Sage (philosophy)

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"Sage philosophy" redirects here. For for the African ethnophilosophical concept, see African philosophy § Ethnophilosophy and philosophical sagacity.

A sage (Ancient Greek: σοφός, sophos), in classical philosophy, is someone who has attained the wisdom which a philosopher seeks. The first to make this distinction is Plato within the Symposium. While analyzing the concept of love, Plato concludes love is that which lacks the object it seeks. Therefore, the philosopher (Ancient Greek: φιλόσοφος, meaning lover of wisdom) does not have the wisdom sought, while the sage, on the other hand, does not love or seek wisdom, for it is already possessed. Plato then examines the two categories of persons who do not do philosophy:

  1. Gods and sages, because they are wise;
  2. senseless people, because they think they are wise.

The position of the philosopher is between these two groups. The philosopher is not wise, but possesses the self-awareness of lacking wisdom, and thus pursues it. This distinction between the philosopher and the sage played an important part in Stoicism.[1]

Alternatively, the sage is one who lives "according to an ideal which transcends the everyday." [2] Plato is also the first to develop this notion of the sage in various works. Within The Republic, Plato indicates that when a friend of a sage dies, the sage "will not think that for a good man... death is a terrible thing."[3] In the Theaetetus, Plato defines the sage as one who becomes "just and pure, with understanding,",[4] and is thus God-like in his nature.

The term has also been used interchangeably with a 'good person' (Ancient Greek: ἀγαθός, agathos), and a 'virtuous person' (Ancient Greek: σπουδαίος, spoudaios).[2]

In Stoicism[edit]

The sage within Stoicism was an explicit topic, making the thought the best source on the concept. Indeed, the discussion of Stoic ethics within Stobaeus, which depended on Arius Didymus, spent over a third of its length discussing the sage.[2]

The aim of Stoicism was to live a life of virtue, where "virtue consists in a will that is in agreement with Nature."[6] As such, the sage is one who has attained such a state of being and whose life consequently becomes tranquil. The standard was so high that Stoics were unsure whether one had ever existed, if so, possibly only Socrates or Diogenes of Sinope had achieved such a state.[7]

Despite this, the Stoics regarded sages as the only virtuous and happy humans. All others are regarded as fools, morally vicious, slaves and unfortunate.[8][9] The Stoics did not admit any middle ground, as Cicero articulated the concept: "every non-sage is mad."[10]

The Stoics conceived of the sage as an individual beyond any possibility of harm from fate. The difficulties of life faced by other humans (illness, poverty, criticism, bad reputation, death, etc.) could not cause any sorrow to the sage, while the circumstances of life sought by other people (good health, wealth, praise, fame, long life, etc.) were regarded by the Stoic sage as unnecessary externals. This indifference to externals was achieved by the sage through the correct knowledge of impressions, a core concept in Stoic epistemology.[11] Thus, the sage's happiness, eudaimonia, was based entirely on virtue.[12]

The difficulty of becoming a sage was often discussed in Stoicism. When Panaetius, the seventh and final scholarch of the Stoa, was asked by a young man whether a sage would fall in love, he responded by saying: "As to the wise man, we shall see. What concerns you and me, who are still a great distance from the wise man, is to ensure that we do not fall into a state of affairs which is disturbed, powerless, subservient to another and worthless to oneself."[14]

Epictetus claims that only after the removal of any attachments to things in the external world could a Stoic truly possess friendship.[15] He also outlined that progress towards sagehood would occur when one has learned what is in one's power. This would only come from the correct use of impressions.[16]

Marcus Aurelius defines the sage as one "who has knowledge of the beginning and the end, and of that all-pervading Reason which orders the universe in its determinate cycles to the end of time".[17]

In Epicureanism[edit]

Epicurus believed that if one achieved a tranquil and happy existence, by following his precepts, one would become a sage, and, likewise, God-like.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?, pp. 39–45
  2. ^ a b c Annas, Julia. The Sage in Ancient Philosophy
  3. ^ Plato. The Republic, 387d.
  4. ^ Theaetetus 176b
  5. ^ Arius Didymus, Epitome of Stoic Ethics, trans. Arthur J. Pomeroy, p. 73 (John Strobaeus, Anthology, 2.7.11g)
  6. ^ Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy, p. 254
  7. ^ "The Stoic Sage". 
  8. ^ Dirk Baltzly, Stoicism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  9. ^ Stoic Ethics. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  10. ^ John Sellers, Stoicism p. 37, University of California Press
  11. ^ R.J.Hankinson, Stoic Epistemology, in The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, Brad Inwood editor, p. 59
  12. ^ M.Andrew Holowchak, The Stoics, A Guide for the Perplexed, pp. 19–25
  13. ^ Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, trans. Maxwell Staniforth. §4.24
  14. ^ G. Reydams-Schils. "Authority and Agency in Stoicism". 
  15. ^ "The Stoics and the Epicureans on Friendship, Sex, and Love - Richard Kreitner". 
  16. ^ "Epictetus - Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy". 
  17. ^ Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, trans. Maxwell Staniforth. §5.32