A Biographical Sketch of Jason Xenakis (1923-1977) – by Christopher Lee

“…to explain Xenakis’ drastic liberation in the light of Stoicism, the philosophical movement he revived for himself by both living and dying by its precepts” Myrto Dragona-Monachou[i]

Jason Xenakis and his philosophical work have been all but forgotten, and are now unknown to the vast majority of those in the Modern Stoicism movement. However, from the late 1960’s to mid-1970’s, well before the resurgence of interest in Stoicism, Xenakis was teaching the philosophy not merely as an academic pursuit but as a way of life, prefiguring the work of Pierre Hadot by more than a decade. In 1969 he wrote the first English-language book dedicated solely to the philosophy of Epictetus, assessed here in Stoicism Today (January 2023). He attempted to live his life according to his interpretation of Stoicism, and chose to end his life based on those same principles. This brief biographical sketch of Xenakis will focus on the pivotal events in his life rather than his philosophy, which will be discussed in a subsequent article.

Jason Byron Xenakis was born on 7th August 1923 into a wealthy expatriate Greek family living in the Romanian city of Braila, on the Danube. He was the middle child of three brothers; his older brother, Iannis (1922-2001) and younger brother Kosmas (1925-1984) went on to excel in their chosen fields of avant-garde music, mathematics, art and architecture.


Image: LSU Reveille on 25 Feb. 1969, p.1.

In 1927, their mother died of complications of measles and, unsure of what to do with his three sons, their father decided to send them to the Anargyrios and Korgialenios Boarding School which is located on the island of Spetses. Modelled on the English boarding school system, it was spartan to the point of harsh, with students having no hot water, no carpets, hard, narrow metal beds and every morning, even in winter, were sent for a swim in the cold sea.[ii] At just ten years old, Jason was sent there, his older brother, Iannis, having started there the year before. If Jason’s experiences were anything like Iannis’ then overall, his time there would have been ‘miserable.’[iii] Iannis described how, following his mother’s death, the brothers had had a series of German and French governesses. As a result, Iannis spoke Greek with an accent, for which he was teased by other students.[iv]

In 1940, Greece was invaded by Italy and later occupied by German forces. By this time, Jason’s older brother was studying at the Athens Polytechnic School and had become involved in the resistance, later joining the Communist Party. By now, Jason was seventeen years old and, like his brothers, joined the resistance against the German occupation.[v] They managed to survive the brutal winter of 1941-42 when up to 40,000 Athenians starved to death. Following the liberation of Greece, Jason’s older brother, Iannis, continued his resistance activities, opposing the British attempt to restore the Greek monarchy. He would later be involved in the Greek Civil War fighting for the Communist cause, eventually having to flee the country, being sentenced to death in absentia.

Following the liberation of Greece by the Allies in 1944, Jason appears to have returned to his studies, attending the Athens School of Economics, attaining his Bachelor of Science (Economics) in 1946. While studying economics Jason became a regular attendee at Nikos Kazantzakis’ literary circle. From January 1945 to April 1946, the house where Kazantzakis was staying became an intellectual centre, with up to sixty people attending the often rowdy Saturday night meetings.[vi] It is possible that exposure to philosophical discussions at these meetings is what influenced him to go on to study philosophy. However, it is equally possible he was influenced by his brother, Iannis, who was deeply interested in Plato and Greek philosophy. In addition to pursuing academic endeavours Xenakis was also a talented tennis player and became Greek Amateur Champion.[vii]

In 1946, he travelled to the USA to study philosophy at Oberlin College, Ohio. However, he was apparently detained enroute to Oberlin.[viii]  Iannis Xenakis mentions that Jason was questioned by the CIA who were trying to locate his brother Iannis, likely at the request of the Greek government.[ix] While at Oberlin he continued playing tennis, winning many singles and doubles titles. Following graduation in 1948 he attended Harvard University where he entered the doctoral program and studied philosophy and logic under Willard Van Orman Quine, reputedly being regarded as one of his best students in logic. In 1953 he completed his Ph.D. dissertation, “A non-reductionist interpretation of Plato’s ethics” and obtained a teaching position at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, N.C. It was during his time at Harvard that Xenakis had a brief affair with a young woman who resided in Cambridge, Mass. The affair resulted in a pregnancy and the couple married, however, the relationship did not last and they eventually separated and divorced.

