Wise Men . The Seven Sages were renowned wise men of seventh and sixth century Greece. The earliest list of the Seven Sages, in Plato’s Protagoras (circa 387 b.c.e.), includes Thales, Pittacus, Bias, Solon, Cleobolus, Myson, and Chilon. Most other writers substitute Periander for Myson. Thales, Bias, Solon, and Pittacus are common to all lists; sometimes Anacharsis, Pherecydes, Epimenides, and Pisistratus appear. Plutarch dramatizes a (mythical) meeting of the Seven at Corinth hosted by Periander. Many of the maxims that appear at Delphi are attributed to the Seven Sages, including Meden Agan (“Nothing In Excess”) and Gnothi Sauton (“Know Thyself). The sages were known for wisdom in its most general sense, encompassing everything from poetry and politics to predicting eclipses. Knowledge of their actual activities, sayings, and ideas is not extensive and it is often difficult to distinguish factual from fictional portraits.
Bias of Priene . Little is known about Bias of Priene, who was born circa 570 b.c.e. He is credited with several poems, songs, and wise sayings and was active in his city, giving speeches concerning legal cases and political decisions. He was praised by Heraclitus, who called him better than the others who claimed wisdom, perhaps for his saying that the majority of men were bad.
Chilon of Sparta . A Spartan ephor in 536 who contributed to increasing his city’s power and influence, Chilon had a reputation for wisdom, but few details concerning him have survived.
Cleobolus of Rhodes . The son of Euagoras, Cleobolus of Rhodes flourished circa 600 b.c.e. and wrote many poems and songs. He is also credited with several well-known maxims. His daughter, Cleoboline, wrote hexameter verses. Little is known of his life.
Periander of Corinth . The son of Cypselus, Periander (died 588 b.c.e.) succeeded his father as tyrant of Corinth. He erected a temple to Apollo and other public buildings. Despite being described as having killed his wife, he was
respected as a diplomat and patron of the arts. During both his reign and that of his father, Corinth founded several important colonies and was a leader in the production of fine pottery.
Pittacus of Mitylene . Living around 650 to 570 b.c.e., Pittacus was a renowned soldier and commander who ruled as elected dictator of Mitylene for ten years, during which he reformed the laws of the city. Several wise sayings are attributed to him.
Solon of Athens . An Athenian aristocrat, Solon lived circa 630-560 b.c.e. and wrote elegiac and iambic poetry on political and moral subjects. He was first elected archon in Athens around 594 and was responsible for many democratic reforms of the Athenian constitution. He introduced measures to prohibit debtors from being sold into slavery, reformed coinage, and extended citizenship to immigrant craftsmen. Perhaps his most significant reform was to make voting eligibility depend on wealth (with four different property classes having different levels of eligibility for various offices) rather than on birth, thus breaking the political monopoly of the aristocrats.
Thales of Miletus . The actual details of Thales’s life and work are so mingled with later accretions that it is difficult to separate truth from fiction. He lived around 600 b.c.e. in Miletus, where he supposedly gave wise advice on political and other matters and predicted a solar eclipse. His primary interests were astronomy and geometry. Aristotle claims that Thales believed that all other substances (including living creatures) somehow derived from transformations of water. Two statements attributed to him are that all things are full of gods and that the magnet had life or soul because it could move iron. According to a rather improbable story, he died by tripping and falling into a well, while gazing at the stars.
Francis Macdonald Cornford, From Religion to Philosophy: A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation (New York: Harper, 1957).
Hermann F. Fraenkel, Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy, translated by Moses Hadas and James Willis (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975).
Henri Frankfort et al., Before Philosophy (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1949).
Werner Jaeger, The Theology Of The Early Greek Philosophers, translated by Edward S. Robinson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1947).
Bruno Snell, The Discovery of the Mind, translated by T. G. Rosenmeyer (Oxford: Blackwell, 1953).
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