Zeno of Citium: An Historical Overview

If the famous quote “Man can only conquer his world by conquering himself” rings a bell to you, chances are you probably know the author was Zeno of Citium. Did you also know he invented the concept of apatheia (a state of mind devoid of passion)? Read on as we take you through the life of Zeno, one of the greatest Greek philosophers and stoic.

Birth

Zeno was born c.334-362 B.C. in a Greek colony known as Kitium (pronounced as Citium), in present day Larnaca, Cyprus. His father was a merchant trader.

Early Life

Little is known about the life of Zeno. The details about him are from the works of his followers and critics. At around 312 B.C. Zeno moved to Athens where he studied under Crates of Thebe, one of the most famous Cynic philosophers in the Hellenic era.

Later Life

Zeno was initially a merchant trader (just like his father). He plied the trade before opening his stoicism school of philosophy in Athens (308 BCE). In line with Cynic teaching, Zeno was haggardly and lived like a beggar while in Athens. He often mocked the lifestyles of wealthy Athenians and instead made friends with the class of people consisting majorly of serfs and beggars.

Moreover, he preferred male companionship; nonetheless, he lived with Perseus (female) at some point. Perseus was rumored to be Zeno’s lover, even though the former was just his most favorite student and friend.

Death

Zeno taught in his stoic school until he died around 261 B.C. According to Laertius, Zeno tripped and fell, breaking a toe on the process. Being a stoic, Zeno thought it was appropriate to die since he was already old (he was around 72 years). Consequently, he strangled himself.

Achievements

As previously mentioned, much of what is known of the works of Zeno was through quotations and anecdotes from the works of his students. None of his works survived in the modern era as they were built upon the works of other Stoics, notably Chrysippus of Soli and Epictetus. Nevertheless, he made considerable impacts on philosophy. Some of his contributions are highlighted below.

  • Stoicism: Zeno is the founder of Stoicism school of philosophy. He invented the idea of kathekon or “appropriate actions of nature,” which carries the sense that man must act in agreement with nature.
  • The Republic: This was one of his most famous works. Zeno wrote the book under the tutelage of Crates. The work outlined his vision of the ideal Stoic society built on egalitarian principles.
  • Metaphysics: According to Zeno the whole universe is God, a supernatural reasoning entity. He taught that one could only attain happiness by conforming to the will of the divine entity.

Philosophies

Zeno believed the only way for a man to conquer the world was by conquering himself first. He taught his students the value of apatheia or the “absence of passion.” It was his idea that controlling our emotions and physical desires will help us to develop wisdom and ability to apply it.

Just like the cynics, he believed that man should strive to attain a single, sole good. The good consist mostly of virtues. But unlike the cynics, Zeno thought that things which are “morally indifferent” could nonetheless be of value to us.

In a Nutshell

Even though most of Zeno’s works couldn’t survive in the modern era, history still remembers him for many of his contributions. His moral influence on the youth of his era was truly profound.

Photo Credit: Alchetron