7 wise men of Greece,You Must Know

Many have heard of them, few know exactly about them. Anyone who has looked around the vast expanses of the history of philosophy has stumbled across the so-called seven wise men of Greece.These are pre-Socratic philosophers who have gained fame due to their great importance for ancient Greek culture and their maxims.

  1. About the seven wise men
  2. Then everything is clear, isn’t it?
  3. The meaning of the seven wise men
  4. The sayings of the seven wise men
  1. Who is one of the seven wise men?
  2. What historical sources are there?
  3. What is the meaning of the seven wise men?
  4. What are the sayings of the seven wise men?

About the seven wise men

It seems that when one speaks of exactly seven wise men, it must be perfectly clear who belongs to this group of the seven and who does not, but who is not. Unfortunately, the few sources have been blurred, lost or simply become contradictory through or over the centuries.

Finally, we have to realize that the pre-Socratic period was quite a long time ago and that the texts, traditions and stories have come through many hands. In order to have concrete figures in mind, one can classify the pre-Socratic period in the period from about 600 to 350 BCE. [1]

Today, the ominous title is largely based on the idea that the seven wise men are great pre-Socratic thinkers, politicians and naturalists, each of whom achieved fame through the wisdom they coined with great precision. We should take a closer look at that.

It makes sense to ask when the listing of the seven wise men first took place, or which is the oldest source that has survived to us. This is one of the Platonic dialogues. Plato first mentions a complete list of the seven wise men in Protagoras (343 a4):

  • Thales of Miletus
  • Pittacus from Mytilene
  • Bias from Priene
  • Solon of Athens
  • Cleobulus of Lindos
  • Myson from Chenai
  • Chilon of Sparta

In the list of these explicitly seven (a4) persons, without being called the Seven Wise Men, the oldest list of the so-called Seven Wise Men is found (in later sources they are mostly referred to as επτά σοφοί [the Seven Wise Men] . [2]

Then everything is clear, isn’t it?

Amazingly, however, the seven wise men are not fixed quantities for Plato. There is even the assumption that Plato created the list as a blanket statement, even ironic [cf. 2]. Accordingly, the seven wise men would be nothing but randomly listed thinkers and naturalists of that ancient time who might not have deserved the venerable title.

In addition, research is not sure whether Plato was the first to make the list, or whether he was inspired by earlier stories. It could well be the case that he simply took the list of the seven wise men from folk myth of the 5th or 6th century BC. [4]

However, it is not only the significance of the group that is disputed, but also its composition. The seven wise men have not been a fixed name in the history of philosophy and have changed depending on the author, source and time, as have the sayings assigned to them:

Just as the composition of the group was stated differently, the assignment of the sayings to the individual wise men was not always clear. […] This is how the saying ‘Know yourself!’ (among others) Thales and Chilon ascribed […] ‘Nothing in excess!’ Solon, but also Chilon [2]

For this reason, Luciano DeCrescenzo begins his easy-to-read and amusing introduction to Greek philosophy in the following way: The Seven Wise Men were twenty-two, namely: Thales, Pittakos, Bias, Solon, Cleobulus, Chilon, Periandros, Myson, Aristodemos, Epimenides, Leophantos , Pythagoras, Anacharsis, Epicharm, Akusilaos, Orpheus, Peisistratos, Pherekydes, Hermioneos, Lasos, Pampilos and Anaxagoras. [3, p.21]

The meaning of the seven wise men

First of all, we must note that the seven wise men do not play any role in modern philosophy. One would call these ›wise men‹, who were called σοφοί (= knowing) ›philosophers‹, but nowadays no longer describe them as philosophers at all, since the modern activity of philosophy is completely different.

So if one speaks of the meaning of the seven wise men, then only with regard to their relevance in antiquity. There they actually played an important role – apparently otherwise they would not have received this venerable title. It can be said that the seven wise men had primarily a position of authority and a central position in matters of education:

[The words of the seven wise men] were used by the fathers to raise their sons, and they were always quoted by speakers in politics as well as in court; their songs were heard all around at dinners, and unlike some of today’s hits, they were peppered with moral principles.

