Seven Sages of Greece

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

Sources and Legends

The oldest [A. Griffiths, "Seven Sages", in "Oxford Classical Dictionary" (3rd ed.).] explicit mention on record of a standard list of seven sages is in Plato's "Protagoras", where Socrates says:

The passage in which the above occurs is "elaborately ironical"; so it is tough to know which aspects of it to take seriously, [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.] though 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. Diogenes introduces a similar list with the words "These men are acknowledged wise"; however, on Diogenes' first list of seven, Periander appears instead of Myson. ["Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers" 1.13.] According to Diogenes, citing Demetrius Phalereus, it was during the archonship of Damasias (582/1 B.C.) that the seven had first become known as "the wise men", Thales being the first so acknowledged. [Kirk, Raven, & Schofield, "The Presocratic Philosophers" (Cambridge, 1983, 2nd edition), p. 76, citing Diogenes Laertius 1.22.] Diogenes points out that there was, among his sources, great disagreement over which figures should be counted among the seven, and even that there was disagreement over the number of sages, some lists including up to seventeen individuals. ["Lives" 1.41-42.]

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. [H. Parke and D. Wormell, "The Delphic Oracle", (Basil Blackwell, 1956), vol. 1, pp. 387-389.] According to one pair of scholars, "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." [Parke & Wormell, p. 389.]

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. (Some sources include Anacharsis among the Seven Sages.) [Diogenes 1.41-42.]

According to a number of fictitious 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. [Diogenes Laertius 1.27ff.; R. Martin, "Seven Sages", "Encyclopedia of Classical Philosophy" (ed. D. Zeyl, 1997), p. 487; Parke & Wormell, pp. 387-388]

According to Diogenes, Dicaearchus claimed that the Seven "were neither wise men nor philosophers, but merely shrewd men, who had studied legislation." [Diogenes 1.40.] 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." [p. 42 note a, R. Hicks, "Diogenes Laertius: Lives of Eminent Philosophers", vol. 1, Harvard University Press, 1925.]


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