On Zeno of Citium: The Founder of Stoicism

Zeno of Citium Essay
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Zeno of Citium. Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay

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We have all heard of Stoicism somehow or somewhere or the other. We have heard of the famous Stoic school of philosophy and many even roughly know the names of some of the famous stoics whom history has deemed worthy enough to be remembered and revered, such as Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius.

However, I am quite sure not many know or have even heard of the founder of this branch of philosophy that its famous disciples so ardently adhered to. For the clueless out there, I am talking about Zeno of Citium, the founding father of Stoicism.

I know what most of you are thinking right now, that you have never heard of him or never even knew of his existence or that you were under the impression that Epictetus or Seneca or some other better-known philosopher was the founder of Stoicism.

Not too long ago, I thought the same. I too was ignorant of this man named Zeno, never having heard his name before. And then one day, to my surprise, I happened to find out that not Epictetus or Seneca but Zeno was the man responsible for founding Stoicism. No doubt, subsequent philosophers have built upon the foundations laid down by Zeno by incorporating their own views into the philosophy we know it to be today.

In this essay, we will take a brief look at the life and philosophy of Zeno. Hope you find it interesting enough to stick to the end!

So who was Zeno of Citium? Well, Zeno of Citium was a Hellenistic philosopher born around 334 BC in the city-kingdom of Citium on the southern coast of Cyprus. He is believed to be of Phoenician ancestry, but, unsurprisingly, no one can really vouch for that with complete certainty. Like most historical figures dating back to his time, most of the details of his life remain unknown, and whatever we do know does not come from the man himself but from the writings of a certain Diogenes Laertius, who was a biographer of Greek philosophers.

Regarding his early life and childhood and youth, I cannot help you much for very little is known of it. And what little is known is probably not accurate, and so I choose not to go into it.

According to Diogenes, Zeno became interested in philosophy when he consulted the Oracle to ask what he should do to attain the best life. The Oracle responded that he should take on the complexion of the dead. Zeno interpreted this response in a certain way (which I cannot claim to know) and began studying the ancient philosophers.

Now, how true is this account? I do not know, and I am pretty sure Diogenes himself did not know either. But that should not stop us from continuing, for there will be many such accounts that may seem too far-fetched to us now, like the very next one.

Zeno went on to become an extremely wealthy merchant who initially did not live much of an ascetic lifestyle. But on a fateful day, on a voyage from Phoenicia to Peiraeus, the vessel he was traveling in was shipwrecked. Fortunately, he managed to survive.

Following this close encounter with death, Zeno made his way to Athens to visit a bookseller, where he came across Memorabilia, a collection of Socratic dialogues by Socrates’ student Xenophon. He was so deeply impressed by the dialogues and by the portrayal of Socrates in these dialogues that he impulsively asked the bookseller where he could find philosophers like Socrates. And just then, so the story goes, Crates of Thebes, the most famous and respected Cynic philosopher of the time in Greece, happened to be walking by, and the bookseller pointed at him.

Crates of Thebes was said to be the heir of a large fortune, but he gave away all his money to live a life of poverty on the streets of Athens in accordance with the principles of Cynicism, for which he was greatly revered and admired by the people of Athens.

Soon enough, Crates became Zeno’s teacher and mentor and taught him to live a spare and ascetic life as per Cynic principles. Under Crates’ tutelage, Zeno showed a strong inclination toward Cynic philosophy, but he was still too embarrassed to live the ascetic and poor life of a Cynic. Being a wealthy merchant of means, he shied away from assimilating Cynic shamelessness into his lifestyle.

Crates took it upon himself to rid Zeno of this shyness and defect and gave him a potful of lentil soup to carry through the pottery district. Upon seeing Zeno’s hesitation and shame and that he tried to keep the pot out of sight, Crates went to him and broke the pot with his staff, resulting in the soup spilling on Zeno and flowing down his legs. Embarrassed and humiliated, Zeno ran away from the scene.

However, it must be noted that Crates was not Zeno’s only teacher in philosophy. Zeno studied Platonist philosophy under Greek philosophers Polemo and Xenocrates, and also under the philosophers of the Megarian school, such as Philo, Stilpo, and Diodorus Cronus.

In 301 BC, when Zeno was around 33 years old, he began teaching in the colonnade in the Agora of Athens known as the Stoa Poikile. At first, his disciples came to be known as Zenonians, but as the years passed by, they were called Stoics, which was a name previously associated with poets who congregated in the Stoa Poikile.

It was during these years of teaching that Zeno developed as a philosopher and gained disciples of his philosophy, which was initially called Zenonism. Among these admirers and followers was King Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedonia, who frequently visited Zeno whenever he was in Athens.

As Zeno developed his own philosophy, which was greatly influenced by the moral ideas of Cynicism, he divided it into three parts, Ethics, Logic, and Physics.

With regards to Ethics, the end goal according to Zeno was to achieve eudaimonia, meaning the state of good spirit or happiness, through the right way of living according to nature.

Zeno’s views on ethics were influenced by the Cynics. Similar to them, he regarded happiness as a good flow of life that can only be achieved through the use of the right reasons coinciding with the universal reason, or Logos, which governs everything. He believed that true good can only consist in virtue, and that virtue was the consistency of the soul out of which morally good actions arise. And a bad feeling, or pathos, was a disturbance of the mind against reason and against nature.

