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The Seven Sages of Greece

"… wisdom is a form of goodness, and is not scientific knowledge but another kind of cognition." (Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics 1246b, 35).

Introduction: The Labyrinth of Wisdom 

For a god wisdom is perhaps a divine meal to be swallowed at one gulp without need of mastication, and that would be the end of the story. The deities are known for their simplicity. The matter of human wisdom, however, could fill all archives on earth without ever exhausting itself. Humanity is notorious for its complexity. And men proudly say "Good things are difficult." But is wisdom a labyrinth, or "thinking makes it so"? And when did the saga of human wisdom begin and with whom?

The Poet

When humans contemplated Dawn for the first time, wisdom was the treasure of the poet alone. Of all men he was the wisest, for the gods had chosen his soul as receptacle of their confidences. Thus filled with inspiration divine, the poet knew better than any other man the secrets of the world. And since Apollo found more pleasure in leading the Muses than in warming his tripod, neither the inspiration of the Pythia nor that of seers could match the poet's wisdom. And since the divine is far beyond human reason, nor could anyone else follow the secret paths of sacred absurdity by means of rational thinking. The gods might have blinded the eyes of the poet, but they consented in opening his soul wide. Then mankind looked into that soul as in a mirror and was delighted at its beauty and purity, its freedom and simplicity, its justice and sense. That inexplicable vision mankind called wisdom, an unpolluted gift, a golden path to heaven. That is why also posterity acknowledged

"As we to the brutes, poets are to us." (George Meredith 1828-1919, Diana of the Crossways).

For compared to the poet, the rest of mankind crawls in mud and blood. But "A poet is born, not made", and later the gods—for reasons unknown—must have blinded his soul as well, for the poet was inspired no longer. And his soul being exhausted, Wisdom had to rebuild her palace elsewhere.

The Sage

Apparently (for there is seldom certainty about anything), she rebuilt it—though not in gold as the first—in the mind of the sophoi, a sophós[1] being a man that does not need to go in pursuit of wisdom—as philosophers do—because he is already wise. He is a sage, and Antiquity knew only seven such sages, who, like fruits of a season, grew ripe at once.

The Philosopher

When their season was over and the sophoi had disappeared from the face of the earth, philosophers—"cloaked and bearded to command respect"—came offering wisdom yet a new abode. But since no gift had made them wise, neither from birth nor later, they must spend their nights and days in hard toil, courting wisdom with the eagerness of suitors. And being prone to make strenuous efforts to be wise, they must have taken to heart threats such as

"Defer not till to-morrow to be wise,
To-morrow's sun to thee may never rise."
(William Congreve 1670-1729, Letter to Cobham).

… as if Death were nicer to a sage than to a fool; and

"Be wise with speed;
A fool at forty is a fool indeed."
(Edward Young 1683-1765, Love of Fame, Satire 2.282).

… as if learning always were the sweetest of possibilities in a young man's life, or as if he should "quick as time" dart along the way to wisdom … But whence this haste? Is it not also said that "Haste makes waste", and that "Hasty climbers have sudden falls"? Anyhow the philosophers, thinking of Lady Sophia as the princes of Hellas dreamt of Helen, found her "fairer than the evening air". But she, despite their advances, would have rather assisted a carpenter than favor any of them. At times, she gave a furtive kiss to some of them. Was it a token of recognition, or did she wish to "kiss him into slumbers"? Not even they could tell … Yet—"At the touching of the lips"—they fervently prayed to their lady: "make me immortal with a kiss", but

"Alas! how easily things go wrong
A sigh too much, or a kiss too long."
(George MacDonald 1824-1905, Phantastes, xix).

… and there she was again, shining as a distant star, aloof and aloft. But "distance lends enchantment", and so her lovers turned their aspiration for wisdom—the pursuit itself, the desire to be wise, their love of wisdom, their philo-sophy—into a virtue evocative of that derived from the intimate communion with her, which she denied them. Except for the furtive kiss, that was their only consolation; and having put their hope in the novel maxim "No man is born wise", they doubled their efforts. Later came Time, the same who "tries truth", and these "private secretaries to Nature" were caught saying one thing and doing another:

"As for the philosophers of our time, for instance, most of them are to be seen uttering the noblest sentiments, but following the basest practices, and the solemnity and sagacity expressed in their pronouncements are refuted when the speakers are put to the proof." (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History Frag. 9.1).

Entangled in duplicity and proof, they could but regard poetry—the clear air of Sophia's palace—as yet another ill. It was then that the phantom of Lady Philosophia—a cloud of their own making—appeared to chase the Muses along with "their sweet poison" from their cabinets, as if they had been Sirens. Yet this cloud sat on the end of their beds chanting like a true Siren philosophical verses into their unwaxed ears, and keeping them awake with expectation for the whole duration of the "immortal night", blind hope being "but the dream of those who wake."

Knowledge

Now, "as soon as early rosy-fingered Dawn appeared" again, many found themselves growing tired of wooing such an elusive bride while being comforted by a less fair one. And "as a sovereign remedy to all diseases" they resorted to knowledge, an ersatz resembling the true lady of their dreams. But whereas wisdom was made of one piece, knowledge came in many. And since these pieces were necessarily ignorant of each other, knowledge appeared mixed with ignorance and corrupted by it from the very moment of its hybrid epiphany. Was it a centaur? The gods know, for "they hear and see all things". But men did notice that knowledge could be taught and acquired, being, in principle, unlimited, whereas wisdom, being a gift, could neither be learned nor stolen, and was limited:

"Knowledge is proud that he has learn'd so much;
Wisdom is humble that she knows no more."
(William Cowper 1731-1800, The Winter Walk at Noon).

Now if pride is the price, it wouldn't perhaps be too high considering they would learn so much (even though it is said that "Pride is an unhappy possession"). But what about

"Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers." (Alfred Tennyson 1809-92, Locksley Hall 141).

What to do with this Knowledge, so perishable, so corruptible, so transitory? Today knowledgeable, tomorrow benighted … And how high is the waste mountain of Knowledge? Where are his thousand details hidden? Do his many facts sink in the waters of Lethe? … But was not Knowledge made of the same substance as Memory? Who is he? Memory's enemy, or her loving offspring? Or is this offspring, not the knowledge that "comes", but the wisdom that "lingers" with her beloved mother? Still there were, in those ancient times, men who were wise enough to "know nothing"; but others—more illustrious—adopted the notion

"Nothing is sweeter than to know everything." (Cicero. Letters to Atticus 4.11.2).

and while their heads became gray or bald, and their faces filled with wrinkles, and their backs bent, they looked at "everything" with screwed-up eyes, having been too long "poring over miserable books". That's how sweet it was … And when they died, someone said:

"This man decided not to Live but Know—
Bury this man there."
(Robert Browning 1812-89, A Grammarian s Funeral).

Was it that they thought that "Knowledge is no burden", or did ambition tempted them whispering in their ears "Knowledge is power"? The first must have been, let us hope, for they could not have ignored that "power corrupts".

Versification and Diversification

In the poetical age there was one single wisdom and that was the wisdom of the gods, the same that inspired the poet. But just as the poet had a faculty for versification, the rest of humanity enjoyed a certain ability for diversification. And when the poet was away, they discussed—in their own fancy ways—several wisdoms, as that of animals and plants, or that of mother Nature, "the parent and creator of the human race". Then they also detected wisdom in practically all fields of human activity. There came about a "political wisdom", a "mystical wisdom", a "spiritual wisdom", a "practical wisdom", or even a more general "life wisdom" that could, like a joker, serve any purpose, including that of the fool. That such a diversification appeared to turn wisdom against itself was never a disquieting thought because they noticed that no particular wisdom could forever prove to be wiser than another: that the prince could be outwitted by his maid, the mystic by the prince, the maid by the priest, and anyone by someone. Thus was the balance assured. And if someone argued that the mutual outwitting proved that both prince, maid, mystic and priest were all fools, they would answer that "No man is wise at all times", and that a single slip could not possibly obliterate his wisdom. In this manner the oneness of wisdom was forgotten, and the single wisdom was replaced by uncountable and unaccountable minor wisdoms, all of which were for the gods as the wisdom of apes is for men, that is, something that—like folly—surprises and raises laughter

"In life's last scene what prodigies surprise,
Fears of the brave, and follies of the wise!"
(Samuel Johnson 1709-84, The Vanity of Human Wishes).

General Blindness

Wisdom departed at the end of the poetical age, but her memory was revered by subsequent times, especially by the "lovers of wisdom". Later again, when Lady Sophia's perfume had vanished behind her, man came to believe that she had never existed. His knowledge told him so, and he was already much like Mr. Podsnap, who had settled that "whatever he put behind him he put out of existence." Accordingly, man removed her name from the world: no longer was there "a wisdom of nature" apparent in animals or in plants, nor "a cosmic wisdom" shining from the stars. Instead blindness was thought to pervade the universe, ruling everything except man's perceptive eye. This again raises laughter, and those who cannot laugh or postpone laughter to moments of loneliness, exclaim

"Upwards flow the stream of sacred rivers." (Euripides, Medea 410).

… but this is how man, after being a poet, became a king, thanks to the Charta of General Blindness, and much as the proverb goes: "In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king."

