Stoicism is a Philosophy of life that teaches you the art of living. How to maximize positive emotions, reduce negativity, and assists you in honoring your virtues of Character. However, this philosophy would not have been possible without its original founding father, Zeno.
There’s this misconception that Stoicism started from a comfortable standpoint however, this is just that… a misconception. Although Zeno came from wealth, philosophy came to him when he lost it all.
Zeno was born in 335 BC in Kition, Cyprus. To Μνασέας ὁ Πατρεύς a greek historian of the late 3rd century BC who also sold rare dye that was prized by the wealthy and royals, as they would stain their clothes to show that they were of higher status. This is where the wealth of Zeno’s family originally came from, the commerce of dye – a popular elite commodity of ancient times.
Zeno’s family wanted to expand this business, believing that Athens would be the best place to obtain this expansion and thus hand them the generational wealth they were looking for, as all Entrepreneurs look to obtain. They sent Zeno on a sailing voyage to Athens with the majority of their cargo because they knew that this was where Kings & Queens docked their ships. However, this proved to be a grave mistake (Business-wise).
Some call it a storm, others call it pirates, and some say it was just human error. No one really knows for certain, however, what they do know is that Zeno lost the majority, if not all, of his family fortune. Most people would have been devastated by this, can you imagine… losing your family’s fortune? at a time when there was no insurance and no way to get it back. This would break most people but not Zeno.
Zeno didn’t turn to drinking or self-harm due to his pains of failure. NO. Instead, he began the creation of the greatest Philosophy in existence which Jesus himself would later embody. The question is, what held Zeno together? We May need to turn to his childhood to understand this further.
Born only 2 years after Alexander ‘the great’ liberated Greece from two centuries of Iranian Rule, Zeno’s childhood was surrounded by rebuilding. Since his family was in the trade business, meant that he not only saw a lot of rebuilding occurring around him, but he also kept moving from place to place and as a child felt like a constant restart was occurring in his life. Something that i can very much relate to, personally.
The great thing his father did, and was able to do we should add. Was hand Zeno books… one being Socrates. A man which Zeno would later see having tremendous influence in Athens. It is said that in ‘The Republic‘ (Zeno’s First Book which has been since destroyed) he had criticisms of Plato’s ‘Republic‘ work and since Plato was a student of Socrates, who later taught Aristotle, it’s clear that he had a deep connection with Socrates’ work made 100 years before he was born.
Through this moving, restructuring, rebuilding, and knowledge, surrounding Zeno. We begin to see the understandable reaction that he had to the shipwreck the saw his Athens fortune disappear. He saw so much of rebuilding through out his life that it was almost instinct to know he would rebuild.
ATHENS: The land where stoicism was born
After narrowly surviving a shipwreck that saw Zeno lose his fortune. Zeno finds himself inside an Athenian bookstore, and was drawn to the writing of Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates. Amazed by Xenophon’s writings of Socrates, Zeno wanted to find a great mentor just as Xenophon did. History tells us that he went to the front of the bookstore, directly to the clerk and said; “Where can i find a man like that?!?” pointing at Socrates name on the front cover of Memorabilia. If you believe everything happens for a reason and in Newton’s third law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Then the misfortunes of the shipwreck, was the fortunes of the bookstore as in that moment Crates, a well-known Athenian Philosopher, happened to be passing by. The bookstore clerk simply lifted his hand and pointed in Crates direction.
“When the student is ready the teacher appears.”Lao Tzu
Crates was exactly that Zeno needed at the exact time that he needed him.
In time Zeno became a great student of Crates, studying under the Cynic’s teachings for many years, an education which also included attending the Megarian school of Stilpo, studying dialecticians such as Diodorus, Cronus, as well as learning Platonist Philosophy under Polemo and Xenocrates over the course of several decades.
Although Zeno didn’t continue down the path of Cynicism, Zeno had great respect for Crates and a huge admiration for the philosophers before him. Crates knew that Zeno was a unique individual, much like himself. They did live quite similar lives and arrived at Athens in a mirrored reality. Something that Zeno would later come to understand.
Though Crates strongly believed in the Philosophy of Cynicism, he knew Zeno would come forth in the noble pursuits of his own Philosophical doctrines. Zeno explores Physics, Ethics, and Logic. After 20 years under the discipline of other teachers, Philosophers, and Philosophies, Zeno was ready to begin his own works.
THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF STOICISM
Zeno met often at the Atina’da tamir edilmiş Attalos stoası. Otherwise known as the Stoa. It was here where he would later meet with his students and develop the Philosophy into what we know today as Stoicism. Even the name derives from interesting beginnings compared to other philosophical teachings. Other Philosophical names generally derived from the Teachers name however, Zenonians just didn’t sit well with Zeno, instead, he named the philosophy Stoicism. After the Stoa which they practiced on.
