As mentioned last time, Anaximander had a student named Pythagoras (570 – 495 BCE) who is said to have met Thales, who told Pythagoras to go to Egypt to learn about mathematics, science and the cosmos. Pythagoras is best known today for the Pythagorean theorem of mathematics, triangular like much of the work of Thales as well as the pyramids of Egypt. Pythagoras is the most famous of the ‘presocratic’ philosophers, those who taught before Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
While the Milesians had a school by association, Pythagoras is the first Greek thinker to found a school which for hundreds of years was known as the Pythagoreans. Pythagoras is also the first to call himself a ‘philosopher’, a lover of wisdom, and he had a great influence on Plato, the most famous and influential of Greek philosophers. Plato, like Pythagoras, founded a major movement of Platonism (known today as Neoplatonism), and it was from several prominent Neoplatonists (particularly Porphyry and Iamblichus) that we know of Pythagoras and his teachings. These Neoplatonists believed that both Pythagoras and Plato were sent by the gods to humanity. While the Pythagoreans only lasted a few hundred years, the Neoplatonists brought much Pythagoreanism along with Platonism into the Islamic golden age and the Italian Renaissance.
Pythagoras was born on the island of Samos, off the Turkish coast of ancient Ionia and not far from Miletus. He traveled before settling in Croton, a Greek colony in what is today southern Italy. Pythagoras gathered many students and these Pythagoreans became involved in politics, playing a significant part in the aristocratic rule of Croton. Like Plato, Aristotle and other Greek thinkers, Pythagoras believed in aristocracy through meritocracy, that those who rose in achievement and education should rule society. Later, the Pythagoreans were persecuted and chased off the island. Their meeting place was set on fire and many of their members died in the flames.
Pythagoras, like Plato, was revered by later followers as a divine being, and much mythology was added to his biography. He was said to have been the son of Apollo (a name which the Pythagoreans interpreted to mean ‘Not’ (A) ‘Many’ (poly), a supreme oneness like that of Anaximander’s apeiron and Xenophanes’ god we will examine next). Like Apollo and the sun, Pythagoras was said to glow with a sagely aura. The Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, the place Anaximander places as the center and navel of the earth and cosmos and the place Socrates went to inquire about his own worth, was the home of the Pythia, the priestesses who huffed incense and/or geological gasses to predict the future in enigmatic riddles. The name ‘Pythagoras’ means ‘Apollo-Priestess Professor’, one who professes the greatness of Apollo’s Oracle to others (as in the Agora, the public square), one who speaks for Apollo like the priestesses, or one who speaks/professes on an equal level with the priestesses. One Delphic priestess named Themistoclea is said to have taught Pythagoras about ethics.
Pythagoras had many legends told about him. Other than glowing like the sun itself, he was said to have a golden thigh that he showed off once at the Olympic games (it is not written which thigh was golden or why he did not have two), that he could predict the future several generations, that he could translocate (be in two or more places at once, similarly said of some Indian gurus), that a river once welcomed him by calling his name, and, best of all, that he killed a poisoned snake by biting it (an ancient version of the “Bigfoot keeps a picture he took of Chuck Norris” bit).
Pythagoras is said to have traveled extensively and according to Diogenes Laertius studied with the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Phoenicians, the Persians, the Judeans, the Indians, and others (note that he mentions the Indians). While this is the most extensive list of instructive cultures for a thinker so far, as mentioned previously it is difficult to know whether Pythagoras reached all of these places or if he is made to look worldly afterwards.
Xenophanes said Pythagoras believed in the transmigration of souls, and that Pythagoras once stopped a man from beating a dog saying he heard the voice of his dead friend in the dog’s cries. Heraclitus affirms this too, ridiculing Pythagoras for being the wisest of men, yet believing that in one previous life he had been a sardine, and in another a cucumber. Heraclitus seems to be using Pythagoras to show us that the wisest are still foolish, only relatively wise themselves. Like Thales, Pythagoras thought all things were full of souls and/or gods, which required the ethical treatment of all life.
