30. Greece in the Sixth Century

The soul of Orpheus had crossed the stormy sky of nascent Greece like a divine meteor. Once he had disappeared, darkness covered it once again. After a series of revolutions the tyrants of Thrace burned his books, overturned his temples, drove out his disciples. The Greek kings and many cities, more jealous of their frenetic licence than loving that justice which flows from pure doctrines, imitated them. They wished to erase his memory, to destroy his last remains, and this was so well done that a few centuries after his death, a part of Greece doubted that he had ever existed. In vain the initiates preserved his tradition for more than a thousand years; in vain Pythagoras and Plato spoke of him as of a divine man; the sophists and rhetoricians saw in him nothing more than a legend concerning the origin of music. Even today students firmly deny the existence of Orpheus. They base themselves on the fact that neither Homer nor Hesiod mentions him. But the silence of these poets is amply explained by the censorship the local governments had placed upon the memory of the great initiator. The disciples of Orpheus missed no opportunity to rally all powers under the supreme authority of the temple of Delphi, and did not cease to repeat that it was necessary to submit the differences arising between the various states of Greece to the Council of the Amphictions. This annoyed the demagogues as well as the tyrants. Homer, who probably received his initiation in the sanctuary of Tyre, and whose mythology is the poetic translation of the theology of Sankoniaton, -- Homer the Ionian may very well not have known the Dorian Orpheus, whose tradition was held all the more secret since it was more persecuted. As for Hesiod, born near the Parnassus, he should have known Orpheus' name and teaching through the sanctuary of Delphi, but his initiators imposed silence upon him, and with good reason.

Nevertheless, Orpheus lived in his work, he lived in his disciples and even in those who denied him. What is this work? Where must one find this life-soul? Is it in the fierce military oligarchy of Sparta where knowledge was scorned, ignorance built up into a system and brutality required as a complement of courage? Is it in those stern wars of Messenia in which one sees the Spartans pursue a neighboring people to the point of extermination and those Romans of Greece preface the Tarpeian rock and blood-stained laurels of the Capitol by thrusting brave Aristomenes, the defender of his country, over a precipice? Is it in the turbulent democracy of Athens, ever ready to drink of tyranny? Is it in the Praetorian Guard of Pisitratus, or in the dagger of Harmodius and Aristogiton, hidden in a myrtle branch? Is it in the numerous cities of Hellas, of Greater Greece and Asia Minor, of which Athens and Sparta are contrasting types? Is it in all these democracies and tyrannies -- envious, jealous, forever ready to tear each other asunder? -- No. The soul of Greece is not there. It is in her temples, in her Mysteries and in their initiates. It is in the sanctuary of Jupiter at Olympus, of Juno at Argos, of Ceres at Eleusis; it reigns over Athens with Minerva, it shines at Delphi with Apollo, who dominates and penetrates all the temples with his light. This is the center of Hellenic life, the head and heart of Greece. It is here that the poets who interpret sublime truths to the people in living images, and the wise men who propagate them in subtle dialectic, will receive instruction. The spirit of Orpheus moves everywhere the heart of immortal Greece throbs. We shall find it in the contests of poetry and athletics, in the games of Delphi and Olympus, important institutions which the successors of the Master invented in order to reconcile and unite the twelve Greek tribes. We are very near it in the Council of the Amphictions, that assembly of initiates, the supreme arbitration court which met at Delphi, manifesting great power of justice and concord, in which Greece found her unity in hours of bravery and abnegation.53

But this Greece of Orpheus, her spirit a pure doctrine guarded in the temples, her soul, a plastic religion, her body, a high court of justice located at Delphi, -- this Greece began to be threatened in about the seventh century. The commands of Delphi were no longer respected; sacred lands were trespassed upon. This was because the race of great inspired ones had disappeared. The spiritual and moral level had lowered. The priests sold themselves to political power; even the Mysteries began to be corrupted from this time. The general aspect of Greece had changed. The ancient priestly and agricultural royalty was followed here by tyranny pure and simple, there by military aristocracy, elsewhere by anarchical democracy. The temples had become powerless to warn men of impending dissolution. They needed a new helper. A popularization of esoteric teaching had become necessary. In order that the thought of Orpheus could live and expand in all its brilliance, it was necessary that the wisdom of the temples should pass into the ranks of the laity. Therefore, hidden under various disguises it slipped into the heads of civil legislators, into the schools of poets, beneath the porticos of philosophers. In their teaching the latter felt the same requirement that Orpheus had recognized in regard to religion -- that of two doctrines: one public, the other secret. These doctrines expounded the same truth in a different degree and under different forms commensurate with the development of the pupils. This evolution gave Greece its three great centuries of artistic creation and intellectual splendor. It allowed Orphic thought, Greece's first impetus and ideal synthesis, to concentrate all its light and to radiate it over the entire world. This took place before Greece's political edifice, undermined by internal dissensions, shook beneath the attacks of Macedonia and finally crumbled under the iron hand of Rome.

