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Zeno of Citium (c. 334 – c. 262 BC) was a Greek thinker from Citium (Κίτιον, Kition), Cyprus. He was possibly of Phoenician descent. 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 goodness and peace of mind gained from living a life of Virtue in accordance with Nature. It proved very successful, and flourished as the dominant philosophy from the Hellenistic period through to the Roman era.
Zeno was born c. 334 BC, in Citium in Cyprus. Most of the details known about his life come from the anecdotes preserved by Diogenes Laërtius in his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. Diogenes relates a legend that Zeno was a merchant; after surviving a shipwreck, Zeno wandered into a bookshop in Athens and was attracted to some writings about Socrates. He asked the librarian how to find such a man. In response, the librarian pointed to Crates of Thebes, the most famous Cynic living at that time in Greece.
Zeno is 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. … Apart from Crates, Zeno studied under the philosophers of the Megarian school, including Stilpo, and the dialecticians Diodorus Cronus, and Philo. He is also said to have studied Platonist philosophy under the direction of Xenocrates, and Polemo.
Zeno began teaching in the colonnade in the Agora of Athens known as the Stoa Poikile (Greek Στοὰ Ποικίλη) in 301 BC. His disciples were initially called Zenonians, but eventually they came to be known as Stoics, a name previously applied to poets who congregated in the Stoa Poikile.
Among the admirers of Zeno was king Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedonia, who, whenever he came to Athens, would visit Zeno. Zeno is said to have declined an invitation to visit Antigonus in Macedonia, although their supposed correspondence preserved by Laërtius is undoubtedly the invention of a later rhetorician. Zeno instead sent his friend and disciple Persaeus, who had lived with Zeno in his house. Among Zeno’s other pupils there were Aristo of Chios, Sphaerus, and Cleanthes who succeeded Zeno as the head (scholarch) of the Stoic school in Athens. …
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. 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 new name, calling it katalepsis (κατάληψις). 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. (Diogenes Laërtius, vii. 148)
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 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. (Cicero, de Natura Deorum, ii. 22.)
This divine fire, or aether, is the basis for all activity in the Universe, operating on otherwise passive matter, which neither increases nor 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 rarefying 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 that are morally indifferent could nevertheless have value. 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/καθῆκον), a designation Zeno first introduced. Self-preservation, and the things that 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 that 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 / ἐπιθυμία, φόβος, ἡδονή, λύπη), and he was probably responsible for distinguishing the three corresponding positive emotions: will, caution, and joy (boulêsis, eulabeia, chara / βούλησις, εὐλάβεια, χαρά), with no corresponding rational equivalent for pain. All errors must be rooted out, not merely set aside, and replaced with right Reason. Works
None of Zeno’s writings have survived except as fragmentary quotations preserved by later writers.
Zeno died around 262 BC.
Diogenes Laërtius, Life of Zeno, translated by Robert Drew Hicks (1925).
Hunt, Harold. A Physical Interpretation of the Universe. The Doctrines of Zeno the Stoic. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1976.
Long, Anthony A., Sedley, David N. The Hellenistic Philosophers, Volume 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Pearson, Alfred C. Fragments of Zeno and Cleanthes, (1891). Greek/Latin fragments with English commentary.
Reale, Giovanni. A History of Ancient Philosophy. III. The systems of the Hellenistic Age, (translated by John R. Catan, 1985)
Scaltsas Theodore, and Mason Andrew S. (eds.), The philosophy of Zeno. Larnaca: The Municipality of Larnaca, 2002.
Schofield, Malcolm. The Stoic Idea of the City. cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.