Stoic Serenity 1.1: Zeno of Citium

Zeno of Citium (courtesy of Wikipedia)

So my formal journey into Stoicism begins with a debriefing on the founding father himself: Zeno of Citium.

Zeno was born in Citium, Cyprus in 335/334 BC. There are some stories about him possibly being shipwrecked near Athens, or hearing about the loss of his ship while he was in Athens, or maybe he was never involved with any shipwreck at all. Anyway, he was born in Citium but ended up in Athens. While in Athens, he visited a bookseller who was reading Socrates aloud. Zeno enjoyed the material so much that he asked the bookseller where he could meet other men like Socrates. And so the story goes that as he asked this question, just then Crates, the most famous Cynic philosopher walked past. The bookseller pointed to Crates and said to Zeno, “Follow that man.”

Wait, I thought we were talking about the beginning of Stoicism, not Cynicism. Well that’s how the story goes. But ancient authors tell us that Zeno studied a number of philosophies while he was in Athens, before he established his own school of philosophy.

Wikipedia includes a little interesting anecdote: while Zeno was under Crates’ teaching, it seemed Zeno couldn’t quite get accustomed to Cynic “shamelessness.” He found “trivial” things embarrassing. So one day, Crates instructed Zeno to follow him around town carrying a potful of lentil soup. Zeno was already embarrassed to be carrying the pot of soup, but while they were walking around, Crates turned and suddenly struck the pot with his staff, sending lentil soup down Zeno’s legs. Zeno turned to run from embarrassment and shame, to which Crates said, “Why run away, my little Phoenician? Nothing terrible has befallen you.”

After Zeno studied under numerous philosophers, he began his own school of philosophy. At first his followers were called Zenoians. But because his students gathered to hear him on the “painted porch” (poikile stoa) in Athens, they began to be called “the men from the Stoa”, that is, Stoics.

Wikipedia adds that Zeno was more of a somewhat gloomy disposition, and he preferred small groups to large crowds. He liked to figure things out, and he didn’t like high and lofty speeches with big vocabulary.

As for the way he died, there’s some odd story that Zeno was in his 70s when as he left the stoa, he tripped and fell and broke his toe. He hit the ground with his fist and said, “I come, I come. Why dost thou call for me?” and then held his breath and died. Right.

The Three Pillars of Stoicism

Zeno divided philosophy into 3 parts: Logic, Physics, Ethics.

Logic included rhetoric, grammar, and theories of perception and thought.
Zeno concluded that “there were 4 stages in the process leading to true knowledge:”

  1. Perception – open palm
  2. Assent – fingers curled
  3. Comprehension – closed fist
  4. Knowledge – grasp fist with other hand — only the wise person possesses.

Physics included science as well as the divine nature of the universe.
Zeno believed that God is the entire Universe, God is a reasoning entity, and all the parts belong to the whole. (This is of particular interest to me, after hearing recently about one of the religions in Iraq/Iran that shares some similarities with Hinduism). Zeno went on to talk about a divine fire contained in the Universe. This fire is the basis for all activity within the Universe. It does not increase or diminish. This divine fire was believed to go through various “stages of elements,” from fire to air, water, solid, air, fire. He believed that individual souls were part of this same divine fire that made up the “world-soul” of the Universe. The “Nature of the Universe” accomplishes what is right, and it prevents what is not right. The Nature of the Universe could be called “Fate,” but we are also allowed free-will.

Ethics strived to achieve happiness through living “according to Nature,” or by having Virtue.
Happiness was achieved by reasoning in harmony with Nature (Virtue). Bad feelings stem from reasoning against Nature (Vice).

Now if I understand correctly, it seems that Zeno concluded that Virtue and Vice were polar opposites and could not exist next to each other. No action can be “a little good and a little bad.” Each action is acted upon entirely with Virtue or with Vice. Even passive emotions that are not guided by reason are considered immoral and bad.

Then Zeno listed 4 negative emotions: desire, fear, pleasure, pain
and 3 positive emotions: will, caution, joy

Enough of what Zeno taught. My book says that none of Zeno’s actual writings have survived, although the titles have. He wrote numerous works, and the titles all express common thoughts in Stoicism. So Zeno started it all on the Painted Porch, and it continued right down through five centuries to Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Stoics.

2 responses to “Stoic Serenity 1.1: Zeno of Citium

  1. heroicstoic April 16, 2015 at 10:58 am

    What a great site on Stoicism. Your articles are very interesting, and your site is far more comprehensive than mine. I hope my flattery simply makes you think “he must think it is so.” 🙂

    • Kirsten April 16, 2015 at 11:05 am

      Thank you for the kind words. I strive to keep the articles interesting and understandable, although I know they can go on for a while with some of the concepts. If you ever have any questions or ideas you wish to share, please feel free and spark conversation.

      Live well 🙂

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