From 1954 to 1961 Xenakis taught at McNeese State College, Lake Charles, L.A. and obtained the post of Assistant Professor. During this time he was also a visiting lecturer at Louisiana State University (LSU), Baton Rouge, L.A.  The mid-1950’s through to the early 1960’s was his most productive period, publishing numerous articles and reviews, many with a focus upon Plato, his ethics, the use of language and the application of logic. In 1962, following a move to LSU he became an Associate Professor lecturing in Philosophy and the Chair of the Philosophy Department.

It is from his time at LSU that we know most about Xenakis as a person. He was of slim, athletic build, about 5’ 9” (175cm) and 144lb (65kg), with quite distinctive features, and was a keen and competitive tennis player. In her article on Xenakis and his philosophy, Myrto Dragona-Monachou says: “It is the combined virtues of the athlete and philosopher—whose happy coexistence was revived in Xenakis.”[x]

By all accounts he could be blunt and brusque with students and colleagues, was possessed of strong views, and was not afraid to take a stand which might make him unpopular. Despite, or perhaps because of this, he was held in high regard by the majority of his students, who could count on him to be honest and uncompromising in the pursuit of truth as he saw it. As a result of his unbiased stance on many issues, he was invited to sit on a number of panels convened by the student governing body.

He lived in a small, simple house in Baton Rouge and drove a convertible Triumph sports car. The interior of his house was spartan and he owned little in the way of furniture, stacking his books on the floor against the walls in several rooms and habitually listening to classical music. Interestingly, some former students remembered him owning a black and white cat he named Zeno, after the founder of Stoicism, which was captured in a drawing by his second wife. During this time Xenakis was also known to be a serial womanizer, regularly dating his female students. This was apparently an open secret among both the student body as well as the university administration.[xi]

Xenakis had begun formulating his ideas on Epictetus and Stoicism in around 1968 when he published the article ‘Logical Topics in Epictetus’[xii]. This would go on to form the basis of Xenakis’ 1969 book, “Epictetus Philosopher – Therapist”, the first English language treatment of the philosophy of Epictetus.  He offered a comprehensive analysis of and, in places, a radical reinterpretation of Epictetus’ Stoic philosophy. His Stoicism, as put forward in his book on Epictetus, but also in his later articles is quite different from the Modern Stoicism most people are familiar with. That said though, in many respects he prefigured Modern Stoicism by rooting the practice not merely in philosophy but also in psychology.

A 1968 article in the LSU student magazine, The Daily Reveille, referred to Xenakis as “…one of the most well known and controversial figures on campus…[xiii] He was certainly not afraid to speak his mind and was often out of step with his time and place. In the 1960’s, Louisiana and LSU were deeply conservative when it came to matters such as religion, race and politics. Xenakis was known to be very liberal in his social and political views and was not afraid to openly express them. At the height of the Cold War he was highly critical of the actions of the American government in supporting various right-wing dictatorships, including the military Junta that was ruling Greece at the time. This was a subject close to his heart as his brother would have been imprisoned if he had ever returned to Greece. However, he was equally critical of both communism and capitalism, also dismissing anarchists and Marxists as being engaged in a “pointless and comic enterprise.[xiv] Likely he was influenced in his political views by observing Greece descend into Civil War as factions of all political persuasions struggled for dominance. He also supported the American civil rights movement and was opposed to segregation and the treatment of African Americans and was said to have believed that they were justified in ‘revolting.’[xv]

He also had a reputation for being, at times, virulently anti-religious and was said to frequently target students who held traditional Christian religious views.  A former student stated, “I believe he felt this as almost one of his missions in life, to disabuse people of religious superstitions.[xvi]

However, it is possible that Xenakis’ attitude towards religion was coloured by his experiences. He is said to have mentioned that he had “…very unhappy experiences as a child…” and had been “…molested by a Greek Orthodox priest…”, possibly during his time at the boarding school on Spetses.[xvii]

However, despite contemporary accusations that he was an atheist, we know little about Xenakis’ actual thoughts regarding religion.[xviii] Certainly, his brother Iannis was an avowed atheist but Jason doesn’t appear to have been conventional in his outlook, stating:

“I believe in the existence of many gods….I believe that polytheism is truer to anthropological facts than both atheism or monotheism and more consistent with a democratic way of life than the latter.” [xix]

He also engaged in a public debate with a Catholic priest regarding birth control and abortion, making arguments for their legitimacy.[xx] Despite this, he was responsible for introducing a course on world religions as well as including some study of theology in the introductory philosophy course.