It is difficult to know about teachings of Pythagoras and the practices of the Pythagoreans as they believed in keeping secrets. In the ancient world knowledge was often kept secret for its own protection, as we will see Plato advocate in his Republic. The most important teachings are spoken to those one trusts and lived in practice, not written down for unknown people to misinterpret. Pythagoras was not known to have committed any of his teachings to writing. Not only was divulging teachings outside community forbidden, new members were tested as to how long they could keep silent, refraining from saying anything to anybody. The community was divided into the new ‘listeners’ who were instructed in general teachings and the inner circle of ‘learners’ who actively pursued truth and shared their findings only with this group. Some sources say these were two separate schools, one dogmatic and the other progressive, while others say these were two levels in one and the same school/society.
There were many female Pythagoreans in the community, though all the major Pythagorean texts left to us are written by men and it is unclear what status women would have had. Some say the Pythagoreans shared all things in common, which is Plato’s ideal of the Republic. This could include property or relationships and child rearing.
The Pythagoreans were believed to be vegetarian, though it could be that only some types of meat were prohibited. The Pythagoreans didn’t eat beans, as they were believed to be embryonic souls at an early stage of transmigration (possibly because beans resemble testicles). Diogenes Laertius says that when the Crotons burned down Pythagoras’ school, Pythagoras tried to escape but found he could not without trampling bean plants, and so he allowed himself to be caught and killed. All other sources say he escaped, and make no mention of beans being harmed in the burning of the school.
For Pythagoras, the cosmos is ruled by order, specifically mathematics and music. The story goes that as Pythagoras was passing a blacksmith’s workshop, he heard the various hammer blows harmonizing with each other. On closer inspection, he discovered that the hammers created different tones proportionately to their size, so a hammer harmonized naturally with another half its size. While this story is thought to be false, he could have discovered the same in numerous ancient cultures by measuring string lengths of various instruments.
The Harmony of the Spheres (also Music of the Spheres), the mathematical rotations of the planets was seen as a silent symphony. It was mentioned with the epic poets that larger choral productions involved many singers and instruments along with choreography. Pythagoras thought this was how the cosmos worked as well as the soul, which was itself like the stars a harmony of numbers and proportions. Mathematics is unchanging (2 + 3 = 5), unlike the body but like the mind, which is ideal and immortal. This prefigures Plato who also believed that the ideal and numerical are the supreme causal forces of the physical and material.
Numerology is the study of sacred numbers, back when mathematics and physics were not specialized apart from the religious traditions (like alchemy to modern chemistry). The Tetractys is a ten point pyramid, ten being the perfect number. A sacred symbol to the Pythagoreans, they were said to swear oaths in front of it and that it was revealed to Pythagoras by the divine (likely Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi). All proceeds out of the great One, the supreme All that Islamic and Christian Neo-Platonists later equated with monotheism. The Tetractys series does not simply unfold into a two dimensional pyramid, but a three dimensional pyramid as well (one dimensional point, two dimensional line, two dimensional triangle, three dimensional pyramid). The pyramid is the shape of fire and light, fire being pointed on top and light shining down through clouds appearing as a pyramid. The Pythagoreans believed that the world originated out of a singular point (like modern Big Bang Theory), which gave birth to numbers, from which came points, from which came lines, from which came planes, from which came solids, from which came the elements.
Unlike the Milesians, Pythagoras made numbers and proportions the primary element, his arche. Pythagoras taught that earth is made of cubes, fire from pyramids, air from the octahedron (eight-sided double pyramid), water from the icosahedron (twenty-sided) and the sphere of the cosmos from the dodecahedron (twelve-sided). The numbers, lines, sides, and things of the cosmos are separated and delineated from each other by void, which is inscribed by the breath of the cosmos. This void, like the cosmos itself, is not infinite but finite, limited in proportion.
Aristotle argued against the Pythagoreans saying that, unlike the Milesians, the Pythagoreans base their cosmos on things not perceivable in nature. We do not see math or unchanging numerals when we look into the world. It should be mentioned, however, that Aristotle did believe that the heavens are driven by absolute forces and that this comes down and is mixed up and chaotic here on earth unlike its perfect circling in the heavens.
For Pythagoras the cosmos is a series of spheres within spheres. The earth, which is one of the stars, rotates around a fire at the center (not the sun and thus not a heliocentric theory, as some Indian thinkers held, because the sun is another body entirely for Pythagoras). This is “Zeus’ guardhouse”, the fire-protected center of the universe. Day and night are caused by earth’s rotation around this fire, not by the sun or moon. Around the center rotate earth, ‘counter-earth’, the moon, the sun, the stars, and outside this another sphere of fire. Aristotle says that because the Pythagoreans thought the number ten to be sacred and central to the order of the universe, the Pythagoreans added ‘counter-earth’ as a body that causes lunar eclipses.
