Zeno of Citium Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Greek philosopher{$I[g]Greece;Zeno of Citium} Zeno founded Stoicism, the leading Hellenistic school of philosophy. Though not the school’s greatest thinker, he created its unified, systematic teaching and guided it to prominence.

Early Life

While a full biography of Zeno of Citium (ZEE-noh of SIHSH-ee-uhm) cannot be written from the anecdotes and sayings collected in late antiquity, principally available in the work of Diogenes Laertius, much can be learned from a critical reading of them. Diogenes quotes the honorific inscription that dates Zeno’s death as well as the statement of Zeno’s disciple Persaeus of Citium that the master lived to be seventy-two, which dates his birth.

Nevertheless, there is no information about his childhood; even the name of his mother no longer survives. Mnaseas, his father, has a name ambiguously meaningful both in Phoenician (equivalent to the Hebrew Manasseh, “one causing to forget”) and in Greek (“mindful,” a strong opposition). Mnaseas, contemporary with Citium’s last Phoenician king, under whom the town was besieged and burned by Ptolemy Soter of Egypt in 312 b.c.e., may have initiated the family’s break from Phoenician ways and turn to Greek and philosophical culture: The name he gave his son has no Semitic meaning but refers to the Greek god Zeus and was celebrated in a famous syncretic hymn by Zeno’s disciple Cleanthes.

In one story, Mnaseas brought many books by Socratic writers back from Athens for Zeno. In another story, Zeno himself, shipwrecked on a commercial trip to Athens, consoled himself in a bookstore with Xenophon’s Apomnēmoneumata (c. 381-355 b.c.e.; Memorabilia of Socrates) and rushed to follow the Cynic philosopher Crates of Thebes, when Crates was pointed out as a living Socratic teacher. Persaeus said that Zeno was twenty-two when he came to Athens; he never seems to have left. His arrival would have been in 311, the year after Citium fell to Ptolemy.

The failure of the records to mention close relationships with his parents or others may be significant: Stoicism was to teach, as Cynicism had, individual self-sufficiency and rational discipline of the emotions. Socrates exemplified this philosophy: Personally ugly but desirable, ethically committed but unwilling to be called a teacher or to write anything, sealing his commitment to philosophy with his death at the hands of democratic Athens, Socrates was publicized by his followers, including Plato and Xenophon, and became the personal inspiration of all the fourth century schools of philosophy. Plato’s Academy was almost a formal alternative to the city-state that had killed its greatest thinker, and Aristotle’s Lyceum was modeled on it. The Cynics, on the other hand, avoided institutional encumbrances, living and teaching in public to a scandalous degree: Their name means “doglike.” In a symbolic story, Zeno, soon after he became Crates’ follower, modestly covered his teacher and Crates’ student-bride Hipparchia with a cloak as they consummated their “dog-wedding” in public in the Stoa Poecile. Cynics, including the young Zeno, maintained the ill-dressed, voluntarily poor, and combatively questioning, even anti-intellectual stance they claimed to derive from Socrates’ teachings.

Zeno’s Cynic period culminated before 300 in the publication of his most notorious book, Politeia (the Republic), a short work denouncing then current methods of education and calling for a city of wise men and women without temples, courts, or gymnasiums, with the god Eros to be honored by friendship and polymorphous, unrestricted sex. Zeno also studied and perhaps enrolled in the Academy (studying Plato’s dialogues, dialectical method, and metaphysics—including incorporeal ideas as causes for physical events, which he rejected) and followed the dialectical teachers Diodorus Cronus and Stilpo, who arrived from Megara about 307. Their advanced modal logic, however, proved a form of determinism that Zeno found unacceptable. By about 300, Zeno, in his early thirties, was able to declare his independence from other teachers and begin his regular strolls up and down the Stoa Poecile with his own students.

Life’s Work

The professional career of a philosopher is rich not so much in public as in internal events, and Zeno’s development is hard to follow in the absence of extensive or datable writings. Politeia came early, and it was widely enough quoted that a dozen or more of the extant fragments of his writings can be identified as belonging to it; none of the other twenty-four titles of his canon allows for as definite a reconstruction. He was a powerful teacher, famous for an epistemological demonstration in which he closed one extended hand by stages and then steadied the fist with his other hand while he named the corresponding stages of knowledge: “An impression is like this; assent is like this; cognitive grasp is like this; and science is like this; and only the wise man has it.”

He established, for all Stoics except his unorthodox pupil Aristo of Chios, the three-part division of philosophy into logic (philosophy of language and meaning), physics (philosophy of nature—including theology, since spirit as breath and logos as creative word are bodies and also divine), and ethics (the famous division of things into good, bad, and indifferent; the development of the Cynic’s “life according to nature” as the only virtuous and happy way of life). To a degree not approached by Plato, by Aristotle, or by his contemporaries the Cynics, Megarians, Epicureans, and Skeptics, Zeno made of these subjects a single, unified whole, giving priority neither to metaphysics—as with Plato and Aristotle—nor to ethics—as with the Epicureans.

The system was seen as dogmatic, and debate with Stoicism played a large part in the Academy’s move into skepticism from the 270’s. The dogmatic system was not perfected by Zeno himself: He left his logic rudimentary, to be developed by his successor’s successor, Chrysippus. Among other changes, later Stoics softened the antisocial side of his ethics toward a propriety more acceptable to dignified Roman adherents such as the Gracchi, Seneca the Younger, and Marcus Aurelius.

Zeno was remembered for his pithy comments about and to his students;...

(The entire section is 2627 words.)