Wise Words on The Ancestors

“The land of the living was not far removed from the ancestors. There was coming and going between them, especially at festivals and also when an old man died, because an old man was very close to the ancestors. A man’s life from birth to death was a series of transition rites which brought him nearer and nearer to his ancestors.”
– Chinua Achebe, from Things Fall Apart

“It’s interesting–the concept of an ancestor not necessarily as a parent but as an abiding, interested, benevolent, guiding presence that is yours and is concerned about you, not quite like saints but having the same sort of access, none of which is new information.”
– Toni Morrison

“Some people are your relatives but others are your ancestors, and you choose the ones you want to have as ancestors. You create yourself out of those values.”
– Ralph Ellison

“In different hours, a man represents each of several of his ancestors, as if there were seven or eight of us rolled up in each man’s skin,—seven or eight ancestors at least, and they constitute the variety of notes for that new piece of music which his life is.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

“If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh

“Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.”
– James Baldwin

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Thomas Taylor – “The English Pagan”

“It is curious that Thomas Taylor, the Platonist, is really a better man of imagination, a better poet, than any other writer between Milton and Wordsworth. He is a poet with a poet’s life and aims.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tomorrow marks the birthday of Thomas Taylor (May 15, 1758 – November 1, 1835), one of my personal poet-heroes.  Taylor, the first to translate into English the whole of Plato and Aristotle (and many other classical texts, including most of the Neoplatonists), was also a self-identified pagan/polytheist (a rare thing in eighteenth-century England!).  As a poet, philosopher and translator who dedicated his entire life to connecting modern English readers to the beauty and wisdom of the classical pagan past, Taylor is a significant precursor who should be revered by contemporary pagans everywhere.  His work influenced many other writers, including William Blake, Madame Blavatsky, William Butler Yeats, and Kathleen Raine.  Percy Bysshe Shelley was reputedly part of an Orphic circle of Romantic writers who were inspired by Taylor to honor the Greek gods with hymns and ritual.  And Taylor has left a significant impact on American literature via Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who were profoundly influenced by Taylor’s work and frequently quote from his writings and translations.

Most of Thomas Taylor’s books can be found on the web via Google Books or Archive.org, but the best way to read his translations and original writings (while supporting a good cause!) are to buy the beautiful editions published by The Prometheus Trust, and available for purchase in the U.S. via Opening Mind Associates.

Some Articles and Tributes to Thomas Taylor:

Thomas Taylor: A Great English Platonist

Thomas Taylor the English Platonist (.pdf file)

Thomas Taylor – Wisdom’s Champion (.pdf file)

[The following anecdotes are excerpted from an anonymous essay entitled “The Survival of Paganism,” published in Fraser’s Magazine in November 1875. The essay, though at times somewhat hostile and condescending towards Taylor’s life and ideas, contains some great anecdotes, as well as what amounts to a “fan letter” to Taylor from a fellow pagan.  This letter is a fascinating glimpse into the past, which in many ways reminds me of an 18th-century version of the type of correspondence one might see amongst modern pagans on the email lists and blogs of today.]

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Excerpts from The Survival of Paganism [Fraser’s Magazine, November 1875]

About the end of 1789 a mysterious looking pamphlet entitled A New System of Religion, was to be found upon the counters of the London booksellers who dared to deal in unorthodox literature. The name of neither publisher nor printer appeared upon the title-page, and, following the precedent of the earlier English works on freethinking, it bore the manifestly false imprint of ‘Amsterdam.’ This singular production advocated in very plain language the doctrine of a plurality of gods who are intermediate between the great Demiurgus of nature, and man. Our planet forming such a small and insignificant portion of the great universe—’a mere toad or viper, perhaps, in the scale of worlds’—it is in the highest degree presumptuous to suppose it the work or even the care of the Zeus who represents LAW, passionless, immutable, and supreme. It is the lesser gods who influence human affairs and ‘produce those singular events which by some are imputed to fortune and by others to a special Providence;’ and these gods were to be approached by prayer and sacrifice after the manner of the ancients. The doctrines here taught were, in fact, little more than a restatement of the opinions of Proclus and the later Platonists. The evident earnestness of the writer forbade the idea of a joke, and the few Reviews that condescended to notice the pamphlet were almost unanimous in setting it down as the work of a madman. The discerning few, however, who had met with a translation of the Hymns of Orpheus, published two years before, must have recognised it at once as the work of Thomas Taylor, well known to a small circle of friends as an enthusiast in Greek literature . . .

