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Man is but a shadow of a dream. Pindar
For well over a thousand years ancient Greece literally teemed with wise men, from the ninth century B.C. when the poet Homer was active, until the fateful year A.D. 530, when the Christian emperor Justinian closed the Academy of Athens and forbade the teaching of pagan philosophy. We might argue that Greece, along with India, was the land that boasted the greatest number of sages per square mile. There were wise men of every type, appearance, and caliber. There were those who, like Empedocles, would declaim their works while walking about the agora and city streets dressed in sumptuous tunics and crowned with headbands like prophets. Others, like Plato, would teach wisely seated on the tiered steps of the Academy, or at least on the shaded slope of a hill. Still others, like Aristotle, would walk up and down the paths and gardens of the Lyceum followed by their disciples, hence their nickname, peripatetics, literally those who pace to and fro, strollers. Finally, there were those who, like Diogenes and the Cynics, would sleep right in the streets, living on alms and dispensing their teaching to one and all while wearing rags rather than the himation, a cloak typically worn by philosophers that betokened nobility of the blood and the soul.
There were indeed thousands of wise men and philosophers in ancient Greece, some at the head of academies, authors of important and acknowledged works; others practically unknown, even anonymous, who have left us but a few fragments collected by some compiler or later historian. Wisdom, sophia as the Greeks called it (and still call it today), was an integral part of philosophy, which in turn couldnot be dissociated from social and collective life. Thus the reader will find in this collection, gleaned from among a dozen or so ancient authors, remarks and observations that stem not from a single, revealed truth-as would be the case several centuries later in Christianized Greecebut rather from questions, intellectual quests, a continuous and manifold investigation of the world. In a word, they represent incertitudes as much as certitudes. It is in precisely this way that the wisdom of ancient Greece remains vital today. Whereas certain wise men like Plato propose a precise and coherent system of thought, others like Democritus, Epicurus, Diogenes, and Pyrrho, the so-called Materialists, Cynics, and Skeptics, offer quite varied and personal answers. The ancient Greeks endlessly questioned the world, and because that world gave them no precise answer, let alone a sole and unique response, each school and each century provided its own in often quite vivid turns of phrase.
Moreover, wisdom is found not only among the wise, or at least among those who profess to be so. From time to time it crops up where one least expects it, on the tomb of a slave, for instance, in a popular proverb, or in a poem by Sappho, Greece's earliest yet most unforgettable poetess. We should bear in mind that for the Greeks wisdom was incarnated not in a god, but rather in a goddess, Athena.
By ranging over the schools and the centuries then, we will discover in fables, maxims, sayings, and prayers the myriad aspects of Greek wisdom, so vast and open that more than one path is needed to reach it.