Zeno of Citium was an influential philosopher from Cyprus, best known as the founder of Stoicism, a school of Hellenistic philosophy that emphasizes the importance of virtue and wisdom, focusing on personal ethics informed by its system of logic and views on the natural world.

Born around 334 BC in Citium (modern-day Cyprus), his life is somewhat obscure. The best account we have of Zeno’s life is from the biographer Diogenes Laërtius in his book, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, written in the 3rd century AD.

Diogenes reports him as a man with a dark complexion, a haggard appearance, and who lived an ascetic life despite his wealth.

It’s widely believed that, while travelling as a merchant transporting purple dye from Phoenicia to Peiraeus, he suffered a shipwreck that washed him ashore near Athens.

This wreck took Zeno to an Athenian bookseller, where he found a copy of Xenophon’s memorabilia. This book gave him his first taste of philosophy, in the form of a description of Socrates.

This chance meeting with the bookseller turned out to be a pivotal moment in his life and in western philosophy.

In Athens, after searching for ways to learn more philosophy, Zeno began his study in earnest and became deeply influenced by the Cynic philosopher Crates of Thebes, but he was also interested in the ideas of other philosophers like Socrates, the Megarians, and Platonist philosophy.

Zeno studied philosophy broadly before founding his own philosophical school, bringing multiple ideas together in an attempt to find the best ways to live as human beings.

As it happens, Zeno set the stage for one of history’s greatest philosophies.

Zeno’s Death

Zeno died around 262 BC, and the most commonly cited story of his death, as reported by Diogenes Laërtius, combines elements of stoicism and drama.

According to this account, Zeno died as a result of a seemingly minor accident. The story goes that he tripped and fell, possibly breaking his toe.

Reacting to this incident, Zeno is said to have quoted the famous line from the Niobe, a play by either Aeschylus or Sophocles: “I come, why do you call me?” and then held his breath until he passed away.

However, it’s important to treat such historical accounts with a degree of skepticism. Ancient biographies, especially those concerning philosophers, often included anecdotal or symbolic stories that were meant to illustrate the subject’s character or philosophical beliefs rather than serve as factual biographies in the modern sense.

After his death, an epitaph was written for him:

And if thy native country was Phoenicia,

What need to slight thee? Came not Cadmus thence,

Who gave to Greece her books and art of writing?

This suggests that, despite not being Greek, he was still highly respected by the people of Athens. He was also described as “the noblest man of his age,” and a bronze statue was built to honour him.

During Zeno’s life, he gained a great deal of respect for his teaching and brought Stoicism to a wide audience. For his contributions, he was honoured with the golden crown.

Our modern culture has honoured Zeno by naming a crater on the Moon after him.

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Zeno’s Stoic Philosophy

Zeno’s ancient philosophy, later named Stoicism (after the old Stoa Poikile, the painted porch in the Agora of Athens where he taught), is based on the stoic idea that living in harmony with nature, which includes human nature, leads to a virtuous and content life.

The Stoic school emphasized control over the passions and desires, teaching that virtue is sufficient for happiness. A person’s external situation was deemed irrelevant to their happiness; what mattered was their internal state and how they respond to what happens to them.

Zeno’s teachings on ethics were particularly influential.

He believed that the universe is governed by a universal reason, or logos, and that the human soul is a fragment of this divine nature.

Thus, living in accordance with reason and virtue is synonymous with living in accordance with the nature of the universe.

Unfortunately, most of Zeno’s writings have been lost, and what we know of his teachings comes from later sources, such as Diogenes Laërtius, whom we spoke about before and who was a key source of information about the early Stoics.

Stoicism, as founded by Zeno, went on to become one of the most influential schools of philosophy in the Hellenistic period and had a significant impact on Roman thought.

Later Stoic philosophers like Seneca, Epictetus, and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius were proponents of Stoicism and expanded upon the original ideas taught while Zeno lived.

Logic:

For Zeno, logic was not just about formal reasoning; it also included the processes of perception and thought.

He considered it a protective part of philosophy, guarding against error and helping to learn truth from falsehood.

This broad interpretation of logic included what we might now consider parts of epistemology and rhetoric.

Physics:

Zeno’s physics, deeply influenced by the pre-Socratic philosophers, particularly Heraclitus, proposed a materialistic universe guided by a rational structure or divine reason, which he termed ‘logos’.

This logos permeates the universe, ensuring its order and regularity. He believed that understanding the natural world was crucial to understanding one’s place within it and living in accordance with nature.

Ethics:

Ethics is perhaps the core of Stoic philosophy.

Zeno began teaching that the primary goal of human life is to live in harmony with nature, which essentially means living according to reason, as reason is the defining feature of human nature.

Virtue, for Zeno, is the highest good and is sufficient for happiness. This Stoic virtue is a form of knowledge or wisdom, encompassing practical wisdom about how to live well.

The Stoics had four cardinal virtues:

  1. Wisdom

  2. Justice

  3. Courage

  4. Temperance

Indifference to External Circumstances:

Another important aspect of Zeno’s philosophy is the notion of ‘indifference’ to external circumstances.

He taught that external goods like wealth, health, and reputation, while preferable, are not necessary for happiness. These things are neither good nor bad.

