Persian, Egyptian, Indian, and Celtic wisdom: Dio of Prusa on philosophers’ roles in leadership (late first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persian, Egyptian, Indian, and Celtic wisdom: Dio of Prusa on philosophers’ roles in leadership (late first century CE),' Last modified December 31, 2022, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=11714.

Ancient author: Dio Chrysostom of Prusa, Oration 49 (a.k.a. “A Refusal of the leadership position of Archon delivered before the Council”) (link to Greek text and full translation).

Comments: In addressing the civic Council at his hometown of Prusa (in order to turn down the office of civic leader [archon]), Dio delves into the role of philosophers in ruling. In the process, he provides examples of Greek philosophers playing an integral role in assisting leadership. But then he also engages with the notion of wise “barbarians” by making reference to Persian, Egyptian, Indian and Celtic wise men as an aid to leadership among powerful foreign peoples. It may not be a coincidence that these references to foreign peoples trigger Dio’s analogy connected with ethnic stereotyping. In this case, he suggests that there is no descent group or people as savage, wicked and violent as the list of vices that one must struggle against to be wise.

Source of the translation:  J.W. Cohoon and H.L. Crosby, Dio Chrysostom, 5 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1939-51), public domain (for volumes 1-2, Cohoon passed away in 1946; for volumes 3-5, Crosby passed away in 1954), adapted by Harland.

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[Philosophers assisting leadership]

(6) However, while one would find that philosophers have rarely become rulers among men – I mean holding positions termed “principal leadership positions (archai),” serving as generals or satraps or kings – on the other hand, those whom they ruled have derived from them most numerous and most important benefits. The Athenians did so from Solon, from Aristeides, and from Perikles, the disciple of Anaxagoras; the Thebans from Epaminondas; the Romans from Numa, who, as some say, had some acquaintance with the philosophy of Pythagoras; and, the Italian Greeks in general from the Pythagoreans, for these Greeks prospered and conducted their municipal affairs with the greatest concord and peace just as long as those Pythagoreans managed their cities.

[Persian, Egyptian, Indian, and Celtic philosophers]

(7) Furthermore, since they cannot always be ruled by kings who are philosophers, the most powerful peoples (ethnē) have publicly appointed philosophers as superintendents and officers for their kings. So the Persians, I think, appointed those whom they call Magians (Magoi), because they were acquainted with nature and understood how the gods should be worshipped. The Egyptians appointed the priests who had the same knowledge as the Magians, devoting themselves to the service of the gods and knowing how everything worked and where it came from. The Indians appointed Brahmans, because they excel in self-control and righteousness and in their devotion to the divine. As a result, they know the future better than all other men know their immediate present. The Celts appointed those whom they call “Druids,​” these also being devoted to the prophetic art and to wisdom in general. In all these cases the kings were not permitted to do or plan anything without the assistance of these wise men. So, in actuality, it was these philosophers who ruled, while the kings became their servants and the ministers of their will, though they sat on golden thrones, lived in large houses, and feasted sumptuously.

[Allusions to ethnic stereotyping by way of analogy]

In fact, it is reasonable to expect that man to administer any leadership position most capably who, occupying continuously the most difficult leadership position of all, can show himself free from error. For example, the philosopher is always principal leader of himself, and overall this is more difficult than to be king over all the Greeks or all the barbarians. For what descent group (genos) among humankind is as savage as anger, envy, and contentiousness are, things over which the philosopher must maintain control? What descent group is as wicked, plotting, and traitorous as are pleasures and lusts, by which he must never be overcome? What descent group is as violent, terrifying, and debasing to men’s souls as fear and pain are, to which he must never be seen to yield? (10) Furthermore, what armour, what defences does he possess for protection against these efforts such as both kings and generals have against a foe? What allies or bodyguards can he employ against them, unless they are words of wisdom and prudence? Whom else can he bid do sentry duty or trust to stand guard, or what servants can he employ? Is he not, on the contrary, obliged to hold this watch himself both night and day, with anxious thought and vigilance in case, before he is aware of it, he may be excited by pleasures or terrified by fears or tricked by lust or brought low by pain and so be made to abandon those acts which are best and most righteous, becoming a traitor to himself? (11) However, the man who administers this leadership position with firmness and self-control does not find it difficult from then on to show himself superior even to the whole world.

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