“Freedom of thought is as essential to philosophy as it is to science, and both philosophy and science are essential to democracy.”[xxi]

However, it was Xenakis’ pursuit of academic freedom and philosophical truth which would put him on a collision course with the university administration.

Tension had been building between Xenakis and the university administration throughout the early 1960’s. Despite being the head of the philosophy department, he had been repeatedly denied any pay rises despite other members of the philosophy department having received them. In 1964, the university replaced Xenakis as the head of the philosophy department, appointing Charles Bigger to the role.  Events came to a head in 1965 due to a complaint from a student. As part of an introductory philosophy course taught by Xenakis, he had set Bertrand Russell’s ‘Why I am not a Christian’ as one of the course texts. However, due to what was regarded as its ‘anti-Christian’ content a student complained at being required to read it. The matter may well have gone no further if the student had not been the son of Robert Mullen, the Chairman of the Louisiana House Committee for Appropriations. Incensed that his son was being asked to read an ‘anti-Christian’ book, Mullen threatened to deny LSU any funding the following year and to introduce legislation to ban ‘atheists’ from the university.[xxii]

Immense pressure was exerted on the philosophy department to remove the Bertrand Russell book from the reading list and to modify the course. Taking a stand for academic and philosophical freedom, Xenakis was the only member of the philosophy department who refused to teach the modified course. In a memo, Charles Bigger outlined to Xenakis the risk the philosophy department faced:

“Jason, let me be blunt. This is a state university in the South and would destroy us quicker than Athens destroyed Socrates. Philosophy is not so greatly loved that the university would sacrifice itself for us.”[xxiii]

Xenakis and the issue of academic freedom became a persistent thorn in the side of the philosophy department and the university administration as a whole. Continuing his struggle with the university he issued what he called his ‘Socratic Apology’, a document outlining his case while attacking the university.[xxiv] As a result, it was made clear to Xenakis that he could expect no pay rises or career advancement while he remained at LSU.[xxv]

However, two events in quick succession would irrevocably alter the course of Xenakis’ life. On Sunday, 22 June, 1969, while out driving, Xenakis collided head on with an oncoming car which had been attempting to overtake.[xxvi] In the passenger seat was a 19-year-old female student with whom he was in a relationship. Both were seriously injured; the student received severe head injuries and spent several weeks in a coma. Xenakis’ injuries were extensive: his right kneecap had to be removed, his jaw was fractured in around 20 places, losing several teeth, the right side of his face was paralysed due to nerve damage, leaving him with double vision and difficulty speaking.[xxvii] Though he would slowly recover, the injuries left him in chronic pain and unable to play tennis.

While he was still recovering from the crash, on 3 September 1969, he was arrested and charged by the Louisiana District Attorney with contributing to the delinquency of a minor and indecent dealings with a minor. The girl in question was the sixteen-year-old younger sister of the student injured in the car crash. Their father was vice president of a major local business, was involved in conservative politics and had previously worked for the District Attorney, the notoriously reactionary Sargent Pitcher Jr., who, coincidently, in January of that same year, had been appointed to the LSU Board of Governors.[xxviii]  The university immediately suspended Xenakis pending the outcome of the court case.  At the meeting with the Chancellor to discuss his suspension, Xenakis was told the university had been considering dismissal proceedings against him for some time and had been collecting material to use against him.[xxix]

However, on 22 October 1969, the District Attorney dropped all the charges against Xenakis after a deal was made whereby the criminal proceedings would be halted if he resigned from the university. Two days later, on 24 October 1969, Xenakis and the student injured in the car accident were married. His now sister-in-law retracted her statement at the direction of her father and Xenakis’ now father-in-law claimed it had all been a misunderstanding.

The university had finally removed Xenakis, a thorn in their side for the last few years. For the remainder of that year Xenakis scraped by teaching a few philosophy classes for the Free University, an initiative organised by the LSU student governing body, not under the control of the university administration. But by 1970, he and his wife had left Baton Rouge for Edmonton, Canada, where he had attained a temporary position and she enrolled as a student. Sometime that year though, Xenakis and his wife separated, she reportedly enrolling in either a Bible college or joining a religious community, eventually returning to Baton Rouge.[xxx] Xenakis subsequently took up another temporary position at the University of Victoria, British Colombia. It was around this time he was offered a permanent position at Deree College in Athens, part of the American College of Greece.

