The Seven Sages, Orphism, Dionysianism, Epicurus, Scepticism, Cynicism


Twenty-two philosophers have been mentioned as probable members of this legendary group of seven founders of Greek philosophy: Cleobulus (whose daughter Cleobulina was a well-known philosopher with a political cloud), Chilon, Periander, Miso, Aristodemus, Epimenides, Leophantus, Pythagoras, Anacharsis, Epicharmus, Acusilaus, Orpheus, Pisistratus, Pherecydes, Hermioneus, Lasus, Pamphilus and Anaxagoras. However, classical sources are unanimous about four thinkers: Thales from Milete, Bias from Priene, Solon from Athens and Pittakos from Mytilene. The latter three are known for their statesmanship, legislation and poetry. The Seven Sages had high status in their society. Wise maxims were, according to Plato criterium for admittance; they were selected from all over Greece. They probably assembled in Delphi. Some of the best known maxims were featured in Delphi to honor Apollo. Well-known, also today, are 'Know Thyself' (Thales) and 'Nothing Overmuch'. It's not sure, whether Plato's words are true. The dates make such gathering just about possible. The Seven Sages, all living in the 6th century BC, probably were:

Cleobulos of Lindos (the tyranical governor at the Isle of Rhodes); Solon of Athens (legislator and founder of democratic reform); Chilon of Sparta (military governor of Sparta); Bias of Priene (politician and legislator); Thales of Milete (the first famous philosopher, mathematician, astronomer); Pittacus of Mytilene (governor of Mytilene); Periander of Corinth (governor of Corinth.)

Prince Orpheus, probably son of a Thracian king, early 6th century BC, gained a mythical status for his singing and poetic skills; he was said to be a son of the Greek god Apollo. Even lions laid down at his feet to listen to his voice, according to tradition. Orpheus’ philosophical teachings, Orphism, had little influence on mainstream beliefs, but he appears to have had a great influence on later philosophers as Pythagoras, Heraclitus and Plato; even on Christianity. Orphism emphasized human nature in man, and his immortality and continuance after death. Postmortem punishment may be expected. Therefore, a proper life and sobriety are necessary: An ascetic, sternly disciplined way of life. Orphism believed in re-incarnation and, according tradition, Orpheus had released the mysteries of Egypt to the Greeks. In the 6th century BC, Orphism separated from an even older mystic cult: Dionysianism. Religion in ancient Greece was polytheistic, and Dionysianism mainly revolved around the illusive god of wine, madness, theater, and vegetation: Dionysos. Both mystic movements are anti-dogmatic, esoteric, strongly personalized and, last but not least, festive. Some groups knew violent rites, some others sexual and transcendental rituals. Dionysianism believed, contrary to Orphism, in one Cosmos, without dualism or ranking. Female figures were important in Dionysianism. Orphism had a rational, speculative nature and was more popular among philosophers; Pythagoras modified it into a form of Logical Mysticism. The Orphic theories of Cosmic Law, Harmony and Sympathy can be traced in Pythagorism. Pythagorism never became a proper or mainstream Orphic sect.

Greek mysticism has ancient roots, perhaps in the Bronze Age, and is influenced by ancient Buddhist thinkers in India, Thracian and Minoan traditions. Judaism and Nazareanism also left their strong traces on Orphism, also in the later Roman Mystery tradition. Various deities from different creeds appear in Orphism: the Egyptian gods Sakla (of the Dead), Ptah, Seraph, and even the Jewish deity Iao (Yah) and Kabbalistic concepts like Jehovah Tzabaoth. It was a complicated and heterogeneous mixture of concepts and characters. Empedocles, an Orphic philosopher may have held concepts resembling those of Tantric Bodhisattva with its reincarnation concept of ‘conscious incarnation of the illuminated’. He also thought, that matter consisted of four elements, or 'roots': Fire, water, earth, and air, which can't change, nor come into or dissapear from existence. Empedocles said he had passed through successive incarnations from fish to man into a living god. To prove his immortality, Empedocles jumped into Mount Etna, never to be seen again. The final stage of Orphism was Platonic, from the 4th Cent BC, with two main currents; one being libertarian, spiritual and moderately hedonistic; the other unworldly mystical, logical, paternalistically authoritarian, and ascetic. Orphism remained intelligent, ethical, and progressive, until its final phase, when corruption and elitism entered. This corrupt elitism led to the successful rise of the modern Judeo-Christian current. The Roman Empire made an end to the mainstream Millennium of Mystery cults, though Orphism was one of the last of the ‘Pagan’ Mysteries to survive in the West until the late 5th Cent AD, as were Mithracism, Iseanism, Serapeanism and some others. It had its influence on especially the isolated Celtic cultures on the British islands. Some say, that Pauline Christianity was a rewriting of later Orphism, and that Gnosticism was even more so. In Asia Minor, sects existed around the 3rd, 2nd Cent AD, that combine Orphic and Christian imagery.