True happiness comes from within, from a state of mind that is in harmony with nature and reason, and from the strength of character to display wisdom, temperance, justice, and courage.

Cosmopolitanism:

Zeno is often credited with the concept of cosmopolitanism, the idea that all human beings are citizens of a single community.

This idea arises from his belief in the fundamental rationality and equality of all human beings.

Emphasis on Self-Control:

Zeno’s Stoicism places great emphasis on self-control as a means to find mental tranquility.

By mastering one’s desires and emotions, we can achieve a state of apatheia (freedom from passions), which is essential for living a virtuous and therefore happy life.

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Zeno’s Republic

“Zeno’s Republic” refers to a work attributed to Zeno of Citium, which outlines his vision of an ideal society.

It’s important to note that this work is largely known through secondary sources, as the original text has been lost to history.

The “Republic” is often compared to Plato’s work of the same name, but the two present markedly different visions.

While Plato’s “Republic” is a detailed dialogue exploring justice, order, and the role of the philosopher-king, Zeno’s “Republic” is described as proposing a radical form of social organization.

Key aspects of the work, as reported by later sources like Diogenes Laërtius and others, include:

  1. Elimination of Traditional Institutions: Zeno envisioned a society without conventional institutions like temples, law courts, or gyms, arguing that wisdom and virtue alone should guide human conduct.

  2. Communal Living: Zeno proposed the abolition of the family unit and private property. He advocated for communal living, where all individuals would live together and share resources.

  3. Cosmopolitanism: As we’ve seen, Zeno is often credited with the concept of cosmopolitanism, the idea that all people belong to a single community based on shared morality rather than being divided by traditional state boundaries and societal norms.

  4. Absence of Money: His ideal society would function without the need for money, as goods and services would be shared equally among all.

  5. Equality: Zeno’s “Republic” is noted for advocating gender equality and equal right, a radical idea for its time. He suggested that men and women should wear the same clothing and receive the same education.

  6. Ethical Living: Central to Zeno’s vision was the idea that living according to virtue was paramount, and that external factors such as wealth and power were irrelevant to a good life.

It’s crucial to understand that interpretations of Zeno’s “Republic” vary, and the surviving accounts are fragmentary and sometimes contradictory.

The radical ideas attributed to Zeno in his “Republic” contrast with the more conservative nature of Stoicism as it developed in later centuries. However, the influence of Zeno’s ideas on cosmopolitanism and ethical living continued to resonate through Stoic philosophy and beyond.

Zeno of Citium Quotes:

It’s clear that Zeno wrote a fair amount during his lifetime, and that he was one of history’s most important Hellenistic philosophers; however, what’s left of his work are fragmentary quotations and the accounts of other philosophers and historians of the time.

These are some of my favourite quotes that Zeno wrote or said:

“Better to trip with the feet than with the tongue.”

– Zeno

“The reason why we have two ears and only one mouth is that we may listen the more and talk the less.”

– Zeno

“Man conquers the world by conquering himself.”
– Zeno

“If you lay violent hands on me, you’ll have my body, but my mind will remain with Stilpo.”

– Zeno

“Happiness is a good flow of life.”

– Zeno

“A bad feeling is a commotion of the mind repugnant to reason, and against nature.”

– Zeno

“Well-being is attained little by little, and nevertheless is no little thing itself.”

– Zeno

FAQ

What is Zeno of Citium best knwn for?

Zeno of Citium is best known for founding his own school of Stoic philosophy, an influential school of philosophy in ancient Greece. His teachings emphasized living in harmony with nature, focusing on personal virtue and wisdom, and maintaining self-control to achieve a state of tranquility.

Did Zeno of Citium believe in God?

Zeno of Citium’s concept of God was intertwined with his understanding of the universe. He believed in a divine reason or ‘logos’ that permeates the cosmos, governing it with order and rationality. This can be interpreted as a pantheistic view of God, where the divine is seen in the natural laws of the universe rather than as a personal deity.

What did Zeno believe about Stoicism?

Zeno believed that Stoicism was a way of life centered around living according to nature and reason. He taught that virtue, particularly wisdom, is the highest good and that external circumstances should not affect one’s happiness. His Stoicism advocated for ethical living, self-control, and the development of personal resilience.

What was Zeno’s philosophy?

Zeno’s philosophy, Stoicism, revolved around three main areas: logic, physics, and ethics. He emphasized the importance of logical reasoning, understanding the natural order of the universe, and living a life of virtue. He advocated for self-control, emotional resilience, and equanimity in the face of life’s challenges.

Was Zeno the founder of Stoicism?

Yes, Zeno was the founder of Stoicism. He began teaching in Athens around 300 BC at the Stoa Poikile, from which Stoicism gets its name. His ideas laid the foundation for the Stoic school of thought, which was later developed and expanded by his followers and other philosophers.

What happened to Zeno of Citium?

Zeno of Citium died around 262 BC. The most famous account of his death, though possibly apocryphal, suggests that he died by holding his breath after suffering a minor injury. This story highlights the Stoic ideal of having control over one’s life and choosing one’s own fate. However, the exact circumstances of his death are not definitively known.


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One Comment

  1. Having read this I thought it was very informative. I appreciate you taking the time and effort to put this article together. I once again find myself spending way to much time both reading and commenting. But so what, it was still worth it!

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