Zeno and the Beginning of Stoicism
by Andrew Erskine
On the north side of the Athenian agora there was a colonnade known as the Stoa Poikile, or the Painted Stoa, named after the famous paintings which decorated its rear wall. Here a visitor to third century Athens might have seen a thin, rather tall man with a slightly twisted neck, pacing up and down as he addressed a small group of listeners. This was Zeno, the founder of one of the most influential philosophical schools in antiquity, a school which would later number among its adherents the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. These philosophers would come to be known as Stoics after the building in which their founder taught.
The term 'stoical' has entered many European languages. The Oxford English Dictionary offers the following definition: 'Of a person: Resembling a Stoic in austerity, indifference to pleasure and pain, repression of all feeling, and the like.' Yet Zeno himself appears to have been a somewhat discontented man, far from happy with the status quo. His most famous and controversial work was the Republic, a vigorous reaction against both his philosophical predecessors and the society he observed around him. No other work by Zeno, or indeed any Stoic, attracted as much attention or as much abuse as this one. It is mentioned so often in ancient writers that, although the original text is now lost, it is possible to form some impression of its contents. Zeno began the Republic by attacking the corruption of contemporary society, which was full of bad men, who were fools and enemies to each other. He then proceeded to outline an ideal society, derived from Stoic principles, in which all were wise and living in harmony. This would be the natural way of life for men who had perfected their reason. There would be no temples, lawcourts, gymnasia, images of the gods, not even coinage. Marriage and the family would be unnecessary institutions in this new society; women, instead, would be 'shared' and men would feel paternal affection for all children as if they were their own. There would be no distinction in the dress of men and women; indeed clothes may often be unnecessary. Homosexuality too was acceptable in the ideal society; just as women were shared, so too were men. Some things, such as marriage and the family, may have been abandoned because they were the cause of conflict, while others, such as lawcourts and coinage, would have been unnecessary in a harmonious society.
For Zeno the Republic depicted a morally-perfect community, but for his critics it was morally repellent. This radical and provocative work embarrassed later Stoics, who consequently tried to distance themselves from it. Some claimed that it was an early work by Zeno, written when he was 'young and foolish' and still under the influence of the Cynics, others denied that he wrote it all, and one man, Athenodorus, used his position as librarian in Pergamum to remove all offending passages from the library-copy of the Republic. This reaction against the Republic seems to have begun in the mid-second century BC. Whether it was written as an early in Zeno's career or later, it was clearly central to his philosophy and should not be dismissed as a minor work. His third-century successors, Cleanthes and Chrysippus both made similar suggestions in their own writings, but as they were not the founders of the school they did not cause the same embarrassment. The Republic, however, may have been less extreme than our evidence suggests, since our knowledge of the work stems from Zeno's critics who selected those aspects which were most controversial.
The Republic was very consciously written in opposition to Plato's Republic and it is interesting to observe the differing political outlooks of the two works. In Plato's society the wise rule the rest, reflecting an aristocratic, oligarchic perspective, in which the subordination of one class to the other is an integral element of the ideal. Zeno's ideal society, in contrast, contains only the wise. Although Zeno's emphasis on the wise could be interpreted as being extremely elitist, it should be understood in its opposition to Plato's hierarchical, class society. Zeno's perspective is essentially egalitarian and democratic, another reason perhaps for the later hostility towards this controversial book.
Zeno was born in the late 330s BC in the Cypriot city of Citium, a city with a mixed Greek and Phoenician population. His father, Mnaseas, was a wealthy merchant, who, it is said, would return from visits to Athens with books on Socrates as presents for his son. There are several stories told of Zeno's arrival in Athens, all of which draw on this merchant background. The story that Zeno arrived in Athens, sold his cargo and began studying philosophy was evidently felt to be too dull. Instead a more dramatic version developed in which a shipwreck left Zeno stranded in Athens and thus gave him the opportunity to turn to philosophy. Although Zeno subsequently spent most of his life in Athens, he continued to feel a strong affinity with his native town. On one occasion he contributed to the restoration of the baths in Athens and when he saw that he was listed among the benefactors merely as 'Zeno the philosopher' he asked that the words 'of Citium' be added. Citium in turn honoured him with a statue.
