The Seven Sages and Orphism

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Greece is not the only country that had, as tradition wills, seven founders of philosophy, yet we are going to start with them. Twenty-two philosophers may have belonged to this group of seven: Cleobulus (whose daughter Cleobulina was a well-known philosopher with a political cloud too), Chilon, Periander, Miso, Aristodemus, Epimenides, Leophantus, Pythagoras, Anacharsis, Epicharmus, Acusilaus, Orpheus, Pisistratus, Pherecydes, Hermioneus, Lasus, Pamphilus and Anaxagoras, however, about four thinkers classical sources are unanimous: Thales from Milete, Bias from Priene, Solon from Athens and Pittakos from Mytilene. The latter three are known for their statesmanship, legislation and poetry. Prince Orpheus, probably son of a Thracian king, early 6th century BC, gained a mythical status for his singing and poetic skills; he was said to be a son of the Greek god Apollo. Even lions laid down at his feet to listen to his voice, according to tradition.

Orpheus’ philosophical teachings, Orphism, had no little influence on mainstream beliefs, but a it appears to have had a great influence on later philosophers as Pythagoras, Heraclitus and Plato, even on Christianity. Orphism emphasized the human nature in man and thus his immortality and continuance after death. Postmortem punishment may be expected, therefore a proper life and self-denial are necessary: an ascetic, sternly disciplined way of life. Orphism believed in re-incarnation and according tradition Orpheus had released the mysteries of Egypt to the Greeks. Orphism separated in the 6th century BC from an even older mystic cult: Dionysianism. Religion in ancient Greece was polytheistic and Dionysianism evolved mainly around the illusive god of wine, madness, theater and vegetation. These two mystery movements are anti-dogmatic, esoteric, strongly personalized and, last but not least, festive. Some currents knew violent rites, some others sexual and transcendental rituals. Dionysianism believed contrary to Orphism, in one Cosmos, without dualism or ranking. Female figures were important in Dionysianism. Orphism had a rational speculative nature and was more popular among philosophers; Pythagoras modified it into a form of Logical Mysticism and the Ophic theories of Cosmic Law, Harmony and Sympathy can be traced in Pythagorism, which, however, never became a proper or mainstream Orphic sect. Greek mysticism has ancient roots, perhaps in the Bronze Age and is influenced by ancient Buddhist thinkers in India, Thracian and Minoan traditions. Judaism, Nazareanism also left their strong traces on Orphism, also in the later Roman Mystery tradition. Various deities from different creeds appear in Orphism: the Egyptian gods Sakla (of the Dead), Ptah, Seraph, and even the Jewish deity Iao (Yah) and Kabbalistic concepts like Jehovah Tzabaoth. It was a complicated and heterogeneous mixture of concepts and characters. Empedocles, an Orphic philosopher may have held concepts resembling those of Tantric Bodhisattva with its reincarnation concept of ‘conscious incarnation of the illuminated’. Empedocles said he had passed through successive incarnations from fish to man into living god. To prove his immortality Empedocles jumped into Mount Etna, never to be seen again. The final stage of Orphism was the Platonic, from the 4th Cent BC, with two main currents, one being libertarian, spiritual and moderately hedonistic, the other unworldly mystical, logical, paternally authoritarian and ascetic, however, Orphism remained intelligent, ethical and progressive, until the end, when corruption and elitism entered. This corrupt elitism led to the successful rise of the modern Judeo-Christian current. The Roman Empire made an end to the mainstream Millennium of Mystery cults, though Orphism was one of the last of the ‘Pagan’ Mysteries to survive in the West until the late 5th Cent AD, as were Mithracism, Iseanism, Serapeanism and some others. It had its influence on especially the isolated Celtic cultures on the British islands. Some say that Pauline Christianity was a rewriting of late Orphism and that Gnosticism was even more so. In Asia Minor sects existed around the 3rd, 2nd Cent AD, that combine Orphic and Christian imagery.

Logic was an important focus of ancient Greek philosophy. An example is Epimenides’ Paradox, Epimenides of Knossos being Cretan, 6th Cent BC: ‘All Cretans are liars… One of their own poets has said so’. This is not a true paradox, since the poet may have knowledge that at least one Cretan is honest and so be lying when he says that all Cretans are liars. It may therefore be no self-contradiction in what could be a false statement by a lying person. Epimenides was a poet and considered a prophet of perhaps Central Asian shamanic descent. In ancient Greece this kind of philosophic reasoning led to highly respected status in the public debate. It shows that the thinker understands how certain relations may be differently connected to each other than at first superficial consideration appears and that deductive thinking leads to the proper answer of a puzzle or problem with unusual or unexpected starting positions. The liar paradox dwindled from people’s attention, until the twelfth century AD, when its variations were studied under the name of insolubilia. Anacharsis, early 6th Cent BC, Scythian philosopher to be become the first ‘foreigner’ to receive Athens citizenship, is seen by some as the very first Sceptic and Cynic. Philosophical skepticism is searching wheather one may find truth from one’s own convictions and scientific skepticism is searching wheather other people’s sayings have scientific value, that is are falsifiable and reliable, based on hypotheses and critical thinking. Philosophical skepticism says that the human mind is naturally uncapable of certain knowledge. Scientific skepticism is part of empirism: it says that observation leads to forming and testing a theoretical model. No theory can have a truth claim without systematic observation. Cynicism appeared only after Socrates and was founded by one of his students, Antisthenes. It taught that ascetism and denial of luxury and property was the only way towards true wisdom. It persisted until late in the Roman period.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Seven Sages and Orphism

  1. I dont truly know what you talking about right here. This cant be the only way to think about this can it? It appears like you understand a lot, so why not explore it more? Make it more accessible to everyone else who might not agree with you? Youd get a lot more individuals behind this should you just stopped making common statements.

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