On the nature of the Sage: III. Was there ever a Sage?

The Philosopher at Delphi, a Sage?

Let’s continue our discussion of René Brouwer’s The Stoic Sage: The Early Stoics on Wisdom, Sagehood and Socrates (Cambridge Press) with a look at the third chapter of the book, on whether the Stoics thought the Sage was a real thing or just a hypothetical. Again, in a sense this series is truly more “academic” than practical, since none of us will likely become a Sage anyway. That said, the Stoic Sage is what we aspire to, akin to the Enlightened Buddha, for instance, so it’s interesting to learn what the ancients thought of the whole idea.

So, did the ancient Stoics actually consider themselves Sages? According to 19th century scholar S. Hirzel, Zeno and Cleanthes — the first and second head of the Stoa — did, but Chrysippus distanced himself from such claims, and came to consider both his predecessors as very wise, but not quite Sages. We shall see below that there is ample doubt that Hirzel got it right about Zeno and Cleanthes, but regarding specifically Chrysippus here is what Plutarch (a critic of Stoicism) says:

“What is more, Chrysippus does not proclaim himself or any of his own acquaintances or teachers a sage.” (On Stoic Contradictions, Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta 3.662)

A lot of what we know about how the early Stoics thought of Sagehood comes from Sextus Empiricus’ Against the Professors, also hostile to Stoicism, so that its pronouncements need to be taken with a grain or two of salt. Here is a taste:

“According to the Stoics themselves, Zeno and Cleanthes and Chrysippus and the others from their school are reckoned among the inferior persons [i.e., non-Sages], and every inferior person is ruled by ignorance. … Chrysippus either knew this dogma, being a Stoic one, I mean ‘The inferior person is ignorant of all things,’ or he did not know this. And if he knew it, then it is false that the inferior person is ignorant of everything; for Chrysippus, being an inferior person, knew this very thing — that the inferior person is ignorant of all things.”

The second part of this is a straightforward attempt at logical “gotcha!” on the part of Sextus, but of course it is not wise to interpret the Stoics’ “dogma” (which was the word used for philosophical tenet, or belief) in a literal sense. To say that we are all ignorant is something very akin to the Socratic idea that we are all unwise. It is more charitable, and useful, to treat it as a call to epistemic modesty.

Diogenes of Babylon, a Stoic, says in fragment 32 that while gods (i.e., nature, the cosmos) are of such a nature that they necessarily exist, this does not apply to the nature of the Sage. In a sense, the Sage is a theoretical possibility, but does not have to be realized in any specific instance. Sextus confirms this, when he says: “up till now their Sage has not been found” (SVF 3), all of which would seem to flatly contradict Hirzel’s conclusions about Zeno and Cleanthes, which were based on guesswork and a psychological argument about how Zeno could most convincingly present his new philosophy to the public (as in “hey, come over here! I’m a Sage!).

Cicero too doubts the existence of the Sage:

“It happens more often that a mule begets than that a Sage comes into existence.” (On Divination 2.61)

And he states the same opinion again while providing a description of the Sage in his Tusculan Disputations:

“The man in whom there shall be perfect wisdom — whom until now we have not seen, but what he will be like, if he will come into existence one day, has been described in the doctrines of the philosophers — this person then or such reason that will be perfect and absolute in him.” (2.51)

And here is Seneca, also disputing the existence of Sages:

“Yet I would not prescribe that you are to follow, or attach to yourself, no one but a Sage. For where do you find him, whom we sought for so many centuries? Choose as the best the least bad.” (On Tranquillity 7.4)

Then again, Seneca seems to edge his bets a bit:

“There is no reason for you to say, Serenus, as your habit is, that this wise man of ours is nowhere to be found. He is not a fiction of us Stoics, a sort of phantom glory of human nature, nor is he a mere conception, the mighty semblance of a thing unreal, but we have shown him in the flesh just as we delineate him, and shall show him — though perchance not often, and after a long lapse of years only one. For greatness that transcends the limit of the ordinary and common type is produced but rarely. But this self-same Marcus Cato, the mention of whom started this discussion, I almost think surpasses even our exemplar.” (On Constancy 7.1)

Marcus Cato is, of course, Cato the Younger, Seneca’s favorite role model, whom he mentions frequently in his writings (here is a compendium of the best quotes). There are other reports that seem to state that the Sage is rare, but real, for instance this bit from the Aristotelian Alexander of Aphrodisias:

“There have been just one or two good men, as is fabulously related by them, like some absurd and unnatural creature rarer than the Ethiopians’ phoenix.” (SVF 3.658)

Seneca had also, previously, compared the Sage to the phoenix:

“For one of the first class [i.e., a Sage] perhaps springs into existence, like the phoenix, only once in five hundred years.” (Letter 42.1)

Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic are often held up as Sages, but there is no straightforward evidence that the Stoics themselves thought so. For instance, Diogenes Laertius writes rather ambiguously:

“Posidonius in his first book On Ethics says that evidence for virtue existing is the fact that (those around?) Socrates, Diogenes and Antisthenes got to a state of progress.” (Lives 7.91)

Just because those “around” Socrates, Diogenes, and Antisthenes made progress it doesn’t mean that these three were actually Sages. There is, however, according to Brouwer, evidence that the Stoics identified some mythological characters with the Sage (and notice, again, the reference to Cato):

“The immortal gods had given us in Cato a more assured example of the wise man than Odysseus and Hercules in earlier centuries. For we Stoics have proclaimed that these were wise men, not being conquered by effort, despising pleasure, and victorious over the whole world.” (Seneca, On Constancy 2.1)

I have written about Odysseus as a Stoic role model, but here Seneca actually makes him into a Sage, which is above the role of a simple role model. Then again, notice how often the Sage is talked about in mythological terms (the phoenix, Odysseus, Heracles…).

