The Seventh Sage: the seven sages |

The Seventh Sage:


The 7th Sage |douglasleethompson BLOG
Douglas Lee Thompson the Seventh Sage: Theoretical Philosopher , Alchemist United States of America , California…2015

For wisdom is perhaps a divine meal to be swallowed at one gulp without need of mastication, and that would be the end of the story. The deities are known for their simplicity. The matter of human wisdom, however, could fill all archives on earth without ever exhausting itself. Humanity is notorious for its complexity. And men proudly say “Good things are difficult.” But is wisdom a labyrinth, or “thinking makes it so”? And when did the saga of human wisdom begin and with whom?
The Poet

” Why the Fuck would I , kick it with you?, The Poet said”


When humans contemplated Dawn for the first time, wisdom was the treasure of the poet alone. Of all men he was the wisest, for the gods had chosen his soul as receptacle of their confidences. Thus filled with inspiration divine, the poet knew better than any other man the secrets of the world. And since Apollo found more pleasure in leading the Muses than in warming his tripod, neither the inspiration of the Pythia nor that of seers could match the poet’s wisdom. And since the divine is far beyond human reason, nor could anyone else follow the secret paths of sacred absurdity by means of rational thinking. The gods might have blinded the eyes of the poet, but they consented in opening his soul wide. Then mankind looked into that soul as in a mirror and was delighted at its beauty and purity, its freedom and simplicity, its justice and sense. That inexplicable vision mankind called wisdom, an unpolluted gift, a golden path to heaven. That is why also posterity acknowledged

“As we to the brutes, poets are to us.” (George Meredith 1828-1919, Diana of the Crossways).

For compared to the poet, the rest of mankind crawls in mud and blood. But “A poet is born, not made”, and later the gods—for reasons unknown—must have blinded his soul as well, for the poet was inspired no longer. And his soul being exhausted, Wisdom had to rebuild her palace elsewhere.

The Sage

Apparently (for there is seldom certainty about anything), she rebuilt it—though not in gold as the first—in the mind of the sophoi, a sophós[1] being a man that does not need to go in pursuit of wisdom—as philosophers do—because he is already wise. He is a sage, and Antiquity knew only seven such sages, who, like fruits of a season, grew ripe at once.

The Philosopher*

When their season was over and the sophoi had disappeared from the face of the earth, philosophers—”cloaked and bearded to command respect”—came offering wisdom yet a new abode. But since no gift had made them wise, neither from birth nor later, they must spend their nights and days in hard toil, courting wisdom with the eagerness of suitors. And being prone to make strenuous efforts to be wise, they must have taken to heart threats such as

“Defer not till to-morrow to be wise,
To-morrow’s sun to thee may never rise.” (William Congreve 1670-1729, Letter to Cobham).

… as if Death were nicer to a sage than to a fool; and

“Be wise with speed;
A fool at forty is a fool indeed.” (Edward Young 1683-1765, Love of Fame, Satire 2.282).

… as if learning always were the sweetest of possibilities in a young man’s life, or as if he should “quick as time” dart along the way to wisdom … But whence this haste? Is it not also said that “Haste makes waste”, and that “Hasty climbers have sudden falls”? Anyhow the philosophers, thinking of Lady Sophia as the princes of Hellas dreamt of Helen, found her “fairer than the evening air”. But she, despite their advances, would have rather assisted a carpenter than favor any of them. At times, she gave a furtive kiss to some of them. Was it a token of recognition, or did she wish to “kiss him into slumbers”? Not even they could tell … Yet—”At the touching of the lips”—they fervently prayed to their lady: “make me immortal with a kiss”, but

“Alas! how easily things go wrong
A sigh too much, or a kiss too long.” (George MacDonald 1824-1905, Phantastes, xix).
… and there she was again, shining as a distant star, aloof and aloft.

But “distance lends enchantment”, and so her lovers turned their aspiration for wisdom—the pursuit itself, the desire to be wise, their love of wisdom, their philo-sophy—into a virtue evocative of that derived from the intimate communion with her, which she denied them. Except for the furtive kiss, that was their only consolation; and having put their hope in the novel maxim “No man is born wise”, they doubled their efforts. Later came Time, the same who “tries truth”, and these “private secretaries to Nature” were caught saying one thing and doing another:

“As for the philosophers of our time, for instance, most of them are to be seen uttering the noblest sentiments, but following the basest practices, and the solemnity and sagacity expressed in their pronouncements are refuted when the speakers are put to the proof.” (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History Frag. 9.1).

