At the end of Phaedrus (278d4) there is the following exchange (tr. Jowett):

Socrates: go and tell Lysias that to the fountain and the School of the Nymphs we went down, and were bidden by them to convey a message to him and to other composers of speeches - to Homer and other writers of poems, whether set to music or not; and to Solon and others who have composed writings in the form of political discourses which they would term laws.

To all of them we are to say that if there compositions are based on the knowledge of the truth, and they can defend or prove them when they are put to the test by spoken argument, which leaves their writings poor in comparison of them, then they are to be called, not only poets, orators and legislators, but one worthy of a higher name befitting the serious pursuit of their life.

Phaedrus: what name would you assign them?

Socrates: Wise, I may not call them; for that is a great name which belongs to God alone - lovers of wisdom or philosophers is their modest and befitting title.

Is this the provenance of the term 'philosopher', or is this an artifact of Jowetts translation? What are the Greek terms here translated by 'lovers of wisdom - or philosophers'?

2 Answers 2


The passage is from Plato's Phaedrus 278d4

The Greek word is philosophos (φιλόσοφος). It is translated by Jowett as lovers of wisdom or philosophers. The original text uses the singular.

The text says literally "The term philosopher or something of this kind fits better to him ..."

The passage is not the origin of the term philosopher. It is used several times in Plato's work. He also uses the verb "philosophein" (φιλοσοφεῖν).


It is thought that the moment of birth lies in an anecdote about Pythagoras told by Heraclides of Pontus:

Pythagoras was the first to call himself a “philosopher” (philosophos). He not only used a new word but he taught an original doctrine. He came to Phlius, he talked at length and learnedly with Leo, the tyrant of Phlius. Leo, admiring his mind and eloquence, asked him what art pleased him the most. But he answered that he didn’t know art, but that he was a “philosopher.” Surprised by the novelty of the word, Leo asked him what philosophers were and what distinguished them from other men.

Brisson L., How Philosophers Saved Myths p.11ff (Chicago UP 2004) and note 22 for the following refs. and some other comments:

Of course since Walter Burkert published his work(s) on Pythagoreanism the reality of anything connected with its founder is rather flimsy. (see also . Walter Burkert, “Platon oder Pythagoras: Zum Ursprung des Wortes ‘Philosophie,’” Hermes 88 (1960): 159-77; Anne-Marie Malingrey, Philosophia: Etude d’un groupe de mots dans la littérature grecque, des Présocratiques au IVe siècle après J.-C. (Paris: Klincksieck, 1961)).

The earlier appearance for 'philosophos" is eventually in Heraclitus (DK 22 B 35 = Clement of Alexandria, Stromate V 140) but some commentators have thought that the term was added by Clement of Alexandria. According to the Suda (s.v. Zeno, vol. II, p. 506.26 Adler = DK 29A2), Zeno is supposed to have written a work titled "Pros tous philosophous". As a verb philosophein was probably used first by Herodotus.

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