The evolution of which we speak had many co-workers. It gave birth to physicists like Thales, legislators like Solon, poets like Pindar, heroes like Epaminondas; but as an official leader it had an initiate of the first order, a sovereign intelligence, creative and disciplined. Pythagoras is the master of secular Greece, as Orpheus is the master of sacerdotal Greece. Pythagoras interprets and continues the religious thought of his predecessor, applying it to the new age. But his interpretation is a creation. For he coordinates the Orphic inspirations into a complete system; he furnishes its scientific proof in his teaching, its moral proof in his institute of education, embracing them in the Pythagorean order, which outlives him.

Although he appears in the broad daylight of history, Pythagoras has remained an almost legendary figure. The main reason for this is the dreadful persecution he experienced in Sicily, and which cost the lives of so many Pythagoreans. Some perished, crushed under the debris of their school which had been set afire, others died of starvation in a temple. The memory and teaching of the Master was perpetuated only by those survivors who were able to flee into Greece. At great pains and expense Plato obtained through Archytas one of Master's manuscripts. Pythagoras, by the way, never wrote his esoteric doctrine except in secret signs and in symbolic form. His real work, like that of all reformers, was effected through his oral teaching. But the essence of his system consists in the Golden Verses of Lysis, in the commentary of Hierocles, in fragments by Philolaus and Archytas, as well as in Plato's Timaeus which contains Pythagoras' cosmogony. Finally, the writers of antiquity are filled with the spirit of the philosopher of Croton. They have an endless store of anecdotes which depict his wisdom, charm and miraculous power over men. The Neoplatonists of Alexandria, the Gnostics and even the early Church Fathers quote him as an authority. These are valuable testimonies, in which eternally vibrates the powerful wave of enthusiasm that the great personality of Pythagoras knew how to communicate to Greece, and whose last effects are still felt eight centuries after his death.

From a higher point of view, when opened with the keys of comparative esoterism, his doctrine presents a magnificent composite, a solid whole, whose parts are bound by a fundamental concept. In it we find a rational reproduction of the esoteric doctrine of India and Egypt, to which he gave clarity and Hellenic simplicity, adding a more forceful feeling and a more exact idea of human freedom.

At the same time and in various parts of the globe, great reformers were making similar doctrines more generally known. In China, Lao-Tse departed from the esoterism of Fo-Hi; the last Buddha, Sakya-Moni, was preaching on the banks of the Ganges; in Italy, the Etruscan priesthood sent an initiate to Rome. This initiate was King Numa, who, armed with the Sibylline Books, sought to restrain the threatening ambition of the Roman Senate by wise institutions. And it is not by chance that these reformers appear at the same time among such different peoples. Their various missions are united in a common goal. They prove that at certain times a single spiritual current mysteriously passes through all mankind. Where does it come from? -- From that divine world which is beyond our sight, but whose seers and prophets are its ambassadors and witnesses.

Pythagoras travelled over the entire ancient world before giving his teachings to Greece. He saw Africa and Asia, Memphis and Babylon, their politics and their initiation. His tempestuous life resembles a boat launched in the midst of a storm; with sails unfurled he pursues his goal without deviating from his path, the picture of calmness and strength in the midst of unleashed elements. His doctrine gives the sensation of a cool night following the stifling heat of a torrid day. It reminds one of the beauty of the firmament, which bit by bit displays its scintillating archipelagos and its ethereal harmonies above the head of the seer.

Let us try to remove Pythagoras' life and work from both the obscurities of legend and the prejudices of the schools.


Notes for this chapter:

53. The Amphictyonic Oath of the allied peoples gives an idea of the grandeur and social strength of this institution: "We swear never to overthrow the Amphictionic cities, never to turn aside from the things necessary to their needs, whether during peace or war. If any power dares trouble them, we will move against it and we will destroy its cities. Should the impious steal the offerings from the temple of Apollo, we swear that we shall use our feet, arms, voices, all our strength, against them and their accomplices!"


31. Years of Travel

The Great Initiates