Zeno of Citium

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Zeno of Citium
Paolo Monti - Servizio fotografico (Napoli, 1969) - BEIC 6353768.jpg
Zeno of Citium. Bust in the Farnese collection, Naples. Photo by Paolo Monti, 1969.
Bornc. 334 BC
Diedc. 262 BC
Era Ancient philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Stoicism
Main interests
Logic, Physics, Ethics
Notable ideas
Founder of Stoicism, three branches of philosophy (physics, ethics, logic), [1] Logos , rationality of human nature, virtue ethics, world citizenship [2]

Zeno of Citium ( /ˈzn/ ; Greek : Ζήνων ὁ Κιτιεύς, Zēnōn ho Kitieus; c. 334 – c. 262 BC) was a Hellenistic philosopher of Phoenician origin [3] from Citium (Κίτιον, Kition), Cyprus. Zeno was the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy, which he taught in Athens from about 300 BC. Based on the moral ideas of the Cynics, Stoicism laid great emphasis on goodness and peace of mind gained from living a life of Virtue in accordance with Nature. It proved very popular, and flourished as one of the major schools of philosophy from the Hellenistic period through to the Roman era.

Greek language Language spoken in Greece, Cyprus and Southern Albania

Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages, native to Greece, Cyprus and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. It has the longest documented history of any living Indo-European language, spanning more than 3000 years of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the major part of its history; other systems, such as Linear B and the Cypriot syllabary, were used previously. The alphabet arose from the Phoenician script and was in turn the basis of the Latin, Cyrillic, Armenian, Coptic, Gothic, and many other writing systems.

Hellenistic philosophy is the period of Western philosophy and Middle Eastern philosophy that was developed in the Hellenistic period following Aristotle and ending with the beginning of Neoplatonism.

Kition ancient Phoenician city in Cyprus

Kition, also known by its Latin name Citium, was a city-kingdom on the southern coast of Cyprus. It was established in the 13th century BC.



Zeno was born c. 334 BC, [lower-alpha 1] in Citium in Cyprus. Most of the details known about his life come from the biography and anecdotes preserved by Diogenes Laërtius in his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers . Diogenes reports that Zeno's interest in philosophy began when "he consulted the oracle to know what he should do to attain the best life, and that the god's response was that he should take on the complexion of the dead. Whereupon, perceiving what this meant, he studied ancient authors." [4] Zeno became a wealthy merchant. On a voyage from Phoenicia to Peiraeus he survived a shipwreck, after which he went to Athens and visited a bookseller. There he encountered Xenophon's Memorabilia . He was so pleased with the book's portrayal of Socrates that he asked the bookseller where men like Socrates were to be found. Just then, Crates of Thebes, the most famous Cynic living at that time in Greece happened to be walking by, and the bookseller pointed to him. [5]

Cyprus Island country in the Mediterranean

Cyprus, officially the Republic of Cyprus, is an island country in the Eastern Mediterranean and the third largest and third most populous island in the Mediterranean, located south of Turkey, west of Syria and Lebanon, northwest of Israel and Palestine, north of Egypt, and southeast of Greece.

Diogenes Laërtius late antique biographer of classical Greek philosophers

Diogenes Laërtius was a biographer of the Greek philosophers. Nothing is definitively known about his life, but his surviving Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers is a principal source for the history of ancient Greek philosophy. His reputation is controversial among scholars because he often repeats information from his sources without critically evaluating it. He also frequently focuses on trivial or insignificant details of his subjects' lives while ignoring important details of their philosophical teachings and he sometimes fails to distinguish between earlier and later teachings of specific philosophical schools. However, unlike many other ancient secondary sources, Diogenes Laërtius generally reports philosophical teachings without attempting to reinterpret or expand on them, which means his accounts are often closer to the primary sources. Due to the loss of so many of the primary sources on which Diogenes relied, his work has become the foremost surviving source on the history of Greek philosophy.

<i>Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers</i> book by Diogenes Laërtius

Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers is a biography of the Greek philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius, written in Greek, perhaps in the first half of the third century AD.

