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The Life of John Buncle by Thomas Amory

The Life of John Buncle - A TRANSLATION OF THE TABLE OF CEBES.

A TRANSLATION OF THE TABLE OF CEBES.


The thing is a Dialogue between an Old Man and a Traveller.

            WHILE we were walking in the temple of Saturn, (in the city of Thebes,) and viewing the votive honours of the God, the various offerings which had been presented to that deity, we observed at the entrance of the Fane, a picture tablet that engaged our attention, as it was a thing entirely new, both with regard to the painting and the design. For some time, we stood considering the device and fable, but still found ourselves unable to guess the meaning. The piece did not seem to be either a city or a camp; but was a kind of a walled court, that had within it two other enclosures, and one of them was larger than the other. The first court opened at a gate, before which a vast crowd of people appeared, impatient to enter; and within a group of female figures was represented. Stationed at the porch without, was seen a venerable form, who looked like some great teacher, and seemed to warn the rushing multitude. Long we gazed at this work, but were not able to understand the design, till an old man came up to us, and spoke in the following manner.

 

#1. O. It is no wonder strangers, that you cannot comprehend this picture: for even our inhabitants are not able to give a solution of the allegoric scene. The piece is not an offering of any of our citizens, but the work of a foreigner, a man of great learning and virtue, and a zealous disciple of the Samian or Elean sages, who arrived here many years ago, and by his conversation instructted us in the best learning, which is morality. It was he built and consecrated this temple to Saturn, and placed here this picture you see before you.

            T. And did you know, (I said) and converse with this wise man?

            O. Yes, (he replied) I was long acquainted with him, and as he was but young, and talked with great judgment upon the most important subjects, with astonishment I have listened to him, and with pleasure heard him explain the moral of this fable.

            T. Expound to us then, (I conjure you) the meaning of the picture, if business does not call you away; for we long to be instructed in the design of the piece.

            O. I am at leisure, (the old man answered) and willingly consent to your request; but I must inform you first, there is some danger in what you ask. If you hearken with attention, and by consideration understand the precepts, you will become wise, virtuous, and blessed:<241> if otherwise, you will be abandoned, blind, and miserable<242> The explanation of the picture resembles the enigma of the Sphinx, which she proposed to every passenger that came that way. If they could expound the riddle they were safe; but if they failed in the attempt, they were destroyed by the monster<243>. Folly is as it were a Sphinx to mankind. She asks you, "How is good and ill defined?" If you cannot explain the problem, and happen to misjudge, you perish by degrees, and become the victim of her cruelty. You do not die immediately, as the unhappy did by the Theban monster; but by the force and operation of folly, you will find yourself dying from day to day, your rational part wounded and decayed, every noble power of the soul confounded, and like those given up to punishment for life, feel the last of those pangs, which guilt prepares for the stupid: but if by thinking, you can understand and discern the boundaries of good and ill, then folly like the Sphinx must perish, and your life will be blest with happiness and serenity.—Hear me then with all your attention.

            These things being previously observed by the old man, and we entreating him to begin, he lifted up a wand he held, and pointing to the picture, said, the first enclosure represents human life, and the multitude at the gate, those who are daily entering into the world. That aged person you see on an eminence, directing with one hand, and holding in the other a roll, which is the code of reason, is the genius of mankind; benevolent, he seems to bend, and teach the people what they ought to do; shows them as they enter into life the path they ought to take; the way which leads to danger, and that which bears to safety and happiness.

            T. And which is the way, (I said) and how are they to find it?

            O. That you shall know hereafter: but at present you must take notice of that painted woman seated on a throne very near the gate. She is called Delusion, and by every art, with fawn and soft infection, presents a bowl of ignorance and error to all that enter into life. They take the cup, and in proportion to what they have drank of the intoxicating mixture, are led away by the women you, see, at a little distance from Imposture, to destruction some, and some to safety; less erring and less blind those being who have but tasted of delusion's cup.