Logic was an important focus of ancient Greek philosophy. An example is Epimenides’ Paradox, Epimenides of Knossos being Cretan, 6th Cent BC: ‘All Cretans are liars… One of their own poets has said so’. This is not a true paradox, since the poet may know, that at least one Cretan is honest and so be lying, when he says that all Cretans are liars. There may, therefore, be no contradiction in a possibly false statement by a lying person. Epimenides was a poet and was considered a prophet. He was, perhaps, of Central Asian shamanic descent. In ancient Greece, this kind of philosophic reasoning brought respected status in the public debate. It shows, that a thinker understands, how certain relations may be stronger interconnected, in several ways, than that meets the eye. And, that deductive thinking leads to the proper solution to a puzzle or problem with unusual or unexpected starting positions. The liar paradox disappeared from the public eye, until the twelfth century AD, when its variations were studied under the name of insolubilia.

Anacharsis, early 6th Cent BC, Scythian philosopher to be become the first ‘foreigner’ to receive Athens citizenship, is seen by some as the very first Sceptic and Cynic. Not many writings of his hand have been preserved; mainly colorful and humorist anecdotes have been recorded by Plutarch. An impression of Anarcharsis' philosophy appears, however. He must have had a combination of Atomist and Sceptical views: He believed in many worlds, yet, as humans, we see them as nothing but particles, grains, objects, like paintbrush on even the most skillfull paintings. Therefore, no matter at all, can ever have a moral value, or be a source of truth. Standards of right and wrong are merely conventional. Perception and observation are all we have, but both are imperfect and are no more or less than projections of objects; never objects themselves. Truth is, therefore, not only non-existent and indistinguishable -- it's irrelevant -- because truth is highly personalized. Atomist and Scepticist views had great influence on later Western philosophists, such as Descartes.

Scepticism as a school of thought, was founded by Pyrrho -- not to be confused with Greek general and statesman Pyrrhus. Pyrrho founded a new school in which he taught fallibilism, namely that every object of human knowledge involves uncertainty. Thus, he argued, it is impossible ever to arrive at the knowledge of truth. Pyrrho founded his school as a reply to the Dogmatists, who claimed to possess knowledge. Pyrrho was a highly respected scholast in Greece. But, he left no writings. His disciple Timon of Plius, left quotations, among which this one: 'The proper course of the sage, is to ask himself three questions. Firstly we must ask what things are and how they are constituted. Secondly, we ask how we are related to these things. Thirdly, we ask what ought to be our attitude towards them. As to what things are, we can only answer that we know nothing. We only know how things appear to us, but of their inner substance we are ignorant. The same thing appears differently to different people, and therefore it is impossible to know which opinion is right. The diversity of opinion among the wise, as well as among the vulgar, proves this. To every assertion the contradictory assertion can be opposed with equally good grounds, and whatever my opinion, the contrary opinion is believed by somebody else who is quite as clever and competent to judge as I am. Opinion we may have, but certainty and knowledge are impossible. Hence our attitude to things (the third question), ought to be complete suspense of judgment. ... ', attitude we should practice for both practical and theoretical matters. Hence: Nothing is in itself true or false. It only appears so. In the same way, nothing is in itself good or evil. It is only opinion, custom, law, which makes it so. When the sage realizes this, he will cease to prefer one course of action to another, and the result will be apathy (ataraxia). All action is the result of preference, and preference is the belief that one thing is better than another. If I go to the north, it is because, for one reason or another, I believe that it is better than going to the south. Suppress this belief, learn that the one is not in reality better than the other, but only appears so, and one would go in no direction at all. Complete suppression of opinion would mean complete suppression of action. Therefore, Pyrrho aimed for suppression of opinion. Scepticism, is about abstinence of opinions. Having opinions, would lead to preference and loss of objectivity. All of this, would lead to apathy, but, apathy is the best way for a sage. Having no preference, means having no greed and no preference and struggle for matters, that in themselves hold no value to us, to begin with. Another leading personality in Greek skepticism, was Diogenes of Sinope ( appr 400 BC). He must have led an extreme, colorful life; even have lived in slavery, as a home teacher. He was a strong opponent of Sophism and conventionalism. He was a disciple of Socrates. Diogenes' main belief was: If a behavior is appropriate in private, it's also appropriate in public, even if convention says otherwise. In this line of thought, Diogenes rejected the convention of eating in the market place. He ate at the marktet place, because coming there, made him feel hungry, and there's nothing wrong with eating to begin with.