Zeno is described as a haggard, dark-skinned person, [6] living a spare, ascetic life [7] despite his wealth. This coincides with the influences of Cynic teaching, and was, at least in part, continued in his Stoic philosophy. From the day Zeno became Crates’ pupil, he showed a strong bent for philosophy, though with too much native modesty to assimilate Cynic shamelessness. Hence Crates, desirous of curing this defect in him, gave him a potful of lentil-soup to carry through the Ceramicus; and when he saw that Zeno was ashamed and tried to keep it out of sight, Crates broke the pot with a blow of his staff. As Zeno began to run off in embarrassment with the lentil-soup flowing down his legs, Crates chided, "Why run away, my little Phoenician? Nothing terrible has befallen you." [8]

Apart from Crates, Zeno studied under the philosophers of the Megarian school, including Stilpo, [9] and the dialecticians Diodorus Cronus, [10] and Philo. [11] He is also said to have studied Platonist philosophy under the direction of Xenocrates, [12] and Polemo. [13]

Megarian school Ancient socratic school

The Megarian school of philosophy, which flourished in the 4th century BC, was founded by Euclides of Megara, one of the pupils of Socrates. Its ethical teachings were derived from Socrates, recognizing a single good, which was apparently combined with the Eleatic doctrine of Unity. Some of Euclides' successors developed logic to such an extent that they became a separate school, known as the Dialectical school. Their work on modal logic, logical conditionals, and propositional logic played an important role in the development of logic in antiquity.

Stilpo Greek philosopher of the Megarian school

Stilpo was a Greek philosopher of the Megarian school. He was a contemporary of Theophrastus, Diodorus Cronus, and Crates of Thebes. None of his writings survive, he was interested in logic and dialectic, and he argued that the universal is fundamentally separated from the individual and concrete. His ethical teachings approached that of the Cynics and Stoics. His most important followers were Pyrrho, the founder of Pyrrhonism, and Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism.

Dialectic or dialectics, also known as the dialectical method, is at base a discourse between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject but wishing to establish the truth through reasoned arguments. Dialectic resembles debate, but the concept excludes subjective elements such as emotional appeal and the modern pejorative sense of rhetoric. Dialectic may be contrasted with the didactic method, wherein one side of the conversation teaches the other. Dialectic is alternatively known as minor logic, as opposed to major logic or critique.

Zeno began teaching in the colonnade in the Agora of Athens known as the Stoa Poikile (Greek Στοὰ Ποικίλη) in 301 BC. His disciples were initially called Zenonians, but eventually they came to be known as Stoics, a name previously applied to poets who congregated in the Stoa Poikile.

Stoa ancient Greek covered walkway or portico

A stoa, in ancient Greek architecture, is a covered walkway or portico, commonly for public use. Early stoas were open at the entrance with columns, usually of the Doric order, lining the side of the building; they created a safe, enveloping, protective atmosphere.

Ancient Agora of Athens Square of ancient Athens

The Ancient Agora of Classical Athens is the best-known example of an ancient Greek agora, located to the northwest of the Acropolis and bounded on the south by the hill of the Areopagus and on the west by the hill known as the Agoraios Kolonos, also called Market Hill. The Agora's initial use was for a commercial, assembly, or residential gathering place.

Stoa Poikile ancient stoa in Athens

The Stoa Poikile or Painted Porch, originally called the Porch of Peisianax, was erected during the 5th century BC and was located on the north side of the Ancient Agora of Athens. The Stoa Poikile was one of the most famous sites in ancient Athens, owing its fame to the paintings and loot from wars displayed in it. The Stoa was the location from which Zeno of Citium taught Stoicism. The philosophical school of Stoicism takes its name from having first been expounded here, and was derived from the Greek word stoa. Zeno taught and lectured to his followers from this porch. Excavations carried out by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens over the past two decades have revealed much of the foundations and some lower elements of the stoa on the north side of the Athenian Agora; it had a Doric columnar facade and an Ionic interior colonnade.

Among the admirers of Zeno was king Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedonia, [14] who, whenever he came to Athens, would visit Zeno. Zeno is said to have declined an invitation to visit Antigonus in Macedonia, although their supposed correspondence preserved by Laërtius [15] is undoubtedly the invention of a later writer. [16] Zeno instead sent his friend and disciple Persaeus, [15] who had lived with Zeno in his house. [17] Among Zeno's other pupils there were Aristo of Chios, Sphaerus, and Cleanthes who succeeded Zeno as the head ( scholarch ) of the Stoic school in Athens. [18]

Antigonus II Gonatas King of Macedonia

Antigonus II Gonatas was a powerful ruler who solidified the position of the Antigonid dynasty in Macedon after a long period defined by anarchy and chaos and acquired fame for his victory over the Gauls who had invaded the Balkans.

