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First Published:  28 July 2016
Revised (substantive):  21 November 2020

Re. “Pythagorean teachings permeated the early-modern respublica literaria

The mystic Pythagoras — and what Henry Stubbe called “cabbalo-pythagorical philosophy” (H. Stubbe, A Reply unto the Letter Written ... in Defense of The History of the Royal Society. Whereunto Is Added ... an Answer to the Letter of Dr. Henry More ..., 1671, title-page) — was so reverenced in 17th-century Europe and the Near East that references to him and his teachings were commonplace throughout literary culture.

I give below 6 examples drawn from printed English works of the period to show the wide-ranging influence of Pythagorean themes and ideas on the culture, arts & sciences of the early modern period:

1.  from Thomas Combe’s English translation of a French book of emblems, The Theater of Fine Devices, Containing an Hundred Morall Emblemes (1614)

2.  from Rapha Harford’s Epistle Dedicatory to his posthumously-printed collection of sermons by John Everard, Some Gospel-Treasures Opened: or, the Holiest of All Unvailing (1653)

3.  from the first English edition of one of the earliest illustrated readers for children, Orbis Sensualium Pictus [The Visible World Pictured], by Johannes Amos Comenius, Englished by Charles Hoole as Joh. Amos Commenius’s Visible World, or, a Picture and Nomenclature of All the Chief Things that Are in the World, and of Mens Employments Therein (1659)

4.  from John Davies’ English translation, The History of Barbados, St Christophers, Mevis, St Vincents, Antego, Martinico, Monserrat, and the Rest of the Caribby-Islands ... in Two Books (1666) of Histoire Naturelle et Morale des Iles Antilles de l’Amerique (1658), by Charles de Rochefort, et al.

5.  from Henry Stubbe’s book of animadversions on the Royal Society and its advocates, The Plus Ultra Reduced to a Non Plus (1670)

6.  from C. J. Sprengell’s handbook of medical history, The Aphorisms of Hippocrates, and the Sentences of Celsus ... (1708)

[ 1 ]

The following digital facsimile gives Emblem 8 — titled with the maxim “It were a foolish senslesse part, / With griefe and care to eate thy heart.” — from Thomas Combe’s English translation, The Theater of Fine Devices (London, 1614), of a French book of 100 emblems dedicated to Marguerite of Navarre, Théâtre des bons engins, auquel sont contenuz cent Emblemes (Paris, 1539), by Guillaume de La Perrière.

facsimile of early-17th-century printed page

^ Emblem No. 8 from Thomas Combe’s English translation of a French emblem book, The Theater of Fine Devices (1614).

The emblem combines picture, sententia and explanatory verse to inculcate in readers a Pythagorean lesson about the virtue of temperance in managing grief and stress.

The explanatory verse, positioned below the picture, reads in full:

Opening quotation mark

The wise Pythagoras hath ever taught,
Man should not eat up his owne proper heart,
Nor as a stranger to himselfe be brought,
To waste his life with sorrow and with smart;
But so himselfe to temper still he ought,
That woes and cares may vanish from each part:
     Sith nothing hinders more a mans wel-fare,
     Then lingring sorrow, heavinesse and care.

Closing quotation mark

SOURCE:  Thomas Combe, The theater of fine devices, containing an hundred morall emblemes. First penned in French by Guillaume de la Perriere, and translated into English by Thomas Combe. London: Printed by Richard Field, 1614. B2r.

[ 2 ]

In 1653, the radical printer Rapha Harford issued a posthumous collection of sermons by the renowned preacher and religious controversialist, John Everard (1584?–1640/41), later described by William Penn as a great Independent and spiritual separatist. According to his modern biographer,

In the late 1630s Everard was the dominant figure influencing London separatism outside the Baptists, though probably not formally separated. Many of his sermons were preached at ‘public meeting places’ in Kensington, and fashionable Middlesex villages like Islington, and he also preached privately, especially in Kensington.

(Elizabeth Allen, ODNB entry for Everard, n. pag.)

Everard, who “was princely in presence and behaviour, yet able to mix with the humblest if they wished to learn” (E. Allen, n. pag.), had a broad reach and lasting impact. He ministered to “the lowest of men” (“tinkers, cobblers, weavers, and poor beggarly fellows”), yet was under the protection of such powerful friends as Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam.