The musical intervals of fourth, fifth and octave were thought to be sacred. Plato followed Pythagoras in this, and these ‘ratios’ are the basis of our word ‘rational’ (as well as ‘irrational’). The ‘rational’ is that which is correctly proportional. Musicians were well aware in earlier cultures that plucking half of a string gives one an octave, three fourths gives one a fourth and two thirds gives one a fifth.
Here is a place for Nietzsche’s criticism of Plato and idealism: the true is what is most beautiful to us, and with Pythagoras and Plato the beautiful musical intervals and symmetric constructions of mathematics are revered as the truly real that gives rise to the physical and apparent. Asymmetric organic fractal patterns were seen as abhorrent and nonsensical even though Mandelbrot showed how they are the beauty of nature through fractal geometry while working at IBM in the 1960s. Just like many modern physicists, Aristotle tells us the Pythagoreans assumed the cosmos is governed by a few universal mathematical principles. Why must the cosmos correspond to simple mathematics, when even math is not entirely systematic according to Godel’s incompleteness theorem?
When thinking of a square number, such as those involved in the Pythagorean theorem, it would have been understood by Pythagoras as a square of dots (ex: 9 is a square grid of three rows of three dots each). Pythagoreans would only be able to square whole numbers or numbers that could be expressed in simple ratios (ex: the square of two thirds is four ninths).
Oppositions, central to human thought, were important to the Pythagoreans, and their set of ten opposites is similar to other systems found across cultures (some are identical to Daoism). Limit, odd, one, right, male, rest, straight, light, good, and square were paired against unlimited, even, many, left, female, moving, bent, dark, evil, and oblong. Note that first is limit/unlimited, from which comes odd/even, from which comes one/many, akin to the generation of the cosmos. Square and oblong refer to numbers, which are formed in rows of dots as a square or as close to a square as possible.
Particular numbers were associated with important things. One was associated with mind and essence, as mind is the union and essence of the human individual and of the cosmos. Four was associated with justice, as it is the first number which is an even number times an even number (2 x 2). Five was associated with marriage and union, as it is even added to odd (2 + 3), female added to male. Seven was associated with fulfillment, as children were thought to become adolescents at seven and then adults at fourteen.
While specifics of Pythagoras’ teachings are unknown, it seems he taught moderation and abstaining from excessive pleasures to thrive in mind and body. Similar to Indian asceticism, the soul must be ordered and thus purified. Like Buddhists, Pythagoreans believed that the soul/mind/self is reincarnated until it achieves release into union with the soul of the cosmos, the universal soul. Unlike Buddhists, Pythagoreans see this as a release from the limitless into union with order, not a release into the limitless which the Pythagoreans believed to be largely outside the cosmos.
Heraclitus says the Egyptians taught a three-thousand year cycle that takes the soul through all orders of animal life before it is again reborn as a human being. It is not clear whether Pythagoras adhered to this, but Herodotus says several Greeks did without mentioning names. Pythagoras saw that the human individual was bound by cycles like the cosmos, and so individuals should strive to adhere to balanced cycles that build one up rather than destructive cycles that tear one apart.
Similar also to Egyptian and Indian doctrines, Pythagorean dietary restrictions aimed at incurring the least amount of punishment and karmic demerit. Some plants such as beans were thought to incarnate human souls and so were prohibited, but other plants, honey and nuts were acceptable. It may be that later Neo-Pythagoreans lifted the ban on certain meats or got rid of the dietary restrictions entirely. Diogenes Laertius mocks Pythagoras with several humorous poems, in one saying that like Pythagoras, he also does not eat living food, but prefers his meat roasted and salted.
Other prohibitions for Pythagoras included not touching white roosters (as they are sacred), not picking up food off the ground (ancient 0 second rule), not eating on the day of an acquaintance’s death, not stirring fire with a knife (as it might offend Apollo), not urinating while facing the sun (again, it’s rude to Apollo), and making your bed every day.
Some of these prohibitions are symbolic of ethical teachings. The Maxims of Pythagoras were sayings that are concealed through metaphor from those outside the Pythagorean community but easily understood once explained.