… That is, as the one-eyed Cyclops was king in his cave.

The Labyrinth of Wisdom

Antiquity has suggested several lists of the Seven Sages, for already then (in still ancient though postpoetic times) there was no agreement on the matter of wisdom:

"To be or the contrary."

For what is to be wise? Can a tyrant be wise? Is it wise to change and adapt, or should one cling to "equability of countenance" and remain the same? Is it wise to hide one's feelings, or just dishonest? Is it wiser to speak out wisely or to wisely remain silent, or is either alternative wise depending on opportunity? And if the counsels "No wisdom like silence" and "Silence is golden" were always obeyed, could not "Silence gives consent" come afterwards as a reproach? What is meant by "know thyself"? Should one know himself to correct his nature, or to obey it? And what does "nothing in excess" mean? When is something "an excess"? Should we suffer theft and murder if they are not "in excess" and for a good purpose? Can love or justice be excessive? And the maxim "a pledge, and ruin is near", is it not in need of elucidations too? Is not loyalty, either explicit or implicit, a form of pledge? Should we then renounce loyalty? Is wisdom a serious matter or a humorous one, or a combination of both? What about parties, singing, dancing, going to the theatre, and other similar events that make life lovely and worth living for many men and women? Has it not been also said "Better be happy than wise"? And if wisdom wages no war against happiness or joy, why then no one among the Seven Sages has ever been reported to have participated in parties and festivals, nor introduced or promoted merriment, though some of them were legislators? Is joy alien to wisdom, or is it that they thought parties and "passing round the cup" to lead inevitably to drunkenness, "hurling the furniture", mockery, insults, and crime? But could they not have said "It is good to be merry and wise," as others say? And then again, can anyone be both "merry" and "wise"? Does not merriment comes to life in the absence of wisdom? And conversely, does not wisdom spoil the best of parties?

"Ask a wise man to dinner and he'll upset everyone by his gloomy silence or tiresome questions. Invite him to dance and you'll have a camel prancing about … If he joins in a conversation, all of a sudden there's the wolf in the fable." (Erasmus of Rotterdam 1469-1536, Praise of Folly).

Fools enjoy themselves, some argue, out of ignorance. But can ignorance be so evil when it allows enjoyment? Is ignorance always worse than wisdom? Do they not say "where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise"? And also

"From ignorance our comfort flows,
The only wretched are the wise."
(Matthew Prior 1664-1721, Letter to Charles Montague).

And if wisdom were thus so harshly defying happiness, joy, and comfort, wouldn't it then deeply disturb all peace of mind, threatening to plunge life into misery?

And what good is beauty without the joys of Love, and how are the merits of Love compared to those of wisdom and wit? Which of them leads "to Arcady, where all the leaves are merry"?

"No wisdom won with weariness;
But Love goes in with Folly's dress.
No fame that wit could ever win;
But only Love may lead Love in
To Arcady, to Arcady."
(Henry Cuyler Bunner, 1855-1896, The Way to Arcady).

And if all passions were extinguished and everyone came under the rule of reason, who would then need in such a world the counsels or virtues of wisdom?

"Si tous les cours étaient francs, justes et dociles,
La plupart des vertus nous seraient inutiles."
[2] (Molière 1622-73, Le Misanthrope, acte V, sc. i).

Love goes about in Folly's dress, says Bunner, since it is well known that "Love is Blind" and "rules his kingdom without a sword", relying instead upon the blindness of folly. Maybe sweet Aphrodite "makes it so" … But what about war, the dear passion of "blood-stained Ares", her mate? Would Paris have abducted Helen if he had been wise? And had Menelaus been wise, would he have sailed to Troy to fetch an unfaithful wife? And would Agamemnon have sacrificed one woman in order to fetch another if he had listened to wisdom? But had these three men been wise, how could the Trojan War ever have taken place? And without that war, which Homer could have composed either The Iliad or The Odyssey to immortalize it? Would oblivion have prevailed then? Is folly more memorable than wisdom?

"… if the god had not caught us in his grip and plunged us headlong beneath the earth, we should have been unheard of, and not ever sung in Muses' songs, furnishing to bards of after-days a subject for their minstrelsy." (Hecabe 1, Queen of Troy. Euripides, Daughters of Troy 1245).

Does the wisdom of the poet rely on the folly of the rest, just as they say that "fools build houses and wise men live in them"? For how could epic poetry exist without war? Then how much pleasure has its ultimate source in folly? None perhaps for those who must perish at war today … But while "War is sweet to those who have not tried it", those who'll perish not now but later may from the safe distance and for the time being, wallow in the amazing bloodshed, listen to patriotic songs, philosophize about the human condition, read about strategies, look at images of massacres, stir their emotions, and even enrich themselves. Which pleasure would they not derive from the folly of war? And do they do so for being wise, or for being as fools as those marching to war? And when they feel appalled on account of the cruelty of war, do they not still report sensational news that give them prizes, write clever essays that become bestsellers, or even make successful political careers thanks to that same folly? And why should a contemporary war raise more indignation than the outrages committed during the sack of Troy? Was Hector's body less sacred, or is it because

"Time purges all things …"? (Aeschylus, Eumenides 285).

But what about the eternity of Death? Why is it a profanation to violate the grave of someone recently deceased, but not to plunder the tomb of an ancient man? Is the former more dead than the latter? … For some reputed "wise" have even uttered curses against such dealings:

"If your wealth was acquired … by disturbing the tombs of ancient kings which are full of gold and treasure, you deserve not only to be put on your trial, but also to forfeit your life; for these things are wealth, no doubt, but of an infamous and inhuman kind." (Flavius Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 7.23).

And what difference does it make if the wealth be a "wealth of gold" or a "wealth of knowledge"? Is it not one wealth turned into the other quite easily? In the eyes of this particular sage there is probably no difference, having both been acquired "by other than holy methods".

But then again, is it wise to rebuke the folly of men in such a way, putting a mirror in front of humanity to let her watch an ugly face, or is it yet another form of folly?

"Et c'est une folie à nulle autre seconde
De vouloir se mêler de corriger le monde."
[3] (Molière 1622-73, Le Misanthrope, acte I, sc. i).

Practical wisdom

Practical wisdom is, on comparison, less labyrinthine and more easily enunciated: "He is wise enough that can keep himself warm." And Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) appears to agree, for in his Walden he asserted that

"the grand necessity … for our bodies is to keep warm,"

arguing that most of the trouble and anxiety is about Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel, and adding that

"not till we have secured these are we prepared to entertain the true problems of life."

But those four sources of warmth, however necessary, he does not count amongst the "true problems". These, he thinks, require a philosopher, although he also remarked that

"There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers,"

a circumstance that he found disappointing. To keep warm appears, in his view, as "wise enough", but not fully wise, since the true problems of life he sets beyond the matter of warmth. And Thoreau, who thinks that warmth is more easily obtained than many ever will wish to imagine, calls unwise those who are not economical when procuring it:

"Yet some, not wise, go to the other side of the globe, to barbarous and unhealthy regions, and devote themselves to trade for ten or twenty years, in order that they may live—that is, keep comfortably warm—and die in New England at last. The luxuriously rich are not simply kept comfortably warm, but unnaturally hot …"

… and he adds

"When a man is warmed … what does he want next? Surely not more warmth of the same kind, as more and richer food, larger and more splendid houses, finer and more abundant clothing, more numerous, incessant, and hotter fires … When he has obtained those things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is, to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced."


The Seven Sages 

The eleven Seven Sages of Diogenes Laertius (Book I, Lives of Eminent Philosophers).

Thales

Solon

Chilon

Pittacus

Bias

Cleobulus

Periander

Anacharsis

Myson

Epimenides

Pherecydes

The following text is limited to these Sages )see also the table Lists of Sages).


The Sages and politics

Diogenes Laertius has reported that Dicaearchus—a disciple of Aristotle and a learned man—was of the opinion that the Seven Sages were

"… neither sages nor philosophers, but merely shrewd men with a turn for legislation." (DL.1.40).

and Plutarch in his Solon (Parallel Lives) says that

"… in general, it would seem that Thales was the only wise man of the time who carried his speculations beyond the realm of the practical; the rest got the name of wisdom from their excellence as statesmen." (Plu.Sol.3.4).

And it may be noticed that out of the eleven Seven Sages mentioned by Diogenes Laertius, only Bias, Cleobulus, and Myson appear to have lacked "a turn for legislation."

Thales is credited with having given "excellent advice on political matters" to the Milesians; Solon is widely known for his Athenian legislation; Chilon was an ephor and an adviser in Sparta; Pittacus overthrew the tyrant of Lesbos, and later—"having brought the constitution into order"—he became ruler himself; Periander was tyrant of Corinth; Pherecydes gave, on more than one occasion, military advice; Epimenides was a plenipotentiary; and Anacharsis might have been killed for subversion.

The Sages and Croesus

Several or perhaps all among the sages had relations with Croesus, the rich and powerful king of Lydia, in Asia Minor. Why? Anthropological curiosity? For it cannot be on account of Croesus' excellence in "Hellenic manners", nor for hope of gaining wisdom from him. But Plato says

"It is natural for wisdom and great power to come together, and they are for ever pursuing and seeking each other and consorting together." (Plato, Letters 310e).