            These women so variously dressed, and so profusely gay, are called the Opinions, Desires, and Pleasures. You observe how they embrace each mortal as he arrives within the gate, promise the greatest blessings, and compel their votaries to wander with them where they please.

            T. But who (I asked) is that woman placed on a globe, who appears not only blind, but seems to be wild and distracted? Incessantly she walks about, and flings her favours capriciously. From some she snatches their effects and possessions, and bestows them upon others.

            O. They call her Fortune, (replied the old man). Her attitude marks her character. Her gifts are as unstable as her tottering ball; and all who depend upon her specious promises, are deceived when most they trust her, and find themselves exposed to the greatest misfortunes.

            T. There is a great crowd I perceive surrounding her, and if too commonly she meditates mischief, whenever she smiles, what is the meaning of their attendance?

            O. These are the inconsiderate, and stand there to catch the toys she blindly scatters among them; (wealth, fame, titles, an offspring, strength or beauty, the victor's laurel, and arbitrary power.) Those who rejoice, and are lavish in their praises of this divinity, have received some favours from her, and call her the goddess of good fortune. But those whom you see weeping and wringing their hands, are such whom she has deprived of every good; they curse her as the goddess of ill-fortune.

            T. But (replied I) as to riches, glory, nobility, a numerous posterity, power, and honour, which you called toys, why are they not real advantages?

            O. Of these things (our instructor answered) we shall speak hereafter more fully. At present it is better to continue the explication of the picture.

 

#2. Cast your eyes next then on that higher enclosure, (proceeded the old man) and take notice of the women on the outside thereof. You observe how wantonly they are dressed. The first of them is Incontinence, loosely zoned, her bosom bare; and the other three are, Riot, Covetousness, and Flattery. They watch for the favourites of fortune. You see they caress them, and try to bring them to the pleasures of their soft retreat; where the bowl sparkles, the song resounds, and joys to joys succeed in every jocund hour. But at length Distress appears, and the favourite of a day discovers, that his happiness was merely imaginary, under a delusion; but the evils that attend his pleasures real. When he has wasted all he had received from fortune, he is forced to enter himself into the service of those mistresses, and by them compelled to dare the foulest and most desperate deeds; villain and knave he becomes; stabs for a purse; his country sells for gold; and by deceit and sacrilege, by perjury, treachery, and theft, endeavours for some time to live. But shiftless at length, and unable to acquire support by crimes, they are consigned to the dire gripe of Punishment.

            T. What is she, I beg you will inform us?

            O. Look beyond those women, called the Opinions, (continued the old man) and you will see a low gate, opening into a dark and narrow cave. You may observe at the entrance of it, three female figures very swarthy and foul, covered with rags and filthiness; and near them, standing naked by their side, a frightful lean man<244>. Close to him is another woman, so meagre and ghastly you perceive, that it is not possible for anything to resemble him more.

            T. We see them, and request to be informed who they are?

            O. The first with a whip in her hand, is Punishment, and next to her sits Sadness, with her head reclining on her knees; that woman tearing her hair is Trouble; the naked lean man is Sorrow, and the image by his side wild Despair. You see they are all going to seize the unhappy man of pleasure, and make him feel the greatest pain and anguish. For they carry him to the house of Misery, and in the pit of Woe he is to pass the remainder of life, unless Repentance comes to his relief.

            T. And what then follows, (I said) if Repentance interposes?

            O. She rescues him from his tormentors, and gives him a new view of things. He has from her some account of true learning, but the hint so short, that it may lead him likewise to false learning. If he be so happy as to understand, and choose right, he is delivered from prejudice and error, and passes the rest of his days in tranquillity and peace: but if he be mistaken, instead of wisdom, he only gains that amusing counterfeit, which turns him from vice to studious folly.

            T. Great (I replied) are the risks we mortals run. But who is this false learning?

 

#3. O. At the entrance of the second enclosure<245>, you may observe a woman neatly dressed, and of a good appearance; decent the port, spotless the form. This is the counterfeit, but the vulgar call her true learning. Even the happy few, who succeed in the pursuit of wisdom, are commonly detained too long by this deceiving fair one. Nor is it strange; for, skilled as she is in all the learning, and in every art can grace the head, you see what crowds of admirers she has; poets, orators, logicians, musicians, arithmeticians, geometricians, astrologers, and critics.

