Who Is Cleanthes? Successor to Zeno & Second Head of the Stoic School

INTRODUCTION

Famous writers like Trollope and Kafka were known to live dual lives: comfortable, dull jobs during the day and writing the rest of the time. Trollope was working at a post office and Kafka was at an insurance company working jobs that require little mental stimulation that allowed them to fully focus on their creative output the rest of the time. This was of course nothing new.

An ancient example of a dual lifestyle was Cleanthes, the successor to Zeno, who is known as the founder of Stoicism.

Cleanthes, to support his philosophical studies and his pursuit of wisdom during the day, would work as a water-carrier (his nickname was the Well-Water-Collector, Φρεάντλης in Greek) at night to which he fell under suspicion and was even summoned to court. How could a man spend his entire day studying philosophy, the court wondered. Proving his hard work and industry during the night, he was let go (the court was so impressed that they even offered him money but Zeno made him refuse it).

But we need to step back.

Who was this industrious philosopher?

Cleanthes of Assos (c. 330 BC – c. 230 BC) was originally a boxer who arrived in Athens. According to Diogenes Laërtius, Cleanthes arrived with only four drachmas in his pockets and began attending Crates the Cynic’s lectures and only later he started showing up at Zeno’s. He later became his successor as the head of the Stoic school—a post he held for an impressive period of 32 years—and Cleanthes’s pupil, Chrysippus, later became one of the most important Stoic thinkers.

Reading about Cleanthes one finds a curious lesson relayed by Diogenes Laërtius: “When someone inquired of him what lesson he ought to give his son, Cleanthes in reply quoted words from the Electra:

Silence, silence, light be thy step.”

And as a Stoic, he also held that living according to nature is living virtuously.

Cleanthes died at the age of 99 in Athens and the philosopher Simplicius, writing in the 6th century AD, says that a statue of Cleanthes was still visible at Assos.

NOTABLE WORKS & SUGGESTED READINGS

Similar to Zeno, very little of Cleanthes’s work has survived. He has written books on the philosophy of Heraclitus, interpretations of Zeno as well as works on poetry and myth. The best source on Cleanthes that we have, just like with Zeno, is Diogenes Laërtius in his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. The only surviving work is his famous hymn to Zeus and below is the part found in Epictetus’s Enchiridion.

Lead me on, O Zeus, and thou Destiny,

To that goal long ago to me assigned.

I’ll follow readily but if my will prove weak;

Wretched as I am, I must follow still.

Fate guides the willing, but drags the unwilling.

CLEANTHES QUOTES

“The Fates guide the person who accepts them and hinder the person who resists them.” Click To Tweet

The Stoics are practical people who realize the power of the individual as well as those things beyond his/her personal control. In this quote, Cleanthes is making clear that a Stoic accepts the twists and turns that Fate brings his/her way and alters life in accordance to them. This quote also points out that those who resist the pull of Fate will feel hindered by the events that alter their life plans. As any stoic will tell you, it is difficult to be happy when feeling at odds with what is occurring within your daily life. However, an individual who accepts the things that occur in life that are beyond his/her control can continue to live a happy life despite unplanned change. Indeed, a practicing stoic will find ways to practice acceptance of the twists of Fate and thereby inoculate themselves to the potential unhappiness Fate can present in their lives.

“The willing are led by fate, the reluctant are dragged.” Click To Tweet

This quote is in keeping with the sentiment espoused by Cleanthes in the previous quote. Cleanthes, like other stoics, believed that the wise work in concert with reality and do not resist Fate.  Those who do not freely accept the guidance of Fate find themselves unhappily reactive to the changes Fate brings into their lives.

“Ignorant men differ from beasts only in their figure.” Click To Tweet

This quote is self-explanatory. Stoics hold the belief that it is the ability to think and reason that makes man superior to animals. Stoics hold that man, with his ability to reason, can lead a happy life by controlling negative emotions and passions.

Cleanthes Beliefs

There are several beliefs that are attributed to Cleanthes. These include:

[*] The soul is a material substance. Cleanthes supported this view with evidence of the mind/body connection. Cleanthes held that the soul is a material thing that abides in the body and supported this by arguing that poor physical health is experienced when individuals are dealing with anxiety, depression, and stress. Likewise, he indicated that the soul is distressed when the individual is cut or experiences physical pain and illness. 

[*] The Sun as divine. Cleanthes supported this view with the argument that the Sun’s ability to sustain life makes it divine.

[*]Living in accordance with Nature. Cleanthes saw value in self-control, much as Zeno did. However, Cleanthes added the concept of living in accordance with Nature to Zeno’s stated goal of Stoicism. With Cleanthes’ addition, the goal of Stoicism became “to live consistently with nature.”

Exercises from Cleanthes

[*] Follow Fate. Like the Stoics, we must all admit that certain principals of Nature must be followed. Whether you understand the rules of physics or not, you are limited by them. The Stoics take this idea a step further by suggesting that one must accept all things beyond one’s own personal power. To this end, the practitioner of stoicism must follow where Fate leads.

For this exercise, contemplate an unwanted act of Fate that you fear. You may choose to contemplate the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, or being informed that you have an illness. Be as clear with your thought as you can. Consider the impact that this negative turn of Fate would have on your life. 

If you are contemplating the loss of your job, consider what this loss would mean for you today, tomorrow, after a week without work, after a month without work, after a year without work. Journal about how a simple turn of Fate would impact your life. 

[*] Live in Loss. If you truly want to engage in an exercise like Cleanthes, try living in loss. Choose something that you would find difficult to do without in your daily life but that would not cause physical harm to you. Remove this thing or set of things from your life. 

Toward the end of Cleanthes’ life, he developed an ulcer that required him to fast. Intermittent fasting is an easy way to practice living in loss. Like many Stoics, Cleanthes believed that pleasure and giving into human passions signified weakness. Through practicing living without or living in loss you are building your ability to control your passions and build self-control. 

Add journaling to your practice to gain better understanding of yourself and your responses to loss. 

[*] Understand Your Values and Value Your Time. A simple life is a clear value of the early Stoics. As we see from the example of Cleanthes, it is important to put time and work into the things one values and can control. Clearly, Cleanthes valued the study of philosophy. Indeed, he valued his studies to the extent that he molded the rest of his life in such a way as to support this highly valued pursuit. Remember Cleanthes was willing to work evenings drawing water so that he could spend his days engaged in the study of philosophy. Stoics teach that happiness is not garnered from the accumulation of financial success or material gain, but from becoming the best one can in the pursuit of knowledge.

Contemplate the things you value. Do you spend your time doing the things that make you a better person? Do you spend your time supporting yourself in attaining knowledge and perfecting your mind? Do you spend your time doing the things that you have a natural talent for? 

Make two lists. Make a list of the things you value and make you wiser and more fulfilled as a person. Made a second list honestly expressing the things you spend your time doing.  Compare your two lists. Consider whether you are honestly spending your time doing the things that you value. 

Journal on your understanding of your use of your time regarding the things you truly value. Consider how you might change your life to better allocate your time. 

SEE ALSO:

Who Is Marcus Aurelius? Getting To Know The Roman Emperor

Who Is Seneca? Inside The Mind of The World’s Most Interesting Stoic

Who Is Epictetus? From Slave To World’s Most Sought After Philosopher

Who Is Cato? Roman Senator. Mortal Enemy of Julius Caesar.

Who Is Zeno? An Introduction to the Founder of Stoicism

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