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How a barbarian from the banks of the Dnipro became a «star» of ancient philosophy

How a barbarian from the banks of the Dnipro became a «star» of ancient philosophy
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Ancient philosophy is usually associated with Ancient Greece. But much less is known about the philosophical tradition in the Northern Black Sea coast, on the territory of modern Ukraine. It is connected first of all with the name of Anacharsis — the only non-Greek philosopher included by Plato in the rating of 7 great sages. As an «ideal sage», he was credited with the invention of the potter’s wheel, the anchor, and the jug. But we will be interested in something else: the worldview that the Scythian Anacharsis brought to philosophy.




The figure of Anakharsis is so unusual that some people refuse to consider the philosopher a historical character. They say that he was made up in the III-I centuries B.C. by the Cynics to propagandize their ideas. The barbarian Anakharsis was, for them, a symbol of the natural wisdom of a man who had escaped the corrupting influence of civilization. However, the Scythian philosopher was hardly a fiction.

He did not leave voluminous works, but he is quoted in 70 ancient works, including Plato and Aristotle. Herodotus wrote about him as a real person. And it is unlikely that the Greeks, who looked down upon the barbarians, would have honored Anacharsis without any reason. To qualify as one of the progenitors of philosophy, a barbarian must be an exceptional figure.




Even Herodotus arrogantly claimed that the Scythians had no outstanding men besides Anakharsis. Anakharsis surprised the Athenians with his barbaric accent and non-Greek view of the world. When a certain Hellene criticized him for his Scythian origin, Anakharsis replied: «My shame is the fatherland, and you are the shame of the fatherland». A person’s «quality» is indicated by his thoughts and deeds, not by the stamp in his passport.

For the Athenians, who judged people by formal attributes, primarily citizenship, this idea was revolutionary. As an example to them, he put the Spartans — they also spoke poorly in Attic but were famous for great deeds. Among the Hellenes, only the Spartans were not possessed by a manic thirst for omniscience, so it is possible to have a reasonable conversation with them.




Some of the sayings of Anacharsis may have been attributed to him. But it cannot be denied that their character betrays in him a representative of another civilization and mentality. «Savage» Anacharsis ridicules the customs of «cultured» Hellenes: addiction to competition and wine, democracy and legislation, the monetary system, and the pantheon of gods. The view of life as a punishment is also uncommon for the Greeks.

In Anacharsis, one can hear echoes of Orphic teachings, which probably came to the Greeks from somewhere in the north. At least in the homeland of Anakharsis, in the Northern Black Sea region, archaeologists have found bone plaques with Orphic texts. Today, it is not easy to reconstruct the philosophical system of Anacharsis, but its influence on Greek philosophical thought is obvious: it was experienced by the Cynics, Stoics, Sophists, Plato, and Aristotle.




The influence of Scythian thought on Greek thought follows logically from the importance of the Scythian steppe civilization. The Greek colonies in the Northern Black Sea region were a zone of intensive contact between Hellenes and Scythians. The first were interested in grain, leather, salted fish and weapons. The second were interested in wine, handicrafts and luxury goods. The Scythians were a conglomerate of Iranian-speaking tribes living on a vast territory: from the Danube to Siberia, from the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, almost to Egypt and India.

Already in the 2nd-1st millennia B.C., up to 10% of the world’s population lived here. In the era of Anacharsis, around 650 B.C., under King Ariantas, the number of Scythians was estimated to be between 6 and 13 million people. Scythia had large cities like Gelon, described by Herodotus, and had great military and economic power.


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Anakharsis belonged to a powerful dynasty of Scythian kings. His father was King Gnur, his grandfather was King Lycus, and his great-grandfather was the ruler Spargapif. According to some information, the language of Hellas was taught to him by his Greek mother. What influenced the prince’s decision to abandon his social status and travel to distant Greece? The most appealing answer to us: a love of wisdom. By the way, about the same time, another prince, Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha, thought about the meaning of life.

Apparently, the realities of the «axial» age, as Karl Jaspers called it, stimulated the descendants of the glorious warriors to change their iron swords for spiritual ones. But let us not forget that at all times, the representatives of royal dynasties did not belong to themselves. Perhaps the journey was originally aimed at diplomacy and exploration. It was not for nothing that the young man was sent to the Hellenes on his father’s initiative. But Anaharsis, whose name is translated as «the voice of the sky», really had an outstanding mind, and everything went wrong…




The tradition of such «business trips» existed earlier. According to Lucian of Samosata, the Scythian Toxaris, shortly before Anacharsis, gained fame in Athens as a healer. Scythians were used as market guards. But the Hellenes rarely sympathized with foreigners. Even such an «advanced» sage and legislator as Solon, who came to power in 594 BC, considered them second-class people.

Arriving in the ancient metropolis, Anacharsis immediately went to the house of the archon. But he refused to meet him, telling through a slave that everyone should make friendships in his homeland. However, the Scythian was not confused and conveyed the answer: would Solon not like to follow his rule and make a friend while he was in his homeland? Thus, the barbarian outwitted the Hellene, and the astonished Solon became the best friend of Anacharsis.




Anacharsis was clearly drawn to his kind. Diogenes of Laertes told of his meeting with another of the seven sages, Myson. The Scythian became interested in him after the Pythia at Delphi informed him that only Myson surpassed him in wisdom. Their destinies and attitudes to life were somewhat similar. Myson, the son of the tyrant Strymon, chose the simplest life, that of a philosopher-plowman who labored on the land as a commoner.

It is in this voluntary self-restraint, cutting off from himself everything accidental, that the philosophical tradition, to the top of which the Cynics and Stoics would rise, originates. In his dialogues with the Lydian king Croesus, Anacharsis asserts the priority of the natural over human laws.

The wild animal appears to him to be fairer, freer, and wiser than man. To Solon, who was proud of his laws, Anakharsis said: «The law is like a spider’s web: the weak will get entangled, but the strong will break through it; or like a rope stretched across the road: the small will get under it, but the big will step over it».




According to the philosopher, Greeks live in a world of absurdity: they condemn fights but applaud wrestlers at competitions; they condemn deceit but organize markets where they cheat each other; smart people make proposals at public assemblies, but fools discuss and approve them. Anacharsis condemned excesses — they destroy man and society, giving rise to envy, hostility, and greed. Even the gods of the Greeks divide the world: to one the sky, to another the sea, to another the underworld.

And the Hellenes themselves began to divide the earth, imitating the gods. This is not like the Scythians: everyone is satisfied with a little and envies no one. In a conversation with the fable writer Aesop, the philosopher explains why he lives in a carriage and wanders the earth like the sun in the sky: the sun is the only free and self-sufficient deity, it floats above the earth and is not subject to anyone.




Outside Scythia, Anacharsis lived for about 30 years. During this time he visited Athens, Lesbos, Thebes, Corinth, Phocis, Boeotia, Sicily, Egypt, and Persia. Bowing before his wisdom, Anacharsis was made a member of the Areopagus — an honor unheard of for a stranger! When Solon died in 559 BC, Anacharsis returned to his homeland. But now, in Scythia, he was received as a stranger, accused of loving everything Greek and disregarding the customs of his fathers.

Perhaps his compatriots were simply jealous of Anakharsis’ intelligence and feared competition in the struggle for power. The philosopher was shot by his elder brother with a bow while hunting — the perfect Scythians turned out to be not so perfect. It is said that the last words of Anakharsis were: « Intelligence saved me in Hellas; envy ruined me in my homeland».


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