Seven Sages of Greece

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The Seven Sages, depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicle

The Seven Sages (of Greece) or Seven Wise Men (Greek: οἱ ἑπτὰ σοφοί, hoi hepta sophoi; c. 620 BC–550 BC) was the title given by ancient Greek tradition to seven early 6th century BC philosophers, statesmen and law-givers who were renowned in the following centuries for their wisdom.

The Seven Sages

Traditionally, each of the seven sages represents an aspect of worldly wisdom which is summarized by an aphorism. Although the list of sages sometimes varies, the ones usually included are the following:

  • Solon of Athens: "Keep everything with moderation." Solon (c. 638–558 BC) was a famous legislator and reformer from Athens, framing the laws that shaped the Athenian democracy.
  • Chilon of Sparta: "You should not desire the impossible." Chilon was a Spartan politician from the 6th century BC, to whom the militarization of Spartan society was attributedcitation needed.
  • Bias of Priene: "Most men are bad." Bias was a politician and legislator of the 6th century BC.
  • Pittacus of Mytilene (c. 640–568 BC), governed Mytilene (Lesbos) along with Myrsilus. He tried to reduce the power of the nobility and was able to govern with the support of the popular classes, whom he favoured. He famously said "You should know which opportunities to choose."
  • Periander of Corinth (fl. 627 BC): he was the tyrant of Corinth in the 7th and 6th centuries BC. During his rule, Corinth knew a golden age of unprecedented stability. He was known saying "Be farsighted with everything."

Sources and legends

The oldest1 explicit mention on record of a standard list of seven sages is in Plato's Protagoras, where Socrates says:

...There some, both at present and of old, who recognized that Spartanizing is much more a love of wisdom than a love of physical exercise, knowing that the ability to utter such [brief and terse] remarks belongs to a perfectly educated man. Among these were Thales of Miletus, and Pittacus of Mytilene, and Bias of Priene, and our own Solon, and Cleobulus of Lindus, and Myson of Chenae, and the seventh of them was said to be Chilon of Sparta. They all emulated and admired and were students of Spartan education, could tell their wisdom was of this sort by the brief but memorable remarks they each uttered when they met and jointly the first fruits of their wisdom to Apollo in his shrine at Delphi, writing what is on every man's lips: Know thyself, and Nothing too much. Why do I say this? Because this was the manner of philosophy among the ancients, a kind of laconic brevity.2

The passage in which the above occurs has been described as "elaborately ironical", making it unclear which of its aspects may be taken seriously,3 although Diogenes Laertius later confirms that there were indeed seven such individuals who were held in high esteem for their wisdom well before Plato's time. According to Demetrius Phalereus, it was during the archonship of Damasias (582/1 BC) that the seven first become known as "the wise men", Thales being the first so acknowledged.4

Diogenes points out, however, that there was among his sources great disagreement over which figures should be counted among the seven.5 Perhaps the two most common substitutions were to exchange Periander or Anacharsis for Myson. On Diogenes' first list of seven, which he introduces with the words "These men are acknowledged wise," Periander appears instead of Myson;6 the same substitution appears in The Masque of the Seven Sages by Ausonius.7 Both Ephorus5 and Plutarch (in his Banquet of the Seven Sages) substituted Anacharsis for Myson. Diogenes Laertius further states that Dicaearchus gave ten possible names,5 Hippobotus suggested twelve names,8 and Hermippus enumerated seventeen possible sages from which different people made different selections of seven.8 Leslie Kurke contends that "Aesop was a popular contender for inclusion in the group"; an epigram of the 6th century AD poet Agathias (Palatine Anthology 16.332) refers to a statue of the Seven Sages, with Aesop standing before them.9

Later tradition ascribed to each sage a pithy saying of his own, but ancient as well as modern scholars have doubted the legitimacy of such ascriptions.10 A compilation of 147 maxims, inscribed at Delphi, was preserved by the fifth century AD scholar Stobaeus as "Sayings of the Seven Sages,"11 but "the actual authorship of the...maxims set up on the Delphian temple may be left uncertain. Most likely they were popular proverbs, which tended later to be attributed to particular sages."12

In addition to being credited for pithy sayings, the wise men were also apparently famed for practical inventions; in Plato's Republic (600a), it is said that it "befits a wise man" to have "many inventions and useful devices in the crafts or sciences" attributed to him, citing Thales and Anacharsis the Scythian as examples.

According to a number of moralistic stories, there was a golden tripod (or, in some versions of the story, a bowl or cup) which was to be given to the wisest. Allegedly, it passed in turn from one of the seven sages to another, beginning with Thales, until one of them (either Thales or Solon, depending on the story) finally dedicated it to Apollo who was held to be wisest of all.13

According to Diogenes, Dicaearchus claimed that the seven "were neither wise men nor philosophers, but merely shrewd men, who had studied legislation."14 And according to at least one modern scholar, the claim is correct: "With the exception of Thales, no one whose life is contained in [Diogenes'] Book I [i.e. none of the above] has any claim to be styled a philosopher."15

References

  1. ^ A. Griffiths, "Seven Sages", in Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd ed.).
  2. ^ Protagoras 342e–343b, trans. R.E. Allen.
  3. ^ p. 156, James Adam, Platonis Protagoras, Cambridge University Press, 1893; p. 83, C.C.W. Taylor, Plato: Protagoras, Oxford University Press, 2002. The words "elaborately ironical" are Adam's.
  4. ^ Kirk, Raven, & Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1983, 2nd edition), p. 76, citing Diogenes Laertius, i. 22.
  5. ^ a b c Diogenes Laertius, i. 41
  6. ^ Diogenes Laertius, i. 13
  7. ^ Ausonius, The Masque of the Seven Sages
  8. ^ a b Diogenes Laertius, i. 42
  9. ^ Leslie Kurke, Aesopic Conversations: Popular Tradition, Cultural Dialogue, and the Invention of Greek Prose, Princeton University Press, 2010, pp. 131–2, 135.
  10. ^ H. Parke and D. Wormell, The Delphic Oracle, (Basil Blackwell, 1956), vol. 1, pp. 387–389.
  11. ^ Kurke, p. 109.
  12. ^ Parke & Wormell, p. 389.
  13. ^ Diogenes Laertius i. 27ff.; R. Martin, "Seven Sages", Encyclopedia of Classical Philosophy (ed. D. Zeyl, 1997), p. 487; Parke & Wormell, pp. 387–388
  14. ^ Diogenes Laertius, i. 40.
  15. ^ p. 42 note a, R. Hicks, Diogenes Laertius: Lives of Eminent Philosophers, vol. 1, Harvard University Press, 1925.

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