Anyhow all visited Croesus, even if details are lacking, for Periander is reported to have written to them:

"I learn that last year you met in Sardis at the Lydian court." (Periander to the Sages. DL.1.99).

Croesus was so enchanted with Hellenic wisdom that he instituted a prize—a tripod, a golden goblet, or perhaps a bowl—to be bestowed upon the wisest of the Greeks:

The Prize of Wisdom

About a certain golden tripod found by Milesian fishermen, the Pythian priestess declared in an oracle that if it be given as a prize to the wisest, the war that had broken among the Ionians would cease. The Milesians then awarded the prize to Thales, who rejected it, advising them to send it to a wiser man. In this manner the tripod came to each of the other six, who likewise rejected it. The last to receive it was Solon, who recommended to dedicate the tripod to Apollo, since the god was wisest. But Diodorus also says that Messenian fishermen once brought up, instead of fish, a brazen tripod with the inscription "To the wisest", and that they gave it to Bias. Diogenes Laertius said that those who had the tripod were certain Ionian youths, having purchased of Milesian fishermen their catch of fish. As a dispute arose they decided to consult Delphi, and the oracle declared:

"Who shall possess the tripod? Thus replies
Apollo: 'Whosoever is most wise.'" (DL.1.28).

Then they gave it to Thales, and the tripod went the round of all the six sages until it came to Solon, who dedicated it to Apollo at Delphi. It is also told that it was not a tripod that went round, but a bowl that Bathycles the Arcadian had left at his death to be given "to him who had done most good by his wisdom." This bowl went round from Thales to Thales again, who sent it to Apollo at Didyma. The inscribed dedication modestly declared:

"Thales … to Apollo after twice winning the prize from all the Greeks." (DL.1.29).

Others (reported by Diogenes L.) say that a certain man receive from Croesus a golden goblet to be bestowed upon the wisest. The man gave it to Thales, who passed it to others until it came to Chilon, who asked "Who is wiser than myself?", receiving the Pythian answer: "Myson". Still others assert that Croesus gave Pittacus a bowl, beginning the round of the sages from him. And then again, others have said that the tripod was in a vessel that Periander had sent to Thrasybulus, the tyrant of Miletus. When the vessel was wrecked, some fishermen found it in Coan waters. Yet others have said that it was found in Athenian waters and given to Bias. According to another version, the tripod had been wrought by Hephaestus, who gave it to Pelops 1 as a wedding present. From him it came to Menelaus, but was carried off by Paris along with Helen, who is said to have thrown it into the Coan sea. She was persuaded that the tripod "would cause trouble", they say, as if her sudden departure from Sparta in the arms of her lover had been but a mere detail of the throwing away of the tripod … Many years later, some buyers of fish came in possession of the tripod which caused a quarrel with the fishermen (for what else can a fisherman or a buyer of fish wish but to find a tripod and perhaps use it to buy fish?). Although these Coans reported the case to Miletus, their mother-city, it could not be settled. So when the Milesians saw their ambassadors disregarded by the Coans, they resorted to war. When a certain amount of blood had been shed on account of the tripod, an oracle declared that it should be given to the wisest. Whether these men who had fought for the tripod were qualified to give an award of wisdom, no one says, but they agreed to give it to Thales. It went then the round of the sages, and came back to Thales again, who dedicated it to Apollo of Didyma, a city near Miletus. Plutarch says that Thales sent it first to Bias who gave it to another, and when it came to Thales for the second time, it was taken from Miletus to Thebes and dedicated to Ismenian Apollo. He also relates that others affirmed that the tripod was sent in the first place to Bias, and in the second place to Thales at Miletus, at the instance of Bias, and so passed through all the sages until it came again to Bias, and then was sent to Delphi. In other versions, the prize was not a tripod that could be seen at Delphi, but a bowl sent there by Croesus, or a beaker left there by Bathycles.

(Dio.9.3.1-3; 9.13.2; DL.1.28ff.Plu.Sol.4.2ff.).


Biographical Notes, Maxims and Dialogues of
the eleven Seven Sages listed by Diogenes Laertius (DL),
Book I, Lives of Eminent Philosophers.
 

 All Seven Sages are said to have applied themselves to poetry, but as everyone knows they did not surpass their predecessors in this art. They are said to have met, but the place of their meeting—whether in Corinth, Delphi, or Sardis—has been disputed. Their utterances are attributed now to one now to another, but who uttered what is not always important. Different people may say the same things, particularly if they are acquainted with each other. More important perhaps is that there is no agreement as who the sages were, a discrepancy that may arise from the variety of the accounts, or because different authors answer differently the question "Who is wise?" (see Lists of the Seven Sages).

The Epitaphs and Inscriptions are according to Diogenes Laertius, as are, unless stated otherwise, the Maxims and Dialogues. Modern criticism is fond of facts and approaches truth step by step as a man walking towards the horizon. Therefore it rejects as forgery, not only part of those maxims, dialogues, inscriptions, and epitaphs, but also many details of the lives of the sages, until "new evidence surfaces".


Thales of Miletus (fl. c. 585 BC) 

Maxims

"Of all things that are, the most ancient is God, for he is uncreated.
The most beautiful is the universe, for it is God's workmanship.
The greatest is space, for it holds all things,
The swiftest is mind, for it speeds everywhere."
The strongest,
Necessity, for it masters all.
The wisest,
Time, for it brings everything to light." (Thales. DL 1.35).

"Know thyself."
"Seek one sole wisdom."
"Choose one sole good."

Dialogues

THALES: There is no difference between life and death.
Q.: Why do you not die?
THALES: Because there is no difference.
Q.: Which is older, day or night?
THALES: Night is the older by one day.
Q.: Can a man hide an evil deed from the gods?
THALES: No, nor yet an evil thought.
Q.: Should an adulterer deny the charge of adultery upon oath?
THALES: Perjury is no worse than adultery.
Q.: What is difficult?
THALES: To know oneself.
Q.: What is easy?
THALES: To give advice.
Q.: What is most pleasant?
THALES: Success.
Q.: What is the divine?
THALES: That which has neither beginning nor end.
Q.: What is the strangest thing you have ever seen?
THALES. An aged tyrant.
Q.: How can one best bear adversity?
THALES: Seeing one's enemies in worse plight.
Q.: How shall we lead the best and most righteous life?
THALES: By refraining from doing what we blame in others.
Q.: What man is happy?
THALES: He who has a healthy body, a resourceful mind and a docile nature.

Thales of Miletus, the first to be called Sage, was an astronomer (Phoenician by descent according to Herodotus), often dated by the eclipse of the sun that he is said to have predicted, the same eclipse that interrupted a war between the Lydians and the Medes. Among the Seven Sages, he is the only one regarded by posterity as a philosopher or a man of science; so Strabo, who, among others, says that Thales was "the first to begin the science of natural philosophy."

Thales is said to have attempted the calculation of the sizes of both sun and moon, and to have divided the year into 365 days. And he is also credited with geometrical discoveries. But as becomes a wise man, he had no instructor, although he is also believed to have spent some time in Egypt, talking with priests, and measuring the pyramids by their shadow (a method that works when the angle at the base of the pyramid is more than 45°). Thales is credited with five theorems of elementary geometry.

Thales regarded water as the primary substance of the universe, and believed the world to be animated and populated with divinities. He was grateful to Fortune for having been born as a man, and not as a animal, a woman, or a barbarian. Yet on a certain occasion one of these three—an old woman—caught him in his "absent-minded professor" mode, that is, falling into a ditch while observing the stars.

It is told that Thales predicted that it would be a good season for olives. Accordingly, he rented all the oil-mills, and having thus established a monopoly, he amassed a fortune charging what he pleased. This he did, they say, in order to prove how easy it is to grow rich, as if that needed to be proved. But anyhow he crowned his purpose with success, and success was, in Thales' view, the most pleasant thing of all. The monopoly of oil-mills he did not regard as an unfair way of making business; otherwise he had not declared:

"Shun ill-gotten gains" (Thales. DL.1.37).

It is said that when Croesus offered alliance to Miletus, Thales frustrated the agreement. And since subsequently the Persian king Cyrus obtained victory over Croesus, Thales proved to be the salvation of the city. But if Croesus had won, that could had meant Miletus' perdition. Now, could Thales know which the outcome of the war between Lydia and Persia would turn to be? Or is it justified to say

"They call it wisdom when we happen to guess right." (Phaedra's nurse to Phaedra. Euripides, Hippolytus 700).

But it has also been said that Croesus, when attacking the Persians, crossed the river Halys being helped by Thales, who, by digging a semicircular trench, turned the course of the river, causing part of its stream to flow in the trench to the rear of the Lydian camp, and passing it, return to its former bed. The Sage cannot have done this to help Croesus, since by crossing that river the Lydian king sealed his own ruin.

