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Who Is Zeno? An Introduction to the Founder of Stoicism

Profiles, Stoic Philosophers Profiles, and More


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 temper