Revealing Zeno: The True Life Story of Stoicism’s Founder

Zeno of Citium, 334 – 262 BCE, was the founder of Stoicism, an influential school of Hellenistic philosophy, in Athens, Greece. Stoicism eventually became one of the most popular and far-reaching philosophies across the Roman world.

And this is the fascinating story of Zeno, the first Stoic, whose legacy lives on even twenty-two centuries after he left this world.

Zeno-of-Citium-334-262-BCE
Zeno of Citium: Founder, Stoic School of Philosophy

The Death of Socrates

On a late evening in 399 BCE, 280 jurors out of the five-hundred who sat there voted the philosopher Socrates guilty and gave him the death sentence. They charged him with refusing to honor the gods recognized by the state of Athens and of corrupting the Athenian youth with his lectures.

Socrates gave a three-hour-long defense, but never once did he make a plea for mercy.

That day in that open court in the Athenian Agora sat a twenty-seven-year-old Plato as a spectator. Plato, recognized by history as the most famous student of that condemned philosopher, saw and heard what happened.

The slave who served death potion to Socrates told him:

Just drink it and walk around until your legs begin to feel heavy, then lie down. It will soon act.

Socrates took the cup and drank to the last drop of the poisoned hemlock. Thus, the greatest Greek philosopher of his time willingly let himself die. It was suicide because Socrates could have escaped easily, as his pupils had planned, or even asked for mercy, and would have received a pardon.

Socrates, who inspired generations of thinkers and schools of philosophy in his life and after his death, was 70 years old then.

That day, when Socrates declared before his judges “there is no evil to a good man either in life or after death, nor are his affairs neglected by the gods,” he presaged the crux of Stoicism, that virtue was the only good in human life.

The Death of Socrates by Jacques Louis David French (1787)
The Death of Socrates by Jacques Louis David French (1787)

The First Mentor of Zeno

A little more than a hundred years after Socrates courted death, a 22-year-old merchant landed on the shores of Athens. He had just survived a shipwreck on his way from Phoenicia to Peiraeus.

He was Zeno from the city of Citium or Kition, Cyprus. His ship was carrying the cargo of Royal or Imperial Purple – a precious dye, extracted from murex sea snails, that colored the robes of the kings. As he saw his fortune sink into the seawater, Zeno was beyond distraught by the loss.

Zeno, dark and gaunt, walked around the town, trying to get a grip on his situation. Some say he visited the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi to find out about his future. The oracle told him, “To live the best life, talk to the dead.”

It is stated by Hecato and by Apollonius of Tyre in his first book on Zeno that he consulted the oracle to know what he should do to attain the best life, and that the god’s response was that he should take on the complexion of the dead. Whereupon, perceiving what this meant, he studied ancient authors.

— Diogenes Laërtius in Lives of the Eminent Philosophers

Sometime during his wanderings, he walked into a bookstore and plucked Memorabilia, a book byXenophon, a soldier who fought for Persia and Sparta and later became a historian and philosopher.

He began to read through the book that celebrated and defended the life and philosophy of Socrates. Deeply impressed, Zeno went to the shop owner to ask where he could find a philosopher like Socrates on that day.

The bookseller pointed him to Crates of Thebes, the most remarkable Cynic philosopher of that time, who was walking by the shop. Zeno rushed out to meet him.

What happened next on that fateful day changed Zeno’s course of life. He now understood the oracle had advised him to read the books by authors long dead. He decided to leave his life as a tradesman and dive deep into philosophy under Crates.

He said later:

I made a prosperous voyage when I was shipwrecked. — Zeno

The first mentor of Zeno was Socrates in spirit. However, the first hands-on mentor of Zeno was Crates of Thebes.

Zeno’s Cynical Heritage

Cynicism was an influential school of philosophy, founded by a man who created a style of living and teaching that was a class of its own. This was an idiosyncratic man going by the name of Diogenes of Sinope. That is if we discount the claims that Antisthenes was the ultimate founder of the Cynic school.