“Do not poke the fire with a sword” meant “Do not provoke the angry”.
“Suffer no swallows around your house” meant “Do not associate with the chatty”.
“Do not unload people, but load them up” meant “Encourage work and virtue”.
“Do not cut wood on the road” meant “Do not use or do privately what should be public”.
“Sit down when you worship” means “Take your time doing what needs to be done”.
“Eat not in the chariot” meant “Focus on the task at hand”
“Stop not at the threshold” meant “Be decisive and take a side”.
“Avoid the weasel” meant “Avoid the deceitful”.
“Sleep not on a grave” meant “Work rather than rely on inheritance”.
“Threaten not the stars” meant “Do not threaten superiors”.
“Do not place a candle against the wall” meant “Do not waste time on the hopelessly ignorant”.
“Do not speak in the dark” meant “Do not talk about what you don’t know”.
Another symbol used was the Pythagorean Y, in ancient Greek the capitalized letter ‘epsilon’. One forks into two, the right and left paths. The right path is tough, but it ends in virtue, peace and immortality. The left path is easy, but ends in hardship and destruction. This applied equally to the cosmos and the human individual. Virtuous things and people prosper and become permanent, like the cosmos itself.
Pythagoreanism was a big influence on later secret mystical societies of the Middle East and Europe such as the Rosicrucians and the Freemasons. Pythagoreans, like Masons, were said to wear symbols by which they could recognize each other. Like Masons, many New Age groups take Pythagorean teachings as the sacred wisdom of ancient Egypt, sometimes adding aliens into the mix as the builders of the pyramids and teachers of the Egyptians.
Born in Colophon, (570 – 475 BCE) near Miletus, Xenophanes was well acquainted with Milesian thought. The Persians conquered Colophon in 546 BCE, when Xenophanes was in his 20s. He composed poetry like Homer and Hesiod to express his thought, not prose like Anaximander (and maybe Thales), and would have recited his poetry at various gatherings. His poetry, of which we still have forty fragments, are famous for ridiculing his fellow poets and philosophers for their views. While much of his surviving poetry does not have to do with philosophy or skepticism, it is for this that he is remembered and recorded by other philosophers and historians. Xenophanes is said to have been a student of Anaximander, like Pythagoras, and that he taught Parmenides. He refers to Thales, Pythagoras and Epimenides, and is referred to by Heraclitus (whose thinking is very similar to that of Xenophanes).
Xenophanes was critical of Greek culture valuing military might and athletic ability, a fan of inquiry and the endless pursuit of truth. In the only written text we have from the brief period of Athenian democracy (as they did not keep records) speech of Pericles the general gives a speech to the assembly saying, “We have learned study like those from the East, without compromising our manliness”. Clearly, the Athenians valued education but saw it as potentially effeminate compared to fighting with spears. Xenophanes wrote that a city would not be well governed by a great boxer or sprinter, but could only prosper under a wise and knowing leader.
The Milesians, as shown previously, thought that the cosmos was divine and intelligent, but were concerned with the processes of nature and the elements rather than anthropomorphic gods. While this is implicit in the Milesians, it is not explicitly said that the forces ruling the cosmos are non-anthropomorphic. Similarly in India, logicians such as Kanada and Gotama, as well as the philosophers of the unorthodox schools such as Jainism and Buddhism, spoke of forces other than gods at work in the cosmos without explicitly calling the anthropomorphic gods of the Vedas and Epics into question.
Xenophanes openly ridicules the idea of anthropomorphic forces, calling it conceit. He says it is foolish to see the cosmos ruled by human like chaotic and selfish beings rather than order itself. Such gods are incapable of ruling the cosmos and giving it the order we see. Our cosmos is rational and comprehensible. This is early rational theology, also employed by Muslims who saw algebra as the reasoning and active ordering of the cosmos. Mutazilites, a sect of Muslims who argued that God and the cosmos is order itself and so God is not free to contradict himself or be unreasonable, debated furiously with other Muslims who argued this view contradicts God’s omnipotence. A being of pure order and necessity should not have to make choices.
