Zeno of Citium (334–262/1 BCE)

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(334262/1 BCE)

Zeno, creator of the philosophical system that became known as Stoicism, was born probably in 334 BCE in Citium, a coastal settlement in southeastern Cyprus, whih was largely Hellenized by that time. His family may well have been of Phoenician origin (as was a significant minority of the population). At the age of twenty-two, he left for Athens. There he spent the next decade or so studying philosophy with various teachers. In time a group formed round Zeno himself; and because these "Zenonians" met in a public colonnade named the Painted Stoa, they came to be called Stoics. Zeno evidently established a prominent position in Athenian society. In his later years Antigonus Gonatas, the Macedonian monarch, attempted without success to attract him to his court, while the Athenians themselves voted him public honors in both life and death, particularly because of the exemplary moral example he had set. "More self-controlled than Zeno" became the benchmark phrase. He died in 262/1 BCE.

Zeno's philosophical hero was Socrates. The Stoics, so Philodemus tells us, were prepared to be known as "Socratics"; and Stoicism is best understood as a theoretical articulation of Socrates' intellectualist ethics, buttressed by a monistic metaphysics that is at once materialist and pantheist. Zeno's early attraction to the Socrates portrayed in Xenophon's Memorabilia is attested to in an anecdote that associates it with the influence exercised over him by his first teacher, the Cynic philosopher Crates. He appears to have cultivated a Cynicizing image in his own lifestyle. Zeno was noted for frugality, stamina, unsociabilityand a Laconic sharpness in repartee. His Republic, the first book he wrote, constituted a critique of Plato's great work so uncompromisingly Cynic that Stoics of Cicero's time tried either to disown or to bowdlerize it.

Here Zeno rejects the need for an elaborate educational system; he sweeps away institutions such as temples, law courts, gymnasia; he abolishes coinage. Women are to wear the same clothing as men. Any man may mate with any woman: Gone is all Plato's sexual regulation. Gone, too, is Plato's insistence on a rigidly stratified class structure. All that is required for true citizenship is virtue. Single-minded Cynic rejection of every conventional value is the short way to acquire that, and thus to help build a community of the virtuous in the here and now. But Zeno also invoked a more positive and distinctively Socratic idea in this context. Erosthe god of erotic lovewas to be the deity presiding over Zeno's city, bringing it friendship, freedom, and concord. The wise and virtuous will, like Socrates, seek out young people whose physical attractions indicate a propensity to virtue. By such relationships the bonds of society are to be forged.

Like all Zeno's writings, the Republic is now lost. Quite a number of other book titles are preserved, indicating a much wider range of philosophical preoccupations than are typical of the Cynics or of Socrates himself. Extended verbatim quotations are rare, but doctrines and especially definitions are cited in a variety of later classical authors. From these it is clear that the main structure of Stoic ethics was already articulated in Zeno's own pioneering work. Thus he endorses the Socratic idea that virtue is exclusively a matter of knowledge and wisdom, and that because it is, on its own, sufficient for happiness, the human goal consists in living in accordance with virtue. More innovative is Zeno's way of explaining what it means to be wise, and how in living wisely a person "follows nature." He took an expression in common moral discoursekathêkon : what is incumbent upon me, my duty. Although (or perhaps in part because) it had never received any previous philosophical attention, he made it elemental within his own ethics. By a characteristic piece of etymologizing, kathêkon is explained as behavior that "comes in accordance with" the nature of a human being, or more generally an animal or plant of a particular kind. In a human it is what reason enjoins or forbids. Virtue or excellence in a person accordingly consists in "reason consistent and firm and unchangeable," and "living consistently" is by the same token the human goal: eurhoia biou, "success in life" (but etymologically its "life's smooth current").

Virtue is therefore not an ideal remote from everyday life but something focused on duties that are incumbent upon the ordinary person: honoring parents, serving country, spending time with friends, taking proper care of your health. An unqualified Cynic might have regarded most such things as indifferent to happiness. Zeno did not flatly disagree. But at this point he made another innovative move, decisive for the shape of Stoic ethics and for attacks upon it, ancient and modern. Some things indifferent for happiness (such as natural ability, beauty, health, wealth) are "preferred," like favorites at court, as according with nature; others (such as their opposites) not, as contrary to nature. Ordinarily reason will enjoin behavior designed to secure those that are preferred. But not always. Self-mutilation may be in order if the only alternative is military service with a tyrant in an unjust cause. What really matters for happiness is listening to right reason and acting accordingly, even if it is only the perfectly rational or wise personthe "sage"who manages to do that with complete consistency. Consequently it is paradoxically the sage alone who is truly rich, strong, beautiful, and so on.

