Phoenician Zeno of Citium
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Phoenician Zeno of Citium, co-Founder of Stoic School of Philosophy

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Born 333 BC in Citium, Cyprus and died in 264 BC

Zeno of Citium (together with Chrysippus of Soli, both Phoenicians) was the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy, which (along with its rival, Epicureanism) came to dominate the thinking of the Hellenistic world, and later, the Roman Empire, with some elements of Stoic thought even influencing early Christianity. For a long time the stoics have had a bad press, Stoicism being associated in the popular imagination with a grim and pessimistic world-view, in contrast to the jolly Epicureans. Fortunately, however, Stoicism is now being re-evaluated by groups as diverse as psychotherapists and semioticians, and it is therefore frustrating that so little is known of the original Stoic philosophy as taught by Zeno. None of Zeno's works have survived; all we know of him is contained in a few quotations and anecdotes in the works of his followers and critics. Most of these are collected in Book VII of Diogenes Laertius' Lives of Eminent Philosophers, from which the following information is taken.

Zeno was born in 333 B.C. in Citium, a principal Phoenician city in Cyprus, situated on the southeast coast near modern Larnaca. The biblical name Kittim, representing Citium, was also used for Cyprus as a whole. A Phoenician dedication to the god "Baal of Lebanon," found at Citium, suggests that the city may have belonged to Tyre. Citium suffered repeatedly from earthquakes, however, and in medieval times its harbour became silted and the population moved to Larnaca.

Zeno himself was of Phoenician ancestry. For most of his youth he was a merchant, but, so the story has it, at the age of thirty, he was shipwrecked while transporting purple dye from Phoenicia to Peiraeus. While kicking his heels in Athens, he frequented a bookshop, where he was drawn to the works of Socrates. Asking the shopkeeper where men like Socrates could be found, he received the reply "Follow that man." The man in question was Crates the Cynic, and Zeno became his pupil, later commenting "I made a prosperous voyage when I was shipwrecked."

Crates appears to have been a hard master. Zeno was overly conscious of social propriety (a habit which he always found hard to shake, despite his anarchistic views), and Crates attempted to cure this by making him carry a pot of lentils through the streets of Athens. Like a Zen master, Crates suddenly smashed the pot with his staff, and Zeno ran away in embarrassment with lentil soup dripping down his legs and Crates calling after him: 'Why run away, my little Phoenician? Nothing terrible has befallen you!' It was under Crates' tutelage that Zeno wrote his greatest work, the Republic. Eventually Zeno began to teach in his own right, wandering up and down the arcade of painted columns known as the 'Stoa'.

Zeno certainly seems to have inherited the Cynics' preference for gruff speech and shocking behaviour. He was continually making fun of the fops of Athens, commenting on a youth who was taking pains to avoid stepping in some mud, that it was only because he couldn't see his reflection in it. Of another, who was given to displays of rhetoric, he said "Your ears have slid down and merged in your tongue.' He attempted to avoid attracting too many followers by associating with (according to Timon) 'a crowd of ignorant serfs, who surpassed all men in beggary", and was also in the habit of asking passers by for small change. Despite this, he was held in high esteem by the citizens of Athens, and was even given the keys to the city. He was also invited to act as an advisor to King Anigonus of Macedon, but he turned this down, sending his pupil Persaeus, instead.

Not much is known of Zeno's personal life. He appears to have continued his interest in trade, though by all accounts his life was fairly frugal, his main enjoyment being to sit in the sun eating figs and drinking wine. In fact, contrary to the popular image of Stoicism, Zeno seems to have liked his drink, commenting (presumably while staggering drunkenly) that it was better to slip with the feet than with the tongue. He was not fond of being waited upon (possibly due to the Cynics' and Stoics' opposition to slavery), though it was said that he occasionally had a maid-servant wait at his parties "in order not to appear a misogynist." He probably died in 261 B.C., striking the ground with his fist and quoting the line from Niobe, "I come, I come, why do you call me?"

Most of what we know of Zeno's philosophy is extrapolation from later Stoics, notably Epictetus. The Republic describes a Stoic Utopia of rational citizens. It seems similar to the later Utopias of the Anarchists: there is no money and it has no temples or lawcourts, these being unnecessary for rational beings. Zeno, like all the Stoics, preached equality of the sexes, and also claimed that men and women should dress alike. Moreover, he said that no part of the body should be completely covered, "modesty" being anathema to the early Stoics. He received notoriety for his advocacy of what is generally referred to as "community of women" or "community of wives", though a better term would probably be "free love", since the former terms imply that women are commodities which should be shared freely, and this would run counter to Stoic doctrine. In general, the early Stoics were uninterested in sexual morality, masturbation, homosexuality and prostitution all having been regarded as acceptable, although most Stoics drew the line at adultery.

This last point illustrates the essential problem of Stoicism. Zeno proposed an ideal community of rational beings, who would have no need of law, government or codes of morality beyond that provided by Reason itself. However, Stoics had to live in an imperfect society, and thus had to accept social realities; thus while marriage was an imperfect institution, adultery was considered, on balance, to be worse. While the Cynics tended to withdraw from society (like their Chinese counterparts, the early Taoists), the Stoics maintained that as social animals, it was rational to fulfil social duties, and this included participation in politics and administration. It is in this way that we see the apparent contradiction of a Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, writing one of the classics of late Stoicism. However, while Aurelius took Stoic ideas of duty to society to extremes (he never actually wanted to be Emperor in the first place), Zeno and the early Stoics seem to have advocated "permanent protest": in society but against it, as it were.

In addition to politics and ethics, Zeno, like all the Stoics, was interested in dialectic (including semantics) and physics. This is hardly the place for an exposition of Stoic (meta)physics; suffice it to say that they were basically pantheists, all physical and mental phenomena proceeding from one essential force which they dubbed pyr technicon, "the fire which creates". Although this force was sometimes identified with the god Zeus (other gods and goddesses being different aspects of this primal energy), it is a mistake to attribute proto-Christian monotheistic ideas to Zeno or the other Stoics. What is referred to in Stoic writings as "Zeus" in one place, may be referred to as "Nature" elsewhere. While some Stoics divided the universe into an active, rational principle and a passive, elemental principle, there is still little distinction between creator and created, or between physical and spiritual. The Stoic worldview is thus closer to that of Taoism, Vedanta or some varieties of Sufism than to orthodox Christianity or Islam. The famous Stoic acceptance of fate is nothing more than that; what happens, happens, and there is no point in moaning about it. Since we are animals, we are impelled to seek pleasure and avoid pain, but inordinate desire or revulsion are unnecessary and irrational. Similarly, as social animals, we are impelled to engage in social activities, but we do not need to overly concerned about what our fellow citizens think about us. Zeno's philosophy thus offers a middle way between the Cynics' rejection of society and the later Stoics' obsession with duty.


  1. Robin Turner 1997

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