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

Profiles, Stoic Philosophers Profiles, and More


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.


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