Commemoration of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism

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.

ἔκτισας αὐτάρκειαν, ἀφεὶς κενεαυχέα πλοῦτον, Ζήνων, σὺν πολιῷ σεμνὸς ἐπισκυνίῳ:

ἄρσενα γὰρ λόγον εὗρες, ἐνηθλήσω δὲ προνοίᾳ αἵρεσιν, ἀτρέστου ματέρ᾽ ἐλευθερίας

Zenodotus the Stoic, student of Diogenes of Babylon

On January 12th, we commemorate Zeno and the qualities that distinguish him and his views from other philosophers at the time.

Biography of Zeno

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

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 Phoînix) among Athenians and Crates the Cynic would playfully call him “little Phoenician” (Phoînikidion). 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. The relations between Athenians and and Phoenicians were such that Zeno and his father felt comfortable traveling West for business.

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 state, Zeno made a sea voyage to Athens with the intent to sell them valuable purple dye—it seemed like he was at the right time and had the right business to make a very successful living despite his humble background.

Zeno 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 he found himself in Athens penniless and with little future prospects. Here’s what happened next according to the the popular account:

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 with the full intention of staying there and attaching himself to a philosopher. Either way, both stories have Zeno finding Crates the Cynic 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).

Zeno’s 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 (poikilē 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 (Zēnēneioi). So it is stated by Epicurus in his letters.

Lives of Eminent Philosophers 7.5

The Stoics agreed with the Cynics that the only good is virtue (aretē) and everything else is indifferent (adiáphoria) –that is, everything else besides virtue does not make a difference to true human happiness. This is the core doctrine of Stoicism.

But Zeno’s Stoics distinguished themselves from the more hardline and ascetic Cynics by acknowledging that there are preferred indifferents (proēgména adiáphoria) 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” (kathēkon); he wrote a treatise called “On Duty” which became a precursor to many other treatises by the same name.

Τhe Stoics did not shy away from public life; they continued to gather under the Stoa Poikile at the heart of Athens for centuries. This is perhaps the most telling difference between Zeno’s philosophy and those of his peers –the Platonists’ Academy, the Parapatetics’ Lyceum, and the Epicureans’ Garden were all placed outside the gates and well away from where regular people actually gathered (more on Epicurus later).

Zeno’s 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—likely by refusing food—and in a manner that he judged appropriate.

Zeno and Epicurus

Truth be told, Zenonia is also the birthday of Epicurus, which was well attested:

“He was born . . . in the third year of the 109th Olympiad, in the archonship of Sosigenes [341 BCE], on the seventh day of the month Gamelion [Jan. 12th that year]”

Lives of Eminent Philosophers 10.14

Zenonia is placed on this day not out of spite, but because the importance of comparing Zeno with Epicurus. When we do this, we better understand Zeno and the ideals of Stoicism.

Of course, they were both founders of their respective schools. Epicurus founded Epicureanism and Zeno founded not Zenonianism. Epicurus was considered a sage by his immediate successors whereas Zeno is still not considered a sage (very few are by Stoic standards). Epicurus propounded a philosophy of hedonism, claiming that mental pleasure (or the absence of mental distress) is the only good. Virtue can help us secure stable mental pleasure and tranquility, but it is not good in itself. Zeno disagreed and placed all pleasure firmly in the category of indifferent.

Epicurus of Somos and Zeno of Citium were both outsiders to some degree: Epicurus had Athenian citizenship but was not born or raised there; Zeno was a Phoenician–a “xénos” or Greek-speaking stranger. Both were drawn to Athens by thge intellectual milieu: Epicurus was inspired by Democritus; Zeno by Socrates.

To be sure, 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 the city walls. 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 (a hangover from his Cynic days no doubt).

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 (in addition to his Hedonism) that Epicurus was the target of slander and criticism from the start, while Zeno endeared himself to the Athenian people (later in life, they awarded him with the keys to the city and erected a statue of him).

Lastly, the two philosophers 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, what do you think?

A Festival for Zeno?

So how do we commemorate Zeno every Jan. 12th? 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
  • Consider how to better embody the love of civic engagement that Zeno apparently had

We can also draw inspiration from the poetic verses dedicated to Zeno (DL 7.27-30). Here they are 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.

Diogenes Laertius

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 or thoughts by emailing me at justin@lastoics.com or else commenting on our Discord server.