Like the Cynics before him Zeno also looked to focus on human nature but form a different standpoint. Whilst the Cynics believed that people are motivated by their self-interest; skepticism. Zeno believed that the goal in life was to be “Living in agreement with Nature.” not through a negative lens but through a positive one.
Zeno wrote many essays on human nature, emotions, law, duty, epistemology, education, and on the logos.
He was concerned with the nature of the universe and how it transcribed in Man. In his view, the universe primarily consists of matter and is governed by a divine principle. Therefore he did not believe that God was apart from the Universe, he believed that God is the universe. This is something Roman Philosopher Cicero would later preserved.
That which exercises reason is more excellent than that which does not exercise reason; there is nothing more excellent than the universe, there fore the universe exercises reason.Cicero, De Nature Deorum ii.8 iii. 9.
This is at the basis of Stoic philosophy, universal reason, fate, logos. This word Logos, and it’s philosophical affirmation, would later be made by John in the Bible when John says; “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.”
Zeno believed that to live a life in accordance with reason, is to live a life in accordance with Nature. This ideology became the underlining idea behind the birth of ‘Amor Fati‘ which means, the love of fate. A Phrase that Friedrich Nietzsche, a Philosopher of Nihilism, used before his passing when he stated; “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati.”
In regards to ethics, Zeno’s views did not establish the basis of ethics within stoicism however, his views did align with the teachings. Simply put; Virtue is the only good, and that the opposition to virtue is Vice. The end goal is to reach Eudamonia. Which is human flourishing. As Zeno put it “Happiness is a good flow of life.”
Zeno saw human tendencies for self preservation as part of human nature, not a virtue on it’s own merit but can lead ones efforts to find virtue. This understanding was really what set Zeno apart from the Cynics who taught him. The idea of Preferred Indifference vs Non-Preferred Indifference. Zeno believed that Indifference does have value and we should pursue them but not cling to them as possessions that will make our lives better, but as tools within living that can assist in Virtue. Money is a great example of this. No wealth in the world will lead to virtue however, wealth can lead to the assistance in finding virtue.
Zeno also stated that; “A bad feeling is a commotion of the mind repugnant to reason, and against nature.”
What does this mean?
Even though emotions are human, to Zeno, they are signs of bad reasoning and could be overcome by facilitating a simple understanding of how life works. For Example, grievance over death could be overcome by accepting that death is natural, something that we must remember. Momento mori. This is an inherent part of life and our frustrations, tho they may feel valid, will only stray us away from our virtue.
Zeno had a strong view on overcoming, and rebuilding. Something he saw to be a common thread through out his life. It makes sense that overcoming emotional ques became a Red Thread within Stoicism.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”– Viktor Frankl
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.”– Marcus Aurielius.
“Begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life.”– Seneca.
“You can bind up my leg, but not even zeus has the power to break my freedom of choice.”– Epictetus.
The views that Zeno had seen throughout his life is seen in many works of the Stoics. None more that the 4 Virtues, the pillars of Stoicism.
THE 4 VIRTUES: Wisdom, Courage, Justice, and Temperance (Moderation)
These are the Pillars of Stoicism.
These are the foundations that Zeno built and once he built them he said; [These Are] “To be inseparable but yet distinct and different from one another.”. There isn’t really any historical evidence as to when exactly Zeno determined these pillars to be the foundations of Stoicism but you can see that these are ridden throughout the works of the many, many, Stoics that came after him.
There are Many writings and bloggers that have tried to put pen to the meaning of wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance however, to me all you need to do is view Zeno’s first student – Cleanthes. To truly understand these 4 virtues.
Wisdom does not necessarily have to do with being able to recite an entire book, nor the mental intellect, wisdom comes from defining what is good, and what is not good. Simply put. You must understand what is indifferent.
People believe that to be courageous is to eliminate fear, this is not the case. Fear is usable, ironically, don’t be fearful of fear. The Stoics believed that Courage is the opposite to cowardice. Courage is acting the right way despite your fears, desires and anxieties. Something more need to implement in this day and age.
Never get confused by the Stoic justice and the Justice of our legal system. These are not the same. For the Stoics, justice is our duty to our fellow man, and to our community. It’s the way we act towards others within our Community. Are you laughing at your Brother behind his back? This is injustice.
You must be respectful, fair, understanding, courteous and generous. You must provide support and give back to your community. This is Justice.
“What is not good for the beehive, cannot be good for the bees.”– Marcus Aurelius.
Some call it Temperance and others call it Moderation however, they reach the same point; Restrain, self control and self discipline. Temperance is the virtue that assists us in our addictive behaviours, laziness, greed, gluttony, and procrastination. Temperance forces us to choose long-term well-being over short term satisfaction.
I will break these down in a further Article or video however, these are the foundations that Zeno set.