Persaeus of Citium, son of Demetrius, was a Greek Stoic philosopher, and a friend and favourite student of Zeno of Citium.

Aristo of Chios was a Stoic philosopher and colleague of Zeno of Citium. He outlined a system of Stoic philosophy that was, in many ways, closer to earlier Cynic philosophy. He rejected the logical and physical sides of philosophy endorsed by Zeno and emphasized ethics. Although agreeing with Zeno that Virtue was the supreme good, he rejected the idea that morally indifferent things such as health and wealth could be ranked according to whether they are naturally preferred. An important philosopher in his day, his views were eventually marginalized by Zeno's successors.

Zeno is said to have declined Athenian citizenship when it was offered to him, fearing that he would appear unfaithful to his native land, [19] where he was highly esteemed, and where he contributed to the restoration of its baths, after which his name was inscribed upon a pillar there as "Zeno the philosopher". [20] We are also told that Zeno was of an earnest, gloomy disposition; [21] that he preferred the company of the few to the many; [22] that he was fond of burying himself in investigations; [23] and that he disliked verbose and elaborate speeches. [24] Diogenes Laërtius has preserved many clever and witty remarks by Zeno, [25] although these anecdotes are generally considered unreliable. [16]

Zeno died around 262 BC. [a] Laërtius reports about his death:

As he was leaving the school he tripped and fell, breaking his toe. Striking the ground with his fist, he quoted the line from the Niobe :
"I come, I come, why dost thou call for me?"
and died on the spot through holding his breath. [26]

During his lifetime, Zeno received appreciation for his philosophical and pedagogical teachings. Among other things, Zeno was honored with the golden crown, [27] and a tomb was built in honor of his moral influence on the youth of his era. [28]

The crater Zeno on the Moon is named in his honour.


Modern bust of Zeno in Athens Zenon Kitiefs.JPG
Modern bust of Zeno in Athens

Following the ideas of the Old Academy, Zeno divided philosophy into three parts: logic (a wide subject including rhetoric, grammar, and the theories of perception and thought); physics (not just science, but the divine nature of the universe as well); and ethics, the end goal of which was to achieve eudaimonia through the right way of living according to Nature. Because Zeno's ideas were later expanded upon by Chrysippus and other Stoics it can be difficult to determine precisely what he thought. But his general views can be outlined as follows:


In his treatment of Logic, Zeno was influenced by Stilpo and the other Megarians. Zeno urged the need to lay down a basis for Logic because the wise person must know how to avoid deception. [29] Cicero accused Zeno of being inferior to his philosophical predecessors in his treatment of Logic, [30] and it seems true that a more exact treatment of the subject was laid down by his successors, including Chrysippus. [31] Zeno divided true conceptions into the comprehensible and the incomprehensible, [32] permitting for free-will the power of assent (sinkatathesis/συνκατάθεσις) in distinguishing between sense impressions. [33] Zeno said that there were four stages in the process leading to true knowledge, which he illustrated with the example of the flat, extended hand, and the gradual closing of the fist:

Zeno stretched out his fingers, and showed the palm of his hand, – "Perception," – he said, – "is a thing like this."- Then, when he had closed his fingers a little, – "Assent is like this." – Afterwards, when he had completely closed his hand, and showed his fist, that, he said, was Comprehension. From which simile he also gave that state a new name, calling it katalepsis (κατάληψις). But when he brought his left hand against his right, and with it took a firm and tight hold of his fist: – "Knowledge" – he said, was of that character; and that was what none but a wise person possessed. [34]


The Universe, in Zeno's view, is God: [35] a divine reasoning entity, where all the parts belong to the whole. [36] Into this pantheistic system he incorporated the physics of Heraclitus; the Universe contains a divine artisan-fire, which foresees everything, [37] and extending throughout the Universe, must produce everything:

Zeno, then, defines nature by saying that it is artistically working fire, which advances by fixed methods to creation. For he maintains that it is the main function of art to create and produce, and that what the hand accomplishes in the productions of the arts we employ, is accomplished much more artistically by nature, that is, as I said, by artistically working fire, which is the master of the other arts. [37]

