STOIC CALENDAR: Zeno & Epicurus 2022

Today corresponds to the birthday of Epicurus, the founder of Epicureanism. The date was well known in ancient times and has been preserved by historians like Diogenes Laertius:

He was born, according to Apollodorus in his Chronology, in the third year of the 109th Olympiad, in the archonship of Sosigenes [341 BCE], on the seventh day of the month Gamelion, in the seventh year after the death of Plato.

Lives of Eminent Philosophers 10.14

“[T]he seventh day of the month of Gamelion” in 341 BCE was the seventh day after the eighth new moon after the Summer Solstice of 342 BCE. According to the data on ancient lunar phases and solstices (and if we project the Julian calendar backwards), this day was Jan. 12th.

What wasn’t preserved for posterity was the birthday of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism (there may be more significance behind this than just the happenstance of history—more on this later). So, in the spirit of cosmopolitanism, we will share the date despite [or because of] the differences in the two historical figures. Join me in commemorating Zeno and the qualities that distinguish him and his philosophy from Epicurus and his philosophy.

The Figure of Epicurus

The biography of Epicurus is relayed in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers 10.1-22.

Birth and Heritage: Epicurus was born in 341 BCE on the island of Samos (off the coast of modern-day Western Turkey). He was a citizen of Athens due to his family’s helping maintain a militarily-strategic settler colony (klêrouchia) on Samos. His family may have been poor (since most wealth families who took allotments on the settlements just stayed in Athens while their slaves stayed abroad), but both his parents were from Athens and were said to be of the noble Philaid clan (supposedly descendants of the mythological Philaeus, son of Ajax). So Epicurus was certainly culturally and legally an Athenian.

Upbringing: Epicurus briefly lived in Athens in 323 BCE at the age of eighteen and supposedly attended the lectures of Xenocrates (head of Plato’s Academy at the time), but he had to quickly return to his family upon the collapse of Alexander the Great’s empire. The Athenians were driven out of Samos by 320 BCE and so he lived with his father and brothers in Colophon [near modern-day Istanbul]. It’s said that he started studying philosophy casually at the age of twelve or fourteen, but worked as a ‘language teacher’ (grammatodidaskalos) in Colophon for years before coming across the works of Democritus—perhaps in his early 20’s. At that moment, he promptly dedicated his life to philosophy; began articulating his own theories and practices; and started gathering students while teaching in Anatolia and Lesbos.

In Athens: Besides being inspired by Democritus (which he couldn’t have denied given his atomic theory of physics) and studying philosophy as an adolescent, it doesn’t seem that Epicurus took much advantage of the intellectual culture of Athens or had any literal teachers that helped shape his philosophy. Epicurus himself insisted that he was self-taught. In 306 BCE, he arrived in Athens intellectually fully-formed, bringing along with him a cadre of loyal students (Hermarchus, Metrodorus, Polyaenus, Colotes, Idomeneus, Leonteus, and Leonteus’ wife Themista). He quickly saw a lot of criticism from the Athenians for his advocacy of hedonism (the theory that pleasure is the chief good) as well as many false rumors, ad hominem attacks, and misrepresentation of his philosophy (DL 10.3-12).

His philosophy: The Epicureans, as they came to be known, lived in a compound called “the Garden” (ho kêpos) northwest of Athens proper on the road to Plato’s Academy. They avoided the pursuit of objects or activities that tended towards physical pain (algêdôn, ponos) or mental distress (lupê, taraxis) and moderated the pursuit of fleeting—so called “kinetic” (kīnêtikos)—pleasure. Rather, they encouraged the pursuit of simple living, strong friendships, and stable—so-called “static” or “katastematic” (katastêmatikos)—pleasure. Epicurus also discouraged participation in public life and politics—an extremely unstable arena. He taught primarily in private and through private correspondences (which inspired Seneca to do the same hundreds of years later).

His death: Epicurus died “in the second year of the 127th Olympiad in the archonship of Pytharatus” (270 BCE) at the age of seventy-one. Apparently, he died after a bout of severe kidney stones. After two weeks of illness, knowing his time was near, he wrote the following note to Idomeneus:

“On this blissful day, which is also the last of my life, I write this to you. My continual sufferings from strangury and dysentery are so great that nothing could augment them; but over against them all I set gladness of mind at the remembrance of our past conversations.”