            T. But who, (I asked my instructor,) are those women, so busy on every side, and so earnest in their addresses to this company? They look like Incontinence and her companions, and the opinions whom you showed us in the first court. Do they also frequent the second enclosure?

            O. Yes, (replied the old man,) Incontinence is sometimes seen here. The opinions do likewise enter; for the early potion these men received from Imposture still operates. Ignorance finds a place here; and even Extravagance and Folly. They remain under the power of these, till having left false learning, they enter upon the path that leads to Wisdom. When they arrive at the enlightened ground of Truth, they get her sovereign remedy<246>, and are freed from the ill effects of Ignorance and Error. This enables them to throw off the wild hypothesis, the learned romance, and to employ the precious hours of life in thinking to the wisest purposes. Had they stayed with false learning, they never could have delivered themselves from these evils.

            T. Proceed then, I pray you, (said I) and show us the way that leads to Happiness and Wisdom.

 

#4. O. Do you see (proceeded the venerable man,) that rising ground, which appears so desert and uninhabited. You may observe upon it a little gate, that opens in a narrow and unfrequented path; the avenue a rugged rocky way. You perceive a little onward, a steep and craggy mountain with precipices on either side, which sink to a frightful depth. This is the way to Wisdom.

            T. It seems a dreadful way, as painted in this table.

            O. Yet higher still observe that rock, towards the mountain's brow, and take notice of the two figures which sit upon its edge, and appear to be as beautiful and comely as the goddess of health. They are sisters; Temperance the one, Patience the other. With friendship in their looks, and arms protended<247> over the verge of the cliff, you see them lean, to encourage those who pass this way, and rouse the spirits of the fainting sons of Wisdom, who has stationed these two sisters there. They urge the brave men on; tell them the hardships will lessen by degrees, the passage will become more easy and agreeable as they advance, and offer them their assistance to ascend the summit, and reach the top of the rock. That being gained, they show them the easiness and pleasantness of the rest of the way to wisdom. The charming road invites one's eyes. How smooth and flowery, green and delightful, does it appear!

            T. It does indeed.

 

#5. O. Look next (the excellent old man continued,) at that distant blooming wood, and near it you will see a beautiful meadow, on which there seems to fall a light as from a purer heaven, a kind of double day. In this lightsome field<248>, you may perceive a gate which opens into another enclosure, which is the abode of the blessed. Here the Virtues dwell with Happiness. In this region of eternal beauty, the righteous rest.

            T. It does appear a charming place.

            O. Observe then near the portal, a beauteous form of a composed aspect. She seems mature in life, and her robe is quite plain, without affectation or ornaments. Her eyes are piercing; her mien sedate. She stands not on a globe, (like Fortune) but upon a cube of marble, fixed as the rock she is on before the gate. You see on either side of her two lovely nymphs, the very copies of her looks and air. This matron in the middle is true learning, Wisdom herself; and the two young beauties are Truth and Persuasion. Her standing on a square, is an expressive type of certainty in the way to her; <249> and denotes the unalterable and permanent nature of the blessings she bestows on those who come to her. From her they receive courage and serenity; that confidence and contempt of fear, which exempts the happy possessors from any disturbance, by the accidents and calamities of life.

            T. These are valuable gifts. But why without the walls does Wisdom stand?

            O. To present the purifying bowl to those who approach, and restore them to themselves. As a physician by degrees first finds out the cause of a violent disorder, and then removes it, in order to restore the man to health; so Wisdom, as she knows their malady, administers her sovereign medicine, and frees them from all their evils. She expels the mischiefs they had received from delusion, their ignorance and error, and delivers them from pride, lust, anger, avarice, and all the other vices they had contracted in the first enclosure. In a word, she restores them to sanity, and then sends them in to Happiness and the Virtues.