Zeno was in his early twenties when he came to Athens. Here he was taught by the leading philosophers of the day, amongst whom the Cynic Crates and the Academic Polemon probably had the greatest influence on him. Cynicism was a radical doctrine that was as much a way of life as a philosophy. The Cynic rejection of convention and preference for a natural life could cause considerable shock when put into practice. Diogenes, the first Cynic, had masturbated in public, commenting that he wished it were possible to satisfy his hunger by rubbing his stomach. The Academics, in contrast, were very traditional philosophers, who considered Plato to be their intellectual master. As his Republic demonstrates, Zeno was clearly very familiar with Plato's works and much of his philosophy can be interpreted as a reaction to Plato.
At some point, perhaps around 300 BC, Zeno himself began teaching, but it would be misleading to treat this as the establishment of a school in any formal sense. Zeno simply began talking in public about philosophical problems and thus made his own contribution to current debates, something which would not have prevented him from continuing to attend lectures himself. The central location of the Painted Stoa among the main public buildings of Athens would have made it easier for Zeno to gain an audience, although later in his career he is said to have discouraged by-standers by asking them for money. It was not uncommon for philosophers to teach in public places, for instance gymnasia such as the Academy and the Lyceum, but Zeno's choice of the Painted Stoa may have had a special symbolic value. This building was erected in the 460s to celebrate Greek success in the Persian Wars, the victory of Greek over non-Greek, or to use Greek terminology, over the barbarian. The paintings in the Stoa depicted the Greeks defeating archetypal barbarians, Persians, Amazons and Trojans. Yet, Zeno was a man from an ethnically-mixed community, a man who was sometimes called a Phoenician and who is found criticised for his 'barbarian stinginess'. As he walked up and down the Stoa, explaining his philosophy that the only significant distinction between men was between the virtuous and the rest, his presence there would have called into question the very meaning of the paintings and their assertion of the superiority of the Greek over the barbarian.
One of Zeno's more famous (and more powerful) pupils was the Macedonian king, Antigonus Gonatas, who was said to have attended Zeno's lectures whenever he was in Athens. The importance of Zeno's relationship with Antigonus, however, has often been exaggerated. Only in the years 294-87 did the Antigonid dynasty have sufficient control over Athens to give Antigonus access to Zeno's lectures and during these years Antigonus was not yet king. A rising in 287 brought the city independence from Macedonian rule, but the continuing presence of a Macedonian garrison in Piraeus, the harbour town of Athens, was a constant problem for the Athenians. After his accession to the throne in 277/6 Antigonus' court became a centre for writers and intellectuals. Zeno was amongst the many philosophers, historians, and poets invited to the court, but he consistently declined repeated invitations. Finally he sent two pupils, Persaeus and Philonides, in his place.
In Athens Zeno was much respected, the recipient of many honours, including a gold crown, a bronze statue and burial at public expense in the Ceramicus. He is known to have been friendly with members of the Athenian élite, some of whom would have been his pupils. In particular his name is linked with two prominent anti-Macedonian politicians, Demochares and Chremonides. Demochares was a nephew of Demosthenes, the impassioned spokesman for the anti-Macedonian group in the previous century, while in the 260s Chremonides would fight an unsuccessful war to reclaim the Piraeus from the Macedonians. Where Zeno stood in relation to these politicians is controversial. As a foreigner in Athens he may have avoided becoming too entangled in Athenian politics and thus have been able to occupy a neutral position in his dealings with those for and against Macedon. On the other hand, his association with these politicians could be interpreted as a sign of his sympathy with the anti-Macedonian cause. Such sympathy may explain his reluctance to visit the Macedonian court.
Strangely, almost as much is known about Zeno's eating and drinking habits as about his philosophy. His tastes were simple and suited his general asceticism; he ate small loaves and honey, and drank a little wine of good bouquet; he enjoyed green figs and lying in the sun. His manner was rather austere, but he is said to have relaxed when drinking 'just as the bitter lupin becomes sweet when soaked in water.' Heavy drinking, however, did not appeal to him and he invariably turned down invitations to symposia, the traditional Greek drinking parties, but, paradoxically, numerous stories are told of his often grumpy wit at such parties. The proliferation of such stories is a little puzzling. The explanation is probably to be found in his pupil Persaeus who made Zeno a central figure in his now-lost book on symposia.