Xenophanes said the Homeric Olympian gods are immoral and disorderly, lower in many acts than human beings, and that the stories of gods fighting Titans, giants and centaurs are “the forgeries of our fathers”. This is not mindful of the gods. Note that Xenophanes believes there are gods, but that Homer and Hesiod, the orthodox sources of the Olympic myths, are not pious enough, do not revere the gods enough. Homer and Hesiod say the gods steal, rape, cheat on their spouses and deceive one another, all the things human beings despise in each other. The gods are not causes of or responsible for evil. Rather, it is falling away from the infinite and divine which is the cause of evil, chaos and suffering.
Do the gods have human form? Xenophanes notes that the Ethiopians say gods are dark skinned and flat nosed, while the Thracians (like the slave girl who laughed at Thales falling into the well) are blue-eyed and red-haired. Ethiopia was the southernmost nation of people (inhabited, according to Anaximander, Xenophanes’ supposed teacher, by fire people) and Thrace was the northernmost nation (inhabited, according to Anaximander, by snow people). Xenophanes is drawing a comparison between the extremes, implying that for the Greeks and Egyptians, people who occupy the center of the world according to Anaximander’s map, are just as foolish as the extreme peoples on the outskirts in depicting the gods to look like themselves, or even to look like human-animal hybrids such as the Egyptian gods. Xenophanes argues that even animals would fall for this sort of mistake if they were capable of doing so. Thus comes the most quoted of lines from Xenophanes’ poetry:
“If oxen and horses had hands and were able to draw with their hands like humans, horses would draw the gods as horses, and oxen would draw the gods as oxen, and each would give them the same shape as themselves.”
Many have argued that in modern times, since the 1800s, the growth of technology has changed human thought such that we now understand our world and ourselves metaphorically in terms of mechanics rather than living spirits. Rational is understood to be a series of operations rather than balance and justice, and truth is said to be objective, like an object without purpose or intention. Some such as the French philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour, have argued that it is our tribe, the Moderns, who are the most mythological and the least aware of our metaphors. Because we increasingly view our reality through machines, much as we have always heard about it from the voices and writings of others, we forget that we construct our reality. We believe that the ancients carved their beliefs in wood and stone, much as Xenophanes says oxen and horses would if they could, but that we Moderns find rather than build our beliefs. As Xenophanes says, we give reality, truth and meaning the same shape as ourselves, as we are increasingly shaped by technology.
Xenophanes argued that those like Hesiod who claim that gods are born are just as impious, just as atheist, as those who say the gods are not immortal and can die, as both necessarily mean that there is a period of time without the gods, when they do not exist. For Xenophanes, immortality means equally that one never dies and that one was never born. Note that those who believe in the Homeric traditional culture and Hesiod’s Theogony would say that it is Xenophanes who is the atheist, ‘atheist’ here meaning one who does not believe in the gods the way that the speaker of the term does.
Xenophanes denied that there is any hierarchy of the gods, directly attacking the idea of Zeus as prime ruling father god. If the gods are supreme, then they can have nothing above them, not even each other. The immortal and infinite can not be constrained by anything. This is similar to Anaximander, who argued that the primordial infinite apeiron could not be constrained in having a particular quality or character.
For Xenophanes, the gods do not meddle in human affairs, and they are not many at all. Xenophanes is outspoken in his monotheism. There is one infinite, similar to if not identical with Anaximander’s apeiron, and this thing does not move, is not more here rather than there at this time versus that time, and is not affected by anything. Strangely, Xenophanes speaks of the (many) gods, and yet says there is only one god. Xenophanes is in complete disagreement with Homer and Hesiod, as they said that the gods moved about and were the primary agents of human affairs, such as in Homer’s Iliad where they are on all sides of the siege of Troy. Xenophanes argued that there is one divine god which is not at all like mortal humans in either body or mind.
“All of him sees, all of him thinks, all of him hears…But without effort he shakes all things by the thought of his mind.”
This creates a problem Plato tries to solve with the Demiurge in his Timaeus, and it remained a problem for Neo-Platonism for centuries: how can the supreme One perceive and think without moving or having character, without being at one time this and at another that. Can thought be effortless and unaffected? Can there be thought or perception without motion? If perception and thought are reactions to things that are then nourished or rebalanced, it would seem so. The contradictions of Homer and Hesiod lead to further contradictions of Xenophanes, which lead to further contradictions of Plato and the Neo-Platonists. This follows Thomas Kuhn’s idea of paradigm shift, that a model has problems but is sufficient until those problems become apparent, which leads to a new model that solves the older problems but creates new ones in the process.