Cynicism held a man should not be limited by the customs and traditions of the society, but rather he should live in accordance with nature — like a dog.

The word cynic came from Greek kynikos, meaning dog-like. A Cynic truly felt dogs were better off at being happy than humans.

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All a Cynic wanted was to live as the dogs do. Indeed, true to their roots, they lived somewhat like dogs and even barked at those who annoyed them.

The Cynics had no shame, no guilt, and no remorse over anything they did. They were great philosophers but did things that attacked all decent limits of modesty and etiquette.

They rejected all social norms and believed in shocking people out of their wits with their impudent acts.

Diogenes begged whenever he needed something, slept in a wine cask in the marketplace, often ate only onions, urinated at people, and excreted feces wherever he wanted. He even relieved his seminal fluid in public.

He moved around with a lamp in the daytime, telling people he was looking for an honest man.

The Cynics were fierce in speaking their mind at the cost of offending all. A legendary example of that intense love of free speech was this:

Once Diogenes was soaking in the morning sun when Alexander the Great came by and stood over him, and asked:

Is there anything I can do for you?

Diogenes replied:

Yes. Stand out of my sunlight.

Alexander went speechless. Then laughed and remarked:

But truly, if I were not Alexander, I would like to be Diogenes.

Diogenes and Alexander The Great
Diogenes and Alexander The Great (Source: Wikimedia)

Diogenes wished his remains be thrown to wild animals after he died. The citizens of Corinth, however, loved Diogenes too much to abandon his memory as he had wished. So they built a pillar at his grave with a dog of Parian marble resting on it. His statue stands holding up a lantern.

And Crates of Thebes, a born-rich man who gave away his wealth to live in poverty, was the most renowned follower of Diogenes. He lived on the streets and wore a tattered cloak. He carried the nickname The Door-Opener because any house he entered, even by gatecrashing, people received him with honor.

As a Cynic, Crates did his fair share of scandalous deeds. One of them was getting physically intimate with his philosopher wife Hipparchia in full view of the public.

Another, allowing his daughter a trial marriage for a month to each of her potential suitors.

Now, this was the man who taught Zeno.

Hipparchia of Maroneia and Crates of Thebes
Hipparchia of Maroneia and Crates of Thebes (Source: Wikimedia)

The Schooling of Zeno

From the Cynics, the first thing Zeno learned was to ignore the prestige and honor the world gave to a man as his true worth. He also absorbed the Cynic idea that a simple, virtuous life was sufficient for happiness.

Once, Crates made Zeno carry a pot of soup around Athens all day long. Suddenly, out of blue, Crates lunged at Zeno and smashed his pot, spilling the soup all over him in front of a crowd.

Zeno, embarrassed, began to run away. At this, Crates laughed and called out:

Why are you running, little Phoenician? Nothing terrible has happened to you!

It was his way of teaching Zeno that the things and responsibilities we carry can suddenly get destroyed, but this should not make us fear the judgments of others.

The incident also cured Zeno of his self-consciousness.

But while learning the philosophical ways from Crates, Zeno was prudent enough not to take up his brazenness. He lived more like a traditional Athenian, respecting the norms of society while refusing to compromise his principles.

Under Crates, he wrote a book called Republic. Donald Robertson, the author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, writes in Stoic Politics And The Republic of Zeno:

…the Republic of Zeno was perhaps the most important early Stoic text and depicts a Utopian political state.

Zeno’s Republic imagined a society in which men and women are equal, where there is no injustice or crime, and where everyone lives in accord with nature and reason. There is no greed or hatred, no need for laws or courts, and all there live in love.

Unfortunately, none of Zeno’s writings, including Republic, exist today. His life and teachings were chronicled later by Diogenes Laertius in his The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers.

Zeno also learned from Stilpo of the Megarian school of philosophy. From him, Zeno learned the worst fault in one’s life was saying ‘Yes’ too quickly to any request, and to do so would make a person give away his peace of mind.

Once Crates tried to pull Zeno away from Stilpo’s class, at which he shouted:

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

His other teachers were Diodorus Cronus, Philo, Xenocrates, and later his successor Polemo who headed the Academy.

