Zeno

It’s important to keep your Zeno’s clear. There’s Zeno of Elea and Zeno of Citium. Zeno of Elea (Italy) is the one who came up with those paradoxes Aristotle loved. Remember the one about it’s being impossible to reach a goal? In order to reach a goal, one must first travel half the distance. But there are an infinite number of halves, so reaching a goal must be impossible. For Zeno of Elea, reality is reasoning, not the illusion the senses provide.

The other Zeno was Zeno of Citium (333-262 BC). Founded about 1400 BC, Citium was a seaport on southwest coast of Cyprus and was owned at one time or another by Tyre, Assyria, Greece and Persia. The city was deserted during Middle Ages because of the damage to its harbor by earthquakes and silt. 

When Zeno of Citium was 23, he moved to Athens and studied Cynic and Platonic philosophy. Then in about 300 BC, Zeno began his own school in Athens. He emphasized self-control, duty and equality. Like Plato, Zeno proclaimed 4 essential virtues: wisdom, courage, justice and temperance (moderation). 

The universe was created and set in motion by an ultimate spirit of reason (Logos). It is orderly, consistent and benevolent. The fate of the cosmos and its inhabitants has been predetermined. There are no accidents, so fighting against one’s fate is futile. Consequently, it is the duty and ultimate virtue of every living thing is to become one with the universe and accept what happens in contentment.

Zeno emphasized the importance of rational choices. His tri-part philosophy (logic, physics and ethics) was ultimately a system of ethics, with logic and physics as ways of acquiring the knowledge necessary to make ethical decisions. He called people to duty, not rebellion. Consequently, his views were not opposed by Greek or Roman rulers, and his popularity flourished.

Zeno’s message was one of hope. After Alexander the Great and Aristotle died (323 and 322 BC, respectively), Athens was no longer the political and cultural center of the world. The Greek city-states had provided stability, localized rule and responsive government. Now their power was disappearing and the future was unclear. It was in this context that Zeno’s gospel of courage in the face of suffering was received. 

Zeno taught his students from a painted porch (stoa poikile) at his school, so his philosophy became known at stoicism. It was immediately popular and continued to held in high regard for hundreds of years. Both Seneca (3BC-AD65) and Emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180) were Stoics. 

The Stoics believed that destiny is set. The universe determines everything; it is our duty to patiently accept our fate in long-suffering. Happiness is freedom from desire, freedom from fear and freedom from evil. Although the body can be caged, the will cannot be conquered.

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