Not to be confused with the Peripatetic philosopher Aristo of Ceos, Aristo of Chios was a Greek Stoic philosopher, lecturer, and student-turned-contemporary of the more well-known Stoic philosopher Zeno.
When exactly he was born and when he died are uncertain, but he lived and worked during the 3rd Century BCE. We do know that he was born on Chios (an island), and eventually traveled to Athens. There he listened to the lectures of Zeno, the Stoic, and Polemo, from “The Academy,” another philosophical school. He died of sunstroke.
During life, after attending Zeno’s lectures, Aristo of Chios formed his own school of thought, aptly called “The School,” by combining aspects of Stoicism with Cynicism. He held lectures in a gymnasium, and was considered such a well-spoken orator that he was nicknamed The Siren. As such, he drew large audiences, and anyone was welcome to attend his lectures. His students were called “Aristonians.” Some philosophers complained that his welcoming attitude of even the lowliest peasant ruined “the dignity” of philosophy. Aristo of Chios retorted that if animals were suddenly capable of understanding his lectures, he’d welcome them too.
At the time, Aristo of Chios was considered an important and renowned philosopher. But his eventual rejection of large parts of Stoicism made him a controversial figure and a rival of Zeno’s. The popularity of Aristo in life faded after death—Zeno’s followers and successors, such as Chryssipus, criticized and maligned his work. So, while other philosophers and writers would discuss Aristo of Chios and his ideas, it was Zeno whose work would enjoy greater influence in history.
Sadly, none of Aristo of Chios’ written works are available to read today—his philosophy is only known due to other philosophers and writers quoting him. Even then, we can’t be sure if the writer meant Aristo of Ceos instead—it’s difficult to know confidently exactly which quotes were attributed correctly.
Unfortunately, this isn’t an uncommon occurrence—it seems many philosophers from antiquity have had their works lost to the tides of history. But even just in the few surviving quotes we have, we can discern that Aristo of Chios was, to say the least, a unique and interesting philosopher.
Aristo of Chios’ philosophy was an unorthodox hybrid of Stoicism and Cynicism, but the best way to describe his philosophy is to compare and contrast it to Zeno’s ideas.
Zeno separated Stoic philosophy into three distinct parts—Logic, Physics, and Ethics. Logic was a broad subject that delved into theories about thought, grammar, rhetoric, and so on. Physics explored science, but also divinity and higher powers. Ethics analyzed concepts such as good vs. evil, nature, the Supreme Good (virtue), and the Supreme Evil (vice).
Aristo of Chios’ views most prominently conflicted with Zeno’s in regard to Logic and Physics. He found Logic overall irrelevant to humanity and philosophy, believing that the study of language and so on was a waste of time. He shunned Physics, particularly the study of divinity, as he thought that understanding God in any form was inconceivable (though he agreed with Zeno that one could attempt to understand nature, as it was observable in the world around him).
In fact, Aristo of Chios believed that the only worthwhile part of philosophy was the study of Ethics. In regard to Ethics, he believed that the goal of life was to pursue the Supreme Good (virtue), avoid the Supreme Evil (vice), and remain equally indifferent to everything else. Simply put, he thought virtue was good, vice was bad, and everything else one should view with equal indifference.
That last part—total and equal indifference to things that are not virtue or vice—is one of his more controversial views. Essentially, Aristo of Chios found things like health or illness unimportant in comparison to the pursuit of virtue and rejection of vice. For example, while many people and philosophers would call it natural to prefer being healthy instead of ill, Aristo of Chios said that it was not objectively natural to prefer one or the other, that one could never assume that health was naturally advantageous over illness. Zeno agreed that, in some situations, perhaps being ill was preferable to being healthy—being excused from battle because you’re sick, for example, but otherwise the preference to be healthy was natural. Aristo of Chios refused to accept that, and his critics used his absolutism on this matter to denounce his views.
Aristo of Chios also rejected the importance of advice. His belief was that if one embraced and understood his school of philosophy, and were pursuing the Supreme Good, they already knew how to live life, so they did not need advice from others. And if someone did not understand the philosophy, then advice was wasted on them anyway. This seems interestingly contradictory for the man who said he would accept animals as students if he could.
But that’s who Aristo of Chios was. A complicated, interesting philosopher, who gave other philosophers plenty to chew on.
Four Ways to Apply Aristo of Chios to Your Life
Whether or not you believe that your ultimate purpose in life is to be morally good, most people would agree that “being a virtuous person” is an admirable and positive goal to strive for.
