Zeno of Citium

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(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)


According to traditions recorded by historian Diogenes Laertius in the third century c.e., Zeno of Citium (ZEE-noh of SISH-ee-uhm) was the son of a Phoenician merchant. Shipwrecked near Athens about 312 b.c.e., he settled there and became the student of Crates the Cynic. At that time, the two major schools of Greek philosophy were the Cynics, who held to a strict morality, and the Cyrenaics, who sought the pleasure of the senses. Zeno admired Cynicism for its emphasis on virtue but opposed its distrust of reason and its pessimism. About 300 b.c.e., he began giving lectures on the Painted Porch (Stoa Poecile) in the Agora of Athens. He and his students became known as “Stoics,” named after the porch. He taught there for the rest of his life and apparently wrote several books, but none of his writings survive.

Zeno taught that the universe is rationally ordered by a providential god. The duty of the people is to understood this order, which appears as fate, and to live in calm acceptance of it. To do so entails hard work. God obligates people to a threefold diligence: physics (the study of nature), logic (the study of reason), and ethics (the study of how to live properly), each equally important. Unlike the rival Epicurean school, which arose about the same time and recommended withdrawal from society for a life of quiet contemplation and refined pleasures, the Stoic school expected its adherents to be politically involved and useful in their communities, despite the pain and sacrifice. There is more pain than pleasure in life, but that fact should not bother Stoics. Accepting pain is just part of accepting fate.

Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, is not to be confused with Zeno of Elea, the discoverer of the four paradoxes of space, time, and motion.


Cleanthes succeeded Zeno as head of the Stoic school and was in turn succeeded by Chrysippus. These three thinkers are known collectively as the Early Stoics. The Middle Stoics were Panaetius of Rhodes and Posidonius, who taught on the Greek island of Rhodes in the second and first centuries b.c.e. Out of these two varieties of Greek Stoicism grew Roman Stoicism, eloquently stated by Cicero, Seneca the Younger, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Roman Stoicism influenced the early Christians, especially Saint Paul. The pagan Roman Stoics together with the earliest Christian Stoics are sometimes known as the Later Stoics.

Further Reading:

Arnold, E. Vernon. Roman Stoicism: Being Lectures on the History of the Stoic Philosophy with Special Reference to Its Development Within the Roman Empire. Reprint. New York: Humanities Press, 1958. Contains a fourteen page essay on Zeno in English, and the book—in spite of its title—is a classic treatment of Greek Stoicism in a religious context that was deemphasized in later English philosophical treatments. The chronology needs to be revised in the light of later works.

Camp, John M. The Athenian Agora: Excavations in the Heart of Classical Athens. 1986. Rev. ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992. Photographs and discussion of the Stoa Poecile, where excavation began in 1981, in the context of extended archaeological presentation of the city center. A good background for the narratives of Ferguson, Tarn, and Walbank (see below).

Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Translated by R. D. Hicks. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. The main source of information on Zeno. Includes symbolic anecdotes and apothegms in the same relation to Zeno as the Gospels are to Jesus. Hicks’s terminology is not always philosophically sophisticated and should be compared to that of Long and Sedley (see below).

Dudley, Donald R. A History of Cynicism from Diogenes to the Sixth Century A.D. 1937. Reprint. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1998. The most vivid historical presentation in English of the philosophical environment in which Zeno studied. This edition includes a foreword and bibliography by Miriam Griffin.

(The entire section is 1,101 words.)