Studying Philosophy in Athens: the Case of Zeno by Christina Kourfali

Each year, the Modern Stoicism organization organizes the main Stoicon conference, and helps to promote local Stoicon-X events. Over the last several years, we have developed a tradition here at Stoicism Today of publishing as many of the talks and workshops from Stoicon and Stoicon-Xs as blog posts, in order to allow our readership who were unable to attend these conferences the benefit of those speakers’ expertise. We continue this year’s sequence of posts with a summary of Prof. Christina Kourfali’s Stoicon talk which follows below (a longer version of it may be found here) – Greg Sadler, editor, Stoicism Today

Zeno was already 22 years old when he came to Athens and we must wonder what his general level of knowledge was, what instruction he had received that led him to pursue higher philosophical education in this city. We can certainly accept what Laertius mentions: “His father, Mnaseas, being a merchant often went to Athens and brought away many books about Socrates for Zeno, while he was still a boy. Hence he had been well trained even before he left his native place” (D.L. 7.2.).

Zeno and Cynics

Picture him, then, as a cultured young man, in 312 BC sitting in a corner of the ancient agora at a bookshop “on reading the second book of Xenophon’s Memorabilia. He was so pleased that he inquired where men like Socrates were to be found. Crates passed by in the nick of time, so the bookseller pointed to him and said, “Follow yonder man.” From that day, he became Crates’ pupil” (D.L. 7.2-3).

There is no doubt that Crates was a master of Zeno because the latter has written the book Recollections of Crates. However, “later Stoics may have exaggerated Zeno’s connection with Crates, through whom they traced their spiritual ancestry to Diogenes of Sinope, Antisthenes, and finally Socrates himself” (Hahm D. (1977), p. 220).

In any case, Zeno seems to have been taught by the Cynics: 1. The rejection of the encyclic lessons, for they do not consider the acquisition of knowledge an end, but the achievement of personal virtue. 2. The principle that “Life according to Virtue” is the End to be sought. 3. The view that virtue can be taught and whatever is intermediate between Virtue and Vice is perceived as indifferent.

But Zeno, in the end, did not pursue the way of the Cynics, and this wasn’t because he was shy, as suggested by Laertius, but because of his perception of the idea of “living in accordance with nature”. For Zeno the term “nature” had a whole different substance.

Zeno and Megarians

 The Megarians – coming from the city of Megara – were also active in Athens at that time. As Laertius reports, Zeno attended the lectures of Stilpo. It is even said that Stilpon was such a capable master that many followed him, abandoning their own masters. This might also have been done by Zeno, though Crates may have put forth strong resistance. As Laertius refers: “When Crates laid hold on him by the cloak to drag him from Stilpo, Zeno said, “The right way to seize a philosopher, Crates, is by the ears: persuade me then and drag me off by them; but, if you use violence, my body will be with you, but my mind with Stilpo” (D.L. 7.24).

Stilpo was famous for disputation but best known for his apatheia. Indeed, when Demetrius Poliorcetes destroyed and pillaged Megara, Stilpo declared that he had lost nothing, since he had maintained his virtue and knowledge. «We should probably not think of Zeno as becoming a formal student of Stilpo», notes Hahm, «for this would have meant moving to Megara. But it is quite likely that Zeno attended his lectures when Stilpo visited Athens» (Hahm D. (1977), p.221).

Diodoros Cronos and his student Philo of Megara are also included in Zeno’s Megarian teachers. Zeno worked hard at dialectic with Diodorus (fl. 300 B.C.), who had an enormous impact on Stoicism in general. He was among the first explorers of propositional logic, and became particularly known for the Master (or Ruling) argument, which is based on three sentences, so named due to the fact that to retain all three is impossible because of their mutual conflict.

The Influence of Plato and his Academy

Laertius mentions (7.2) that Zeno had been Xenocrates’(396-314 B.C.) pupil. Sandbach questions Laertius’ view, arguing that it is chronologically impossible; “if Xenocrates was not already dead when Zeno arrived in Athens, his death cannot have been far off” (Sandbach F. H. (1985), p. 13). However, Zeno could have caught up, even for a little while, with attending Xenocrates. Besides, his views were supported by his pupil Polemo, successor to his school and admittedly Zeno’s teacher.

Polemoled the Academy from 314 to 276B.C., and was chiefly known for his fine character, which set an example of self-control for his students. The Stoics probably derived from Polemo:

1. Their concept of oikeiosis (an accommodation to nature),

2. The importance of living according to nature, and practical philosophy,

3. That the kosmos is god.

David Sedley stresses: «If I am even half-right in my reconstruction, the continuity between the physics of the late fourth-century Academy and the physics of the Stoa is a profound one. Zeno, it seems, really did learn his physics from his Platonist teacher Polemo» (Sedley, D.N. (2002), p. 77-78).