            T. Who are, they? (I said).

 

#6. O. Do you not see within the gate, (my instructor replied) a society of matrons, beautiful and modest, dressed unaffected, and without any thing of the gay excess? These are Science and her sisters, Fortitude, Justice, and Integrity, Temperance, Modesty, Liberality, Continence, Clemency, and Patience. They hail their guests, and the company seem to be in raptures.

            T. But when the friends to virtue are admitted into this charming society, where do they lead then to?

            O. See you not (resumed the good old man,) the hill beyond the grove; that eminence which is the highest point of all the enclosures, and commands a boundless prospect. There, on a glorious throne, you may observe a majestic person in her bloom, well dressed, but without art or lavish cost, and her temples adorned with a beautiful tiara. This is Happiness, the regent of that blessed abode, and as the moral heroes approach her, you may perceive her, with the Virtues who stand assistant round her, going to reward the friends of wisdom with such crowns as are bestowed on conquerors.

            T. Conquerors! (I said) In what conflicts have these persons been victorious?

            O. They have, in their way to the realm of Happiness, destroyed the most formidable and dangerous monsters, who would have destroyed them, if they had not been subdued. These savage beasts at war with man are, ignorance and error; grief, vexation, avarice, intemperance, and everything that is evil. These are vanquished, and have lost all their power. The moral hero triumphs now, though their slave before.

            T. Great achievements indeed! A glorious conquest. But exclusive of the honour of being crowned by Happiness and the Virtues, is there any salutary power in the crown that adorns the hero's head?

            O. There is, young man. The virtue of it is great. Possessing this, he is happy and blessed. He derives his felicity from no external object, but from himself alone.

            T. O happy victory! And being thus crowned, what does the hero do, where next his steps?

            O. Conducted by the Virtues, he goes back to survey his first abode, and see the crowd he left; how miserably they pass their time; waste all their hours in crimes, and in the whirl of passions live. Slaves to ambition, pride, incontinence, vanity, and avarice, they appear tormented with endless anxiety. They have forgot the instructions the good genius gave them, at their entrance into life, and suffer thus because they cannot find the way to Wisdom.

            T. True. (I said) But I cannot comprehend, why the Virtues should bring the heroes back to the place they came from. Why should they return to view a well-known scene?

            O. The reason (answered my instructor) is, because they had not a true idea of what they had seen. Surrounded by a confusion of things as they passed on, they could not distinctly perceive what was done. The mists of ignorance and error obscured the prospect as they journeyed on, and by that means, they were subject to mistakes. They could not always distinguish between good and evil. But now that they have attained to true learning, with concern they behold the mad world the virtues show them again, and being enlightened by wisdom, are perfectly happy in themselves. The misery of the numberless fools they behold now, strikes them very strongly, and gives them a delightful relish for their present happiness.

            T. It must be so. And when they have seen these things, where do they then go?

            O. Wherever they please. Safely they may travel where they will. In all times, and in all places they are secure, as their integrity is their defence. Everywhere they live esteemed and beloved by all. The female monsters I have mentioned, Grief, Trouble, Lust, Avarice, or Poverty, have now no power to hurt them; but as if possessed of some virtuous drug, they can grasp the viper, and defy destruction.

            T. What you say is just. But who are all these persons descending the hill?

            O. Those that are crowned (the old man said) are the happy few I have described. You see what joy is in their faces. And those who seem forlorn and desperate, under the command of certain women, are such who by their folly have not found the way to true learning; or stopping at the rough and narrow ascent you observed, went to look for an easier path, and so quite lost the road. The tormentors who drive them on are, Trouble, Despair, Ignominy, and Ignorance. Wretched you see them return into the first enclosure, to Luxury and Incontinence: and yet they do not accuse themselves as the authors of their own ruin, which is very strange; but rail at Wisdom, and revile her ways; asserting, that the true pleasures of life are only to be found in luxury and riot. Like the brutes, they place the whole satisfaction of man in the gratification of sensual appetite.