Harford’s publication of Some Gospel-Treasures Opened: or, the Holiest of All Unvailing (1st edn., 1653; reissued 1657, 1659 and 1679, with an American issue printed at Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1757) was dedicated to Oliver Cromwell, in addition to “such as are weak in themselves, poor and despised of the world” (Epistle Dedicatory, A3v). In the Epistle Dedicatory, Harford explains Everard’s adoption of a Pythagorean pedagogy as follows:

Opening quotation markAnd of this Author we may say, he was one that sought after wisdom, and found it, and he knew the merchandize of it to be better then the merchandize of silver, and the gain thereof then fine gold, Prov. 1. 4. and 8. And he would often say, that he desired to be acquainted with men who had experience of Christ, rather then men of notions or speculations, that desired to act more then to talk; and he did in publike aver it, that though they were never so mean, poor, and despised by the world, if they were but acquainted with such experimental truths as these, they were more welcome to him then so many Princes and Potentates; and we hope his labours of the like stamp, will finde the like welcom with such as are experienced and practised in these spiritual truths: And to such Auditors he desired to preach to, and be acquainted with, that he might confirm them in the grace of God. We may say here of him, and of such high-raised truths, as the Prophet Isaiah, Isa. 28. 9, 10. Whom shall we teach knowledge, and whom shall we make to understand doctrine? those that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts; for precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little and there a little.

“ And such was the counsel of the Author [i.e., Everard], when any came to him, either ignorant, or full of litteral knowledge, who usually are full of questions: yet are also very ignorant (saith he) as to Self-denial, Annihilation and Resignation, which his discerning spirit soon perceived in reasoning with them: sometimes alledging to them that of Pythagoras, that when any Scholler came to enter himself under him, he would enjoyn them to ask no question in three years, so that he might teach them as he found them able to receive; and at three years end, they might then ask him any question, but then they had none to ask, for he had satisfied all their doubts.

“ Or suppose (said he) there were before you as much meat as you could eat in a moneth, if I should enjoyn you to eat it all at a meal or two, instead of nourishing, it would destroy you: whereas if I gave you a moneth to eat it, taking your meals orderly and digesting them, it would do you much good, nourish, refresh and strengthen.

“ And a narrow-mouthed vessel, which holds much in the continent, you may fill it with precious liquor, and so preserve it, if you pour it in as it can receive: but if ye pour in too fast, ye spill and spoil that which hereafter may support your life: Nor do we put yong Scholles [scholars] to learn Latin or Greek at the first entrance, but we instil learning by degrees, as they are able to suck in and receive: with these, and such like expressions would he perswade them to wait with patience, till God were pleased to reveal: and the same counsel do we give to all who cannot be satisfied presently with these things, but let them read, ponder and wait; and those that hunger and thirst shall be filled.

“ And truly, they are but (as St. John and Jeremy say) One of a City, and two of a Tribe, that shall come to Zion, who can attain this salvation; few there be that enter into this strait gate: For wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth unto destruction, and many there be that go in thereat: but strait is the gate, and narrow is the way that leadeth unto life, and few there be that finde it.Closing quotation mark

SOURCE:  Rapha Harford, Epistle Dedicatory in Some Gospel-treasures opened: or, the holiest of all unvailing: discovering yet more the riches of grace and glory, to the vessels of mercy: unto whom onely it is given to know the mysteries of that kingdom, and the excellency of spirit[,] power[,] truth above letter[,] forms[,] shadows. In several sermons preached at Kensington and elswhere, by John Everard D.D. deceased. Whereunto is added, the mystical divinity of Dionysius the Areopagite, spoken of Acts 17.34. with collections out of other divine authors, translated by Dr. Everard, never before printed in English. London: Printed by R. W[hite] for Rapha Harford [and H. Harford], at the Bible and States-Arms in Little Brittain, 1653. A6r–A7v.

[ 3 ]

The following digital facsimiles give the 2-page spread for symbol No. 109 in Charles Hoole’s English translation of the best-selling illustrated children’s primer, Joh. Amos Commenius’s Visible World, or, a Picture and Nomenclature of All the Chief Things that Are in the World, and of Mens Employments Therein (1659).

facsimile of mid-17th-century printed page, with illustration

^ Page misnumbered 220 (should read: 222) from the first English edn. of Comenius’s classic picture book for children, Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1658), Englished by Charles Hoole as Joh. Amos Commenius’s Visible World (1659). This is the left-hand page for the 2-page spread on Symbol No. 109, “Moral Philosophy.”

facsimile of mid-17th-century printed page

^ Page misnumbered 221 (should read: 223) from the first English edn. of Comenius’s classic picture book for children, Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1658), Englished by Charles Hoole as Joh. Amos Commenius’s Visible World (1659). This is the right-hand page for the 2-page spread on Symbol No. 109, “Moral Philosophy.”