. . . From a very early age Taylor appears to have set before him as the great ambition of his life to leave behind him a complete English version of all the hitherto untranslated writings of the Greek philosophers, and this work he nearly accomplished. His works, which consist mainly of translations of these writers, extend to sixty-four volumes . . .

. . . [W]hile studying Plato [Taylor] accidentally met with Plotinus, whose writings he accepted as a kind of revelation, reading them, as he informs us, ‘with the most rapturous delight.’ From Plotinus he went to Proclus, and read him through three times, a feat probably performed by no other mortal since the Renaissance. The luminous pages of Proclus completed the work which Plato had begun, and Taylor became a Pagan, and a Pagan, too, with a zeal and hatred against Christianity and its professors which has more in it of the spirit of loathing and abhorrence, which one may suppose to have animated some disestablished sacerdos of Constantine, than a mild and cultured scholar of the nineteenth century. Nothing but the small and limited circulation of his books can explain the fact that he escaped a prosecution, for in the Pitt and Eldou days many far less plain-spoken denunciations of the national religion were visited with fine and imprisonment. According to Taylor, the Christian religion, or, as he prefers to call it, ‘the jargon of innumerable sects,’ established a tyranny over the human mind utterly unknown to the ancient world—the tyranny of religious despotism—and has extirpated from the earth the ‘dominion of wisdom and virtue, substituting in its place the modern spirit of barter and trade.’ . . . Penetrating and smooth, it has crept like oil through the various communities of mankind, ‘suppressing the effervescence of desire, restraining the restless spirit of inquiry, and calming the impetuosity of genius,’ reducing all human affairs to one universal and uniform mediocrity. . . .

. . . It was one of the dreams of his life to establish in London a Pantheon, in which the worship of the deities should be performed in an appropriate and decorous manner. Failing this . . . he turned one of his rooms at Walworth into a sacrarium, in which at times he offered up sacrifices to his favorite gods. There is even a tradition that one night, when the fury of the French Revolution was at its height, the sleepy old Charlies who guarded the City were astonished by the appearance of a procession of priests, with Taylor at their head as Arch-flamen, who performed the sacred rites of lustration in front of the Old Exchange, formally receiving once more the sleeping city into the dominion of the king of the gods. . . .

. . . We cannot find that Taylor made many disciples. The most distinguished was the Marquis de Valadi, a young Frenchman of good family, whose short but eccentric career reminds one in many ways of Shelley’s earlier life. This enthusiast ran away from his friends in Paris to sit at the feet of Taylor in London, sending before him the following letter, which the master afterwards printed, and which we are tempted to give as a curious specimen of the sort of stuff which men could be found to write during this feverish time:

To Thomas Taylor, better named Lysis,
G. Izarn Valadi, of late a French Marquis, and Tannisaire,
Sendeth Joy and Honour.
12 Xbre. 1788, vulg. aera.

O Thomas Taylor! mayst thou welcome a brother Pythagorean, led by a Saviour God to thy divine school! I have loved wisdom ever since a child, and have found the greatest impediments and been forced to great struggles before I could clear my way to the source of it; for I was born in a more barbarous country than ever was Illyria of old. My family never favoured my inclination to study; and I have been involved in so many cares and troubles, that it cannot be without the intervention of some friendly Deity that I have escaped the vile rust of barbarism, and its attendant meanness of soul. My good fortune was that I met eighteen months ago an English gentleman of the name of Piggott, who is a Pythagorean philosopher, who easily converted me to the diet and manner agreeable to that most rich and beneficent deity, Mother Earth; to that heaven-inspired change I owe perfect health and tranquility of mind, both of which I had long been deprived of. Also my own oath has acceded to the eternal oath (which mentions the golden commentator on G.V.) and I would more cheerfully depart from my present habitation on this Themis-forsaken earth, than defile myself evermore with animal food, stolen either on earth, in air, or water.