Thales, some say, never married, and it is told that, his mother pressing him when he was young, he answered her that it was too soon, and when later in life she asked anew, he replied that it was too late. It is also told that Solon, when he was visiting Thales at Miletus, asked him the same question, and that Thales first remained silent. Yet some days later, a messenger arrived saying (by mistake) that Solon's son had died in Athens; and when Thales saw Solon beating his head in great distress, he said:

"This it is, O Solon, which keeps me from marriage and the getting of children." (Thales to Solon. Plutarch, Parallel Lives, "Solon" 6.3).

But others say that Thales did marry and had a son Cybisthus, and still others say that the latter was the adopted son of Thales' sister.

Thales died at seventy-eight, or perhaps at ninety years of age, from heat and thirst while he was watching an athletic contest. He had ordered to be buried in a certain neglected part of the territory of the city, predicting that it would one day be the market-place of Miletus, which came to pass.

(Hdt.1.74.1, 1.75.4; Pla.Theaetetus 174a; Plu.Sol.2.4, 12.6; Strab.14.1.7).


Solon of Athens (c. 594 BC) 

5628: Solon. La mosaïque a été découverte en 1938 près d'Antioche, dans la maison de Astres. IIIe siècle après J.-C. Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Genève.


Solon is best known for his legislation, which prevented debt to cause servitude. In the opinion of Diodorus, "in wisdom and learning he surpassed all the men of his time." In matters of foreign policy he advocated war against Megara over the island of Salamis, was involved in a campaign against the city of Cirrha near Delphi, and persuaded the Athenians to acquire the Thracian Chersonesus (the peninsula separated from Asia Minor by the Dardanelles). The war against Megara, he commanded himself and won through a stratagem. Having established his legislation, he left Athens to travel abroad, spending time with the Egyptian priests, from whom, according to Plato, he heard the story of Atlantis. Afterwards he sailed to Cyprus, visited Croesus in Lydia, and Thales in Miletus.

He is said to have refused tyranny for himself, and consequently when Pisistratus was established as a tyrant, Solon went into exile. Yet their political enmity never brought among them "harsh or savage feelings"

"… because of their kinship, and largely because of the youthful beauty of Pisistratus, with whom, as some say, Solon was passionately in love." (Plu.Sol.1.2).

But others have said that Solon, being already old, did not leave Athens but actually became Pisistratus' counsellor and approved of many of his acts; for they say that Pisistratus, on seizing power, honoured Solon in many ways, "showing him kindness, and inviting him to his palace."

Plutarch also thinks that Solon wrote a law forbidding a slave to practise gymnastics or have a boy lover, to make these matters "honorable and dignified practices". Pisistratus himself had a boy lover called Charmus.

On the matter of social wealth Solon is remembered for having, through his legislation, released all those who, having borrowed money on personal security, were forced from poverty to become slaves, serfs, or day-laborers. It is told that he himself renounced his claim to a debt due to his father, encouraging others to follow his example. But whether men are serfs or not depends mostly on themselves, as also Solon discovered

"And the people without listening to me granted him the men, who were armed with clubs. And after that he destroyed the democracy. It was in vain that I sought to free the poor amongst the Athenians from their condition of serfdom, if now they are all the slaves of one master, Pisistratus." (Solon. DL.1.66).

Others have remarked that when it became known that Solon was determined to cancel debts, many

"… took advantage … and anticipated Solon's decree by borrowing large sums from the wealthy and buying up great estates.Then when the decree was published, they enjoyed the use of their properties, but refused to pay the moneys due their creditors." (Plu.Sol.15.6-7).


Maxims

"Speech is the mirror of action."
"The strongest and most capable is king."
"Secrecy is the seal of speech, and occasion the seal of secrecy."
"Those who have influence with tyrants are like the pebbles employed in calculations."
"Put more trust in nobility of character than in an oath."
"Never tell a lie."
"Pursue worthy aims."
"Do not be rash to make friends and, when once they are made, do not drop them."
"Learn to obey before you command."
"In giving advice seek to help, not to please your friend."
"Be led by reason."
"Shun evil company."
"Honour the gods, reverence parents."
"In great affairs it is difficult to please all." (Plu.Sol.25.5).

Dialogues

Q.: Why have you not framed any law against parricide?
SOLON: Because I hope it is unnecessary.
Q.: How can crime most effectually be diminished?
SOLON: If it caused as much resentment in those who are not its victims as in those who are; wealth breeds satiety, satiety outrage.
Q.: Why did you prohibited Thespis from performing tragedies?
SOLON: Because fiction is pernicious (or as Plutarch in Solon 29.5. reports: "If we give play of this sort so much praise and honor, we shall find it in our solemn contracts."

(See also Croesus.)

LES ANNÉES D'UNE VIE

Sept. L'enfant perd ses dents et d'autres les remplacent
Et son esprit s'accroît. Sept ans encor se passent
Et son corps florissant se prépare aux amours.
Trois fois sept : sa vigueur va grandissant toujours
Et sur sa fraîche joue un blond duvet se lève.
Sept encore : il est mûr pour les travaux du glaive;
Son esprit et son corps sont tous deux accomplis.
Cinq fois sept : il est temps que vers de justes lits
Il tourne sa pensée et choisisse une femme.
Six fois sept : il a su, enrichissant son âme,
Vivre, penser, combattre, obtenir, s'efforcer;
S'il le fallait, sans deuil il pourrait renoncer
Aux biens trop éloignés, au but peu accessible,
Contenant dorénavant de jouir du possible.
Sept fois sept, huit fois sept : son aisance est suprême;
Il s'impose à autrui, il se connaît soi-même;
Neuf fois sept : tout en lui a gardé sa fierté,
Mais sa voix au conseil est désormais moins sûre,
Il sent diminuer sa vieille autorité.
Dix fois sept : de la vie il a pris la mesure :
Il va pouvoir dormir avec sérénité.

(Solon. Cité dans Philon, Sur la Genèse, 24. Traduction : Marguerite Yourcenar).

Inscription

"At Salamis, which crushed the Persian might,
Solon the legislator first saw light."

Other chapters of his legislation repealed the laws of Draco, who is said to have assigned the penalty of death to all transgressions, from murder to idleness or stealing fruit. This is why "Draconian laws" are said to be written, not with ink but blood.

Solon appears to have given himself to grandeur also as a statesman, for it has been reported that "he attempted to reduce his laws to heroic verse" before publishing them. Political ethics, says Plutarch, was his chief philosophical interest. Another sage, Anacharsis, is said to have laughed at Solon for thinking that he could tame the injustice of the citizens by writing laws. For these, he said, were like spider's webs, capable of resisting light objects falling on them, but not large ones. But Solon replied that he would make more advantageous to respect the laws than to transgress them, thus adding profit to legality.

The laws and regulations attributed to Solon are many and will not be detailed here, for laws, even when they are wise, reveal a fundamental absence of wisdom. And given that laws are thought to check folly and injustice, it could be indicative, if they become many, that men have lost the ability to control themselves.

According to Plutarch, Solon was "not an admirer of wealth", but a "lover of wisdom". This is often pointed out when talking about sages, for it is known that wealth has the power to attract not only the foolish. And many may wonder why the sages seemed so eager to visit Croesus, who regarded himself, on account of his wealth, as the most fortunate man on earth.

When he generously received Solon, however, the sage found fit to requite the king's hospitality with assiduous attempts to demonstrate that Croesus was not fortunate enough. For wisdom, the sage seemed to believe, should enter a man's brains even to the price of his contentment. Now, some could argue that later, when Croesus found himself in the evil plight that followed defeat, he remembered Solon, and that then he became so wise under the threat of fire that even Cyrus took him into his service. For Cyrus changed his mind on account of what Croesus told him about Solon. And that is why Plutarch says

"Solon had the reputation of saving one king and instructing another by means of a single saying." (Plu.Sol.28.4).

But still, some may wonder whether it was imperative to make Croesus feel miserable when he was content. For how could Solon know that Croesus would some day need wisdom to endure and reconcile himself with an evil fortune? And Croesus was not an evil man, tempting fortune with malignity; for such a man is not likely to accept that he has been "proud and insolent", as Croesus is reported to have confessed, nor had the sage written to him:

"I admire you for your kindness to me." (Solon to Croesus. DL.1.67).

Anyhow Aesop, the writer of fables, advised the sage on this matter thus:

"O Solon, our converse with kings should be either as rare, or as pleasing as is possible."

To which Solon replied:

"No, indeed, but either as rare or as beneficial as is possible." (Plu.Sol.28.1).

Still others think that what Solon said, or wished to say, to Croesus is that

"… we must look to the end of life, and only of the man who has continued until then to be fortunate may we properly say that he is blest." (Dio.9.2.2).

Solon as a young man embarked in commerce. "Nothing wrong with that," says Plutarch (though in a more elegant manner), since

"… the calling of a merchant … gave him familiarity with foreign parts, friendships with foreign kings, and a large experience in affairs." (Plu.Sol.2.3).

Yet he also points out that Solon's life style was "expensive and profuse", a reward he apparently gave himself for the "great dangers" he encountered in his voyages. Still Solon classed himself among the poor, says Plutarch; and "who doesn't?", some may ask.

Solon died in Cyprus at eighty years of age (see also Croesus).

(Dio.9.1.1.; DL.1.45ff.; Plu.Sol. passim).

