Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.02.30

Ilaria Ramelli (ed.), I Setti sapienti: vite e opinioni nell'edizione di Bruno Snell. Originally published as Leben und Meinungen der Sieben Weisen, 4th edition (1971).   Milano:  Bompiani, 2005.  Pp. 264.  ISBN 88-452-3397-9.  €10.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Andrew L. Ford, Princeton University (
Word count: 773 words

This wonderful little volume offers a translation of the last edition of Snell's Leben und Meinungen der Sieben Weisen, including the copious Greek and Latin texts printed en face. In addition, Ilaria Ramelli has provided a fine scholarly introduction (pp. 7-32) and an extensive bibliography (pp. 223-59) that is up to date and impressively wide-ranging. The author and the press are to be congratulated for this stimulating aggiornamento of a doxographical classic at an extremely attractive price.

Ramelli, who has written several monographs on Diogenes Laertius and later Greek philosophy, introduces the sages in the context of the question of whether or not they belong to the history of philosophy. This approach is true to Snell's own interests, but may, I fear, deter those classicists who have learned to view the sages as social and political actors rather than in relation to some abstract and teleological history of ideas.1 But of course the two approaches can harmoniously cooperate. Ramelli's doxographical analyses, like those of Snell himself, raise questions of great interest to cultural studies, and can sometimes show in detail how traditions changed their meanings as they were received in new circumstances. For example, Ramelli succeeds in showing that Diogenes' discussion of whether Greeks or barbarians "invented" of philosophy is indebted to a earlier Greek debate about whether the "sages" (sophoi, sophistai) counted as philosophers (philosophoi). Now this debate over origins may strike us as empty quibbling, but where one draws the line between wisdom and philosophy clearly could have important symbolic value, and Ramelli points out that Diogenes' history was written to substantiate a Greek claim to priority against challengers that notably included a philosophizing Christianity. As the stories of various sages in colloquy with Croesus confirm, the Greek sages are not simply a welter of contradictory stories but a flexible tradition capable of projecting different identities to different "others" as need arose.

As for Snell's book, 68 years after its first edition it strikes one as authoritative and idiosyncratic at once. It is the fullest available presentation of material on the Greek sages (principally Diogenes, Clement of Alexandria and Stobaeus, but other witnesses from Callimachus to Ausonius chime in), and much of what the handbooks say about the sages is documented here. But, idiosyncratically, the book begins not with a proper collection of testimonia but with a farrago of contradictory and variant stories cobbled together to illustrate the "pseudo-philology" we are forced to depend on. Nevertheless, Snell proposes to give some sense to the documents (including a few inscriptions) by attaching their more striking configurations and themes to specific historical milieux. The argument, and the bulk of the book, is principally in the way the sources are carved up and arranged, though brief, 2-page expositions of their significance are interspersed throughout. Snell is a powerful and original Quellenforscher as when, e.g., he segregates nearly consecutive sentences from the same source into separate chapters or extracts from Diogenes a series of letters allegedly written by sages and arranges them into the remains of an epistolary novel about Solon. The overall history he sketches accepts the antiquity of a tradition of seven sages (the figure is attested in Gilgamesh), circulating in Greece ca. 600 BCE in the form of popular songs and maxims attached to anecdotes. Plato played a key role in transforming the tradition (not, as some have suggested, in inventing it). His Protagoras and Theaetetus converted the popular archaic moralizers into paragons of speculative wisdom and the contemplative life (e.g. Thales as the high-thinker falling into a well). Subsequently, a reassertion of the worth of the active life among some Peripatetics stressed the sages as practical advisors (calling forth the Thales who could corner the market in olives). Nor is this the end of the story. Ephorus made the sages more cosmopolitan when he brought in Anacharsis the Scythian, and Snell follows up the story in a few later antique and early medieval mentions of the sages as prophets of the coming of Christ. Although some parts of this picture may be more persuasive than others, and indeed the whole tradition of seven sages has been rejected as a Platonic fantasy,2 careening through this material with Snell remains a rewarding and eye-opening experience.

For all that this is a translation of a 30-year old original, Ramelli and Bompiano have brought out a fresh and stimulating volume. Whether one is interested in philosophic ideas or in practices and whether these be placed in the archaic age, in the age of Plato, or in the imperial period, this book provides rich opportunities for observing the Greeks continually re-defining wisdom and rewriting its history.


1.   Notably from R. P. Martin, "The Seven Sages as Performers of Wisdom" in C. Dougherty and L. Kurke eds. Cultural Poetics in Archaic Greece (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993): 108-128.
2.   Despite the skepticism of Detlev Fehling, Die sieben Weisen und die frühgriechische Chronologie: eine traditionsgeschichtliche Studie (Bern and NY: P. Lang, 1985).

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