Misshapen Creatures that Live in the Earth Can Give Us Sage Advice?

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Well, no. But: Don’t Fear the Gnome

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The first philosophical event in the Greek world, the selection of their seven sages, gives the first distinctive and unforgettable characteristic of Greek civilization. Other people have saints, while the Greeks have philosophers. They are right when some state that a people is not defined by its great men it has but by the way it recognizes and honors them.

Friedrich Nietzsche

When you hear “gnome,” you probably think of a scary little creature.

That’s because of the Rosicrucians, a 17th-century mystical movement in Europe that said gnomes are little misshapen creatures that live in the bowels of the earth.

But well before the Rosicrucians, the word “gnome” meant something different. It meant a short statement that expresses a general truth, like a proverb or maxim.

There were seven men in ancient Greece who were well-known for the particularly-insightful gnomes attributed to them. These men were called “The Gnomics.” Today, we refer to them as the “Seven Sages of Ancient Greece.” They were philosophers, poets, rulers, statesmen and lawmakers who were renowned for their wisdom.

Actually, there were a lot more than seven.

One ancient writer (Hermippus) said there were 17 of them. That’s probably because ancient Greece was an amalgamation of city-states and different city-states had different lists.

But all the Greeks agreed that wisdom is a great thing. The ancient Greeks’ veneration of the Gnomics was, in the words of Nietzsche quoted above, the “first philosophical event in the Greek world.”

In any event, although there were various lists of Gnomics, the following seven were most often agreed upon: Thales, Solon, Bias, Pittacus of Mytilene, Periander of Corinth, Chilon of Sparta, and Cleobolus of Lindus. The following is a short summary of each Gnomic, along with one of his more compelling gnomes that I think are often ignored in today’s world

A word of caution to my cultural anthropologist/critical theorist friends

All of these guys were white (albeit presumably in a swarthy Greek way). I suppose the Gnomics could even be accused of adding the first words and concepts to the superstructure web that keeps the rich and powerful in control, and, therefore, ought to be despised. If that bothers you, there’s no need to read further. There’s nothing here for you.

But on the flip side, if the Gnomics speak to you, you need to ask yourself: How? Their words might be part of the western civilization superstructure where the means of production dictate how we think, but their words are 2,500 years and many cultures removed from us. How can they resonate with us today, if our minds are merely constructed, controlled, and dictated by today’s superstructure?

Anyway . . .

Thales

Thales is considered the father of western philosophy, living in the sixth century (about the time of the start of the Babylonian Captivity of Israel (589 BC). He taught a form of “materialistic monism” that held all things are ultimately water.

Three gnomes attributed to him:

“Regulate your life according to a standard.”

“Do not accept bad things.”

“Not being able to control yourself is a hurtful thing.”

Solon

Athens voluntarily put a dictator named “Draco” in charge. He passed a series of really harsh reforms and rules in about 620 BC. Shortly after him, Athens appointed Solon to create a more reasonable set of law, which he did. He became known as the Father of Democracy.

Three gnomes attributed to him:

“Do not associate with bad people.”

“Even if you know, keep silent.”

“Never exaggerate.”

Bias

We don’t know a lot about Bias of Priene. He was apparently a very good attorney with a charitable bent: he once ransomed girls who had been taken as slaves, educated them, then sent them back to his father. He is one of the most esteemed Gnomics and one of four to make every list (the other three: Thales, Solon, and Pittacus).

Three gnomes attributed to him:

“Do not be in a hurry to undertake something. When, however, you start, stay fixed to that until the end.”

“Love practical wisdom.”

“You will be more self-controlled, by working hard.”

Pittacus of Mytilene

The oldest of the Gnomics, born 650 BC. He was a political and military leader on the Island of Lesbos (easy now, my prurient readers). Legend says his son was murdered and the culprit captured and brought to him. Pittacus declined to take revenge, saying “Pardon is better than punishment.”

Three gnomes attributed to him:

“Don’t say what you intend to do.”

“Show tolerance to small damages inflicted upon you by your neighbors.”

“Learn to judge the right moment.”

Periander of Corinth

He’s arguably the least-favored among the Gnomics, falling off both Plato’s and Plutarch’s lists. But we know a fair amount about him. He was the king (or tyrant) of Corinth, which flourished economically under his leadership. He patronized learning and the arts. He was a friend (at least patron) of Aesop.

In my opinion, his gnomes are the lamest of the bunch. Maybe he deserved to be left off the list, especially since the ancients recount a few highly disturbing episodes from his life (I refer you to his Wikipedia entry). I found only two gnomes from him worth repeating:

“When you are happy, be modest, when you are unhappy, be sensible.”

“Take care to make yourself worthy of your parents.”

Chilon of Sparta

The Spartans weren’t known for their love of learning, so it’s particularly impressive that one of them makes the list. They weren’t known for their poetry, either, but Chilon was a poet as well. He was also a Spartan politician and ardent fan of the Olympic games: When his son won one of the events, they say Chilon died of joy.

Three gnomes attributed to him:

“When you drink alcohol, do not talk too much, you will make mistakes.”

“Hate the person who gets involved in the affairs of others.”

“Do not allow your tongue to run ahead of your intellect.”

(And one bonus gnome, for those of us who struggle with road rage: “Do not try to overpass people on the road nor make all kinds of hand gestures, this is done by the crazy people.”)

Cleobolus of Lindus

Ruler of Lindos, on the island of Rhodes. He studied philosophy and liked to write poems. Not much is known about him, but he was supposedly a real stud, both handsome and muscular.

Three gnomes attributed to him:

“Never do anything with violence.”

“Like to listen and not to say too much.”

“The measure in all things is the best.” (i.e., “moderation is best”)

The Gnomes Weren’t Unusual

I don’t want to leave without mentioning something that gets overlooked: Such gnomic sayings weren’t unusual.

The ancients revered short nuggets of knowledge. Maxims of the Delphi Oracle, the Old Testament’s Proverbs and Book of Wisdom, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, much of the Stoic writings.

And for my money, I’ll take the Book of Proverbs. The Greek gnomes above are good, but compared to those Jewish gnomes in Proverbs? They pale.