The illustrated lesson on moral philosophy (Ethica), with its 15 numbered callouts and bilingual gloss in English and Latin, popularized Pythagorean teaching, introducing generations of schoolchildren (male and female) around the world to the Pythagorean way favored by its author, John Amos Komensky (1592–1670),

a leader of the sectarians known among themselves as the “Unity” or “Brethren,” and to history as the “Bohemian Brethren” or the “Moravian Brothers.” These long-suffering enthusiasts were obviously a manifestation of that spirit of mysticism which, either active or somnolent, is traceable from the dawn of History, and will be found noted under such epithets as Essenes, Therapeutics, Gnostics, Montanists, Paulicians, Manichees, Cathari, Vaudois, Albigeois, Patarini, Lollards, Friends of God, Spirituals, Arnoldists, Fratricelli, Anabaptists, Quakers, and many others.

(Harold Bailey, The Lost Language of Symbolism, 2 vols., 1.18)

The English-language half of Comenius’ lesson on moral philosophy reads in full:

Opening quotation markThis Life is a way, or a place divided into two ways, like Pythagoras’s letter Y; broad 1. on the left-hand track, narrow 2. on the right; that belongs to Vice 3. this to Vertue, 4.

“ Minde, yong man, 5. imitate Hercules. leave ye left-hand way, turn from Vice. the Entrance is fair, but the End, 7. is ugly & steep down.

“ Go on the right hand, though it be thorny: 8. no way is unpassable to Vertue; follow whither Vertue leadeth through narrow places to stately places, to the tower of honor, 9.

“ Keep the middle and straight path and thou shalt go very safe.

“ Take heed thou do not go too much on the right hand: 10. Bridle in, 12. the wilde horse, 11. of Affection, lest thou fall down headlong.

“ See thou dost not go amiss on the left-hand, 13. in an Ass-like sluggishness, 14. but go onwards constantly, persevere to the end, and thou shalt be crowned, 15.Closing quotation mark

SOURCE:  Johannes Amos Comenius, and Charles Hoole, trans., Joh. Amos Commenii Orbis sensualium pictus. Hoc est, omnium fundamentalium in mundo rerum, & in vita actionum, pictura & nomenclatura. Joh. Amos Commenius’s Visible world, or, a picture and nomenclature of all the chief things that are in the world, and of mens employments therein. A work newly written by the author in Latine, and High-Dutch (being one of his last essays, and the most suitable to childrens capacities of any that he hath hitherto made) & translated into English, by Charles Hoole, teacher of a private grammar-school in Lothbury, London. For the use of young Latine-scholars. London: Printed for J. Kirton, at the Kings-Arms, in Saint Paules Church-yard, 1659. 220–1 [i.e., 222–3].

[ 4 ]

Histoire Naturelle et Morale des Iles Antilles de l’Amerique (1658), attributed to Charles de Rochefort et al. — with English translation in 1666 by John Davies, entitled The History of Barbados, St Christophers, Mevis, St Vincents, Antego, Martinico, Monserrat, and the Rest of the Caribby-Islands ... in Two Books — was considered the authoritative account of the Amerindian circum-Caribbean by contemporaries such as Henry Oldenburg and other Fellows of the Royal Society who used it as a sourcebook.

The work contains an interesting passage wherein the author(s) reflect on the meaning of a newly-discovered natural curiosity of the region (a “musical” seashell):

facsimile of mid-17th-century engraving

^ Illustration of the “musick-shell” from Book 1, Chapter 19, plate facing p. 125, in John Davies’ translation of Histoire Naturelle et Morale des Iles Antilles de l’Amerique (1658), by Charles de Rochefort, et al., Englished as The History of Barbados, St Christophers, Mevis, St Vincents, Antego, Martinico, Monserrat, and the Rest of the Caribby-Islands ... in Two Books (1666).

Pythagorean cosmology, along with the lost paper of an otherwise unknown Monsieur du Montel, serve as starting point for Rochefort et al.’s speculative digression.

Opening quotation markM U S I C K - S H E L L .

