Zeno of Citium

Zeno of Citium

Zeno of Citium, c.334-c.262 B.C., Greek philosopher, founder of Stoicism. He left Cyprus and went to Athens, where he studied under the Cynics, whose teachings left an important impression on his own thought. Although his works have not survived, it is known that Zeno divided philosophy into logic, physics, and ethics, and taught that the first two must serve the last. He attempted to base his stern ethical system on the metaphysical and scientific teachings of Heraclitus, Aristotle, and others, and to forge from these elements a consistent philosophy. Zeno taught in Athens at the Stoa Poecile [Gr.,=painted porch]; his followers therefore came to be known as "Stoics," and his school as "the Porch."

Zeno of Citium (Ζήνων ὁ Κιτιεύς, Zēnōn ho Kitieŭs) (334 BC - 262 BC) was a Greek philosopher from Citium (Κίτιον), Cyprus. Zeno was the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy which he taught in Athens, from about 300 BC. Based on the moral ideas of the Cynics, Stoicism laid great emphasis on the goodness and peace of mind which would arise from living a life of virtue in accordance with nature. It would prove to be very successful, and flourished as the dominant philosophy from the Hellenistic period through to the Roman era.


Zeno was born c. 334 BC. He was the son of a merchant and a student of Crates of Thebes, the most famous Cynic living at that time in Greece. In one incident during his tutelage with Crates, he was made to carry a pot of lentil soup around the city. After Zeno began carrying the pot, Crates smashed it with his staff, splattering the lentil soup all over his surprised student. When Zeno began to run off in embarrassment, Crates chided, "Why run away, my little Phoenician? Nothing terrible has befallen you!

Zeno was also a merchant until the age of 42, when he started the Stoic school of philosophy. The story goes that, after a shipwreck, Zeno wandered into a bookshop in Athens and was attracted to the works of Socrates. He asked the librarian how to find the man. In response, the librarian pointed to Crates of Thebes, later to become his teacher. Named for his teaching platform, the Stoa (Greek for "porch"), his teachings were the beginning of Stoicism. None of Zeno's own works have survived to modern times; however, his teachings have been passed on, including his main concept that "tranquility can best be reached through indifference to pleasure and pain."

Zeno was described as a haggard, tanned person, living a spare, ascetic life. This coincides with the influences of Cynic teaching, and was, at least in part, continued in his Stoic philosophy.

Diogenes Laërtius, biographer of the Greek philosophers, left the most extensive writings about Zeno's life with his work Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Although these writings miss deeper introspection into the philosophical ideas of Zeno, the anecdotal descriptions leave a colorful image of the historical figure Zeno. Some examples:

  • He had very few youthful acquaintances of the male sex, and he did not cultivate them much, lest he should be thought to be a misogynist. He dwelt in the same house with Persaeus; and once, when Persaeus brought in a female flute-player to him, Zeno hastened to return her.

It is not clear whether this Persaeus, who was later sent as Zeno's proxy to King Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedonia, was Zeno's lover, servant or amanuensis.

  • He was, it is said, of a very accommodating temper; so much so, that Antigonus, the king, often came to dine with him, and often carried him off to dinner at the house of Aristocles the harp-player; but when he was there, he would presently steal away.
  • When he was asked why he, who was generally austere, indulged himself at a dinner party, he said, "Lupines too are bitter, but when they are soaked they become sweet."

Zeno preached that "man conquers the world by conquering himself." He lectured his students on the value of apatheia, which he explained to be "the absence of passion." Only by controlling one's emotion and physical desire, he argued, could we develop wisdom and the ability to apply it. By developing an indifference to pain and pleasure through meditation, the practicing Stoic will develop a wisdom stemming from suppressing the influence of passions, and ultimately, will attain wisdom. He is the inventor of the concept of Kathekon.

Zeno died around 262 BC. Laërtius reports about his death: "As he left the school, he tripped, fell and broke a toe. Hitting the ground with his hand, he cited words of Niobe: "I am coming, why do you call me thus?". Since the Stoic sage was expected to always do what was appropriate (kathekon) and Zeno was very old at the time, he felt it appropriate to die and consequently strangled himself.

During his lifetime, Zeno received appreciation for his philosophical and pedagogical teachings. Amongst other things, Zeno has been honored with the golden crown, and a tomb was built in honor of his moral influence on the youth of his era.

The Zeno crater on the Moon is named in his honor.


Following the ideas of the Academics, Zeno divided philosophy into three parts: Logic (a very wide subject including rhetoric, grammar, and the theories of perception and thought); Physics (not just science, but the divine nature of the universe as well); and Ethics, the end goal of which was to achieve happiness through the right way of living according to Nature. Because Zeno's ideas were built upon by Chrysippus and other Stoics, it can be difficult to determine, in some areas, precisely what he thought, but his general views can be outlined:


In his treatment of Logic, Zeno was influenced by Stilpo and the other Megarians. Zeno urged the need to lay down a basis for Logic because the wise person must know how to avoid deception. Cicero accused Zeno of being inferior to his philosophical predecessors in his treatment of Logic, and it seems true that a more exact treatment of the subject was laid down by his successors, including Chrysippus. Zeno divided true conceptions into the comprehensible and the incomprehensible, permitting for free-will the power of assent (sunkatathesis) in distinguishing between sense impressions. Zeno said that there were four stages in the process leading to true knowledge, which he illustrated with the example of the flat, extended hand, and the gradual closing of the fist:
Zeno stretched out his fingers, and showed the palm of his hand, - "Perception," - he said, - "is a thing like this."- Then, when he had closed his fingers a little, - "Assent is like this." - Afterwards, when he had completely closed his hand, and showed his fist, that, he said, was Comprehension. From which simile he also gave that state a name which it had not before, and called it katalepsis. But when he brought his left hand against his right, and with it took a firm and tight hold of his fist:

- "Knowledge" - he said, was of that character; and that was what none but a wise person possessed.