            T. But who are those other lovely women, who return down the hill so full of gaiety and mirth?

            O. They are the opinions, who having conducted the virtuous to the region of light, are coming back to invite and carry others thither, by showing them the felicity and success of those they brought to the mansion of Wisdom.

            T. And do the opinions never enter with those they bring into that happy place, where the virtues and true learning reside?

            O. No. Opinion can never reach to science; they only deliver their charge into the hands of wisdom, and then, like ships that give up their lading, in order to sail for a new cargo, they return to bring other Eleves to reason and felicity.

            T. This explanation of the table, (I said) is quite satisfactory. But you have not yet informed us, what the good genius bids the multitude do, as they appear on the verge of life?

            O. He charges them to act with courage, and be magnanimous and brave in all events; a thing I recommend to you, young man; and that you may have a true idea of this, I will tell you what I mean by a bold spirit, in passing through this world.

 

#7. O. Then lifting up his arm again, and pointing with his wand to a figure in the picture; that blind woman standing on a globe, as I told you before, is Fortune. The genius forbids us to trust her, or imagine her smiles will be lasting happiness. Reason is never concerned in what the does. It is Fortune still; without principle she acts, is arbitrary and capricious, and inconsiderately and rashly for ever proceeds. Regard not then her favours, nor mind her frowns. But as she gives and takes away, and often deprives of what we had before, we are neither to esteem or despise her; but if we should receive from her a gift, take care to employ it immediately to some good purpose, and especially in the acquisition of true science, the most lasting and precious possession. If we act otherwise, in respect of Fortune, we imitate those wretched usurers, who rejoice at the money paid in to them, as if they received it for their own use; but pay it back with regret, forgetting the condition, that it was to be returned to the proprietor on demand. Regardless of Fortune then, and all her changes in this mortal life, the genius advises to pass bravely on, without hearkening to the solicitations of Incontinence and Luxury in the first enclosure, to reject their temptations, and go on to false learning. With her he would have us make a short stay, to learn what may be of service to use in our journey to Wisdom. This is the advice of the genius to those who enter into life.

            T. Here the good old man had done, and I thanked him for his explanation of the picture. Only one thing (I said) there was more, which I must request he would tell me the meaning of. What is it we can get by our stay with false learning?

            O. Things (he answered) that may be of use to us. The languages, and other parts of education, which Plato recommends, may hinder us from being worse employed, and keep us from illicit gratification. They are not absolutely necessary to true happiness; but they contribute to make us better. Something good and useful they do afford; though virtue, which ought to be the principal business in view, may be acquired without them. We may become wise without the assistance of the arts, though (as observed before,) they are far from being useless: as by a good translation made into our own tongue, we may know what an author means, and yet by taking the pains to become masters of the original language, might gain more advantages, such as entering better into the writer's sense, and discovering some beauties which cannot otherwise be found. So the useful things in the sciences may be very quickly and easily learned, and though by great labour in becoming accurately acquainted with them, we might fill our heads with speculations, yet this cannot make us the wiser and better men. Without being learned, we may be wise and good.

            T. And are the learned then in no better a condition than the people in respect of moral excellence? (I said). Are the speculations of the scholar, and the arts and fine inventions of the schools, of no use in perfecting the moral character? This to me seems a little strange.

            O. Blind as the crowd is the man of letters, in this particular (my instructor replied). All his studies and curious knowledge have no relation to his living right. With all the tongues, and all the arts, he may be a libertine, a sot, a miser, or a knave, a traitor to his country, and have no moral character at all. This we see every day.

            T. But what is the cause of so strange a thing, I requested to know? I observe that these men of letters seem to sit down contented in the second enclosure, and do not attempt to go on to the third where Wisdom resides; though they see continually before their eyes so many passing on from the first court, where they had lived for some time in lewdness and excess, to the habitation of true learning.