Upon joining the small philosophy department of Deree College, Xenakis quickly became popular with the students in his course. He lectured in introductory philosophy, ethics, aesthetics, logic, and the Stoics and Epictetus. He lived in a flat in the suburb of Agia Paraskevi, just a short walk from the college. In 1975 he was introduced to Leonidas Christakis, a leading anti-authoritarian figure and activist who would assist Xenakis to publish a collection of his articles. The collection, titled ‘Hippies and Cynics’, took its name from a 1973 article of the same name and contained eight of his articles. Those articles which had previously been published in English were translated into Greek by his students. The book quickly developed a strong following and has been regularly republished.  Despite what Christakis would later write about Xenakis, he never frequented the Exarcheia, the ‘radical quarter’ of Athens, nor the cafes where the intellectuals and bohemians gathered. Generally, he kept to himself, staying close to home, never going much further than the college or the homes of a couple of American students nearby, and the small neighbourhood shop for his cigarettes. He continued to teach Stoicism as a way of life to his students throughout his time at Deree College, drawing heavily upon his book on Epictetus but also further developing his ideas around freedom and suicide.

Writing in the introduction of ‘Hippies and Cynics’, Leonidas Christakis had called Xenakis, ‘The Philosopher of Suicide’ while a biographical note to the second edition of his book on Epictetus, published after his death, referred to him as ‘a theorist of suicide’.

In 1970, while at the University of Alberta he had written the article ‘Stoic Suicide Therapy’, which built upon the ideas he had put forward in his book on Epictetus. In it Xenakis offers suicide as a source of radical freedom from the cares of life, suggesting that because the ‘door is always open’ we need not put up with situations, become too entrenched in them or to even take life too seriously. The final paragraph of the article offered a glimpse into Xenakis’ own thoughts on suicide:

“Thus, if you get into a crippling car smash and no longer enjoy tennising and other things, use the extra time and energy on your writing and so get more pleasure out of life, because of this concentration and accident – adding perhaps ‘it was meant’ (therapeutic preordination). Or ‘split’.”[xxxii]

Over the next few years his health continued to decline and he suffered from ‘melancholy.’[xxxiii] He was in constant pain and, rather than continue to live in a manner he no longer found acceptable, on Saturday, 8 January 1977, at the age of 53, he took his own life. He had made previous attempts at suicide, on one occasion being found by his students who went to his flat when he didn’t appear to deliver a class.[xxxiv] On another occasion he had been found by his landlady before the combination of Secobarbital and alcohol could take effect. On that occasion he had left a note which simply read: ‘Goodbye to this shit’.[xxxv] Now, he simply re-dated the same note which he left pinned to the wall and ensured that this time he would not be disturbed.

His students were devastated and in the 1977 Yearbook of Deree College included this message to Xenakis:

Dear Jason,

I hope this letter reaches you. It’s very important that it does, because you see, I want you to know how much we have all missed you. You left so unexpectedly, so abruptly. It is perhaps our fault in that we didn’t talk to each other as much as we should have, we didn’t really sit down to discuss us; we met you in the classroom, we passed you in the hall, talked at you in meetings, but nothing more than a few pleasantries were exchanged. Perhaps you were justified in leaving us, after all, if we ignored you why shouldn’t you ignore us, why not simply pack up and leave as you did?

We know that you are too far away to return Jason, because, you understand, don’t you, that we have realized our mistake and we very much want you to be with us again, to be together again. So please, don’t worry, since you can’t come to us, we will come to you.

See you soon.”[xxxvi]


His burial at the Agia Paraskevi cemetery was attended by about twenty people consisting of his colleagues, students, and family. His obituary in Kathimerini newspaper concluded with:

“Wherever he chose to go alone, let him find freedom and peace – the only things he asked for while he was alive.”[xxxvii]

While researching and writing this brief outline of Xenakis’ life, I was struck by the parallels between his life and those of the classical philosophers he so admired. While brilliant in his chosen field he was regarded as difficult and disruptive by his peers but loved by his students. He was out of step with his time and place and was not afraid to question the status quo in both word and deed. He challenged traditional views of religion and was uncompromising in his pursuit of the truth, as he saw it. He took a stand for freedom of thought, speech and expression despite the personal cost. Despite his popularity with them, he was accused of being a corrupting influence on his students. In the end, he chose to administer his own ‘hemlock.’