I particularly remember a chant from Chilon, in whose refrain it says: “You test gold on whetstones … but gold shows how men are sensed, whether they are good or bad.” [3, p. 23]

The sayings of the seven wise men

The Gallo-Roman poet Ausonius (310-394) has one of his characters proclaim their famous sayings and maxims in the play Ludus Septem Sapientum (The Game of the Seven Wise Men). Of course, these are far from the only ones that have been assigned to the respective sages throughout history, but it is enough as a good basis. Maybe you can get inspiration from one of the sentences?

The following passage, in which the proverbs of the seven wise men are listed, is quoted from the work of Bruno Snell , a classical philologist, entitled  Life and Opinions of the Seven Wise Men  [5]:

In Delphi, it is said, Solon of Athens wrote
γνθι σεαυτόν , in German: know yourself.
But some think this is Chilon’s word.

The maxim  γνθι σεαυτόν ( g nthi seautón ), meaning ›know yourself‹, is one of the most famous sayings of all. The meaning of this maxim expands to different areas with different interpretations. Originally one could have understood this sentence simply as an invitation to humility towards the gods.

At the latest at the time of the Stoa  , the call for self-knowledge took a turn: man should become aware that he is mortal, imperfect in his possibilities and very limited in his life. Accordingly, in order to be able to live successfully, he must develop a right measure of humility to virtue.

Spartan Chilon, it is also argued
whether yours is the other saying:  ρα τέλος μακρο βίου ,
which is attributed to you, because you order to wait for
the end of a long life first. […]

The maxim ρα τέλος μακρο βίου  ( hóra telos makru bíu ), meaning ›Pay attention to the end of a long life‹, can be interpreted by everyone for himself. I don’t think there’s really much to gain here.

But Pittakos of Lesbos, it is said, said:
γίγνωσκε καιρόν  and exhorts:
Recognize ‘the time –  καιρός  is’ ​​right time’.

On the other hand, Pittako’s saying γίγνωσκε καιρόν ( gígnōske kairón ) is of great importance , roughly: recognize the right time! Any action can be totally botched if done at the wrong time. Especially in the Aristotelian virtue ethics , the right measure, i.e. the right way to perform an action, only a few centuries later, according to this saying, becomes decisive as the guideline for a new ethic.

And Bias von Priene said:  ο πλεστοι κακοί ,
that means in German: Most people
are bad; – understand, he calls the fools bad.

Bias’ saying ο πλεστοι κακοί ( h oi pléistoi kakói ) is perhaps a true, but pessimistic attitude, based on the fact that he equates most people with fools, i.e. fools. A fool is characterized by the fact that he does not act according to reason and is also unteachable, wanton and naive. Bias condemns these specific traits that he believes most people have.

And Periander from Corinth:  μελέτη τ πν ;
Carefully, he thinks, can do anything.

Have the whole thing in mind, or  μελέτη τ πν ( m elétē to pan ). Periander hereby exhorts us to show foresight and always to keep the whole of life in mind. We should always ask ourselves how our life, our actions and our work in this world appear in context.

ριστον μέτρον  taught Cleobulus from Lindas,
– German: the best is the measure.

Another indication of the importance of the mean in ancient ethics is provided by Cleobulus with his maxim ριστον μέτρον ( m étron áriston ): moderation is the best. Some time later, Aristotle gave this maxim a newer form in his Nicomachean Ethics by establishing the doctrine of the right center, the so-called Mesotes doctrine .

Too much of things, as well as too little, is undesirable in all matters. Instead of rushing to extremes, care should be taken to surround yourself with healthy conditions and to live according to the right measure.

And Thales said,  γγύα, πάρα δ τα ;
He warns against bail, as it brings harm.
The one who borrows does not like this admonition.
I have spoken, resign; and Solon,
Who Gave the Laws, appears.


Leave a Comment