This divine fire, [33] or aether, [38] is the basis for all activity in the Universe, [39] operating on otherwise passive matter, which neither increases nor diminishes itself. [40] The primary substance in the Universe comes from fire, passes through the stage of air, and then becomes water: the thicker portion becoming earth, and the thinner portion becoming air again, and then rarefying back into fire. [41] Individual souls are part of the same fire as the world-soul of the Universe. [42] Following Heraclitus, Zeno adopted the view that the Universe underwent regular cycles of formation and destruction. [43]

The Nature of the Universe is such that it accomplishes what is right and prevents the opposite, [44] and is identified with unconditional Fate, [45] while allowing it the free-will attributed to it. [37]


Zeno, portrayed as a medieval scholar in the Nuremberg Chronicle Zeno of Citium Nuremberg Chronicle.jpg
Zeno, portrayed as a medieval scholar in the Nuremberg Chronicle

Like the Cynics, Zeno recognised a single, sole and simple good, [46] which is the only goal to strive for. [47] "Happiness is a good flow of life," said Zeno, [48] and this can only be achieved through the use of right Reason coinciding with the Universal Reason ( Logos ), which governs everything. A bad feeling (pathos) "is a disturbance of the mind repugnant to Reason, and against Nature." [49] This consistency of soul, out of which morally good actions spring, is Virtue, [50] true good can only consist in Virtue. [51]

Zeno deviated from the Cynics in saying that things that are morally adiaphora (indifferent) could nevertheless have value. Things have a relative value in proportion to how they aid the natural instinct for self-preservation. [52] That which is to be preferred is a "fitting action" ( kathêkon /καθῆκον), a designation Zeno first introduced. Self-preservation, and the things that contribute towards it, has only a conditional value; it does not aid happiness, which depends only on moral actions. [53]

Just as Virtue can only exist within the dominion of Reason, so Vice can only exist with the rejection of Reason. Virtue is absolutely opposed to Vice, [54] the two cannot exist in the same thing together, and cannot be increased or decreased; [55] no one moral action is more virtuous than another. [56] All actions are either good or bad, since impulses and desires rest upon free consent, [57] and hence even passive mental states or emotions that are not guided by reason are immoral, [58] and produce immoral actions. [59] Zeno distinguished four negative emotions: desire, fear, pleasure and sorrow (epithumia, phobos, hêdonê, lupê / ἐπιθυμία, φόβος, ἡδονή, λύπη), [60] and he was probably responsible for distinguishing the three corresponding positive emotions: will, caution, and joy (boulêsis, eulabeia, chara / βούλησις, εὐλάβεια, χαρά), with no corresponding rational equivalent for pain. All errors must be rooted out, not merely set aside, [61] and replaced with right reason.


None of Zeno's writings have survived except as fragmentary quotations preserved by later writers. However, the titles of many of Zeno's writings are known and are as follows: [62]

The most famous of these works was Zeno's Republic, a work written in conscious imitation of (or opposition to) Plato's Republic . Although it has not survived, more is known about it than any of his other works. It outlined Zeno's vision of the ideal Stoic society.