 

Chilon of Sparta (c. 560 BC) 

Maxims

"Give a pledge, and suffer for it."
"Control the tongue, especially at a banquet."
"Do not use threats to anyone."
"Be more ready to visit friends in adversity than in prosperity."
"Do not make an extravagant marriage."
"Honour old age."
"Consult your own safety."
"Prefer a loss to a dishonest gain."
"Do not laugh at another's misfortune."
"When strong, be merciful, if you would have the respect, not the fear, of your neighbours."
"By the whetstone gold is tried, giving manifest proof; and by gold is the mind of good and evil men brought to the test."
"Be a wise master in your own house."
"Let not your tongue outrun your thought."
"Control anger."
"Do not hate divination."
"Do not aim at impossibilities."
"Let no one see you in a hurry."
"Gesticulation in speaking should be avoided as a mark of insanity."
"Obey the laws."
"Be restful."

Dialogues

Q.: Wherein lies the difference between the educated and the uneducated?
CHILON: In good hope.
Q.: What is hard?
CHILON: To keep a secret, to employ leisure well, to be able to bear an injury.
CHILON'S BROTHER: Why am I not, like you, made an ephor?
CHILON: I know how to submit to injustice and you do not.

CHILON: What is Zeus doing?
AESOP: He is humbling the proud and exalting the humble.

Inscription

"Here Chilon stands, of Sparta's warrior race
Who of the Sages Seven holds highest place."


Chilon was made an ephor in Sparta. Diodorus says that "his life agreed with his teaching, a thing one rarely finds", and attributes to him all three Delphic maxims ("Know thyself"; "Nothing overmuch"; and "A pledge, and ruin is nigh."). He compares Chilon to many philosophers of his time, and concludes that while they were seen "uttering the noblest sentiments, but following the basest practices", Chilon was a man of integrity, keeping thought, speech, and deed in accordance with each other.

He died at Pisa (Elis)of joy and weakness, after congratulating his son on an Olympic victory in boxing.

(Dio.9.9.1ff.; DL.1.68ff.)


Pittacus of Mytilene (c. 600 BC) 

Maxims

"Know your opportunity.
"Mercy is better than vengeance."
"It is hard to be good."
"Even the gods do not fight against Necessity."
"Office shows the man."
"Win bloodless victories."
"If you seek too carefully for a good man, you will never find him."
"It is the part of prudent men, before difficulties arise, to provide against their arising; and of courageous men to deal with them when they have arisen."
"Do not announce your plans beforehand; for, if they fail, you will be laughed at."
"Never reproach any one with a misfortune, for fear of Nemesis."
"Duly restore what has been entrusted to you."
"Speak no ill of a friend, nor even of an enemy."
"Practise piety."
"Love temperance."
"Cherish truth, fidelity, skill, cleverness, sociability, carefulness."

Dialogues

Q.: What is agreeable?
PITTACUS: Time.
Q.: Obscure?
PITTACUS: The future.
Q.: Trustworthy?
PITTACUS: The earth.
Q.: Untrustworthy?
PITTACUS: The sea.

PITTACUS to PERIANDER: Do not get drunk and do not revel, in order that you may not be recognized as the sort of man you happen to be, instead of the sort you pretend to be. (Ath.10.427).

Epitaph

"Here holy Lesbos, with a mother's woe,
Bewails her Pittacus whom death laid low."

Pittacus started his career as a seditious man, but he succeeded in overthrowing the tyrant of Lesbos, and seized the tyranny for himself.

During the war between Mytilene and Athens for the territory of Achilleis in the Troad (a small settlement where the monument of Achilles stands), he commanded the Lesbians, while Phrynon, a man who had won an Olympic victory, led the Athenians. Both agreed to meet in single combat, and it is told that Pittacus slew him after entangling him with a net that he had concealed beneath his shield. In this way he secured the territory for Mytilene. But later, as the case was brought to the arbitration of another wise man, Periander, the Athenians peacefully recovered the disputed land through him.

Anyhow Pittacus was tyrant of Lesbos for ten years, during which he was an "excellent lawgiver", dealing kindly with the citizens, and preventing further wars. Diodorus calls him "gentle", "inclined to self-disparagement", "statesmanlike", "prudent", "courageous", "perfect in respect of every virtue", and having "greatness of soul" and "no trace of avarice". During his tyranny he passed a law providing that for any offence committed in a state of drunkenness the penalty should be doubled.

He is said to have declined an offer of money from Croesus, arguing that he had twice as much as he wanted since after his brother's death he had inherited his estate. And once he wrote to the Lydian king:

"You bid me to come to Lydia in order to see your prosperity: but without seeing it I can well believe that the son of Alyattes is the most opulent of kings. There will be no advantage to me in a journey to Sardis, for I am not in want of money … Nevertheless, I will come, to be entertained by you and to make your acquaintance." (Pittacus to Croesus. DL.1.81).

It is told that either Bias or Pittacus deterred Croesus, who already had subjugated all the Asiatic Greeks, from building a fleet and attack the Greek islanders, by saying that these were buying ten thousand horses to march to Sardis against him. And when Croesus replied implying that he hoped they did so (since he had a powerful army in the mainland), one of the sages said to him:

"O King, you appear to me earnestly to wish to catch the islanders riding horses on the mainland, a natural wish. And what else do you suppose the islanders wished, as soon as they heard that you were building ships to attack them, than to catch Lydians on the seas, so as to be revenged on you for the Greeks who dwell on the mainland, whom you enslaved?" (Herodotus, History 1.27.4).

On hearing this response, they say, Croesus stopped building the ships and concluded treaties of friendship instead.

Pittacus believed that a man should marry within his own sphere, and not someone with more wealth or better birth. It is assumed that the advice was prompted by his own experience, for the woman he had married, being superior in birth, is said to have treated him with haughtiness.

After his resignation, Pittacus lived yet another ten years. Having retired, he received from the people of Mytilene a grant of land, which he dedicated as sacred domain, cutting off a small portion for himself. It is told that he accepted the land only if every man should receive and equal part.

He died in 570 BC when he was over seventy years of age.

(Dio.9.11.1ff., 9.12.1ff.; DL.1.74ff.; Pittacus' maxim "It is hard to be good" is discussed in Plato's Protagoras 339c et.seq.; Strab.13.1.37-39).


Bias of Priene (c. 570 BC) 

Maxims

"Most men are bad."
"He who cannot bear misfortune is truly unfortunate."
"It is a disease of the soul to be enamoured of things impossible of attainment."
"We ought not to dwell upon the woes of others."
"You should measure life as if you had both a short and a long time to live."
"Love your friends as if you would some day hate them, for the majority of mankind is bad."
"Be slow to set about an enterprise, but persevere in it steadfastly when once it is undertaken."
"Do not be hasty of speech, for that is a sign of madness."
"Cherish wisdom."
"Admit the existence of the gods."
"If a man is unworthy, do not praise him because of his wealth."
"Even chance brings abundance of wealth to many."
"Gain your point by persuasion, not by force."
"Ascribe your good actions to the gods."
"Make wisdom your provision for the journey from youth to old age; for it is more certain support than all other possessions."

Dialogues

Q.: What is difficult?
BIAS: Nobly to endure a change for the worse.
Q.: What is sweet to men?
BIAS: Hope.
Q.: What occupation gives a man most pleasure?
BIAS: Making money.

Epitaph

"Here Bias of Priene lies, whose name
Brought to his home and all Ionia fame."

It is not clear whether Bias belonged to a wealthy family, or if he was a simple laborer. But he was a most able speaker, using eloquence, not to gain an income, says Diodorus, but to help to those who had been wronged. And it became proverbial to say:

"… stronger in the pleading of his cases than Bias of Priene." (Strabo, Geography 14.1.12).

Bias is remembered for having ransomed from robbers some Messenian girls of distinguished families, and to have reared them as if they had been his own daughters. And when later the families of the girls found them, he gave them back without asking for any compensation, renouncing both the cost of their rearing and the ransom he had paid to the robbers. For this, they say, the girls loved him as a father.

It is told that Bias deceived Alyattes (father of Croesus) when the latter was besieging Priene. He fattened two mules and drove them into the Lydian camp so that the king would believe there was abundance of provisions even for the beasts. Likewise, the sage piled up heaps of sand with a layer of corn on the top, so that Alyattes' messenger should witness the excellent condition of the city. In this manner Bias discouraged the king, and Priene remained free.

Bias died in the arms of his grandson. The sage had been pleading in defence of a client, and, having finished, he reclined his head on his grandson's bosom, and died.

This Bias should not be confused with the several Bias of the mythology (see Dictionary).

(Dio.9.17.1ff.; DL.1.82ff.).


Cleobulus of Rhodes (c. 600 BC) 

Maxims

"Moderation is best."
"Set your mind on something good."
"Do not become thoughtless or rude."
"Girls need to be educated as well as boys."
"We should render a service to a friend to bind him closer to us, and to an enemy in order to make a friend of him."
"When anyone leaves his house, let him first inquire what he means to do; and on his return let him ask himself what he has effected."
"Practise bodily exercise."
"Be listener rather than talker."
"Choose instruction rather than ignorance."
"Refrain from ill-omened words."
"Be friendly to virtue, hostile to vice."
"Shun injustice."
"Counsel the state for the best."
"Do nothing by violence."
"Put an end to enmity."
"Avoid being affectionate to your wife, or quarrelling with her, in the presence of strangers: for the one savours of folly, the other of madness."
"Mate with one of your own rank; for if you take a wife who is superior to you, her kinsfolk will become your masters."
"Bear the changes of fortune with nobility."
"Do not be arrogant in prosperity; if you fall into poverty, do not humble yourself."