“ There is a very considerable Shell, which Mons. du Montel thinks may be found in some of the Caribby-Islands, though he never saw any of that kind but only at Corassao: It differs not so much as to figure from the Venus shells: It may be called the Musical-shell, because on the out-side of it there are blackish lines, full of notes, which have a kind of key for the singing of them, so that it might be said there wants only the letter to that natural pricking: The forementioned Gentleman relates, that he saw some that had five Lines, a Key and Notes, which made good Musick: Some person had added the Letter, which it seems Nature had forgotten, and caus’d it to be sung, and the Musick was not undelightful.

“ This might afford the ingenious many excellent reflections: They might say among other things, that if according to the opinion of Pythagoras the Heavens have their Harmony, the sweetness whereof cannot be heard by reason of the noise made upon Earth; if the Air resound with the melody of an infinite number of Birds who sing their several parts there; and if Men have invented a kind of Musick, after their way, which by the Ears recreates the Heart; it were but just that the Sea, which is not always toss’d and troubled, should have within its territories certain Musicians to celebrate, by a Musick particular to them, the praises of their Sovereign Maker. The Poets might adde, that these natural tablatures are the same which the Syrens had in their hands, when they had their melodious Consorts; and that being perceiv’d by some eye which came to disturbe their recreations, they let them fall into the water, where they have been carefully kept ever since: But leaving these imaginatins to those they belong to, let us pursue our design.Closing quotation mark

SOURCE:  Charles de Rochefort, et al., and John Davies, trans., The history of Barbados, St Christophers, Mevis, St Vincents, Antego, Martinico, Monserrat, and the rest of the Caribby-Islands, in all XXVIII. In two books. The first containing the natural; the second, the moral history of those islands. Illustrated with several pieces of sculpture, representing the most considerable rarities therein described. Englished by J. Davies of Kidwelly. London: Printed for John Starkey and Thomas Dring junr, at the Mitre between the Middle Temple-Gate and Temple-Bar, and at the White Lion neer Chancery-Lane end in Fleet-street, 1666. 125.

[ 5 ]

The virtue of Pythagorean silence is again extolled by Henry Stubbe in The Plus Ultra Reduced to a Non Plus (1670), the first publication in his battle-of-the-books with the Royal Society, lasting from 1668–72. Stubbe’s animadversions are here directed against Joseph Glanvill’s Plus Ultra: or, the Progress and Advancement of Knowledge since the Days of Aristotle (1668) and Thomas Sprat’s The History of the Royal-Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge (1667), both of which served as propaganda for the nascent Royal Society, linking its new experimental method with increasing trade and profit, domestic peace and imperial expansion. Designed to “meet criticisms of the Royal Society's limited productivity in the three years since its foundation, and quell fears that experimental science would challenge the belief structures of Restoration society” (ODNB entry for Thomas Sprat by John Morgan), the Royal Society’s public relations program countered that the institutionalized New Science would

promote order and prosperity: by answering papists, silencing heretics and quieting sectaries, by promoting agriculture, trade and industry, by expanding the overseas empire and contributing to domestic peace — all in the interests of church and king, revived Anglicanism and the restored monarchy.

(J. R. Jacob, Henry Stubbe, Radical Protestantism, and the Early Enlightenment, 59)

Stubbe was drawn to publicly dispute Glanvill after hearing someone, who cited Glanvill's Plus Ultra as authority for his opinion, denounce Galenical medicine as utterly useless. Stubbe’s counter-arguments on behalf of Galenical medicine point to its long history of successful cures (the result of known methods coupled with tried medicines) and proper concern with observations over scientific principles. Stubbe argues, as did Meric Casaubon before him, that scientific training and knowledge contribute nothing to the wisdom by which human affairs are regulated. Both Stubbe and Casaubon supported the cause of a humanistic culture against the aggressive demands of a utilitarian and mechanistic experimental science, with Stubbe contending that humanistic studies (moral philosophy, law, politics, and religion) better prepare men to deal with real life (i.e., civic affairs).

In his polemic, Stubbe makes rhetorical use of Pythagoras to undercut Glanvill’s authority. The passage (in which Stubbe asserts a 5-year, not 3-year, injunction of silence) reads in full:

Opening quotation markUpon the perusal of Mr. Glanvill’s Book (which He had recommended unto me) I met with so much of Ignorance, that I wondred how several men should concurre to mistake so, and I thought it a difficult matter to reply, it being too tedious for one of so little leisure as I have, to inform persons that were conceited and knew nothing.