Lives of Eminent Philosophers 10.22

You can read more about Epicurus’ philosophy in three of his personal correspondences (Letter to Herodotus concerning physics; Letter to Pythocles demonstrating his epistemology; and Letter to Menoeceus concerning ethics) along with some of his saying of his all preserved in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers 10.28-154.

[NOTE: Apparently, it was customary by the year of Epicurus’ death to celebrate his birthday on the tenth of Gamelion (the number ten was probably more auspicious than seven). It was also customary up until the common era to commemorate Epicurus and Metrodorus each month on the twentieth day (I’ve noticed that this practice even survives today among Modern Epicureans). I am aware of these other dates, but I have settled on the seventh for the time being.]

The Figure of Zeno

The biography of Zeno is relayed in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers 7.1-38.

Birth and heritage: Zeno was born around 335 BCE in a Phoenician town on Citium (modern-day Cyprus). Zeno and his family were Phoenician; he was known as “The Phoenician” (ho phoinix) among Athenians and the Cynic Crates would playfully call him “little Phoenician” (phoinikidion). Citium was conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, gained autonomy when Alexander died in 323 BCE, but was subsequently conquered again by the Greeks (Ptolomy I) in 312 BCE. I’m not certain about the relations between Athens and and Phoenicians but apparently they were well enough for Zeno and his father to feel comfortable traveling West for business..

Upbringing: Zeno was said to have been a merchant (like his father) throughout his twenties and into his thirties. We can expect him to have received only the most basic education (learning to read and write Greek, learning about poetry and maybe music) in addition to learning other useful languages besides his native Phoenician. There was no need for him to learn more than that, especially once the Aegean market opened up. Soon after Citium became a Greek client, Zeno made a sea voyage to Athens with the intent to sell them valuable purple dye—it seemed like he was in the right time and had the right business to make a very successful living despite his humble background.

In Athens: He did in fact make it to Athens in 312 BCE, but only after his ship was wrecked off the coast of Attica—close enough to Athens to finish the trip, but only after loosing his extremely valuable merchandise and means of livelihood. So there he was penniless and with little future prospects. Here’s what happened next according to the stories:

He went up into Athens and sat down in a bookseller’s shop, being then a man of thirty. As he went on reading the second book of Xenophon’s Memorabilia, he was so pleased that he inquired where men like Socrates were to be found. Crates passed by in the nick of time, so the bookseller pointed to him and said, “Follow yonder man.” From that day he became Crates’s pupil, showing in other respects a strong bent for philosophy.

Lives of Eminent Philosophers 7.2-3

There is a less sensational story—so, more likely true—that Zeno’s father would bring books about Socrates back from Athens (DL 7.32). Zeno then travelled to Athens and had full intentions of staying there, attaching himself to a philosopher. Either way, both stories have Zeno finding Crates upon arrival.

And so he studied under Crates and lived by the uncompromising ethics of the Cynics. At the same time, he also studied logic and dialectic from the Megarians (Stilpo, Diodorus Cronus, and Philo). He also attended the lectures of the Platonists (Xenocrates and Polemon). He lived like a Cynic, read the works of past philosophers, and studied under the greatest minds of the time for over ten years before starting his own school (some accounts say that he lived with Crates for ten years and then studied under the Megarians for another ten years).

His philosophy: In his forties or fifties, no later than the year 285 BCE, Zeno started to acquire his own students:.

He used then to discourse, pacing up and down in the painted colonnade (poikilê stoa) [. . .] his wish being to keep the spot clear of a concourse of idlers [. . .] Hither, then, people came henceforth to hear Zeno, and this is why they were known as men of the Stoa, or Stoics (Stôikoi); and the same name was given to his followers, who had formerly been known as Zenonians (Zênôneioi). So it is stated by Epicurus in his letters.

Lives of Eminent Philosophers 7.5

The Stoics agreed with the Cynics that the chief good is virtue and everything else is indifferent (that is, everything else does not make a difference to happiness). They distinguished themselves from the more hard-line and ascetic Cynics by acknowledging that there are preferred indifferents that one can use as instruments for virtue—to “live according to nature” as their slogan became. The important thing is that virtue is never compromised—sometimes this means that the “preferred indifferent” would be pain, physical hardship, public ridicule, or even death. But this also means that we can’t shy away from the public life if this becomes a way to exercise justice, courage, and prudence. Zeno became known for emphasizing the importance of “duty” or “appropriate action” (kathêkon); he wrote a treatise called “On Duty” which became a precursor to many other treatises by the same name. Another indication that the Stoics did not shy away from public life is the fact that they continued to gather under the Stoa Poikile at the heart of Athens for centuries.