Entangled in duplicity and proof, they could but regard poetry—the clear air of Sophia’s palace—as yet another ill. It was then that the phantom of Lady Philosophia—a cloud of their own making—appeared to chase the Muses along with “their sweet poison” from their cabinets, as if they had been Sirens. Yet this cloud sat on the end of their beds chanting like a true Siren philosophical verses into their unwaxed ears, and keeping them awake with expectation for the whole duration of the “immortal night”, blind hope being “but the dream of those who wake.”


Now, “as soon as early rosy-fingered Dawn appeared” again, many found themselves growing tired of wooing such an elusive bride while being comforted by a less fair one. And “as a sovereign remedy to all diseases” they resorted to knowledge, an ersatz resembling the true lady of their dreams. But whereas wisdom was made of one piece, knowledge came in many. And since these pieces were necessarily ignorant of each other, knowledge appeared mixed with ignorance and corrupted by it from the very moment of its hybrid epiphany. Was it a centaur? The gods know, for “they hear and see all things”. But men did notice that knowledge could be taught and acquired, being, in principle, unlimited, whereas wisdom, being a gift, could neither be learned nor stolen, and was limited:

“Knowledge is proud that he has learn’d so much;
Wisdom is humble that she knows no more.” (William Cowper 1731-1800, The Winter Walk at Noon).

Now if pride is the price, it wouldn’t perhaps be too high considering they would learn so much (even though it is said that “Pride is an unhappy possession”). But what about

“Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.” (Alfred Tennyson 1809-92, Locksley Hall 141).

What to do with this Knowledge, so perishable, so corruptible, so transitory? Today knowledgeable, tomorrow benighted … And how high is the waste mountain of Knowledge? Where are his thousand details hidden? Do his many facts sink in the waters of Lethe? … But was not Knowledge made of the same substance as Memory? Who is he? Memory’s enemy, or her loving offspring? Or is this offspring, not the knowledge that “comes”, but the wisdom that “lingers” with her beloved mother? Still there were, in those ancient times, men who were wise enough to “know nothing”; but others—more illustrious—adopted the notion

“Nothing is sweeter than to know everything.” (Cicero. Letters to Atticus 4.11.2).

and while their heads became gray or bald, and their faces filled with wrinkles, and their backs bent, they looked at “everything” with screwed-up eyes, having been too long “poring over miserable books”. That’s how sweet it was … And when they died, someone said:

“This man decided not to Live but Know—
Bury this man there.”(Robert Browning 1812-89, A Grammarian s Funeral).

Was it that they thought that “Knowledge is no burden”, or did ambition tempted them whispering in their ears “Knowledge is power”? The first must have been, let us hope, for they could not have ignored that “power corrupts”.

Versification and Diversification

In the poetical age there was one single wisdom and that was the wisdom of the gods, the same that inspired the poet. But just as the poet had a faculty for versification, the rest of humanity enjoyed a certain ability for diversification. And when the poet was away, they discussed—in their own fancy ways—several wisdoms, as that of animals and plants, or that of mother Nature, “the parent and creator of the human race”. Then they also detected wisdom in practically all fields of human activity. There came about a “political wisdom”, a “mystical wisdom”, a “spiritual wisdom”, a “practical wisdom”, or even a more general “life wisdom” that could, like a joker, serve any purpose, including that of the fool. That such a diversification appeared to turn wisdom against itself was never a disquieting thought because they noticed that no particular wisdom could forever prove to be wiser than another: that the prince could be outwitted by his maid, the mystic by the prince, the maid by the priest, and anyone by someone. Thus was the balance assured. And if someone argued that the mutual outwitting proved that both prince, maid, mystic and priest were all fools, they would answer that “No man is wise at all times”, and that a single slip could not possibly obliterate his wisdom. In this manner the oneness of wisdom was forgotten, and the single wisdom was replaced by uncountable and unaccountable minor wisdoms, all of which were for the gods as the wisdom of apes is for men, that is, something that—like folly—surprises and raises laughter

“In life’s last scene what prodigies surprise,
Fears of the brave, and follies of the wise!” (Samuel Johnson 1709-84, The Vanity of Human Wishes).