Philosophical skepticism is searching wheather one may find truth from one’s own convictions. Scientific skepticism is searching wheather other people’s sayings have a scientific value that is falsifiable and reliable, based on hypotheses and critical thinking. Philosophical skepticism says, the human mind is naturally uncapable of certain knowledge. Scientific skepticism is part of empirism: it says, observation leads to forming and testing a theoretical model. No theory can have a truth claim without systematic observation.

Cynicism appeared only after Socrates and was, probably, founded by one of his students and closest friends, Antisthenes, teacher to Diogenes of Sinope. It taught, that virtue; a life in accord with nature; freedom; reason; ascetism and denial of luxury and property were the only way towards true wisdom. In cynics' eyes, theoretical philosophy wasn't only unnecessary for happiness and virtue; it was useless. Cynicism denies convention and law as a necessary way to virtue. In cynic's eye, it isn't wrong either to have a bad reputation in the public's eye, because convention is only molded by the political and temple establishment, with all their corruption and hunger for power. Nature itself; self-reliance (autarkeia); ascetism; and the proper spouse and companions, lead to virtue and, hence, to wisdom. Genuine love, is part of that. As did Socrates, Antisthenes thought, that virtue is equal for men and women. Virtue can be taught, too. All in, cynicism is a moral philosophy rather than a knowledge, science or theory oriented philosophy. It persisted until late in the Roman period. Within political philosophy, cynicism may be seen as origin of Anarchism.

Influenced by and resembling Socrates, Aristotle, Epicurianism, and Cynicism, around 300 BC, Stoicism appeared, founded, in Athens, probably, by Zeno of Citium (Cyprus). Stoicism was influential on Roman emperors; Marcus Aurelius was one of them who attempted to live by it. It even influenced Christianity, as well as a number of major philosophical figures throughout the ages (for example, Thomas More, Descartes, Spinoza), and in the early 21st century saw a revival as a practical philosophy associated with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and similar approaches. Rome became main center for the Stoic school of thought under emperor Augustus, around 88 BC. Stoicism has had, both in Greece and in Rome, several rivalrous schools. Other big Greek names among Stoicism, are Epicurus, Epictetus, ... Stoicism is a type of eudaimonic virtue ethics, asserting that the practice of virtue is both necessary and sufficient to achieve happiness (in the eudaimonic sense). However, the Stoics also recognized the existence of “indifferents” (to eudaimonia) that could nevertheless be preferred (for example, health, wealth, education) or dispreferred (for example, sickness, poverty, ignorance), because they had (respectively, positive or negative) planning value with respect to the ability to practice virtue. Stoicism was very much a philosophy meant to be applied to everyday living, focused on ethics (understood as the study of how to live one’s life), which was in turn informed by what the Stoics called “physics” (nowadays, a combination of natural science and metaphysics) and what they called “logic” (a combination of modern logic, epistemology, philosophy of language, and cognitive science). There was strong debate among philosophers and school on how many virtues were needed to achieve happiness. Socrates thought, that we need only four key virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. Aristotle listed at least twelve virtues, but added to effort also a bit of luck, such as good health, education and even good looks.

There was strong rivalty, also, between Epicurus and Stoics guided by Epictetus. Epicurians said, that pleasure and pain on the human body have important impact on tranquillity of mind (ataraxia). Epicurus is one of the major philosophers in the Hellenistic period, the three centuries following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.E. (and of Aristotle in 322 B.C.E.). Epicurus developed an unsparingly materialistic metaphysics, empiricist epistemology, and hedonistic ethics. Epicurus taught that the basic constituents of the world are atoms, uncuttable bits of matter, flying through empty space, and he tried to explain all natural phenomena in atomic terms. Epicurus rejected the existence of Platonic forms and an immaterial soul, and he said that the gods have no influence on our lives. Epicurus also thought skepticism was untenable, and that we could gain knowledge of the world relying upon the senses. He taught that the point of all one's actions was to attain pleasure (conceived of as tranquility) for oneself, and that this could be done by limiting one's desires and by banishing the fear of the gods and of death. Epicurus' gospel of freedom from fear proved to be quite popular, and communities of Epicureans flourished for centuries after his death. Epictetus attacked this view in strong polemics and said, that pleasure and pain cannot in themselves lead to a virtuous life, and thus to happiness; also moral choices are needed.

Generally, philosophers were free to debate among each other and as competing academies, but they could, and did, run into serious trouble with established powers of temple and political leadership. Blasphemy charges did lead to persecution or exile of philosophers. Until approximately 88 BC, Athens was Europe's main center of philosophy; from then, it moved to Rome and elsewhere in the Mediterranean area, after political developments.

Sources and Suggestions for Further Reading:

Cosmic Sympathy,
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,