Be Human – Then Divine: Hierocles’ Commentary on the Pythagorean Golden Verses
By Donka Markus and Beverly Chapman
Publisher: Beas: Science of the Soul Study Center, Radha Soami Satsang Beas, 2022
Be Human – Then Divine brings the message of ancient Greek philosophers to the modern reader through an exploration of just seventy-one lines of verse – the famous Pythagorean Golden Verses. The Golden Verses are traditionally attributed to Pythagoras, who lived in the sixth century BCE. Composed orally, they were passed down orally until they were committed to writing around 300- 350 BCE.
This book approaches the Golden Verses through the medium of a commentary on them by Hierocles, a Platonist philosopher who lived around 430 CE. Hierocles described the Golden Verses as “the most perfect imprint of philosophy, a summary of its more important teachings … written down by those who have already made the journey on the divine path for those who come after.” He summed up their message as “One must become first human, and then god.” He believed that an ancient universal and timeless Truth existed, and that the Golden Verses were an expression of that Truth.
As the authors explain, Hierocles likely compiled his commentary from notes taken during oral discussions with students. Teachers in this tradition did not lecture, but taught through dialogue, sometimes posing questions to students in the Socratic style, to help them think more deeply, unearth their assumptions, and see beyond their preconceptions.
Be Human – Then Divine begins with a prologue and introduction giving necessary background into Hierocles’ time and place and into Greek philosophy. Then, taking two or three lines of verse at a time, the authors present Hierocles’ comments on them together with relevant quotations from other philosophers whose writings were studied in his school. The authors have structured these chapters as if Hierocles were meeting with a group of students over the course of thirty days, each day devoted to a few lines of verse. Occasionally the authors create a short fictional dialogue with the students to further delve into the meaning of the verses. Though these dialogues are fictional, the words Hierocles speaks are direct quotes from his written commentary. The dialogues let us “hear” Hierocles’ statements in the context of questions students might have asked, and are set off from the rest of the text typographically. This unique and engaging aspect of the book adds nuance and context to the verses.
The Golden Verses are divided into two parts. Part One: Practical Philosophy focuses on practical insights for living as a good human being (verses 1-44); and Part Two: Contemplative Philosophy discusses contemplative practice and insights (verses 45-71).
To take an example from the practical philosophy of Part One, verses 17-18 say:
Whatever pains mortals receive from fate
by divine dispensation, whatever your fate,
bear it and do not resent it.
Hierocles explains how “the interweaving of our power to choose (proairesis) and divine judgement produces fate,” based on our actions in countless previous lifetimes. To add context to Hierocles’ comments, the authors quote other ancient Greek philosophers explaining, in vivid language, how, unless we exert conscious effort to make right choices, impressions from our previous lives doom us to repeat mistakes. Hierocles explains that whatever divinity has measured out for us to go through, it is for our benefit, like medicine. If we remember this, we won’t “suffer miserably without understanding,” and we can avoid “sliding into reactivity.”
Philosophy in the ancient world was defined as “a striving for wisdom, or the freeing and turning of the soul away from the body, turning towards what truly is.” For these philosophers, the authors explain, practical philosophy – focusing on our way of life – forms a foundation for contemplative philosophy, which leads to “divine wisdom” and ultimately returns the soul to its original divine state. Hierocles wrote:
Practical philosophy makes people good through the acquisition of virtues, while contemplative philosophy brings them to likeness to divinity through the enlightenment of intuitive insight … and through Truth. As far as we are concerned, lesser attainments precede the greater ones.
He further explained why those “lesser attainments” should come first:
It is easier to balance human life through the practice of moderation than through complete surrender, which would happen by turning completely to contemplation.
The disciplines of practical philosophy help the practitioner develop the inner state of balance, harmony, and stability needed for contemplative practice.
Part Two, dealing with contemplative philosophy, offers deep insights into the nature of contemplative practice, as well as inspiring encouragement to persevere. For example, verse 45 says:
Follow these teachings with effort, practice them with attention, love them with intensity.
Hierocles’ commentary stresses the need to combine all three elements: steadfast effort, focused attention, and intense love. As the authors explain, “Effort and attentive practice would be drudgery without love, while love without the other two would be a fleeting sentiment.”
Subsequent verses offer the promise that, with effort and attention, one will come to know three truths for oneself through contemplative practice:
When you have mastered these teachings,
you will know the common essence of immortal gods
and mortal humans; You will know how this essence
runs through all things, how it rules all …
You will come to know that the miseries people carry
Hierocles explains that the only way to free ourselves from such miseries “is to turn to the divine being. Only they discover this who awaken the eye and the ear of the soul.”
Hierocles called contemplative philosophy “the divine path.” Woven into his entire commentary is the understanding that the soul is innately divine and that, as human beings, we have the potential to return to divinity. Verse 63 exhorts all to seek this return:
Now, you there, take heart! For divine is the origin of mortals,
to whom Sacred Nature reveals and shows all secrets.
To learn these divine secrets, Hierocles explains, one must turn one’s attention within, “towards the things that the divine being is revealing to us.” He stresses the need to be receptive: “Divinity does not show it to all, but to those alone who of themselves have lifted their eye up to contemplate and receive what is being shown.” He assures his students that practising earnestly, being receptive to what the divine is revealing, can lead to an end of the repeated rounds of birth and death or, as Hierocles puts it, “salvation from the toils here below.”
The results of the revelation are the healing of the soul, its salvation from the toils here below, its internal awareness of divine gifts, and its becoming a citizen of the Father’s city.
A final promise of the Golden Verses is that, for those who follow their guidance, “you will be deathless, undying divinity, mortal no more.” The volume closes with a last fictional dialogue as Hierocles draws his students close to him and discusses this final verse, which he calls “the most beautiful objective of our struggles … the most perfect fruit of philosophy.”