The Universe, in Zeno's view, is God: a divine reasoning entity, where all the parts belong to the whole. Into this pantheistic system he incorporated the physics of Heraclitus; the Universe contains a divine artisan-fire, which foresees everything, and extending throughout the Universe, must produce everything:
Zeno, then, defines nature by saying that it is artistically working fire, which advances by fixed methods to creation. For he maintains that it is the main function of art to create and produce, and that what the hand accomplishes in the productions of the arts which we employ, is accomplished much more artistically by nature, that is, as I said, by artistically working fire, which is the master of the other arts.

This divine fire, or aether, is the basis for all activity in the Universe, operating on otherwise passive matter which neither increases not diminishes itself. The primary substance in the Universe comes from fire, passes through the stage of air, and then becomes water: the thicker portion becoming earth, and the thinner portion becoming air again, and then rarifying back into fire. Individual souls are part of the same fire as the world-soul of the Universe. Following Heraclitus, Zeno adopted the view that the Universe underwent regular cycles of formation and destruction.

The Nature of the Universe is such that it accomplishes what is right and prevents the opposite, and is identified with unconditional Fate, while allowing it the free-will attributed to it.


Like the Cynics, Zeno recognised a single, sole and simple good, which is the only goal to strive for. "Happiness is a good flow of life," said Zeno, and this can only be achieved through the use of right Reason coinciding with the Universal Reason, (Logos) which governs everything. A bad feeling (pathos) "is a disturbance of the mind repugnant to Reason, and against Nature. This consistency of soul, out of which morally good actions spring, is Virtue, true good can only consist in Virtue.

Zeno deviated from the Cynics in saying that things which are morally indifferent could nevertheless have value to us. Things have a relative value in proportion to how they aid the natural instinct for self-preservation. That which is to be preferred is a "fitting action" (kathêkon), a designation which Zeno first introduced. Self-preservation, and the things which contribute towards it, has only a conditional value; it does not aid happiness, which depends only on moral actions.

Just as Virtue can only exist within the dominion of Reason, so Vice can only exist with the rejection of Reason. Virtue is absolutely opposed to Vice, the two cannot exist in the same thing together, and cannot be increased or decreased; no one moral action is more virtuous than another. All actions are either good or bad, since impulses and desires rest upon free consent, and hence even passive mental states or emotions which are not guided by Reason are immoral, and produce immoral actions. Zeno distinguished four negative emotions: desire, fear, pleasure and pain (epithumia, phobos, hêdonê, lupê), and he was probably responsible for distinguishing the three corresponding positive emotions: will, caution, and joy (boulêsis, eulabeia, chara), with no corresponding rational equivalent for pain. All errors must be rooted out, not merely set aside, and replaced with right Reason.


The titles of many of Zeno's writings are known. They are known to have been these:

  • Ethical writings:
    • Πολιτεία - Republic
    • ἠθικά - Ethics
    • περὶ τοῦ κατὰ φύσιν βίον - On Life according to Nature
    • περὶ ὁρμῆς ἧ περὶ ἁνθρώρου φύσεως - On Impulse, or on the Nature of Humans
    • περὶ παθῶν - On Passions
    • περὶ τοῦ καθήκοντος - On Duty
    • περὶ νόμου - On Law
    • περὶ Έλληνικῆς παιδείας - On Greek Education
    • ἐρωτικὴ τέχνη - The Art of Love
  • Physical writings:
    • περὶ τοῦ ὅλου - On the Universe
    • περὶ οὐσίας - On Being
    • περὶ σημείων - On Signs
    • περὶ ὄψεως - On Sight
    • περὶ τοῦ λόγου - On the Logos
  • Logical writings:
    • διατριϐαί - Discourses
    • περὶ λεξεως - On Verbal Style
    • λύσεις, ἔλεγχοι - Solutions and Refutations
  • Other works:
    • περὶ ποιητικῆς ἀκροάσεως - On Poetical Readings
    • προϐλημάτων Όμηρικῶη πέντε - Homeric Problems
    • καθολικά - General Things
    • Άπομνημονεύματα Κράτητος - Reminiscences of Crates
    • Πυθαγορικά - Pythagorean Doctrines

The most famous of these works was Zeno's Republic, a work written in conscious imitation of (or opposition to) Plato. Although it has not survived, more is known about it than any of his other works. It outlined Zeno's vision of the ideal Stoic society built on egaliterian principles.

Quotations of Zeno

  • "Reason pervades the whole nature of things."
  • "The chief good is to live according to nature; which is to live according to virtue, for nature leads us to this point.
  • "Love is a god, who cooperates in securing the safety of the city.
  • "All the good are friends of one another.
  • "We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.


Further reading

  • Pearson, A., Fragments of Zeno and Cleanthes, (1891). Greek/Latin fragments with English commentary.
  • Long, A., Sedley, D., (1987), The Hellenistic Philosophers, Volume 1. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-27556-3
  • Schofield, M., (1991), The Stoic Idea of the City. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-39740-8
  • Hunt, H., (1976), A physical interpretation of the universe: The doctrines of Zeno the Stoic. Melbourne University Press. ISBN 0-522-84100-7

External links

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