Knowledge, too, was, in Zeno's assessment, commonly accessible, not the preserve of philosophy or the sciences. Like the Socratic Stilpo, another of his teachers, Zeno rejected Platonic universals. As in ethics, so in epistemology he introduced fresh vocabulary to express the new idea he wanted to make fundamental: katalêpsis, "cognitive grasp." All of uswise or wretched fools (which is what we are if we do not attain virtue and wisdom)have a reliable basis for navigating the world we inhabit: sensory impressions conveying a grasp of reality that could not be wrong. Zeno used his hands to illustrate the point. An open palm represents what it is to receive an impression. Closing the fingers a little signifies assent. Clenching the fist is katalêpsis : Assent that is unquestionably right. The need for a concept of secure rational understandingepistêmê on the Platonic model is not denied. Zeno illustrated this by clasping his clenched right fist tightly and forcibly with his left hand. The point? Contra Plato, there can be no secure understanding without the kind of cognitive grasp of the sensible world that is made available to everyone by a providential Nature.

Belief in a providential naturewhich the Stoics identified with God and Zeus and Fatewas something Zeno found Socrates arguing in Xenophon's Memorabilia (1.4, 4.3), most compellingly in the inference that, just as the physical stuff we are made of is supplied by the world about us, so our intelligence must derive from a cosmic intelligence. Zeno had studied logic with the dialectician Diodorus Cronus (author of the famous Master Argument) and formulated a pithy syllogism to express the point in causal and biological terms:

What emits seed of something rational is itself rational.

But the world emits seed of something rational. Therefore the world is rational.

Zeno seems to have considered the Socratic provenance of this line of reasoning particularly significant. But he was also anxious to claim the support of the entire philosophical tradition so far as he could. He exploited Plato's Timaeus (29B30B) to argue:

The rational is superior to the nonrational.
But nothing is superior to the world.
Therefore the world is rational.

The same was true, he argued, of "intelligent" and "ensouled."

From the Academic philosopher Polemo, yet another of his teachers, Zeno may have learned to find in the Timaeus something no less important: the duality of God and matter that he made fundamental to his own monistic metaphysics. But for theory about the cosmos, no previous philosopher was more important to him than Heraclitus. It must have been his reading of Heraclitus that convinced Zeno that nature was to be understood in terms of fireits methodical crafting of the coming into being of things, its transformations, and the periodic cosmic holocausts it fuels. The richness of the Heraclitean resonances in Stoicism is now most apparent in the Hymn to Zeus of Zeno's pupil and successor as head of the school, Cleanthes.

See also Cicero, Marcus Tullius; Cleanthes; Cynics; Diodorus Cronus; Epistemology; Heraclitus of Ephesus; Logic, History of; Philodemus; Plato; Socrates; Stoicism; Xenophon.



Arnim, Hans von, ed. Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta. Vol. I: Zeno et Zenonis Discipuli. Leipzig: Teubner, 1903.

Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. 2 vols. Translated by R. D. Hicks. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925.

Pearson, A. C. The Fragments of Zeno and Cleanthes. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1891.

Scaltsas, Theodore, and Andrew S. Mason, eds. The Philosophy of Zeno: Zeno of Citium and His Legacy. Larnaka: The Municipality of Larnaka, 2002.

Schofield, Malcolm. The Stoic Idea of the City. 2nd edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.

chapter articles

Decleva Caizzi, F. "The Porch and the Garden: Early Hellenistic Images of the Philosophical Life." In Images and Ideologies: Self-Definition in the Hellenistic World, edited by Anthony W. Bulloch, Eric S. Gruen, Anthony A. Long, and Andrew Stewart. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Schofield, Malcolm. "Cicero, Zeno of Citium, and the Vocabulary of Philosophy." In Le Style de la Pensée: Receuil de Textes en Hommage à Jacques Brunschwig, edited by M. Canto-Sperber and P. Pellegrin. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2002.

Sedley, David N. "The Origins of Stoic God." In Traditions of Theology: Studies in Hellenistic Theology, edited by Dorothea Frede and André Laks. Leiden: Brill, 2002.

journal articles

Dorandi, Tiziano. "Filodemo, Gli Stoici (P.Herc. 155 e 339)." Cronache Ercolanesi 12 (1982): 91133.

Long, Anthony A. "Socrates in Hellenistic Philosophy." Classical Quarterly 38 (1988): 15071.

Mansfeld, Jaap. "Diogenes Laertius on Stoic Philosophy." Elenchos 7 (1986): 295382.

Schofield, Malcolm. "The Syllogisms of Zeno of Citium." Phronesis 28 (1983): 3158.

Malcolm Schofield (2005)