A bit more practical matter is the relation between Sagehood and truth. The Stoics, subtle logicians and dialecticians that they were, made an interesting distinction according to Brouwer: “The Stoics said that truth belonged to the Sage exclusively, whereas the true can belong to the Sage and the inferior person alike.” This is interesting because it says that we mere mortals can aspire to discovering true things, even though only the perfectly wise person has unshakable knowledge. The rest of us will have to be content with propositions that we believe are true but may need to be revised. I’ll take it! Brouwer summarizes the idea in this way: “the Stoics distinguished sharply between cognitions, on the one hand, and stable cognitions or knowledge, on the other. Just as an inferior person can at times say something true, he can at times have a cognition. Just as an inferior person has no truth, he has no stable cognitions.”

Here is another passage that further elucidates early Stoic thought, this time by Quintilian, in his Institutions:

“I will respond to those who ask if they [Cicero and Demosthenes] were orators, in the manner in which the Stoics would reply, if asked whether Zeno, Cleanthes and Chrysippus themselves were Sages. I shall say that these men were important and worthy of our veneration, but that they did not achieve what is the highest in the nature of man. For did not Pythagoras desire that he should not be called a wise man, like the sages who preceded him, but rather a lover of wisdom (studiosum sapientiae)?” (SVF 1.44)

This, incidentally, is one of the early references to the very definition of a philosopher as lover of wisdom, or studiosum sapientiae in Latin. And here is an Epicurean telling us that the Stoics didn’t think of themselves as Sages:

“[The Stoics described] him [Zeno] as great, as the founder of their school, but not wise.” (Philodemus, On the Stoics col. 14.19–22)

Note, incidentally, that Epicurus did consider himself a Sage, so Philodemus here is making a dig at the Stoics for not having any Sages in their ranks.

Finally, the next quote is one of my favorite stories in Stoic lore, and it comes to us from Diogenes Laertius:

“One day a conversation took place on whether the wise man would hold opinions, and Sphaerus said that he would not. Wishing to refute him, the king ordered wax pomegranates to be placed before him. Sphaerus was deceived and the king cried out that he had given his assent to a false impression. Sphaerus gave him a shrewd answer, saying that his assent was not [to the impression] that they were pomegranates but [to the impression] that it was reasonable that they were pomegranates. He pointed out that the cognitive impression is different from the reasonable one.” (Lives 7.177)

This is both very shrewd, as Diogenes observes, and in fact an excellent explanation of the Stoic doctrine that there is a difference between reasonable judgments on impressions and truth. Again, the latter is obtained only by the (possibly mythological) Sage. Sphaerus here has cognition, but not “stable” cognition, i.e., knowledge. Given that, then there is hope for the rest of us too.


4 thoughts on “On the nature of the Sage: III. Was there ever a Sage?

  1. virtue42015

    I guess that Sagehood is in the eye of the beholder. For instance, I don’t see Cato the Younger as ‘A Sage.’ His botched suicide, and it was botched, and the embarrasing incident when he insisted on Julius Caesar revealing the contents of a letter that was passed to him in the Senate only to find that it was a lovenote from Cato’s own sister, are not the acts of a Sage. These are just two incidents when Cato failed the Sagehood Test. I think that Serenus probably had it right and human nature is not built for Sagehood

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  2. Larry Shuck

    It seems like a Catch-22. If you think you are a sage then you possess hubris that a sage would never possess. On the other hand if you don’t proclaim yourself a sage then you must not possess the level of wisdom a sage would have in order to discern that he was a sage. Isn’t it possible that this mythical level of perfection is just a goal? That the striving to be a sage makes us better and that is the whole point and there is nothing else? Does that mean that if the sage does not exist then striving to be better is futile?


  3. Massimo Post author


    I agree on Cato. Seneca may not even have known all the details, or he may have thought them not important.


    My personal opinion is that the Sage is an idealization of what is positive about human nature. While theoretically achievable, I doubt it has ever, or will ever be achieved. But we often use ideal situations as reference points to inspire us to do better.


  4. jbonnicerenoreg

    Zeno in his Republic depicts it, from the fragments, as a place without law courts so either no one will commit a crime or each citizen handles any injustice, justly. Both imply that the residents are at sagelike in their practise of justice. And since virtue is a unity they would have all the virtues which is the definition of the Sage. I’d guess that Zeno’s original thought was that Sagehood was possible.


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