Epitaph

"Here the wise Rhodian, Cleobulus, sleeps,
And o'er his ashes sea-proud Lindus weeps."

Cleobulus from Lindus (Rhodes) was distinguished for his strength and beauty, and was said to be acquainted with Egyptian philosophy. He was the author of songs and riddles, as also was his daughter Cleobuline.

Apparently, Cleobulus was the author of the inscription on the tomb of Midas:

"I am a maiden in bronze and I rest upon Midas' tomb. So long as water shall flow and tall trees grow, and the sun shall rise and shine, and the bright moon, and rivers shall run and the sea wash the shore, here abiding on his tear-sprinkled tomb I shall tell the passers-by—Midas is buried here." (DL.1.89).

But the poet Simonides says that no one trusting his wits will praise Cleobulus for such a passage. For the strength of a column which even mortal hands break, he argues, cannot sensibly be opposed to the forces of nature and the might of the gods.

He died at seventy.

(DL.1.89ff.; Strab.14.2.11).


Periander of Corinth (625-585 BC) 

5629: Periander. La mosaïque a été découverte en 1938 près d'Antioche, dans la maison de Astres. IIIe siècle après J.-C. Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Genève.

Periander, son of Cypselus 2, son of Eetion 4, was tyrant of Corinth. Under his reign Arion 2 of Methymna landed on Taenarus, borne to that place by a dolphin, and this event—says Herodotus (1.23.1)—was "the most marvellous thing that happened to him in his life" (see Arion 2).

It was Cypselus 2 who first won the tyranny of Corinth, his rule consisting mainly in driving many into exile, depriving others of their property, and killing the rest. He ruled thirty years, being succeeded by Periander, but an oracle at Delphi had predicted that he and his children would rule Corinth, "but not the sons of his sons".

It is said that Periander began his rule in a milder mode. But later, he interpreted certain gestures of Thrasybulus, the tyrant of Miletus whom he held in high esteem, and as a result of that interpretation he became even more bloodthirsty than his father. For he thought that Thrasybulus had counselled him, as a safe way of governing the city, to slay the most outstanding citizens of Corinth.

It was then that the banishments and slaughters began again; and Periander is also credited with having stripped naked all the women of Corinth, after an apparition of his dead wife had declared that she was cold and naked. To accomplish that prowess, he organized a festival of Hera, and when the women came out wearing their most beautiful garments, he surrounded them with guards, who stripped them naked, heaping their clothes in a pit and burning them while the tyrant prayed to his dead wife. In return for the warmth of the fire, the apparition consented to reveal to her husband where a certain treasure—left by a friend—was hidden.

Periander was rejected as a sage, for "having turned into a harsh tyrant," as Diodorus says, and neither Plato in his list nor Plutarch in his fictive Dinner of the Seven nor Pausanias wished to have Periander's name among the wise:

"Among the sayings of the Greeks is one that there were seven wise men. Two of them were the despot of Lesbos and Periander the son of Cypselus. And yet Pisistratus and his son Hippias were more humane than Periander, wiser too in warfare and in statecraft." (Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.23.1).

Periander's wife was Melissa, daughter of Procles 3, the tyrant of Epidaurus. By her he had two sons, the younger an intelligent man, and the elder afflicted with a vague degree of stupidity. Periander, who apparently had not the ability "to control anger", as wise men usually recommend, let himself be controlled by it instead, and killed his wife either by throwing a footstool at her, or by kicking her when she was pregnant. He lamented the death of his wife so much that he burned alive the slanderous concubines who had egged him against her, which suggests that one anger may placate another.

Later Melissa's father received his grandsons at Epidaurus, and when they were about to left for Corinth, he told them affectionately:

"Do you know, boys, who killed your mother?" (Procles 3 to Periander's sons. Herodotus, History 3.50.3).

Maxims

"Practice makes perfect."
"Never do anything for money."
"Leave gain to trades pursued for gain."
"Tyrants who intend to be safe should make loyalty their bodyguard, not arms."
"For a tyrant it is as dangerous to retire voluntarily as to be dispossessed."
"Rest is beautiful."
"Rashness has its perils."
"Gain is ignoble."
"Democracy is better than tyranny."
"Be moderate in prosperity, prudent in adversity."
"Be the same to your friends whether they are in prosperity or in adversity."
"Whatever agreement you make, stick to it."
"Betray no secret."
"Correct not only the offenders but also those who are on the point of offending."

Epitaph

"In mother earth here Periander lies,
The prince of sea-girt Corinth rich and wise."


The elder son paid no attention, for "With stupidity the gods themselves struggle in vain", but his intelligent son, on his return home, grieved his mother so much that he would not even speak to his father. Periander wrote to his father-in-law

"The murder of my wife was unintentional; but yours is deliberate guilt when you set my son's heart against me. Either therefore put an end to my son's harsh treatment, or I will revenge myself on you. For long ago I made expiation to you for your daughter by burning on her pyre the apparel of all the women of Corinth." (DL.1.100).

but to no avail. So Periander had to drive the boy from his house, but as Lycophron (for that was his son's name) stayed in the house of friends, Periander sent a message to those with whom his son was living and forbade them to keep him. But as Lycophron was going from house to house, Periander, wishing to show no weakness, issued a proclamation, that whoever sheltered his son or even spoke to him, would pay a fine to Apollo. And since "money talks", from that day Lycophron had to sleep in the open, being starved and unwashed. It was then that Periander approached him, "speaking words of wisdom":

"My son, which is preferable—to follow your present way of life, or by being well-disposed toward your father to inherit my power and the goods which I now possess?" (Periander to Lycophron. Herodotus, History 3.52.3).

And by reminding him that it's better to be envied than to be pitied, exhorted his son to return to the house. Yet Lycophron resolved to add stubbornness to his intelligence, answering that now Periander owed the fine to Apollo for having conversed with him. This is why the tyrant, seeing that his son could not be persuaded, banished him to Corcyra, the island off the coast of Epirus which was then subject to Corinth. And having settled that matter, he fulfilled his promise to Procles 3, sending an army against Epidaurus and imprisoning his father-in-law.

Now "Time is a great healer", and Periander, having become very old, sent for Lycophron to succeed him in the tyranny (his other son being slow-witted), but the son did not even reply to the invitation. So Periander sent his daughter to pour a cascade of wisdom over her brother with which to persuade him. She said:

"Child, would you want the power to fall to others, and our father's house destroyed, rather than to return and have it yourself? Come home and stop punishing yourself. Pride is an unhappy possession. Do not cure evil by evil. Many place the more becoming thing before the just; and many pursuing their mother's business have lost their father's. Power is a slippery thing; many want it, and our father is now old and past his prime; do not lose what is yours to others." (Periander's daughter to Lycophron. Herodotus, History 3.53.3ff.).

Such a collection of proverbs did not impress Lycophron, who answered that he would not return to Corinth for as long as Periander lived. But the latter sent a messenger saying that he was prepared to exile himself in Corcyra if Lycophron would return to Corinth to be the heir of his power, and this proposal defeated the son's stubbornness.

However, when the people of Corcyra learned that Periander would come to their country, they put the young man to death. Such was their love for their wise ruler. To avenge this terrible crime, Periander selected three hundred boys—sons of notable men in Corcyra—whom he intended to send to Alyattes at Sardis (father of Croesus), that he might made eunuchs of them. This plan failed, however, because when the ship touched Samos (the Aegean island off the western coast of Asia Minor), the boys took sanctuary in the temple of Hera (or of Artemis, as others say), being later rescued by the Samians, who brought them back to Corcyra.

Such are Periander's wise deeds, and some have credited with having hosted all Seven Sages, arranging a conference in Corinth.

But as also sages must perish, Periander died at the age of eighty, a strange age for a tyrant to die, according to Thales. But it is told that Periander did not wish the place of his tomb to be known. And he achieved his purpose in the following manner:

1) He ordered two young men to go out by night to a certain place, kill the man they there met, and bury him.
2) Then he ordered four other men to go in pursuit of the first two, kill them and bury them.
3) Then he sent a larger number in pursuit of the four to do the same.
4) Having taken these provisions, he went out to meet the first two, who slew him.

(Hdt.1.23, 3.48-53., 5.92G1ff.; Hyg.Fab.194, 221; Pau.2.28.8).


Anacharsis of Scythia (c. 590 BC) 

Maxims

"Bridle speech, gluttony, and sensuality."
"The vine bears three kinds of grapes: the first of pleasure, the next of intoxication, and the third of disgust."
"I wonder why in Greece experts contend in the games and non-experts award the prizes."
"I am surprised that the Greek lawgivers should impose penalties on wanton outrage, while they honour athletes for bruising one another."
"Oil is a drug producing madness, since the athletes when they anoint themselves with it are maddened against each other."
"It is better to have one friend of great worth than many friends worth nothing at all."
"The market is a place where men are allowed to deceive and overreach one another."
"In Greece the wise men plead causes, but the fools decide them." (Plu.Sol.5.3).

