Zeno of Citium

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Zeno of Citium (The Stoic) (sometime called Zeno Apathes) (333 BC-264 BC) was a Hellenistic philosopher from Citium, Cyprus. He was the son of a merchant and a student of Crates of Thebes, the most famous Cynic living at that time in Greece. Zeno was, himself, a merchant until the age of 42, when he started the Stoic school of philosophy. Named for his teaching platform, the stoa ("stoa" is Greek for "porch"), his teachings were the beginning of Stoicism. None of Zeno's works have survived, but his teachings have passed on, including his main concept that tranquility can best be reached through indifference to pleasure and pain.

He was described as haggard, tanned person living a spare, ascetic life. This coincides with the influences of cynic teaching, and is, at least in parts, continued in his stoic philosophy.

Diogenes Laërtius, biographer of the Greek philosophers, left the most extensive writings about Zeno's life with his work Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Although these writings miss deeper introspection into the philosophical ideas of Zeno, the anecdotical descriptions leave a colorful image of the historical figure Zeno. Some examples:

  • He had very few youthful acquaintances of the male sex, and he did not cultivate them much, lest he should be thought to be a misogynist. He dwelt in the same house with Persaeus; and once, when Persaeus brought in a female flute-player to him, Zeno hastened to return her.
It is not clear whether this Persaeus, who was later sent as Zeno's proxy to King Antigonos of Macedonia, was Zeno's servant or amanuensis.
  • He was, it is said, of a very accommodating temper; so much so, that Antigonus, the king, often came to dine with him, and often carried him off to dinner at the house of Aristocles the harp-player; but when he was there, he would presently steal away.
  • When he was asked why he, who was generally austere, indulged himself at a dinner party, he said, "Lupines too are bitter, but when they are soaked they become sweet."

Zeno preached that man conquers the world by conquering himself. By developing an indifference to pain and pleasure through meditation, the practicing stoic will develop a wisdom, stemming from having control over the passions. He lectured his students on the value of apatheia, which he explained to be the absence of passion. Only by taking an attitude of controlling one's emotion and physical desire, he felt, could we develop wisdom and the ability to apply it.

Zeno died around 264 BC. Laërtius reports about his death: "As he left the school, he tripped, fell and broke a toe. Hitting the ground with his hand, he cited words of Niobe: "I am coming, why do you call me thus?". Since the stoic sage is expected to do always what is appropriate and Zeno was very old at the time, he felt it appropriate to die and consequently strangled himself.

During his lifetime, Zeno received appreciation for his philosophical and paedagogical teachings. Amongst other things, Zeno has been honoured with the golden crown, and a tomb has been built for his remains in honour of his moral influence on the youth.

Quotes (attributed)

  • "Steel your sensibilities, so that life shall hurt you as little as possible."
  • "Follow where reason leads."
  • "Better to trip with the feet than with the tongue." (while drunk on wine)
  • "We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say."

Further reading

  • The Hellenistic Philosophers, 2 vols., A. A. Long and D.N. Sedley (Cambridge, 1987).

External links

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