General Blindness

Wisdom departed at the end of the poetical age, but her memory was revered by subsequent times, especially by the “lovers of wisdom”. Later again, when Lady Sophia’s perfume had vanished behind her, man came to believe that she had never existed. His knowledge told him so, and he was already much like Mr. Podsnap, who had settled that “whatever he put behind him he put out of existence.” Accordingly, man removed her name from the world: no longer was there “a wisdom of nature” apparent in animals or in plants, nor “a cosmic wisdom” shining from the stars. Instead blindness was thought to pervade the universe, ruling everything except man’s perceptive eye. This again raises laughter, and those who cannot laugh or postpone laughter to moments of loneliness, exclaim

“Upwards flow the stream of sacred rivers.” (Euripides, Medea 410).

… but this is how man, after being a poet, became a king, thanks to the Charta of General Blindness, and much as the proverb goes: “In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king.”

… That is, as the one-eyed Cyclops was king in his cave.

The Labyrinth of Wisdom

Antiquity has suggested several lists of the Seven Sages, for already then (in still ancient though postpoetic times) there was no agreement on the matter of wisdom:

“To be or the contrary.”

For what is to be wise? Can a tyrant be wise? Is it wise to change and adapt, or should one cling to “equability of countenance” and remain the same? Is it wise to hide one’s feelings, or just dishonest? Is it wiser to speak out wisely or to wisely remain silent, or is either alternative wise depending on opportunity? And if the counsels “No wisdom like silence” and “Silence is golden” were always obeyed, could not “Silence gives consent” come afterwards as a reproach? What is meant by “know thyself”? Should one know himself to correct his nature, or to obey it? And what does “nothing in excess” mean? When is something “an excess”? Should we suffer theft and murder if they are not “in excess” and for a good purpose? Can love or justice be excessive? And the maxim “a pledge, and ruin is near”, is it not in need of elucidations too? Is not loyalty, either explicit or implicit, a form of pledge? Should we then renounce loyalty? Is wisdom a serious matter or a humorous one, or a combination of both? What about parties, singing, dancing, going to the theatre, and other similar events that make life lovely and worth living for many men and women? Has it not been also said “Better be happy than wise”? And if wisdom wages no war against happiness or joy, why then no one among the Seven Sages has ever been reported to have participated in parties and festivals, nor introduced or promoted merriment, though some of them were legislators? Is joy alien to wisdom, or is it that they thought parties and “passing round the cup” to lead inevitably to drunkenness, “hurling the furniture”, mockery, insults, and crime? But could they not have said “It is good to be merry and wise,” as others say? And then again, can anyone be both “merry” and “wise”? Does not merriment comes to life in the absence of wisdom? And conversely, does not wisdom spoil the best of parties?

“Ask a wise man to dinner and he’ll upset everyone by his gloomy silence or tiresome questions. Invite him to dance and you’ll have a camel prancing about … If he joins in a conversation, all of a sudden there’s the wolf in the fable.” (Erasmus of Rotterdam 1469-1536, Praise of Folly).

Fools enjoy themselves, some argue, out of ignorance. But can ignorance be so evil when it allows enjoyment? Is ignorance always worse than wisdom? Do they not say “where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise”? And also

“From ignorance our comfort flows,
The only wretched are the wise.” (Matthew Prior 1664-1721, Letter to Charles Montague).

And if wisdom were thus so harshly defying happiness, joy, and comfort, wouldn’t it then deeply disturb all peace of mind, threatening to plunge life into misery?

And what good is beauty without the joys of Love, and how are the merits of Love compared to those of wisdom and wit? Which of them leads “to Arcady, where all the leaves are merry”?

“No wisdom won with weariness;
But Love goes in with Folly’s dress.
No fame that wit could ever win;
But only Love may lead Love in
To Arcady, to Arcady.” (Henry Cuyler Bunner, 1855-1896, The Way to Arcady).

And if all passions were extinguished and everyone came under the rule of reason, who would then need in such a world the counsels or virtues of wisdom?