Dialogues

Q.: What ships are the safest?
ANACHARSIS: Those which have been hauled ashore.
Q.: Which are more in number, the living or the dead?
ANACHARSIS: In which category, then, do you place those who are on the seas?
Q.: You are but a Scythian!
ANACHARSIS: Well, granted that my country is a disgrace to me, you are a disgrace to your country.
Q.: What among men is both good and bad?
ANACHARSIS: The tongue.

CROESUS: Whom do you consider to be the bravest of living beings?
ANACHARSIS: The wildest animals; for they alone willingly die in order to maintain their freedom.
CROESUS: Whom do you judge to be the most just of living beings? (Dio.9.26.3).
ANACHARSIS: The wildest animals; for they alone live in accordance with nature, not in accordance with laws; since nature is a work of God, while law is an ordinance of man, and it is more just to follow the institutions of God than those of men.
CROESUS: And are the beasts, then, also the wisest?
ANACHARSIS: Yes, they are. The peculiar characteristic of wisdom consists in showing a greater respect to the truth which nature imparts than to the ordinance of the law.

Epitaph

"Back from his travels Anacharsis came,
To hellenize the Scythians all aglow;
Ere half his sermon could their minds inflame,
A winged arrow laid the preacher low."

Not all the Seven Sages of Greece are Greek, for as they say

"… a wise man finds Hellas everywhere …" (Flavius Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 1.34).

Even in Scythia, where the "hellenized" Anacharsis, whose mother was Greek, was born.

According to some, Anacharsis invented the anchor (see his opinion on ships among the maxims), and the potter's wheel. It is told that it was from "pride in his wisdom", that he cared to ask the oracle of Delphi who of the Greeks was wiser than he, receiving the disappointing answer that Myson was. Also Pausanias says that Anacharsis desired the title of "wisest", which the Pythia denied.

Anacharsis traveled through Greece, visiting Solon and, some say, Myson. Also he among the sages showed great interest in visiting Croesus, although not for the money, as he elucidates. He wrote a wonderful letter from Sardis to the wealthy king:

"I have come, O King of the Lydians, to the land of the Greeks to be instructed in their manners and pursuits. And I am not even in quest of gold, but am well content to return to Scythia a better man. At all events her I am in Sardis, being greatly desirous of making your acquaintance." (Anacharsis to Croesus. DL.1.105).

But when they met, Croesus laughed at him, taking his answers as coming from a Scythian, that is from someone who has a bestial manner of living. In fact the Scythians were nomads, and Herodotus thinks that they had made a clever discovery by not establishing cities nor tilling the soil. For in that way no one could catch them, and they made sure that their attackers would not escape.

It is said that when Anacharsis was at the court of Periander, he demanded the prize that had been offered for drinking. He argued that he should get it because the goal of drinking was to get drunk first, just like in running-races was to arrive first to the goal.

Anacharsis is not explicitly reported to have engaged in politics, but he was not—for some reason—in good terms with his brother Caduidas, the king of Scythia, who, having supposed him of subverting with his "hellenism" the Scythian institutions, murdered him while they were hunting together, which also shows that the sage also enjoyed "the sport of kings". It is said that Anacharsis, when struck by the arrow that killed him, attributed his ruin to Envy, and he could be right, for Apollonius remarked that

"… a wise man runs more risk than do sailors and soldiers in action, for envy is ever assailing him, whether he holds his tongue or speaks, whether he exerts himself or is idle …" (Flavius Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 1.34).

However, Herodotus says that Anacharsis was killed by the Scythian king Saulius while he was performing certain outlandish rituals, but he confirms that this king was Anacharsis' brother.

(Ath.10.438; Dio.9.6.1; 9.26.3ff.; DL.1.101ff.; Hdt.4.46.2, 4.76.4; Pau.1.22.7).

APPENDIX
On the straightforwardness of the Scythians

"Now wherein is it to be wondered at that, because of the widespread injustice connected with contracts in our country, Homer called "most just" and "proud" those who by no means spend their lives on contracts and money-getting but actually possess all things in common except sword and drinking-cup, and above all things have their wives and their children in common, in the Platonic way? Aeschylus, too, is clearly pleading the cause of the poet when he says about the Scythians:

'But the Scythians, law-abiding, eaters of cheese made of mare's milk.' [i]

And this assumption even now still persists among the Greeks; for we regard the Scythians the most straightforward of men and the least prone to mischief, as also far more frugal and independent of others than we are. And yet our mode of life has spread its change for the worse to almost all peoples, introducing amongst them luxury and sensual pleasures and, to satisfy these vices, base artifices that lead to innumerable acts of greed. So then, much wickedness of this sort has fallen on the barbarian peoples also, on the Nomads as well as the rest; for as the result of taking up a seafaring life they not only have become morally worse, indulging in the practice of piracy and of slaying strangers, but also, because of their intercourse with many peoples, have partaken of the luxury and the peddling habits of those peoples. But though these things seem to conduce strongly to gentleness of manner, they corrupt morals and introduce cunning instead of the straightforwardness which I just now mentioned.

Those, however, who lived before our times, and particularly those who lived near the time of Homer, were—and among the Greeks were assumed to be—some such people as Homer describes. And see what Herodotus says concerning that king of the Scythians against whom Darius made his expedition, and the message which the king sent back to him.[ii] See also what Chrysippus [iii] says concerning the kings of the Bosporus, the house of Leuco.[iv] And not only the Persian letters [v] are full of references to that straightforwardness of which I am speaking but also the memoirs written by the Egyptians, Babylonians, and Indians. And it was on this account that Anacharsis, Abaris,[vi] and other men of the sort were in fair repute among the Greeks, because they displayed a nature characterized by complacency, frugality, and justice."

(Strabo, Geography 7.3.7-8).

[i] Nauck, fr. 198.
[ii] Hdt.7.3.14.
[iii] Lost work.
[iv] Strab.7.4.4.
[v] Letters of the Persian kings as quoted by Herodotus.
[vi] Abaris 4, an Hyperborean who traveled on an arrow that Apollo had given him (Hdt.4.36, Suda s.v.).

From the Geography of Strabo, translated by H. L. Jones, Loeb Classical Library.


Myson of Chenae (c. 600 BC) 

Maxims

"Investigate facts by the light of arguments, but arguments by the light of facts; for the fact were not put together to fit the arguments, but the arguments to fit the facts."

Dialogues

Q.: Why are you laughing, since no one is near?
MYSON: That is just the reason.


Myson, whose father is said to have been a tyrant, was born in Chen (Chenae), "a village in the district of Oeta or Laconia", or else he was of Etis, a district in Laconia. Others say Crete, and Arcadia. He is said to have spent his entire time in the countryside, thus remaining unknown to most men. It is said that either Solon or Anacharsis went to visit him out of curiosity; and having found him fitting a handle to a plow, one of them said to him: "Now is not the season for the plow, Myson," and he replied "Not to use it, but to make it ready."

Although some called him a misanthrope, Myson was proclaimed "wisest of men" by the oracle of Delphi on the occasion Anacharsis consulted it.

He died at the age of ninety-seven.

(Dio.9.7.1; DL.1.106ff.).


Epimenides of Crete (c. 600 BC) 

Maxims

In his Epistle to Titus, the servant of God and apostle Paul says:

"One of themselves, even a prophet of their own, said, The Cretans are always liars …" (Titus 1.12).

Likewise Callimachus (fl. 284 BC):

"Cretans are ever liars." (Callimachus, Hymn to Zeus 8).

Clement of Alexandria (fl. c. AD 200) is said to have been the first to attribute to Epimenides the saying quoted by St. Paul (Stromateis 1.59.2). Later, the formulation "All Cretans are liars" became known as "the liar's paradox": "How can a Cretan's statement, 'Cretans always lie,' be either true or false?"


The most astounding about Epimenides, a native of Cnossos (or Phaestus as Plutarch and Strabo say), is that he slept so long. For once his father sent him to look for a stray sheep and Epimenides, feeling tired at noon, turn aside out of his way and went to sleep in a cave and did not wake up until fifty-seven years had passed (but Pausanias says that sleep left him "in the fortieth year").

When he had enough of his siesta, he got up and went in search of the lost sheep, returning, after a fruitless search, to his father's farm, which had another owner and was completely changed. In perplexity he then went to his own house in the city, only to find it occupied by strangers who wondered who he was. Finally he found his younger brother, now turned into an old man, from whom he learned what had happened. And what had happened? Nobody could explain it, for Epimenides was as young as when he fell asleep in the cave. Therefore he became famous in the whole of Hellas and regarded as a favorite of Heaven.

