"First Solon, who made the Athenian laws;
While Chilo, in Sparta, was famed for his saws;
In Miletus did Thales astronomy teach;
Bias used in Prie'ne his morals to preach;
Cleobulus of Lindus was handsome and wise;
Mitylene 'gainst thraldom saw Pittacus rise;
Periander is said to have gained, through his court,
The title that Myson, the Chenian, ought."
[Footnote: It is Plato who says that Periander,
tyrant of Corinth; should give place to Myson.]
The Seven Sages of Greece (c. 620 BC–550 BC was the title given by Greek tradition to seven wise ancient Greek men who were philosophers, statesmen and law-givers. The Seven Sages are known for their practical wisdom which "consisted of pithy and memorable dicta". The best were put up on the wall of the temple at Delphi as dedications to the god Apollo. Plato provides the earliest list of the so-called Seven Sages; although Simonides, a century earlier, sets out to answer Pittacus and Cleobulus as though striving for a place on the list.
The standard list is:
Solon, Miden Agan, "Nothing in excess"
- Solon of Athens - "Nothing in excess"
- Chilon of Sparta - "Know thyself"
- Thales of Miletus - "To bring surety brings ruin"
- Bias of Priene - "Too many workers spoil the work"
- Cleobulus of Lindos - "Moderation is the chief good"
- Pittacus of Mitylene - "Know thine opportunity"
- Periander of Corinth - "Forethought in all things"
Instead of Periander or Cleobulus, both tyrants, some Greeks substituted Myson of Chen or the Scythian prince Anacharsis. There were at least twenty men whom someone in antiquity called one of the Seven.
Other quotes attributed to the sages include: "Master anger"; "Look to the end of life"; "Avoid responsibility for others' debts"; and the characteristically Greek "Call no man happy until he is dead".
In Plato's dialogue, Socrates obliquely refers to a tale of the Seven Sages which points out that humility is the basis of wisdom. Diogenes Laertius tells several variants of the story. Some men from Miletus bought a netful of fish before they were hauled in; and when they were, there was a tripod in the net; according to one version, it had belonged to Helen of Troy. The Milesians quarrelled with the fishermen over whether it was part of the deal, and at length they appealed to an oracle of Apollo. The oracle commanded the tripod to be given to the wisest of men. So, it was sent to Thales of Miletus. He modestly disclaimed the title and sent it to Bias of Priene, who also refused the honor and so it continued throughout the group. In the end, it came back to Thales, or to Solon, who asked "who is wiser than Apollo?" and dedicated it to the god.
- Laertius Diogenes, Lives of the Philosophers: "Thales".
- Oxford Classical Dictionary: "Seven Sages".
- Plato, Protagoras: 343a-b.
- Harper's Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities, ed. by Harry Thurston Peck, Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., l962.
- Brush Up Your Classics, Michael Macrone, Gramercy Books, NY, 1991.
See also Terme dei Sette Sapienti (III, X ,2)) in Ostia with images of the Seven Sages of Greece
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