However, not everything in his philosophy was in accordance with Cynicism. He deviated from the Cynics in saying that things that are morally indifferent could nevertheless have value and that things have a relative value in proportion to how they aid the natural instinct of self-preservation.

According to Zeno, virtue and vice are complete opposites, and virtue can exist only within the dominion of reason and vice within the total rejection of it. The two cannot exist together and neither can they be decreased or increased, for no one moral action can be more virtuous than another.

Zeno believed that only moral action can contribute to and aid in achieving happiness and that any action, impulse, desire, emotion, or mental state not guided by reason is immoral and will inevitably produce immoral actions. Therefore, to gain true happiness, one must necessarily root out and get rid of immoral actions devoid of reason and replace them with moral actions guided by the right reason.

With regard to Logic, Zeno was mainly influenced by the Megarian school of thought. He stressed the need to lay down a basis for logic so that a wise person would know how to avoid deception. To achieve this goal, he divided true conception into the comprehensible and the incomprehensible, and he described the process leading to true knowledge in four stages with the following example:

He stretched out his fingers and showed the palm of his hand and said, “Perception is a thing like this.” Then he closed his fingers a little and said, “Assent is like this.” Then he completely closed his hand and showed his fist and said, “This is Comprehension.” And then at last he brought his left hand against his right and with it took a firm and tight hold of his fist and said, “Knowledge is of this character and this is what none but a wise person possesses.”

And finally, with regard to Physics, Zeno believed that the universe was God and that it contained a divine artisan fire that foresaw everything, produced everything, and extended throughout the universe. And this divine and artistically working fire remained constant and consistent and was the basis for all activity and creation that took place in the universe.

And this very divine fire, Zeno said, is the nature that created, produced, and conducted all activities in the universe, and also contained all individual souls, thereby becoming the world soul of the universe.

Influenced by Heraclitus, Zeno also took the view that the universe underwent regular cycles of formation and destruction. He believed that the nature of the universe was such that it always strived toward and accomplished what was right and prevented what was wrong.

Over the years, as Zeno taught his philosophy, Zenonism came to be known as Stoicism, and Stoicism came to lay emphasis on goodness and peace of mind achieved from living a life of virtue in accordance with nature. It came to be regarded as a philosophy of personal eudaemonic virtue ethics informed by logic and by its views on the natural world.

Stoicism expressed that practicing virtue and living an ethical life was sufficient and necessary to achieve true happiness or eudaimonia.

As per the Stoics, virtue was the only good for human beings, and external things such as pleasure, health, and wealth were neutral in nature, that is, they were neither good nor bad, but had value as material for virtue to act upon. In order for one to not commit errors in judgment, one had to maintain a will that was in accordance with nature and had to understand the natural order to live a good and happy life.

Therefore, the Stoics believed that a person’s individual philosophy must be judged by their behavior and actions and not by what they say.

Due to the importance laid on virtue in Stoicism, Stoicism is considered one of the major founding philosophies of virtue ethics, a class of normative ethical theories that treat the concept of moral virtue as central to ethics.

During his lifetime, Zeno made a name for himself as a great philosopher and thinker and was revered for his philosophical and pedagogical teachings in Athens and in his native land. For his influence and achievements, he was honored with the golden crown and was offered Athenian citizenship, which he refused thinking he would appear unfaithful to his native land where he was highly respected and revered.

Sometime around 262 BC, when he was around 71 or 72, Zeno died in Athens. And although Laertius’ account of his death seems too dramatic and unrealistic to be believed, I shall nonetheless lay it down here for your benefit.

According to Laertius, as Zeno was leaving the school he tripped and fell and broke his toe. Then he struck the ground with his fist and quoted the line from the Greek tragedian Aeschylus‘ play Niobe, “I come, I come, why dost thou call for me?” And quoting this, he held his breath and died on the spot.

Now, I do not blame anyone for not believing Laertius’ account of Zeno’s death, for neither do I. However, this seems to be the only fairly well-known account of his death, and so I felt the obligation to put it down here.

Post his death, in honor of the moral influence he held over the youth of his era, a tomb was built for him.

Zeno’s philosophy proved to be quite popular and influential during his lifetime and with subsequent generations. It flourished throughout the Roman and Greek worlds as one of the major schools of philosophy, from the Hellenistic period through to the Roman era until the 3rd century AD. Through its influence, it gained well-known adherents and disciples such as Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

Stoicism’s influence decreased once Christianity was made the state religion in the 4th century AD, but it underwent revivals during the Renaissance in the form of Neostoicism and during the present time as Modern Stoicism.

In the modern era, a Stoic is usually regarded as a person who represses feelings or endures suffering patiently, or someone who is indifferent to joy, grief, pleasure, pain, or any other feelings or emotions.

Even Zeno himself would never have been able to imagine that his teachings would survive and thrive for centuries after centuries until the present day, influencing great thinkers, philosophers, writers, statesmen, and common citizens to live a better, happier, and more fulfilling life. He has successfully left his mark on history.