In spite of his enormous influence Zeno is in many ways elusive. There is no contemporary evidence for his life or work. Although he wrote at least twenty books and he himself was the subject of books by his pupils, all these works have since been lost. This is very different from his predecessors, Plato and Aristotle, whose numerous writings survive to give a very full picture of their philosophy. It is possible to know and understand Plato and Aristotle in a way in which it is not possible with Zeno. The fate of Zeno's philosophical works is not exceptional, but is one example of a more general phenomenon, the almost complete disappearance of Hellenistic literature. There is a sharp contrast between the Classical period and the Hellenistic age that followed, the boundary falling roughly in the reign of Alexander the Great. Classical texts, whether tragedy, history or oratory, survive in good numbers, but this is unfortunately not true of Hellenistic writing. Lost, for instance, are all 705 works, said to have been written by Chrysippus, head of the Stoic school in the late third century BC. This is usually explained as a change of taste; later centuries admired and imitated the Attic style of the Classical writers and scorned their Hellenistic successors. Style may not be the only explanation, but the effect is clear: the writings of the Hellenistic Stoa are lost. This is not to suggest that there is no evidence for the life and work of Zeno, but it is late, difficult to interpret, and often anecdotal. Most important is the biography of Zeno written by Diogenes Laertius in the third century AD as part of his series of philosophical lives.
Although the main tenets of Stoic thought are known today, it is not always clear whether they were already held by Zeno and, if they were, how they were argued for. The school continued over centuries under the leadership of a series of major thinkers, such as Chrysippus and Panaetius, who developed and changed the school's doctrines. Both of these philosophers wrote before our earliest surviving evidence for Stoic thought, which therefore can hardly be independent of their influence. About Chrysippus it was said in antiquity, 'if there had been no Chrysippus, there would have been no Stoa.' There are, thus, two problems: first, if something is described as Stoic, it might have been unrecognisable to Zeno; secondly, even when it is explicitly attributed to Zeno, it may be expressed in a way which is more appropriate to later thinkers than to Zeno. With the exception of 39 lines of a hymn composed by the third-century Stoic Cleanthes, the earliest evidence comes from about two centuries after the death of Zeno and it is written not by a Stoic but by a Roman politician Cicero, the author of a number of philosophical treatises in Latin.
Part of the originality of Zeno's Stoicism lay in its ambitious attempt to develop an all-embracing philosophical system. The two most important words in the Stoic vocabulary were 'reason' (logos) and 'nature' (physis). By positing a rational universe the Stoics could treat the different parts of philosophy, logic, physics and ethics, as a coherent and inter-related whole. In his ethics Zeno put forward the radical, and often criticised, proposition that virtue alone was necessary for happiness; everything else, such as health, wealth and even life itself, although advantageous, was irrelevant to the attainment of happiness. But ethics is not to be understood in isolation. To live a virtuous life is to fulfil one's potential as a human; in other words, one's reason or rationality is in harmony with the reason of nature. Those who achieve this are the wise, the inhabitants of the ideal society of the Republic, which is thus a community itself in harmony with nature.
Zeno died shortly after Antigonus Gonatas' recapture of Athens at the end of the Chremonidean War at the age of 72. Falling and injuring himself, he beat his fist against the ground and recited a line from Timotheus' Niobe, 'I'm coming. Why do you call for me?' Then in the rather enigmatic words of Diogenes Laertius, 'he throttled himself and died.'
Diogenes Laertius' Life of Zeno can be found in book 7 of his Lives of Eminent Philosophers, published in the Loeb series with an English translation by R.D. Hicks. A.A. Long's Hellenistic Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics (2nd edition, London, 1986) provides an accessible introduction to Stoic thought. More recent is R.W. Sharples, Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics: an Introduction to Hellenistic Philosophy (London 1996). A selection of sources in translation can be found in A.A. Long and D. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge 1987). Some of the ideas in the present article are treated at greater length in A. Erskine, The Hellenistic Stoa: Political Thought and Action (London 1990).
This article was originally published in German in Große Gestalten der griechischen Antike: 58 historische Portraits von Homer bis Kleopatra (Munich 1999), edited by Kai Brodersen. I am very grateful to the publishers, C.H. Beck, for allowing an English version to appear here.