            O. It is their remaining in this second enclosure, that occasions their being inferior in moral things to those who have not had a learned education. Proud and self-sufficient on account of their languages, arts, and sciences, they despise what Wisdom could teach them, and will not give themselves the trouble of ascending with difficulty to the mansion of true learning. They have no taste for the lessons of Wisdom; while the humble mount to her exalted dwelling, those scholars, as you see, are satisfied with their speculations and vain conceits. Dull and untractable in the improvement of their hearts, and regardless of that exact rectitude of mind and life, which is only worth a rational's, toiling for (as he is an Eleve for eternity), they never think of true wisdom, nor mind her offered light. Their curious ingenious notions, are what they only have a relish for; the imaginations of those men of letters cannot reach that ineffable peace and contentment, that satisfaction and pleasure, which flow from a virtuous life and an honest heart. This is the case of our learned heads, unless repentance interferes to make them humble, and scatters the vain visions they had from false opinion.

            This (concluded the venerable teacher) is the explication of this parable or allegory. May you oft revolve upon these lessons, and lend your whole attention to the attainment of true wisdom, that you may not embrace her shadow, the speculations and inventions of the learned, but, by this instruction, acquire the true principles of morality and goodness.(21)

————————

            This is not all the Table of Cebes, There follows a disputation in the Socratic method, concerning the claim of wealth, and other externals, to the title of good things: but it is dry, and no part of the picture or mythology. For this reason I stop here.

            As to the picture of Cebes, it is to be sure a fine thing, and greatly to the honour of the Theban philosopher, who was one of the disciples of Socrates; and about twenty at the time of the death of his master: Socrates died by the executioner, in the 70 year of his age, before our Lord 402. Cebes was about eighty, at the birth of Epicurus.

            But after all that can be said in praise of this excellent remain of antiquity, still the little system of ethics is but a poor performance, in respect of any section of the gospel of Christ. Cebes says nothing of the Deity: nor does he mention the mischiefs of vice, and the benefits of virtue, as a divine constitution.

            An Apostle, on the contrary, (to mention only one particular out of a thousand from the Christian books,) calls to the human race in the following manner: "I beseech you, brethren, by the mercies of Almighty God, the Father of the Universe, who hath graciously admitted you to the faith, and revealed the terms of acceptance; that ye present your bodies now a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to the Deity, which is the reasonable and spiritual service required of you in the time of the gospel; <250> and not offer the bodies of beasts any more as the Heathen world were wont to do.

            And, as persons now wholly devoted to the Lord of heaven and earth, be not conformed to the fashions and ways of this world; but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind; that ye may prove what is the good, the acceptable, and perfect will of God. Abhor that which is evil, in all your dealings: cleave to that which is good: let love be without dissimulation, and be kindly affectioned one to another; not advancing, but in honour preferring one another. Be not slothful in business, but fervent in spirit; as serving the Lord Jehovah in your several stations. Rejoice in hope of a refreshment to come, in the realms of bliss: be patient in tribulation, which God mil reward, and continue instant in prayer. In sum, let us follow the steps of Christ, and in imitation of his divine humility, his devotion, his love, be for ever meek and forbearing, gentle and charitable, and live in the spirit of prayer."

            What is there in the Table of Cebes like this spiritual and religious virtue, this love to God, this zeal for his honour and service, and an entire dependence upon him in all conditions of life? The virtues of the heroes of antiquity are noble and excellent qualities; their courage, and justice, and temperance, and gratitude, and love to their country are fine things: but they seem to have been calculated for the civil life. Those heroes were virtuous without being pious, and appear rather as self-sufficient independent beings, than as servants and votaries of God Almighty. It is these Christian virtues I have mentioned, that adorn and perfect human nature. It is these things that mostly contribute to the happiness of the world, and of every man in it.

            N. B. Scott, at the end of his Notes on Cebes, has the following remark. If this philosopher had represented the effects of virtue and vice as a divine constitution, he would have ennobled his instruction, and done greater service to the interest of morality. But those important interests are effectually provided for by revelation. There the precepts of virtue are the laws of God. There we find a clear and complete system of his will. There our obedience is encouraged by hope in his pardoning mercy and powerful assistance, by the life, death, and resurrection of his own son; and by promises and threatenings which extend the reward of righteousness, and the punishment of wickedness unto a future state of existence.

 

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