I met with thy works but two days past. O divine man! a prodigy in this iron age! who would ever thought thou couldst exist among us in our shape! I would have gone to China for a man endowed with the tenth part of thy light! Oh, grant me to see thee, to be lustrated and initiated by thee! What joy, if, like to Proclus’ Leonas, to thee I could be a domestic! who feel living in myself the soul of Leonidas.

My determination was to go and live in North America, from love of liberty, and there to keep a school of temperance and love, in order to preserve so many men from the prevailing disgraceful vices of brutal intemperance and selfish cupidity. – There, in progress of time, if those vices natural to a commercial country are found to thwart most of the blessings of liberty, the happy select ones, taught better discipline, may form a society by themselves, such a one as the gods would favour and visit lovingly; which would preserve true knowledge, and be a seminary and an asylum for the lovers of it.

There I would devoutly erect altars to my favourite Gods: Dioscuri, Hector, Aristomenes, Messen, Pan, Orpheus, Epaminondas, Pythagoras, Plato, Timoleon, Marcus Brutus and his Portia, and above all, Phoebus, the God of my hero Julian, and the father of that holy, gentle Commonwealth of the Peruvians, to which nullus ultor has, as yet been suscited!

Music and gymnastic are sciences necessary for a teacher to possess — (what deep and various sense these two words contain!) and I am a stranger to both! O Gods! who gave me the thought and the spirit, give me the means! for all things are from you.

Thomas Taylor, be thou their instrument to convoy into my mind knowledge, truth, and prudence! Do thou love and help me. I will go to thee to-morrow morning.

P.S. May I look to thee, endowed with an ancient and no modern enthusiasm!

[signed] “Gracchus Crotoneios.”

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The enthusiastic Marquis de Valadi did end up living with and studying with Taylor for a time, but he eventually returned to France and was guillotined during the Reign of Terror at the age of twenty-seven.

“Impetuous ignorance is thundering at the bulwarks of philosophy and her sacred retreats are in danger of being demolished, through our feeble resistance. Rise then, my friends, and the victory will be ours. The foe is indeed numerous, but at the same time feeble; and the weapons of truth in the hands of vigorous union, descend with irresistible force, and are fatal wherever they fall.” – Thomas Taylor

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I’d like to end this little tribute with the final lines to Thomas Taylor’s beautiful “Poetical Paraphrase on the Speech of Diotima in the Banquet of Plato” (full text here in a .pdf file):

When re-ascending by a vig’rous flight,
A man begins to gain this beauty’s sight:
If Love’s right path he steadily pursue,
His end propos’d will nearly rise to view.
With love to some fair body first inclin’d,
To many next, he then should soar to mind.
From mind to art, from art to science rise,
Till beauty’s science he at length descries:
Nor e’er in this ascent remit his flight,
Till boundless beauty burst upon his sight.
Here, dearest Socrates, alone resides
The happy life, for ever here abides.
Here is the only source of true delight,
To live eternal in this beauty’s sight;
A glimpse of which, if ever you attain,
Will prove the vulgar thoughts of beauty vain:
The beautiful itself will not appear
In costly robes, in youths or damsels fair;
In burnish’d gold, or in the di’monds blaze,
Or in the echoes of immortal praise:
Tho’ to the many phantoms such as these,
Alone are beautiful, alone can please;
Whose very presence such delight can give,
With these they wish eternally to live;
And such unreal beauties to secure,
With patient mind the wants of life endure.
If transport then arises from the view
Of beauty such as vulgar souls pursue;
Think of that boundless joy the mind conceives,
Whose eye the beautiful itself perceives:
In simple essence beaming on the sight,
Not fair with figure, nor with colour bright.
To souls refin’d, can such a life be seen
Of little worth, contemptible or mean;
Perceive you not, that he whose piercing eye
Is able perfect beauty to descry,
Thus, and thus only, fill’d with wisdom’s seed,
Virtue substantial can attain to breed?
Till now become the fav’rite of the skies,
Mature in virtue, and completely wise;
His soul indignant leaves this frail abode,
And reigns exalted ‘midst the Gods a God.

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