COMMEMORATING CLEANTHES AND THE RELIGION OF PHILOSOPHY
The second ‘scholarch’ of the Stoic school, Cleanthes of Assos, died in 232 BCE.
In what would have corresponded to October 6th of that year (15th of Boedromion), one of the most significant religious event occurred in Athens under the Stoa Poikile: under the painted colonnade where the Greek Stoics congregated, prospective initiates (mystai) into the Greater Eleusinian Mysteries were gathered together for official registration.
Surely, Cleanthes and his teacher, Zeno, would have had a great familiarity about this cult of the “Two Goddesses” (Demeter and Persephone) considering its prominence among the Ancient Greek world and its use of the very Stoa that would serve as the namesake of Stoicism. It wouldn’t be surprising if Cleanthes himself was initiated into the mysteries considering the religious sentiments expressed in his Hymns to Zeus. Here’s one that Epictetus seemed to appreciate:
Lead me, Zeus, both you and Destiny,Handbook 53.1-2; Cf. Discourses 3.22.93, 4.1.131, 4.4.34
Wheresoe’r you have ordained for me,
And I shall gladly follow. And if I am unwilling
Out of wickedness, still I shall follow.
Though we can’t be certain Cleanthes was actually initiated into the mysteries (or any Greek Stoics for that matter), the fact that Marcus Aurelius was initiated 400 years later and that he considered it one of the most important events of his life indicates that the teachings that the mysteries conveyed where in some sense consistent with the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius (and likely that of Epictetus). According to the Historia Augusta, Marcus made a point to be inducted into the Greater Mysteries when he enjoyed a brief respite during the Marcomannic Wars (in 176 CE):
After [Marcus] had settled affairs in the East he came to Athens, and had himself initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries in order to prove that he was innocent of any wrongdoing, and he entered the sanctuary unattended.Life of Marcus Aurelius 27.1
It seems like Marcus was allowed to be initiated alone and perhaps in an expedited fashion (the perks of being an emperor), but normally thousands of initiates would spend an entire week preparing for and carrying out the initiation rites. During the time of Cleanthes, the first day took place under the Stoa Poikile on the 15th day in the month of Boedromion. In 232 BCE (again, the year of Cleanthes’ death), this would correspond to today.
On the LA Stoics Discord channel, I’ve been posting every day–describing the activities, talking about Cleanthes, and about how we may be able to commemorate this event today. Join our server and follow along if you’d like. Here’s today’s thoughts:
Oct. 6th (15 Boedromion)
The first official day of initiation was called Agyrmos (the “Gathering” or “Assembly”). All those seeking initiation into the Greater Mysteries that year gather under the Stoa Poikile in central Athens where the Eleusinian priests would make an announcement to the crowd, officially beginning the rites. Each would-be initiate publicly declares to have “a soul conscious of no evil and [to] have lived well and justly” (Inscriptiones Graecae II.2.1078). They would then be officially registered before moving on to the next stage.
There were no restrictions on age, nor gender, nor citizen status, and no distinction was made between freeborn, freedmen, and slaves (and emperors for that matter!). They were—in theory—equally entitled to admission into the Mysteries. In practice, though, the initiation fee of 15 drachmas may have barred entry to people who were impoverished. You may think that Cleanthes was among them—arriving in Athens with four drachmas in his pocket, with not enough money to buy a bit of papyrus to take notes on. But, despite his low income, minimal needs, frugal spending, and the charity of others allowed him to save money.
They say that he was brought into court to give an account of how, being in such fine condition, he made his living. He was acquitted when he presented as his witnesses the gardener in whose garden he drew water and the barley seller for whom he cooked the grain. The Areopagites were satisfied and voted him a donation of ten minas [or, a thousand drachmas], though Zeno would not let him accept it. We are also told that Antigonus [of Macedonia] gave him three thousand drachmas. […] Zeno trained him [through manual labor] and exacted an obol [a sixth of one drachma] from his wages. One day Zeno brought his followers a handful of coins and said, “Cleanthes could also support a second Cleanthes, if he liked, whereas those who have the means to support themselves look to others for their necessities, even though they have plenty of time for philosophy.” Hence Cleanthes was also called a second Heracles.DL 7.168-170
Cleanthes was likely making about 5 obols for every evening of digging and drawing water (after giving Zeno his allowance). So if he was careful with his money (which it seems like he was), then he could have saved up the 15 drachmas (90 obols) registration fee with a few months of steady work. This was surely the kind of dedication we would expect from someone who would make the trek to Eleusis and to undertake the trials to come.
What are you spending your money on? Since money is a proxy of your time and effort, let’s rephrase the question: What do you consider valuable enough to spend your time and effort on? Upon reflection, are you evaluating things appropriately?
For Cleanthes, virtue and that which reliably produced virtue was sacred, but there were surely other things that Stoics considered valuable–things that are morally indifferent in themselves, but provide opportunities for virtue. All things being equal, such “preferred indifferents” usually include physical health (and the food and water to sustain it), strong relationships, and the offices or roles from which you can help your community. These are the things Cleanthes would have spent his money on and not much more. This further explain how he could have saved money for the registration fee despite being considered “extremely poor” (DL 7.168)
– Justin K.