Since his death, Xenakis has been forgotten by everyone aside from his former students, colleagues, and family. Despite his book on Epictetus not having been reprinted, his collection of articles ‘Cynics and Hippies’ has been reprinted in Greek many times. Aside from that, only one article has been written about Xenakis and his philosophy. Perhaps this brief outline of his life might serve to revive interest in Jason Xenakis and his contribution to philosophy and Stoicism.

[i] Myrto Dragona-Monachou, ‘The Post-Existentialist Neo-Stoicism Of Jason Xenakis And The Stoic Theory Of Suicide’, 1981

[ii] https://www.athensinsider.com/school-life-spetses

[iii] Varga, Balint, Andras, ‘Conversations with Iannis Xenakis’, Faber and Faber, 1996, p.9

[iv] https://www.athensinsider.com/school-life-spetses

[v] Varga, Balint, Andras, ‘Conversations with Iannis Xenakis’, Faber and Faber, 1996, p.17

[vi] Bien, Peter, ‘Kazantzakis, Volume 2 – Politics of the Spirit’, Princeton University Press, 2010, p.252

[vii] Oberlin Review, 22 April 1949, p.3

[viii] Oberlin Review, 14 January 1947, p.1

[ix] Varga, Balint, Andras, ‘Conversations with Iannis Xenakis’, Faber and Faber, 1996, p.30

[x] Myrto Dragona-Monachou, ‘The Post-Existentialist Neo-Stoicism Of Jason Xenakis And The Stoic Theory Of Suicide’, 1981

[xi] Based upon interviews of Xenakis’ former students collected by the author February 2022

[xii] Xenakis, Jason, ‘Logical Topics in Epictetus’, Southern Journal of Philosophy, Summer 1968

[xiii] The Daily Reveille, 20 March 1968

[xiv] Xenakis, Jason, “Live and Let Live”, The Daily Reveille, 12 February 1963

[xv] Based upon interviews of Xenakis’ former students collected by the author February 2022

[xvi] Interview with James Lee Babin, T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History Collection, LSU, 4700.0138, p.17

[xvii] Ibid

[xviii] Memo from Charles Bigger to Jason Xenakis, 1965, AAUP, MS2079, Box 72, Folder 27

[xix] The Daily Reveille, 10 April 1969

[xx] The Daily Reveille, 29 March 1966

[xxi] The Daily Reveille, 29 April 1969

[xxii] The Daily Reveille, 7 March 1969

[xxiii] The Daily Reveille, 7 March 1969

[xxiv] The Daily Reveille, 25 February 1969

[xxv] AAUP, MS2079, Box 72, Folder 27, p.44

[xxvi] The Daily Reveille, 24 June 1969

[xxvii] AAUP, MS2079, Box 72, Folder 27, p.26

[xxviii] ibid, p.27

[xxix] Ibid, p.30

[xxx] Based upon interviews of Xenakis’ former students and relatives of his wife collected by the author February 2022

[xxxi] Hippies and Cynics, Apopira Publications, Athens, 1976, introduction by Leonidas Christakis, p.8

[xxxii] Xenakis, Jason, ‘Stoic Suicide Therapy’, 1972, Sophia, 1972, p.9

[xxxiii] Obituary, Ta Nea, 11 January, 1977, p.2

[xxxiv] Based upon interviews of Xenakis’ former students collected by the author February2022

[xxxv] Obituary, Kathimerini, 11 January 1977, p.6

[xxxvi] Deree College Yearbook, 1977

[xxxvii] Obituary, Kathimerini, 11 January 1977, p.6

Christopher Lee is a writer and researcher living in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland, Queensland, Australia. He studied ancient and modern history and philosophy at the University of Queensland. He has written several historical articles on a variety of subjects ranging from local history to events of the 1913 Dublin Lockout, the Irish War of Independence, and the Irish Civil War.  He has a long-standing interest in the ancient philosophical schools and in modern existentialism.

One thought on A Biographical Sketch of Jason Xenakis (1923-1977) – by Christopher Lee

  1. […] is the third in a series on the life and work of Jason Xenakis. A biographical sketch appeared here and a review of Xenakis’s monograph on Epictetus appeared […]

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.