*… A man lived here, a Samian by birth,
But he had fled from Samos and its masters
And, hating tyranny, by his own choice
Became an exile. Though the Gods in heaven
Live far removed, he approached them in his mind,
And things that nature kept from mortal sight
His inward eye explored. When meditation
And vigils of long study had surveyed
All things that are, he made his wisdom free
For all to share; and he would teach his class,
Hanging in silent wonder on his words,
The great world’s origin, the cause of things,
What nature is, what God, and whence the snow,
What makes the lightning, whether thunder comes
From love or from the winds when clouds burst wide,
Why the earth quakes, what ordinance controls
The courses of the stars, and the whole sum
Of nature’s secrets. He was first to ban
As food for men the flesh of living things:
These are the doctrines he was first to teach,
Wise words, though wisdom powerless to persuade:
Abstain! Preserve your bodies unabused,
Mortals, with food of sin! There are the crops,
Apples that bend the branches with their weight,
Grapes swelling on the vines; there are fresh herbs
And those the tempered flame makes soft and mellow;
Milk is ungrudged and honey from the thyme;
Earth lavishes her wealth, gives sustenance
Benign, spreads feasts unstained by blood and death.
Flesh is for beasts to appease the pangs of hunger,
Yet not for all; since horses, cattle, sheep
Graze on the grass, but animals untamed
And fierce, Armenian tigers, ravening lions,
Wolves too and bears, all feed on flesh and blood.
How vile a crime that flesh should swallow flesh,
Body should fatten greedy body; life
Should live upon the death of other lives!
With all the bounteous riches that the earth,
Earth best of mothers, yields, can nothing please
But savage relish munching piteous wounds,
A Cyclops’ banquet? Can you not placate
Without another’s doom–a life destroyed–
The urgent craving of your bellies’greed?
But in the Golden Age of long ago
The orchard fruits and harvest in the fields
Were blessed boon and no blood stained men’s lips.
The birds in safety then might wing their way,
No trust betrayed hung fishes on the hook,
And fearless in mid-field the hare would roam.
With never trap or snare or guile or fear
Peace filled the world–until some futile brain
Envied the lions’ diet and gulped down
A feast of flesh to fill his greedy guts,
And paved the way for crime. A wild beast’s death
Maybe first warmed and stained a blade with blood;
That should suffice; creatures that seek our death
It is no sin, we say, to do to death–
To do to death, but not to make a meal!
Thence wickedness spread wider. First, it seems,
The pig deserved a victim’s death, whose snout
Dug up the seeds and cut the season’s hope;
The goat that gnawed the vines was sacrificed
On vengeful Bacchus’ altars; these two paid
The price of guilt. But what guilt have the sheep,
The peaceful flock, born but to serve mankind,
Whose udders sweet milk fills, whose fleeces yield
Soft clothes, more excellent in life than death?
What guilt have oxen, faithful guileless beasts,
Harmless and simple, born to lives of toil?
How short of memory, how mean of soul,
How undeserving of the harvest’s boon,
Is he who, having just unyoked the weight
Of the bright curving plough, can find the heart
To kill his plough-mate; who upon that neck,
Tired with long toil, whose strength year after year
Renewed the stubborn acres and brought home
So many harvests, crashes down the axe!
Nor is that crime enough. Even the Gods
They enrol to share their guilt and make believe
The Powers of heaven are gladdened by the blood
Of bullocks, patient slaughtered labourers.
A victim without blemish, beautiful
Beyond compare (his beauty is his bane),
Splendid with gold and garlands, stands before
The altar, hears the prayer, watches the priest
Sprinkle, he knows not why, between his horns
Upon his brow the meal his toil has grown;
Then the knife strikes, crimsoned with blood, the knife
He saw perhaps reflected as it fell.
And while the life’ s still warm, they snatch his guts
And probe and pore to prove heaven’s purposes.
That flesh, so great man’s greed for food forbidden,
You dare to eat, you race of mortal men!
Abstain! Be warned! I beg you! Understand
The ox whose meat you savour, whom you slew,
Worked, your own farmhand, in your fields for you.
Now heaven inspires my tongue and I will follow
Heaven’s inspiration faithfully and reveal
The truths of Delphi shown to me and all
The secrets of the sky, and I’ll unlock
Sure oracles of intellect sublime.
Great matters, long concealed nor yet explored,
Shall be my solemn theme. My soul rejoices
To journey on the highways of the stars,
To leave earth’s dull domains, to ride the clouds,
And, poised on Atlas’ mighty shoulders, see
Far far below mankind in error lost,
Devoid of reason; and, for cheer and comfort
Of men’s faint hearts oppressed with fear of death,
Unroll these chapters of the scroll of fate.
You race of men whom death’s cold chill appals,
Why dread the Styx, the dark, the empty names,
Sad stuff of poets, perils of a world
That never was? Your bodies, whether age
Shall waste at last or burning pyre consume,
Be sure, no ills can ever harm. Our souls
Are deathless; when they leave their former home,
Always new habitations welcome them,
To live afresh. Myself (I well remember)
Was once Euphorbus in the Trojan war,
Panthous’ son, whom Menelaus killed,
A spear-thrust to the heart. I recognized
Not long ago the shield my left arm bore,
A trophy hung in Juno’s shrine at Argos.
Everything changes; nothing dies; the soul
Roams to and fro, now here, now there, and takes
What frame it will, passing from beast to man,
From our own form to beast and never dies…
Book 15 – The Doctrines of Pythagoras
Translation by A. D. Melville
Oxford world’s classics