Stories of the Ancient Greeks - Charles D. Shaw

The Seven Wise Men

The Greeks loved beauty, and that made them artists. They loved power, and that made them warriors. They loved wisdom, and that made them philosophers.

Many wise men, or philosophers, lived in Greece at different times. There were seven who were thought to be wiser than all the rest. After they were dead a saying of each was painted on the walls of the temple at Delphi.

These men were Pittacus, Periander, Cleobulus, Solon, the lawgiver of Athens, Chilo, Thales, and Bias of Ionia.

Pittacus was elected by the people of Mitylene to be their ruler. When he had brought order into the state and everything was peaceful and happy he gave up his office as willingly as he had taken it. We are told that he said, "The greatest blessing which a man can enjoy is the power of doing good"; "The wisest man is he who foresees the approach of misfortune"; "Victory should never be stained by blood"; and, "Pardon often does more good than punishment." His golden saying painted on the wall at Delphi was, "Take time by the forelock."

Periander, ruler of Corinth, is said to have been a harsh and cruel man. An old story says that soon after he became ruler he sent to another prince to inquire how best to keep his power. The prince said to the messenger, "Come with me!" They went together into a field of grain, and wherever they saw a tall stalk the prince struck at it and cut it down. The messenger went home and told this to Periander who said, "So will I deal with the powerful nobles of my kingdom." This story may not be true, but it shows what was thought of his way of governing. Nevertheless under his rule Corinth grew rich and strong and Periander was counted among the seven wise men. His golden saying was, "Industry conquers everything."

We already know the history of Solon, called the "lawgiver of Athens." His golden saying was, "Know thyself."

We know little of Cleobulus except that he ruled over Lindus in the island of Rhodes and that this saying of his was on the walls of the Delphian temple: "Avoid extremes"; or, as it is sometimes given, "Choose the wise middle course."

Chilo lived in Sparta and his daughter was married to the Spartan king Demaratus. His wise saying was, "Consider the end!"

Thales, born at Miletus, was a famous philosopher. He believed that water was the beginning and the ending of everything. He said, "Surety for another is ruin to yourself."

Bias was the last of the Seven Sages. He is said to have been in a storm on a vessel with a drunken crew, who, being frightened, began to pray. Bias told them, "You would better keep still, or the gods will find out that you are at sea." His golden saying is a sorrowful one: "Most men are bad!"

There was another man, probably as wise as any of the seven, though he was not counted among them. This was Pythagoras, who was born on the island of Samos but who traveled far into the East. He came back to his native place in 450 B.C., but not feeling happy there went to Crotona in Italy where he opened a school of philosophy.

He was always trying to learn something new and he found out many strange things. He discovered chords in music; that is, he learned that striking certain notes together will give a pleasing sound. That made him think that the planets as they moved through the sky, struck upon the ether in which they rolled and so made music, loud or soft, deep or shrill, according to their size, swiftness, and distance from each other. This was called the "music of the spheres," which could not be heard by those living upon the earth.

That was only a fancy, but he found out a good many truths about the planets and the stars.

A pupil asked him, "What is God?"

He answered, "God is a Mind."

"Where does He live?" inquired the pupil.

"Everywhere," replied Pythagoras.

"When did He begin to be?" inquired the other. "He never began and He will never end," returned the philosopher.

"Can he feel pain?"

"No. Only the imperfect can feel pain, and He is perfect."

"Can any man see this perfect and eternal Mind?"

"No. He is invisible. You can hardly look at the bright sun; but God is so much brighter that no one can see Him with the eye; although He can be known by our minds. He is true, holy, and unchangeable; and from Him come the life and motion of whatever lives and moves."

Pythagoras taught that the soul lives forever but at death passes from one body into another, dwelling sometimes in a man, sometimes in an animal. He declared that he remembered having lived several times as different creatures.

Once he saw a man beating a dog which yelped and cried.

He said, "You are cruel. Stop beating that dog!" The other answered, "Why should I stop? It is my dog "

"Do you not hear him cry?" asked the wise man.

"Yes; I hear him plainly. What then?" replied the owner of the beast.

"Poor ignorant man!" said the philosopher. "In that dog's cry I hear the voice of a dear friend of mine who died a number of years ago. He has been born again in the body of this poor dog. Treat him well for my sake."