Zeno of Citium

Zeno was an ancient Greek philosopher born in 334 BC in Citium (a Greek city in Cyprus). He is the founder of the school of philosophy known as Stoicism, which like Cynicism emphasized a live of virtue attained by living according to nature (physis). Zeno believed that wisdom is possible through Reason, and requires being in control of one’s emotion. He taught indifference (apathea) to pain and pleasure, poverty and wealth, sickness and health, famously saying “Man conquers the world by conquering himself.” He also emphasized the importance of logic in order to avoid being deceived, having been turned off by some of his contemporaries elaborate speeches. Zeno believed that the universe and God are one (pantheism), and that the world is run by a divine fire.

As a merchant, Zeno once became shipwrecked in Athens. He wandered into a bookstore and started reading the writings of Socrates. Asking the librarian where he could find such a man, and the librarian pointed to the philosopher Crates. Crates was a Cynic, who like Socrates embraced a simple life of virtue. The Cynics embraced pain, shunned pleasure, and disregarded laws and social conventions (nomos). Zeno became Crates student, exclaiming “”I made a prosperous voyage when I was shipwrecked.” Unable to shake his concern with social propriety (correctness), Crates had Zeno carry a pot of lentils around the city. He then smashed the pot with his staff, covering Zeno in the soup. When Zeno became embarrassed, Zeno said “Why run away, my little Phoenician? Nothing terrible has befallen you.”

Zeno would embrace the ascetic (simple) lifestyle of the Cynics, as well as develop his own philosophy, known as Stoicism (named after the colonnade, Stoa Poikile, where he lectured). He represents the Stoic disposition of someone who is grim all the time. At the same time, he embraced the concept of free love. Like the Cynics, he rejected modesty, was turned off by those who speak more than they do, and preferred the few to the many.

Zeno acknowledged Aristotle’s position that “Man is a social animal” and thereby believed it was rational to participate in society. He put forth the ideal of an anarchistic (ungoverned) society consisting of a community of rational beings who have no need for laws (nomos) or money. At the same time he recognized that we live in an imperfect world, and therefore it’s best to accept social realities. Although opposed to society, one should still fulfill basic social responsibilities. In this way, Zeno was a middle route between the Cynics, who completely withdrew and disregarded society, and the later Stoics who became obsession with social duty.

Zeno believed that the virtuous life is a life of reason, and that one can best act according to reason when he is in control of his emotions (apathea). He considered bad emotions a “disturbance of the mind repugnant to Reason, and against Nature.” For Zeno, everything is either good or bad, a virtue or a vice. He considered pleasure as well as pain, desire as well as fear, to be equally bad in so far as they cause one to become emotional (pathos). One should perform “fitting actions,” acting virtuously, in accordance with reason, and doing those things which lead to self-preservation (i.e. are in one’s best interest). In this way, one can find happiness.

Zeno believed that the world was imbibed with divine reason (logos), because the world and God are one. This is known as pantheism. Inspired by Heraclitus, Zeno identifies God with fire (the pyr technicon, “fire which creates”) and sees this fire as responsible for the creation of the universe. The world is created and destroyed, as fire becomes air, air becomes water, water becomes earth, earth becomes air, and air becomes fire again in a never ending cycle. Individual souls are part of the world-soul that is the universe, and our individual fates are merely an expression of the fate of the universe.

Zeno uses the metaphor of a hand closing to explain human knowledge. Perception is like when the palm of the hand, while “assent” (i.e. judgments based on sensory experience) is like when the hand starts to close. Comprehension is when the hand is completely closed, and true knowledge is when the left hand and right hand are joined together. This division of philosophy into ethics, physics, and logic, originally made in Plato’s Academy, would guide later developments in Stoic philosophy. In this way, Zeno combined the Cynics’ understanding of virtue and ascetic lifestyle with Platonist philosophy in order to create his own Stoic philosophy. Stoicism, along with the more pleasure oriented school of philosophy known as Epicureanism, would flourish in Hellenistic Greece (the period after Alexander the Great and Aristotle), and be continued by Roman philosophers such as Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.