The great Galen, a prominent Greek physician in the Roman Empire, at one point suffered the loss of all his work and books. In a clear example of what we can call a virtuous Stoic response, he wrote that “the fact that, after the loss of the totality of my pharmaceutical remedies, the totality of my books, as well as these recipes of reputable remedies, as well as the various editions I wrote on them, in addition to so many other works, each one of which exhibits that love of work that was mine my entire life; the fact that I felt no pain shows first the nobility of my behavior and my greatness of soul.”
If only we could exhibit the same behavior when facing such a dramatic loss! As his times were marked with perpetual wars and natural disasters, Galen of course was not the only one of the ancients who has suffered such a loss. Zeno, the founder of Stoicism himself experienced one and in a surprising twist, is what put him on the path to philosophy.
On a voyage between Phoenicia and Peiraeus, his ship sank along with its cargo. Zeno ended up in Athens, and while visiting a bookstore he was introduced to the philosophy of Socrates and, later, an Athenian philosopher named Crates. These influences drastically changed the course of his life, leading him to develop the thinking and principles that we now know as Stoicism. According to the ancient biographer Diogenes Laertius, Zeno joked, “Now that I’ve suffered shipwreck, I’m on a good journey,” or according to another account, “You’ve done well, Fortune, driving me thus to philosophy,” he reportedly said.
Zeno began his teaching at the Stoa Poikile which was located at the Ancient Agora of Athens. This is the famous porch that Stoicism was named after that you probably remember briefly mentioned in your high school or college philosophy class. But the name wasn’t always that—in fact, initially his disciples were called Zenonians but only later they came to be known as Stoics.
Of course, Stoicism has developed since he Zeno first outlined the philosophy but at the core of it, the message is the same. As he put it, “Happiness is a good flow of life.” How is it to be achieved? Peace of mind that comes from living a life of virtue in accordance with reason and nature.
After his death, the Athenians honored Zeno with a bronze statue and the following decree has been passed in the city—extolling a man that was a true example that we can look up to today:
“Whereas Zeno of Citium, son of Mnaseas, has for many years been devoted to philosophy in the city and has continued to be a man of worth in all other respects, exhorting to virtue and temperance those of the youth who come to him to be taught, directing them to what is best, affording to all in his own conduct a pattern for imitation in perfect consistency with his teaching, it has seemed good to the people—and may it turn out well—to bestow praise upon Zeno of Citium, the son of Mnaseas, and to crown him with a golden crown according to the law, for his goodness and temperance, and to build him a tomb in the Ceramicus at the public cost….”
NOTABLE WORKS & SUGGESTED READINGS
Unfortunately, none of Zeno’s writings survive and our best account on him comes from Diogenes Laërtius, the biographer of Greek philosophers, and his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. This is also the case with the other two prominent Stoic thinkers who initially laid the groundwork for what would be known as Stoicism; we do not have an entire, preserved work from neither Cleanthes nor Chrysippus.
We do know however that Zeno wrote Republic, a work in direct opposition to Plato’s book of the same name. In it, he outlined his ideal society based on egalitarian principles. As Plutarch wrote of Republic, which has not survived, it “aims singly at this, that neither in cities nor in towns we should live under laws distinct one from another, but that we should look upon all people in general to be our fellow-countryfolk and citizens, observing one manner of living and one kind of order, like a flock feeding together with equal right in one common pasture.”
“Better to trip with the feet than with the tongue.” – Zeno
“We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.” – Zeno
“If you lay violent hands on me, you’ll have my body, but my mind will remain with Stilpo.” – Zeno
“Happiness is a good flow of life.” – Zeno
“A bad feeling is a commotion of the mind repugnant to reason, and against nature.” – Zeno
“Well-being is realized by small steps, but is truly no small thing.” – Zeno