His death: There are several inconsistent accounts of Zeno’s death. The most realistic account is supposed to have come from one of Zeno’s young students, Persaeus, who claims that he died at the age of seventy-two (around 263 BCE), having led his school for about thirty-eight years:

The story goes that Zeno of Citium after enduring many hardships by reason of old age was set free, some say by ceasing to take food . . . [Others say that] as he was leaving the school he tripped and fell, breaking a toe. Striking the ground with his fist, he quoted the line from the Niobe: “I come, I come, why dost thou call for me?” and died on the spot through holding his breath.

Lives of Eminent Philosophers 7.31, 28

I think the message here is that Zeno left of his own free will—either by holding his breath or by refusing food (more likely)—and in a manner that he judged appropriate.

Similarities and Differences

I’ll be brief here—just highlighting some points from what I’ve already said. Epicurus and Zeno were both outsiders to some degree: Epicurus was an Athenian but was not born and raised there; Zeno was a Phoenician. Both were captivated by the earlier Greek philosophers: Epicurus was inspired by Democritus; Zeno by Socrates.

Obviously, their differences are more striking. Epicurus and Zeno were from different cultures and social classes: Epicurus was still a legal Athenian and could assume to be accepted into Athenian society upon his arrival; Zeno followed in his father’s footsteps as a merchant and presumably lived on the streets with the other Cynics upon his arrival in Athens. Epicurus started his school immediately and established it outside of town. It took Zeno at least ten years of education and training in Athens to begin taking students and, even then, he didn’t feel the need to buy property for the Stoa—no need to segregate his students from the public. Epicurus claimed to be self-taught while Zeno spent that ten plus years studying under others: Cynics, Megarians, Platonists. Perhaps it was because of this that Epicurus was the target of slander and criticism from the start, while Zeno endeared himself to the Athenian people (they awarded him with the keys to the city and erected a statue of him). They even died differently: Epicurus called the day he died of kidney stones and renal failure “blissful” while Zeno struck the ground and departed life with little ceremony. This may be indicative of the differences in their philosophies: Epicureanism values mental pleasure above all (or the absent of mental distress) whereas Stoicism insists that all pleasure and pain is indifferent and instead values virtue and freedom.

A Festival for Zeno?

So how do we commemorate Zeno today? Here are some ideas:

  • Read Diogenes Laertius’ biography of Zeno (Lives of Eminent Philosophers 7.1-38)
  • Read the book that inspired Zeno so much: Xenophon’s Memorabilia 2 (at least the “Education of Heracles by Virtue” at sections 1.28-41)
  • Consider how to better embody the love of learning that Zeno apparently had
  • Reflect on and draw inspiration from the poetic verses dedicated to Zeno (DL 7.27-30)

Below are the verses as translated by Pamela Mensch (2018):

Daunted not by winter’s cold, by endless rain,
By the heat of the sun, by sickness dire,
Shunning public feasts, never yielding,
He cleaves to his studies day and night.

Unknown author

One loaf, dried figs, a cup of water.
For he propounds a novel philosophy:
He teaches hunger, and gets pupils.

Philemon the Comedian

Here lies renowned Zeno, dear to Citium, who scaled Olympus,
Not by piling Pelion on Ossa,
Nor by toiling at the labors of Heracles. To the stars
He found the path: that of temperance alone.

Epitaph by Antiphon of Sidon

You invented self-sufficiency, casting aside
Haughty wealth, noble Zeno, gray of brow.
For you discovered a mighty doctrine,
And founded a school, a mother of fearless liberty.
If Phoenicia was your native land, why should we bear a grudge?
Came not Cadmus thence, who gave Greece her books and writing?

Eulogy by Zenodotus the Stoic

This one is about all the Stoics that studied under Zeno:

You who are adepts in Stoic learning,
And have committed to your tablets the finest doctrines,
Teaching that the soul’s virtue is the only good.
For it alone protects the lives and cities of men.
But pleasure of the flesh, an end adored by other men,
Only one of the daughters of Memory attains.

Athenaeus the Epigrammatist

Let me know if you have any more ideas, preferably some that are more concrete or specific. If nothing else, have a small loaf of bread, a glass of water, and maybe some figs for the occasion! Enjoy.


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