The Substance of Fables: Dryden's "Of the Pythagorean Philosophy"

Article excerpt

Dryden's "Of the Pythagorean Philosophy" is commonly seen as the moral and aesthetic center of Fables. His translation of about half of Book 15 of Ovid's Metamorphoses is where critics go to attempt to decipher what Dryden was up to in the intricate arrangement of translations and original pieces that make up this massive collection. Drawing attention to the importance of the piece, Dryden himself calls the digression on the "Moral and Natural Philosophy of Pythagoras" the "most learned and beautiful Parts of the whole Metamorphoses" (Headnote, 7: 484). Most critics of "Of the Pythagorean Philosophy" focus on the idea of material impermanence in the poem and see that as the central note upon which Dryden is playing. Consequently, they see the arrangement of the multifarious works in Fables, the form of the collection, as a symbolic reflection of that content. As Dryden seems to be describing a universe, they say, that is broken up into matter ever in flux, so Dryden's collection is an incoherent series of tales, each of which speaks a truth that is quickly overturned by a new truth in another tale, leaving the collection with no discernable center, no solid meaning, except that it is about that lack of stable meaning. One of the proponents of this type of reading is Cedric Reverand, who claims the work is about the subversion of meaning itself. This is how he sums up his discussion about "Of the Pythagorean Philosophy" and "The Cock and the Fox":

Both tales could be said to "cap" the entire collection; they repeat the pattern of doing and undoing, thereby confirming the basic strategy of Fables. But beyond that, they actually liberate us from irresolution, from unreconciled oppositions, in one case by freeing us into laughter at the whole process, and in the other by providing us with an enlarged understanding, grounded on ancient philosophy as well as on the new science, that perpetual flux, values knitting and unravelling, reforming and dissolving, are all part of a universe whose basic active principle is subversion. (184) (1)

This reading of Fables fundamentally misunderstands the text's attitude towards materialism. While this perpetual flux in its ancient and, more importantly, modern guises of materialism is a central preoccupation in Fables, it is not so calmly celebrated by Dryden; rather, the flux of materialism, all its "jarring Atomes" ("A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687" 3: line 4), is a persistent evil, and "heav'nly Harmony" always opposes it (3: 1),2 as here in Theseus's speech from "Palamon and Arcite":

  The Cause and Spring of Motion, from above
  Hung down on Earth the Golden Chain of Love:
  Great was th' Effect, and high was his Intent,
  When Peace among the jarring Seeds he sent.
  Fire, Flood, and Earth, and Air by this were bound,
  And Love, the common Link, the new Creation crown'd.
  The Chain still holds; for though the Forms decay,
  Eternal Matter never wears away [...]. (7: 3.1024-31)

The duality here--the divine versus the material, the eternal versus the transient--is pivotal to all of Fables, no more so than to "Of the Pythagorean Philosophy." Yet in privileging the world of the transient, Reverand and those other critics ignore the point of the eternal in this translation of Ovid, that the "Chain still holds." It is as if they supplant Pythagoras, the figure associated with the religious underlying the material and renowned as the philosophic source for the concept of the soul so pivotal to Christianity, and replace him with an Epicurean or Lucretian version of himself. Pythagoras is not a symbol of science; he is a symbol of religion, more specifically of Catholicism's values of eternity against the forces of materialism and matter's evanescence. This stress on Pythagoras's religious symbolism also has implications for how to read Fables. While the form of Fables reflects, in miniature, the form of the cosmos described in "Of the Pythagorean Philosophy," that reflection does not constitute an equivalence between the collection and the decaying mess of matter that Lucretius and other materialists see the universe to be. …