“Si tous les cours étaient francs, justes et dociles,
La plupart des vertus nous seraient inutiles.” [2] (Molière 1622-73, Le Misanthrope, acte V, sc. i).
Love goes about in Folly’s dress, says Bunner, since it is well known that “Love is Blind” and “rules his kingdom without a sword”, relying instead upon the blindness of folly. Maybe sweet Aphrodite “makes it so” … But what about war, the dear passion of “blood-stained Ares”, her mate? Would Paris have abducted Helen if he had been wise? And had Menelaus been wise, would he have sailed to Troy to fetch an unfaithful wife? And would Agamemnon have sacrificed one woman in order to fetch another if he had listened to wisdom? But had these three men been wise, how could the Trojan War ever have taken place? And without that war, which Homer could have composed either The Iliad or The Odyssey to immortalize it? Would oblivion have prevailed then? Is folly more memorable than wisdom?

“… if the god had not caught us in his grip and plunged us headlong beneath the earth, we should have been unheard of, and not ever sung in Muses’ songs, furnishing to bards of after-days a subject for their minstrelsy.” (Hecabe 1, Queen of Troy. Euripides, Daughters of Troy 1245).

Does the wisdom of the poet rely on the folly of the rest, just as they say that “fools build houses and wise men live in them”? For how could epic poetry exist without war? Then how much pleasure has its ultimate source in folly? None perhaps for those who must perish at war today … But while “War is sweet to those who have not tried it”, those who’ll perish not now but later may from the safe distance and for the time being, wallow in the amazing bloodshed, listen to patriotic songs, philosophize about the human condition, read about strategies, look at images of massacres, stir their emotions, and even enrich themselves. Which pleasure would they not derive from the folly of war? And do they do so for being wise, or for being as fools as those marching to war? And when they feel appalled on account of the cruelty of war, do they not still report sensational news that give them prizes, write clever essays that become bestsellers, or even make successful political careers thanks to that same folly? And why should a contemporary war raise more indignation than the outrages committed during the sack of Troy? Was Hector’s body less sacred, or is it because

“Time purges all things …”? (Aeschylus, Eumenides 285).

But what about the eternity of Death? Why is it a profanation to violate the grave of someone recently deceased, but not to plunder the tomb of an ancient man? Is the former more dead than the latter? … For some reputed “wise” have even uttered curses against such dealings:

“If your wealth was acquired … by disturbing the tombs of ancient kings which are full of gold and treasure, you deserve not only to be put on your trial, but also to forfeit your life; for these things are wealth, no doubt, but of an infamous and inhuman kind.” (Flavius Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 7.23).

And what difference does it make if the wealth be a “wealth of gold” or a “wealth of knowledge”? Is it not one wealth turned into the other quite easily? In the eyes of this particular sage there is probably no difference, having both been acquired “by other than holy methods”.

But then again, is it wise to rebuke the folly of men in such a way, putting a mirror in front of humanity to let her watch an ugly face, or is it yet another form of folly?

“Et c’est une folie à nulle autre seconde
De vouloir se mêler de corriger le monde.”[3] (Molière 1622-73, Le Misanthrope, acte I, sc. i).

Practical wisdom

Practical wisdom is, on comparison, less labyrinthine and more easily enunciated: “He is wise enough that can keep himself warm.” And Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) appears to agree, for in his Walden he asserted that

“the grand necessity … for our bodies is to keep warm,”

arguing that most of the trouble and anxiety is about Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel, and adding that

“not till we have secured these are we prepared to entertain the true problems of life.”

But those four sources of warmth, however necessary, he does not count amongst the “true problems”. These, he thinks, require a philosopher, although he also remarked that

“There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers,”

a circumstance that he found disappointing. To keep warm appears, in his view, as “wise enough”, but not fully wise, since the true problems of life he sets beyond the matter of warmth. And Thoreau, who thinks that warmth is more easily obtained than many ever will wish to imagine, calls unwise those who are not economical when procuring it:

“Yet some, not wise, go to the other side of the globe, to barbarous and unhealthy regions, and devote themselves to trade for ten or twenty years, in order that they may live—that is, keep comfortably warm—and die in New England at last. The luxuriously rich are not simply kept comfortably warm, but unnaturally hot …”

… and he adds

“When a man is warmed … what does he want next? Surely not more warmth of the same kind, as more and richer food, larger and more splendid houses, finer and more abundant clothing, more numerous, incessant, and hotter fires … When he has obtained those things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is, to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced.”

The Seven Sages



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