Sage (Sophos)

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In the Symposium, Plato draws a distinction between a philosopher, and a sage (sophos). The difference is explained through the concept of love, which lacks the object it seeks. The philosopher (literally love of wisdom, in Greek), does not have the wisdom he or she seeks. The sage, on the other hand, does not love, or seek, wisdom because he already has wisdom. According to Plato, there are two categories of beings 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, realizing that he is not wise, seeks wisdom, and loves wisdom. This distinction between the philosopher and the sage, played an important part in Stoic philosophy that developed after Plato.[1]

The Stoic sage

Arius Didymus, on the Stoic Sage' 

It is the view of Zeno and his Stoic followers that there are two races of men, that of the worthwhile, and that of the worthless. The race of the worthwhile employ the virtues through all of their lives, while the race of the worthless employ the vices. Hence the worthwhile always do the right thing on which they embark, while the worthless do wrong.|Arius Didymus[2]

The Stoics conceived of the sage as an individual beyond any possibility of harm from fate. The life difficulties faced by other humans (illness, poverty, criticism and bad reputation, death, etc.) could not cause a sage any sorrow, and the life circumstances sought by other people (good health, wealth, praise and fame, long life, etc.) were regarded by the Stoic sage as unnecessary externals. The Stoics thought of the sage as an agent unaffected by life circumstances, and who's happiness (eudaimonia) is based entirely on virtue [3].

This invincibility to harm from externals is achieved by the sage through knowledge, based on the right use of impressions. The right use of impressions is a core concept in Stoic epistemology [4].

The Stoics regarded the sage, the truly wise man, as rare, and few (if any) examples of actual sages who had lived were ever named. Despite that, the Stoics regarded sages as the only virtuous and happy humans. All others are regarded as fools, morally vicious, slaves and unfortunate [5] [6]. The Stoics did not admit any middle ground between sages and non-sages. Either one is a sage or one is a fool. Cicero wrote that, according to the Stoics, "every non-sage is mad."[7]


  1. Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?,p.39-45
  2. Arius Didymus, Epitome of Stoic Ethics, trans. Arthur J. Pomeroy, p73 (John Strobaeus, Anthology, 2.7.11g)
  3. M.Andrew Holowchak, The Stoics, A Guide for the Perplexed, p.19-25
  4. R.J.Hankinson, Stoic Espitemology, in The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, Brad Inwood, editor, p.59
  5. [1] Dirk Baltzly, Stoicism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  6. [2] Stoic Ethics. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
  7. John Sellers, Stoicism, p.37 University of California Press