“Already much of the task is accomplished; nay, rather, if I can bring myself to confess the truth, not much. For goodness does not mean merely being better than the lowest. Who that could catch but a mere glimpse of the daylight would boast his powers of vision? One who sees the sun shining through a mist may be contented meanwhile that he has escaped darkness, but he does not yet enjoy the blessing of light.”
This is a keen reminder of how much work there is to do, despite how much may lay behind us. There is also this list, which seems to be those who were virtuous. It’s a rather long list, but if I’m not mistaken to say these had achieved virtue means that in your eyes, Seneca, these were Sages? Or maybe you simply mean some of these were good men?
Democritus, Socrates, Cato, Rutilius, Epicurus, Metrodorus,
Epicurus is an interesting case, since he called himself a sage, and indeed said his own doctrine were wisdom. That goes against the Socratic position, but considering Epicurus didn’t think so highly of Socrates, that’s not too surprising. This question of Socrates is an interesting one as well, he clearly states that he knows nothing, but the Oracle said no were wiser.
So we’re left with three choices:
- If none are wiser, and Socrates knows nothing then there is no wisdom, or at least no Sages.
- If none are wiser, and Socrates simply doesn’t know that he’s wise, then there is wisdom, and is at least one Sage.
- If none are wiser, and Socrates does know that he’s wise, then he’s at best misrepresenting and at worse lying.
The Stoics allow for position two, that a person might become wise, but not know of it right away, even though the change comes about in an instant. This was problematic for the Epicureans who could not abide that a person would suddenly become wise, yet this one singular thing should then escape their notice.
It is the resolved that coming to wisdom is like coming to mastery in a craft, in that at some point we become proficient, but it’s only in looking back that we can see the point where the level of excellence became easy and consistent. It is only from the prison cell, then, facing the end of his life that Socrates may have come to know that he was wise. It seems wisdom in these cases, or at least the self-knowledge of it, is a parting gift.
Point three is the Epicurean position, that Socrates was being dishonest about his wisdom, and thus he refused to share it with his friends, the cardinal sin of the Garden. Epicurus then, to the mind of that school, rightly breaks the tradition of explicitly not calling one’s self a Sage, says that he is and his doctrine is wisdom.
It’s interesting to see this longer list, Seneca, since usually we’re restricted to Socrates, Heracles, and Odyssius (some will allow for Cato at your behest, but it’s fair to say not most). The doctrine of the Sage is really interesting to me, and it’s one which had not garnered as much scholastic work as it deserves.
I’ve enjoyed reading Brouwer’s work “The Stoic Sage,” which touches on some of the issues which can be more difficult to hunt down with only the core canon. It’s a touch pricey, though.