Here’s an exercise to help you pursue that goal: before speaking or acting, before making decisions, ask yourself if it’s something you would do if you wanted to be virtuous. Would you yell at your spouse or would you try and speak from a calm and loving place? Would you hold onto anger or forgive? Would you strive to be empathetic and help other people, or ignore other people’s plights? This might sound obvious, but how often do we get caught up in arguments, our feelings, the situation at hand? If you make a habit of considering the virtue of your actions, next time, in the heat of the moment, you might think twice before doing something unbecoming.
There are entire schools of thought that posit “vices”—drinking, sex, drugs, etc.—aren’t inherently bad (and may even be good in moderation), so we’ll focus instead on avoiding vice in excess. A glass of wine at dinner might suit your meal and the night just fine, but do you need to drink two bottles? A bit of ice cream might put a smile on your face, but do you need to eat the whole pint?
When you really break it down, how enjoyable even is excess? When you’ve drank two bottles of wine, how good do you feel the next day? Was the pleasure you barely remember worth the hangover? If you downed the whole pint of ice cream, at what point did you stop tasting it? When were you uncomfortably full?
We may not reject what one philosopher of one philosophical school thought of as vice outright, but we can think about how much of a “vice” we really need. It’s probably not as much as we think.
We’re not suggesting that you take Aristo of Chios’ extreme point of view—that things other than virtue or vice don’t matter. It’s hard to argue that you should be entirely indifferent about your health, for example.
But a lesson you can take from Aristo of Chios is to worry less about, or accept, certain external things you can’t change. You don’t choose to have a chronic illness or a natural disaster destroy your house. But once you’ve started following your doctor’s orders, researching your best options, have insurance appraise the damage, and so on, you need to work on your mindset. Developing it so you can accept that you don’t have control over the situation. Knowing that you need to make the best of it rather than stress and wallow. That’s not quite indifference, but it will help take some of the emotional toll out of unfortunate situations.
Don’t Give Advice to the Unwilling
Aristo of Chios posited that all advice was useless—you understood his philosophy and therefore didn’t need it, or you didn’t understand his philosophy, so any advice he gave you wouldn’t matter anyway. We may not embrace this view, but we can learn from it.
Sometimes, your advice is solicited. A friend wants your advice on their outfit. An employee wants to improve his work and wonders if you can offer guidance. But other times, we spout off advice when no one asked for it! Does your spouse want your opinion on how they should do their job after a bad day at work, or do they just need a kind ear?
Is your advice asked for? Needed? Even appropriate? If the answer is no, don’t give it. Or at least ask if it’s wanted.
Though few direct quotes from Aristo of Chios survive, the following quotes are largely attributed to him:
“Dialectic reasonings are like cobwebs—artificially constructed, but otherwise useless.”*
(On his rejection of studying Logic in philosophy)
*There are several versions of this quote—which is the original remains a mystery. Or, perhaps, he expressed this idea several times in different ways.
“Dialectics is like the mud. Even though it serves no purpose, spreads on the passerby.”
“Those who dwell on dialectics resemble those who chew on crabs; so many bones for just a bit of juice!”
“No form of God is conceivable.”
(On his rejection of studying physics and divinity)
“He who has equipped himself for the whole of life does not need to be advised concerning each separate thing, because he is now trained to meet his problem as a whole; for he knows not merely how he should live with his wife or his son, but how he should live aright.”
(On believing advice is unnecessary)
“Virtue is the health of the soul.”
(On the importance of virtue in life)
“‘Do you not even see the man who is sitting next to you?’, and when the Academic replied, ‘I do not,’ Aristo said: ‘Who then has blinded you; who has robbed you of your eyes?’”
(On nature being comprehensible)
“Hellebore when consumed in a normal dose is healthy, but if ground into pieces it can choke you. The same occurs when over-analyzing in philosophy.”
(On not overthinking philosophy)
“As with men who drink wine and some of them get delirious while others morose, so is with wealth.”
(On wealth not being naturally preferable)
“It is the same to remove the aroma from wormwood as it is to remove the outspokenness from speech.”
(On his refusal to change his tone for lectures)
“The newly inducted to philosophy, who like to control everyone, starting with their parents, are doing the same thing dogs do the first days; barking not only at the strangers, but also at the landlords.”
(On new students over-applying philosophy)
“The ones who struggle with various disciplines but neglect philosophy resemble Penelope’s suitors, who, since they couldn’t conquer her, were ending up chasing the servant girls.”
(On the importance of philosophy)