
7 A Pythagorean name for the perfect number 10, from tetra- (‘four’) because 10 is 1+2+3+4. The Tetractys was seen as having a deep cosmic significance.
8 Or ‘that they (the gods) will complete it’.
9 This may be an allusion to a World Soul, perhaps in the Stoic sense of a subtle substance pervading all things.
10 Literally, ‘what kind of daemon they make use of’. The daemon may mean the soul, personal destiny (or both), or something similar.
11 Perhaps a less literal translation, ‘humankind is divine’ or ‘humans are a divine species’, is closer to the sense.
12 These works were probably never widely circulated (not because they were secret but because they did not find an audience), however there are many texts that discuss Pythagorean food taboos, and the information is easy to find; let it suffice to mention the prohibition of meat—sometimes of all animal products—and of beans. But unlike most of the moral advice in the poem, this injunction applies only to Pythagoreans (although it may be required for the divinization after death that the Golden Verses promise).
13 The fiery realm of the stars.