Epimenides turned into the kind of sage that rulers call to placate the rage caused by, for example, plague. For natural disasters usually drive men out of their minds. So when the Athenians were afflicted by pestilence, they sent an envoy to Crete to ask Epimenides for assistance. Some have asserted that the sage stayed the plague by offering sacrifices to the local divinities, but others say that he put the blame on Cylon—the seditious aristocrat that had seized the Acropolis with a view to tyranny. This diagnosis resulted in the execution of two young men, which delivered the city from the scourge, or so they thought. The grateful Athenians voted him money, but he declined it while concluding a treaty of friendship and alliance between Cnossos and Athens, which shows he also was a plenipotentiary. This is the "branch of the sacred olive-tree, with which he returned home," mentioned by Plutarch (Solon 12.6). According to Plato these events took place "ten years before the Persian War," adding that Epimenides made the following prophecy on the threatening Persian invasions:

"They will not come for ten years, and when they do come, they will return back again with all their hopes frustrated, and after suffering more woes than they inflict." (Plato, Laws 642d).

A number of poems are attributed to him. He is said to have been the first to purify houses and fields, and to have predicted events, as the defeat of the Lacedaemonians in their war with the Arcadians. But on this prophecy, says Pausanias:

"The Argive story is that the Lacedaemonians made war upon the Cnossians and took Epimenides alive; they then put him to death for not prophesying good luck to them …" (Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.21.3).

Yet he later asserts that

"… the Lacedaemonians deny that they ever fought with the Cnossians." (Pausanias, Description of Greece 3.12.10).

It is also told that he neither slept nor ate, and that he received from the Nymphs a special food which he kept in a cow's hoof, taking small portions from it. They say that he became old "in as many days as he had slept years", and that he died soon after his return to Crete from Athens, where (according to Plutarch) "he made Solon his friend, assisted him in many ways, and paved the way for his legislation."

Some affirm that he lived 157 years, others say 154, and according to the Cretans he lived 299 years.

(DL.1.109ff.; Pau.1.14.1; Plu.Sol.12.4; Strab 10.4.14).


Pherecydes of Syros (fl. c. 540 BC) 

Epitaph

"All knowledge that a man may have had I:
Yet tell Pythagoras, were more thereby,
That first of all Greeks is he; I speak no lie."


Pherecydes, a disciple of Pittacus, had the ability to make predictions—such as when a ship would sink, or when an earthquake would occur—learning about them in his dreams.

Pherecydes believed that Zeus, Time, and Earth had been from all eternity.

He might have died a natural death, but some have said that he hurled himself down from Mt. Corycus at Delphi, and others that he died of a verminous disease. Diogenes Laertius tells that Pherecydes was buried by the Ephesians, while Diodorus says that Pythagoras came from Italy to Delos to take care of the dying man, making provisions for his burial as well.

This Pherecydes is not the same as Pherecydes of Athens, called "the genealogist", who came later and was also author of mythical stories.

(Dio.10.3.4; DL.1.116ff.).


Lists of the Seven Sages 

Candidates named by Diogenes Laertius (c. 3C AD), 1.13, 1.40ff. Those "commonly named" as the Seven Sages are in bold style. Hyginus' list in Fabulae 121 coincides with Diogenes' bolded names.

Plato (427-347 BC):
Protagoras 343a
Pausanias (10.24.1), who gives six names, lists adopts Myson instead of Periander, following Plato.

Plutarch (AD 45-120):
The Dinner of the Seven Wise Men (Moralia 146)

Clement of Alexandria (fl. c. AD 200), Stromateis 1.14.59.1ff.
The seventh candidate is one of those written in plain style.

Acusilaus of Argos (before the Persian wars)

   

Acusilaus

Anacharsis of Scythia (c. 590 BC)

Anacharsis

Anacharsis

Anaxagoras (500-428 BC)

   

Aristodemus (c. 735-715 BC)

Bias of Priene (c. 570 BC)

Bias

Bias

Bias

Chilon of Sparta (c. 560 BC)

Chilon

Chilon

Chilon

Cleobulus of Rhodes (c. 600 BC)

Cleobulus

Cleobulus

Cleobulus

Epicharmus (born c. 540 BC)

     

Epimenides of Crete (c. 600 BC)

Epimenides

Lasus of Hermione (fl. 6C BC)

 

Leophantus of Lebedus or Ephesus

Linus 1

Myson of Chenae (c. 600 BC)

Myson

Orpheus

 

Pamphylus

Periander of Corinth (625-585 BC)

Periander

Pherecydes of Syros (fl. c. 540 BC)

Pherecydes

Pisistratus of Athens (c. 605-527 BC)

 

Pittacus of Mytilene (c. 600 BC)

Pittacus

Pittacus

Pittacus

Pythagoras (c. 570-497 BC)

     

Solon of Athens (c. 594 BC)

Solon

Solon

Solon

Thales of Miletus (fl. c. 585 BC)

Thales

Thales

Thales


Notes and sources of quotations 

[1] The sages have been also called sophistaí, a sophistés being a man who excelled in any art. From the 5th century BC, the term sophist was employed to designate teachers of eloquence, that is, professors of grammar, rhetoric, etc., such as Protagoras. Subsequently, the sophists lost their reputation on account of their loose principles, and the word sophist came to denote a quibbler or a charlatan. Contemporary words such as sophism (fallacious argument), sophisticate (corrupt, adulterate, but also refine and educate), and sophomore (a student in his second year) belong to the same family.

[2] Free translation: "If all courts were sincere, just, and mild, most virtues would be worthless to us."

[3] Free translation: "And it's a folly second to none, to meddle with the amendment of the world."

 THE LABYRINTH OF WISDOM

  • "Good things are difficult" (Erasmus of Rotterdam 1469-1536, Adages II.i.12).
  • "thinking makes it so" (William Shakespeare 1544-1616, Hamlet, II.ii.248).
  • "A poet is born, not made" ("Poeta nascitur, non fit") (Proverb).
  • "cloaked and bearded to command respect" (Erasmus of Rotterdam 1469-1536, Praise of Folly).
  • "No man is born wise" (Proverb).
  • "Time tries truth" (Proverb).
  • "quick as time" (Hesiod, Theogony 269).
  • "Haste makes waste" (Proverb).
  • "Hasty climbers have sudden falls" (Proverb).
  • "kiss him into slumbers" (John Fletcher 1579-1625, Valentinian, v.ii).
  • "At the touching of the lips" (Alfred Tennyson 1809-92, Locksley Hall 38).
  • "fairer than the evening air" (Christopher Marlowe 1564-93, Doctor Faustus).
  • "make me immortal with a kiss" (Christopher Marlowe 1564-93, Doctor Faustus).
  • "distance lends enchantment" (Thomas Campbell 1777-1844, The Pleasures of Hope).
  • "private secretaries to Nature" (Erasmus of Rotterdam 1469-1536, Praise of Folly).
  • "their sweet poison" (Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 1.32).
  • "immortal night" (Homer, Iliad 1.475, etc.).
  • "hope is but the dream of those who wake" (Matthew Prior 1664-1721, Solomon on the Vanity of the World).
  • "as soon as early rosy-fingered Dawn appeared" (Homer, Iliad 1.475).
  • "as a sovereign remedy to all diseases" (Robert Burton 1577-1640, Anatomy of Melancholy, part II. iv. ii. 1.
  • "[the gods know and] hear and see all things" (Plato, Laws 901d).
  • "Pride is an unhappy possession. (Herodotus, History 3.53.3ff.).
  • "poring over miserable books" (Alfred Tennyson 1809-92, Locksley Hall 172).
  • "the parent and creator of the human race" (Erasmus of Rotterdam 1469-1536, Praise of Folly).
  • "No man is wise at all times" (Proverb).
  • "whatever he put behind him he put out of existence" (Charles Dickens 1812-70, Our Mutual Friend, I. xi.).
  • "In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king" (Proverb).
  • "equability of countenance" ("igualdad del semblante". Jorge Manrique 1440-1478, Coplas a la muerte de su padre).
  • "To be or the contrary?" Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch 1863-1944, The Art of Writing).
  • "No wisdom like silence" (Proverb).
  • "Silence is golden" (Proverb).
  • "Silence gives consent" (Proverb).
  • "know thyself" (Seven Sages).
  • "nothing in excess" (Seven Sages).
  • "a pledge, and ruin is near" (Seven Sages).
  • "Better be happy than wise" (Proverb).
  • "passing round the cup" (ancient, in Erasmus of Rotterdam 1469-1536, Praise of Folly).
  • "hurling the furniture" (Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 2.36).
  • "It is good to be merry and wise" (Proverb).
  • "where ignorance is bliss, "tis folly to be wise" (Proverb).
  • "Love is blind" (Proverb).
  • "Love rules his kingdom without a sword" (Proverb).
  • "blood-stained Ares" (Homer, Iliad).
  • "fools build houses and wise men live in them" (Proverb).
  • "War is sweet to those who have not tried it" (Erasmus of Rotterdam 1469-1536, Adages).
  • "He is wise enough that can keep himself warm" (Proverb).

THE SEVEN SAGES

  • "With stupidity the gods themselves struggle in vain" (Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens). (Friedrich Schiller 1759-1805, Die Jungfrau von Orleans).
  • "Time is a great healer" (Proverb).
  • "the sport of kings" (William Sommerville 1675-1742, The Chase, i.13).

Related sections Croesus, Map of Greece & Asia Minor, Bibliography: Ancient Authors, Madness 
Sources
Abbreviations

See the text above.

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