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Zeno: The First Stoic

After studying for about 20 years, Zeno eventually founded his school of philosophy in 301 BCE.

He began lecturing from an open-air colonnade in the Agora, a marketplace. He wanted his style to be similar to that of Socrates, who used to talk philosophy with slaves, paupers, women, craftsmen, and foreigners moving through the same Athenian Agora.

Zeno imagined his school of philosophy accessible to all, accepting anyone as a student, unlike some other schools that only taught the wealthy and the elite in hallowed gymnasiums.


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However, he had no love for the spiritless crowds. Therefore, he charged admission to keep those off who were not genuinely interested in listening to his talks.

Zeno’s lectures drew many followers, including wealthy patrons and kings. His followers were called Zenonians. But it was not something they, or even Zeno himself, liked. For they all felt that Zeno was not the perfect wise one.

The colonnade where Zeno taught was actually a roofed platform with pillars and a wall. The Athenians knew it as the Stoa Poikile or the Painted Porch. Built by the statesman Peisianax in the 5th century BCE, the wall of Stoa Poikile displayed some of the most acclaimed paintings of that time.

Unfortunately, the Stoa was also the place where 1400 Athenians were murdered during an anti-democratic rising in the times of Socrates.

This place became the home of Stoicism, a word derived from Stoa. And the followers, the Zenonians, now came to be known as Stoics.

The Stoa Poikile in The Athenian Agora
The Stoa Poikile in The Athenian Agora

All his preaching life, Zeno taught from that same place. From the time he reached Athens after his shipwreck, to the time of his death, he never left that city. He died around the same age as his first mentor, Socrates, at 71.

While he lived, Zeno became famous, and people held him in high praise in Athens. The Athenians gave him the keys to the city walls, awarded him a golden crown, and built him a bronze statue in his lifetime.

But he never accepted citizenship of Athens and died there a resident foreigner from Cyprus, his native land.

After he died, he became even more famous. An impact-crater on Moon got named Zeno in his honor.

The Roots of Stoicism

Zeno was clear most Athenians suffered because they desired what they didn’t have or feared losing what they already had. And their pursuit of pleasure in a world where everything perishes was exactly what kept them unhappy and unsatisfied.

Zeno taught if one used their reason to realize nothing of earthly value has any lasting value, then they could set themselves free from “enslavement to one’s passions.”

He “argued that virtue, not pleasure, was the only good and that natural law, not the random swerving of atoms, was the key principle of the universe.”

Zeno is credited as the first to divide philosophy into three parts: logic, ethics, and physics. Logic dealt with the form and expression of knowledge, ethics with the use of knowledge, and physics with the matter of knowledge.

  1. Logic: To be able to reason clearly, so as to understand nature. Logic is the art of relating to one self.
  2. Ethics: To adjust one’s behavior, so that one could live in agreement with nature. Ethics is the art of relating to other people.
  3. Physics: To understand what is within one’s control and assent to one’s desires for what is in accord with nature. Physics is the art of relating to the universe.
The Stoic Egg

In an easy-to-see analogy, one may imagine the picture of an egg: the hard outer shell depicted as logic, the white albumen as ethics, and the yellow yolk as physics.

Zeno taught there were four stages of learning that lead to authentic knowledge or logic. He demonstrated it using his hand as a metaphor, going from open fingers to a closed fist:

  1. Perception or raw impression – open palm with fingers stretched out
  2. Assent or agreement – open palm with fingers curled
  3. Comprehension – a closed fist
  4. Knowledge – clasping the fist with the other hand

The last, knowledge, is what only a truly wise person possesses.

Zeno professed to illustrate this by a piece of action; for when he stretched out his fingers, and showed the palm of his hand, ‘Perception,’ said he, ‘is a thing like this.’

Then, when he had a little closed his fingers, ‘Assent is like this.’

Afterwards, when he had completely closed his hand, and held forth his fist, that, he said, was comprehension. From which simile he also gave that state a name which it had not before, and called it “katalepsis.”