Xenophanes seems to remove the infinite categorically from particular things, which do move here and there and are affected by each other. However, if all things are of this infinite in extension, are one and the same as it, the way that branches are extensions from the trunk of a tree, one and the same as it, the trunk can be said to not move or be affected by anything, the branches can be said to move and affect each other, and yet the trunk is one and the same thing as each individual branch.
Xenophanes agrees that the cosmos is ruled and ordered by the divine, but disagrees with the conceptions of the poets as well as the various traditional peoples of the known world. This is coming about due to contact with multiple cultures, from which Xenophanes knows that all peoples believe in the divine but disagree as to its form and character. Xenophanes says that this is because the infinite, as Anaximander argues, has no character, and so each people (such as the Greeks, the Ethiopians and Thracians) see the gods through their own cultural understanding just as, in the Indian story, each blind man feels a part of the elephant and thinks his part is characteristic of the whole.
Some have said Xenophanes is the father of skepticism, picked up and furthered later by Heraclitus and Pyrrho. Dogmatists tend to put truth out in the world, while skeptics tend to put truth in the head. This is also referred to as psychological skepticism: truth is shaped in the mind, not simply given in the world. Nietzsche, who likes Xenophanes and Heraclitus, says we should distrust the falsification of the world by grammar and logic to achieve greater understanding of ourselves, our world, and our role in the world. Xenophanes writes:
“No one has seen nor will know the truth about the gods or all the things I speak of, for even if one should say what is true, they do not know but rather place beliefs over all things.”
Superstition means standing something on top of something else. Radical skepticism would say that all conceptions and knowledge are superstition, with some being quite useful and others quite useless. In a softer form this is also known as pragmatism, the position that knowledge and truth are not absolute correspondences but useful tools.
If so, then why is Xenophanes telling us about what he knows about, which are things no one can ever know about? In what may be the conclusion to Xenophanes’ book, he says, “Let these things be believed as resembling the truth.” So Xenophanes does believe in correspondence, but only a relative and not absolute correspondence which he says is impossible.
Nevertheless, there is progress: “By no means did the gods reveal all things to mortals from the beginning, but in time, by searching, they discover better.” This is optimistic skepticism, not pessimistic. It is not that there is no truth, but because relatively more truth can always be discovered there is no absolute truth. Xenophanes believes that his beliefs are relatively true compared to others, but that they are not absolute in and of themselves. Displaying perspectival relativism like Heraclitus (and Daoists like Zhuangzi), Xenophanes says if there was no yellow honey people would say that figs are much sweeter than they do. This means that figs are perceived to be less sweet only because we have something sweeter to compare it to. For Xenophanes, the world within the cosmos is also eternal, never having been born and undying. He argues the rainbow is not a goddess but a multicolored cloud. All things, including rainbows, are made of earth and water. Air comes from water, such as wind from the ocean.
The opposition of wet water and dry earth is the primary dynamic of elemental interactions, rather than the hot and cold for Anaximander or dense and rare for Anaximenes. Xenophanes argues that sea shells and fossils of fish found in mountains showed that those lands were underwater previously, and that the earth had interacted with the water such that the water had been used up and the mud congealed into stone. This is quite correct, other than the production of elements out of water and earth.
To explain this, Xenophanes says the world alternates between wet and dry periods, and humanity dies out in the wet periods and flourishes in the dry. Heraclitus thinks wet is desire and dry is good for soul, making it wise. It is also very similar to kalpas of Indian thought, in which there are cycles of the rise and setting of culture and ‘religion’ or systems of thought. Xenophanes is attempting to explain the flood stories of Gilgamesh in Mesopotamia and Noah of the Judaic Old Testament, as a great flood wiped out civilization that then grew back when the waters receded. The seasons would be micro-cycles within the larger cycle, dryness in the summer before the fall harvest, wetness in the winter before the rebirth of spring. Anaximander also held that the world is in a drying period, but many believe that he saw the drying as a final phase before the world is absorbed back into the infinite.
As a final note, on drinking Xenophanes says it is not wrong to drink as much as an elderly person could such that they can get home without the assistance of servants (clearly a problem of the time) and a great person speaks of virtue and noble deeds when they drink, unlike others who speak of bawdy and base subjects. Clearly, it is not drinking but topic of conversation that can be evil.