“ Howsoever, for the general benefit of the Age, I purposed to write some Animadversions upon him, and thereby to put a stop to the pride of such Ignoramus’s, and amongst the several antiquated Philosophies which our Times have renewed, to introduce amongst the Virtuosi that of Pythagoras, the first rudiments whereof consisted in this, that the Disciples were obliged for five years to hold their peace. Upon the reading of Mr. Glanvill, I saw my self under a necessitie of examining the History of the Royal Societie, the tendencie whereof I observed to be so pernicious, that, if the first provocation had made me angry, I was now become obstinate. In that Famed Work I encountred with so many illiterate passages, that the credit of our Nation seemed concerned in the refuting it. I met with Passages so destructive that, if to be concerned for the interest of the present Monarchy, the Protestant Religion, and the emolument of each private person (and not solely of Tradesmen) could warrant any one for putting Pen to paper, I ought not be silent. I divided my Animadversions into several parts; some whereof were to represent these Comical Wits as really ridiculous; others were to make them odious to the Kingdom. I considered, that in these days few had patience to reade over prolixe Treatises; as also I imagined, that the Contest would be more deeply imprinted in the minds of men, if they were excited by a variety of discourse of that nature. The first Specimen of Animadversions upon Dr. Sprat and Mr. Glanvill were dispatched last Easter; but the Comical Wits were so alarmed at what they at first despised, that they emploied all their Artifices to divert me: and if malicious threats or other disingenious proceedings could have wrought upon me, the thing had died: But those pitiful Mechaniciens understood not the weakness of such Batteries upon me ....Closing quotation mark

SOURCE:  Henry Stubbe, “To the Reader” in The Plus ultra reduced to a non plus: or, a specimen of some animadversions upon the Plus ultra of Mr. Glanvill, wherein sundry errors of some virtuosi are discovered, the credit of the Aristotelians in part re-advanced; and enquiries made about the advantages of the ancient education in England above the novel and mchanical. The old peripatetick notion of the gravity of the air, and the pressure of the aereal columne or cylinder. The deceitfulness of telescopes. The world in the moon, and a voyage thither. The original and progress of chymistry. The use of chymical medicaments. The usefulness of the peripatetick philosophy in reference to the practice of physick. The original and progress of anatomy. The first inventor of the circulation of the blood. The transfusion of blood, the first proposers and inventors thereof, and its usefulness. The different nature of the blood, and the variety of phaenomena appearing upon the burning thereof, and mixing of it with several liquors. Some trials in order to a discovery of the nature of the English baths. By Henry Stubbe, physician at Warwick. London: printed for the author, 1670. a3r–a4r.

[ 6 ]

In The Aphorisms of Hippocrates, and the Sentences of Celsus; with Explanations and References to the Most Considerable Writers in Physick and Philosophy, both Ancient and Modern (1708), physician C. J. Sprengell criticizes contemporary Pythagorean practices, specifically rejecting the use of “Pythagorical Numbers” in medicine.

In Section 11 of the medical handbook in which Sprengell “indeavour’d to confirm the Truth of” ancient aphorisms — which “are the Histories of so many Diseases in a concise Style, recommended to us, and approv’d by the Experience of a great many Ages” (i) — we find:

Opening quotation markA P H O R I S M   X I .

“ Some of the most celebrated Ancients put too much Confidence in the Pythagorick Numbers; whereas a Physician ought not to number the Days, but observe the Accessions themselves, and from thence conclude when Meat is to be given. L. III. c. 5. p. 122.

“ Explanation.

“ By a constant and diligent Observation the Ancients found, that a Disease had its Period in such a stated Time or Number of Days. And this was by some ascribed to something Divine in this or that Number. But neither Hippocrates, nor Galen, entertained any such Conceit, well knowing, that every thing must have its Rise and Fall, in a Time proportionable to the Strength of the Disease. Hence Galen. L. 3. de dieb. decret. c. 8. says, That he could not but admire, how a Man of so vast Understanding as Pythagoras, came to attribute so much Virtue to Numbers.Closing quotation mark

SOURCE:  C. J. Sprengell, The aphorisms of Hippocrates, and the sentences of Celsus; with explanations and references to the most considerable writers in physick and philosophy, both ancient and modern. To which are added, aphorisms upon the small-pox, measles, and other distempers, not so well known to former more temperate ages. By C. J. Sprengell, M.D. London: printed for R. Bonwick, W. Freeman, Tim. Goodwin, John Waltho [sic], Matt. Wotton, John Nicholson, Samuel Manship, Richard Parker, Benj. Tooke and Ralph Smith, 1708. 290.