  1. The dates for Zeno's life are controversial. According to Apollodorus, as quoted by Philodemus, Zeno died in Arrheneides' archonship (262/1 BC). According to Persaeus (Diogenes Laërtius vii. 28), Zeno lived for 72 years. His date of birth is thus 334/3 BC. A plausible chronology for his life is as follows: He was born 334/3 BC, and came to Athens in 312/11 BC at the age of 22 (Laërtius 1925, § 28). He studied philosophy for about 10 years (Laërtius 1925, § 2); opened his own school during Clearchus' archonship in 301/0 BC (Philodemus, On the Stoics, col. 4); and was the head of the school for 39 years and 3 months (Philodemus, On the Stoics, col. 4), and died 262/1 BC. For more information see Ferguson 1911, pp. 185–186; and Dorandi 2005, p. 38
  1. "Stoicism - Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy". www.iep.utm.edu. Retrieved 19 March 2018.
  2. Bunnin & Yu (2004). The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
  3. Stoics and Sceptics
  4. "Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, BOOK VII, Chapter 1. ZENO (333-261 B.C.)". www.perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved 19 March 2018.
  5. Laërtius 1925, § 2–3.
  6. Laërtius 1925, § 1.
  7. Laërtius 1925, § 26–27.
  8. Laërtius 1925, § 3.
  9. Laërtius 1925, § 2, 24.
  10. Laërtius 1925, § 16, 25.
  11. Laërtius 1925, § 16.
  12. Laërtius 1925 , § 2; but note that Xenocrates died 314/13 BC
  13. Laërtius 1925, § 2, 25.
  14. Laërtius 1925 , § 6–9, 13–15, 36; Epictetus, Discourses, ii. 13. 14–15; Simplicius, in Epictetus Enchiridion, 51; Aelian, Varia Historia, ix. 26
  15. 1 2 Laërtius 1925, § 6–9.
  16. 1 2 Brunt, P. A. (2013). "The Political Attitudes of the Old Stoa". In Griffin, Miriam; Samuels, Alison (eds.). Studies in Stoicism. Oxford University Press. p. 87. ISBN   9780199695850.
  17. Laërtius 1925, § 13, comp. 36.
  18. Laërtius 1925, § 37.
  19. Plutarch, de Stoicor. repugn, p. 1034; comp. Laërtius 1925 , § 12.
  20. Laërtius 1925, § 6.
  21. Laërtius 1925 , § 16, comp. 26; Sidonius Apollinaris, Epistles, ix. 9
  22. Laërtius 1925, § 14.
  23. Laërtius 1925, § 15.
  24. Laërtius 1925, § 18, 22.
  25. Laërtius 1925, § 18–25.
  26. Laërtius 1925, § 28.
  27. Laërtius 1925, § 6, 11.
  28. Laërtius 1925, § 10–12.
  29. Cicero, Academica, ii. 20.
  30. Cicero, de Finibus, iv. 4.
  31. Sextus Empiricus, adv. Math. vii. 253.
  32. Cicero, Academica, ii. 6, 24.
  33. 1 2 Cicero, Academica, i. 11.
  34. Cicero, Academica, 2.145 [47]
  35. Laërtius 1925, § 148.
  36. Sextus Empiricus, adv. Math. ix. 104, 101; Cicero, de Natura Deorum, ii. 8.
  37. 1 2 3 Cicero, de Natura Deorum, ii. 22.
  38. Cicero, Academica, ii. 41.
  39. Cicero, de Natura Deorum, ii. 9, iii. 14.
  40. Laërtius 1925, § 150.
  41. Laërtius 1925, § 142, comp. 136.
  42. Cicero, Tusculanae Quaestiones, i. 9, de Natura Deorum, iii. 14; Laërtius 1925 , § 156.
  43. Stobaeus, Ecl. Phys. i.
  44. Cicero, de Natura Deorum, i. 14.
  45. Laërtius 1925, § 88, 148, etc., 156.
  46. Cicero, Academica, i. 10. 35-36 : "Zeno igitur nullo modo is erat qui ut Theophrastus nervos virtutis inciderit, sed contra qui omnia quae ad beatam vitam pertinerent in una virtute poneret nec quicquam aliud numeraret hi bonis idque appellaret honestum quod esset simplex quoddam et solum et unum bonum."
  47. Cicero, de Finibus, iii. 6. 8; comp. Laërtius 1925 , § 100, etc.
  48. Stobaeus, 2.77.
  49. Cicero, Tusculanae Quaestiones, iv. 6.
  50. Cicero, Tusculanae Quaestiones, iv. 15.
  51. Laërtius 1925, § 102, 127.
  52. Laërtius 1925 , § 85; Cicero, de Finibus, iii. 5, 15, iv. 10, v. 9, Academica, i. 16.
  53. Cicero, de Finibus, iii. 13.
  54. Cicero, Tusculanae Quaestiones, iv. 13, Academica, i. 10, de Finibus, iii. 21, iv. 9, Parad. iii. 1; Laërtius 1925 , § 127.
  55. Cicero, de Finibus, iii. 14, etc.
  56. Cicero, de Finibus, iii. 14; Sextus Empiricus, adv. Math. vii. 422.
  57. Cicero, Tusculanae Quaestiones, iv. 9, Academica, i. 10.
  58. Laërtius 1925 , § 110; Cicero, Tusculanae Quaestiones, iv. 6. 14.
  59. Cicero, de Finibus, iv. 38; Plutarch, de Virt. mor.
  60. Cicero, Tusculanae Quaestiones, iv. 6; Laërtius 1925 , § 110.
  61. Cicero, Tusculanae Quaestiones, iv. 18, etc.
  62. Laërtius 1925, § 4.

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Further reading

First Leader of the Stoic school
300–262 BC
Succeeded by