But when he brought his left hand against his right, and with it took a firm and tight hold of his fist, knowledge, he said, was of that character; and that was what none but a wise man possessed.

— Cicero, Academica II.XLVII

Practicing ethics was to achieve happiness through living a simple life, according to the logos of nature, by living with virtue. A simple and reasonable life, in which one accepts their place and fate in the cosmos, makes a happy and tranquil life.

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According to Zeno, physics was the science as well as the divine nature of the universe or cosmos.

Zeno’s cosmos was a living, rational god, and all things that exist are equal parts of this supreme being, Zeus. He held Zeus, a reasoning entity, constituted the whole universe.

It is the nature of the cosmos to accomplish what is right and prevent what is not right. So the cosmos preserves what is good and dissolves what is bad, and always works things out in the long run. Therefore, even if we are in a difficult situation, it is wise to bear the fate without stress or fear.

Zeno taught, to attain tranquility, we should replace desire with will, fear with caution, and pleasure with joy. He taught people should learn the value of apatheia. In Stoicism, apatheia is a state of mind in which one is not disturbed by passions. It is best translated as equanimity.

Zeno-Citium-First-Stoic
Zeno of Citium, The First Stoic

One of the most enduring teachings of Zeno was that all humans, including the slaves, are equal.

Andreas Athanas writes these words about Zeno’s legacy in his 2019 book Mastering The Stoic Way Of Life:

Zeno, even in today’s day and age, is still relevant in that his teachings remind us of the impermanence of all that our society holds dear. And, in the end, when everything is stripped away and we are left facing the void of death, Zeno reminds us that to die is the only rational end for us and that so long as we lived according to selves and our rationality, we have nothing to fear of death.

Zeno, the first Stoic, divided things into good, bad, and indifferent. The good things belonged to virtue and used virtue; the bad things were of vice and used vice. Everything else, like health, beauty, strength, honor, victory, and death, were indifferent things.

Zeno said a Stoic should learn how to control his emotions and desires, be indifferent to both pleasure and pain, and always do what is appropriate and virtuous.

The Death of Zeno

Zeno Founder Stoic Philosophy
Statue of Zeno at Europe Square in Larnaka, Cyprus

The way Zeno died may seem strange today. One day, at the age of 72, as he was leaving the Stoa after finishing his lecture, he tripped and fell, and broke a toe. He saw this as a sign from the cosmos that his time has come.

Down on the ground, he looked to the sky and quoted a line from Timotheus, a poet:

I come of my own accord; why then call me?

Since a Stoic was always to do what is in accordance with nature (kathêkon), he strangulated himself to death. In a way, even in his last hour, he followed his mentor, Socrates, by courting death by suicide.

Zeno’s Five Most Memorable Quotes

Now, five of the most famous and pithy quotes of Zeno, the first Stoic:

Zeno's most famous quote
Zeno’s most famous quote
  1. Happiness is a good flow of life.
  2. Man conquers the world by conquering himself.
  3. We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.
  4. Wellbeing is attained by little and little, and nevertheless is no little thing itself.
  5. When a dog is tied to a cart, if it wants to follow, it is pulled and follows, making its spontaneous act coincide with necessity. But if the dog does not follow, it will be compelled in any case. So it is with men too: even if they don’t want to, they will be compelled to follow what is destined.
Zeno of Citium: Philosophy

FAQs

  • When and where was Zeno born?

    Zeno was born in 334 BCE born in the Phonecian-Greek city of Citium on Cyprus. He is known as Zeno of Citium (pronounced ZEE-no of SISH-um).

  • When and how did Zeno die?

    Zeno died in 262 BCE in Athens, Greece. Records indicate he died by suicide through self-strangulation.

  • What did Zeno say on love?

    “Love is a God, who cooperates in securing the safety of the city.” — Zeno of Citium (as quoted in Deipnosophists by Athenaeus, xiii. 561c).

Do you know why the Stoics talked of Memento Mori—a phrase that made them live a life of the highest good?

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Author Bio: Sandip Roy – a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related medical topics.


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