The same view was seconded by Laertius with the following anecdote hinting that Zeno taught at his school what he had learned at Polemo: «Polemois said to have addressed him thus: “You slip in, Zeno, by the garden door –I’m quite aware of it– you filch my doctrines and give them a Phoenician make-up”» (D.L. 7.25).

The view of Laertius is obviously exaggerated; however, as Gr. Reydams-Schilst argues, it is almost certain that via Polemo the Old Academy helped to shape Stoicism.

We ought not, finally, to overlook the idea of the four cardinal virtues, perhaps most famously articulated in Book 4 of Plato’s Republic (427e–435c, 441c–443c), which was embraced by the Stoics, as in much other subsequent Greek and Roman philosophy: phronêsis, sôphrosunê, andreia, dikaiosunê.

However, since Zeno was not a member of the Academy, he was able to adopt what he thought proper from the physics of Platonists, such as the theory of two principles, but at the same time to ignore what did not interest him, such as the tripartite division of the Soul or its incorporeality. The stoic view that the Soul is corporeal would make both Plato and Aristotle turn in their graves. This freedom led to the birth of a new philosophy. Finally the Stoics read and developed Plato’s cosmology independently of Academic interpretation.

Zeno and Peripatetics

When Zeno came to Athens, Aristotlewas already dead, but his pupils were active in the city, notably Theophrastus. It is, however, a fact that the biographical tradition does not mention a Peripatetic among Zeno’s masters. The only reference to Aristotle ascribed to Zeno is in his report of how Crates the Cynic was once reading Aristotle’s Protrepticus.

However, both earlier and contemporary scholars are certain of the substantial relation between the peripatetic and stoic philosophy. Carneades’ view that the Stoics and Peripatetics taught essentially the same ethical doctrines is well-known, varying only in their terminology. For example, to express disposition/mood, the Stoics prefer διάθεσις, but intending the sense of the Aristotelian ἕξις.

After all, the Aristotelian school was in its early days much concerned with problems of ethics. It would be rather strange if the Stoics did not take notice of what was being said in the Lyceum (Rist J. M. (1980), p. 1.).

It is widely known that there were two different sets of Aristotle’s books: the ones containing notes on his lessons taught at his school, the works of Corpus Aristotelicum, the esoteric ones, as we know them, and those published by Aristotle for common use, the so-called exoteric (It should be noted that no exoteric book exists today).

Zeno had the opportunity during his twenty years of study either to obtain permission from the Peripatetics to become familiar with the esoteric books of their school (the Corpus Aristotelicum) or to read the exoteric ones released by Aristotle himself and being available in the libraries or the bookstores of Athens, or, finally, attend Theophrastus’ classes.

We are certain that Theophrastus had in his possession the Corpus Aristotelicum, but we do not know whether, or not, they were accessible to outsiders. It is, then, highly doubtful that Zeno might have read the esoteric books, but very probable to have read some of the exoteric ones.

It should not be forgotten that Zeno had studied his philosophical predecessors. Among the works written by himself, as Laertius mentions, are also the Pythagorean Questions and the Homeric Problems in five books. Why would he not have read, then, Aristotle’s works, as well, which had been circulating in the Athenian agora?    

Finally, we should reasonably accept the fact that Zeno had come into contact with Theophrastus. “Theophrastus was beyond doubt the most popular lecturer of the day; his lectures attracted a total of two thousand students. It would be strange if Zeno had lived in Athens, thirsting for instruction, without having heard so much as a single lecture of Theophrastus”, argues Hahm.

Plutarch even mentions an anecdote according to which Zeno said with reference to Theophrastus’ numerous audience ‘his choir is indeed larger, but mine had the sweeter voices’. The anecdote clearly hints both to the simultaneous coexistence of the two lecturers and to the affinity of their subject matter.

It is clear from the above that Zeno came into contact with Theophrastus and that he was aware of Aristotle’s views. After all, one could accept Aristotle’s and Zeno’s views as the natural consequences of the independent reaction of the two men to the same problems (Sandbach F. H. (1985), p. 55), although Aristotle’s answers to the theories postulated by Plato had preceded the appearance of Zeno’s philosophy by many years.

Anyway, if the above is true, that is, the fact that Zeno was influenced in shaping his philosophy both by his contemporary and the earlier philosophers, then the truth of the anecdote about Zeno’s love of learning is incontestably proven: “A dialectician once showed him seven logical forms concerned with the sophism known as “The Reaper,” and Zeno asked him how much he wanted for them. Being told a hundred drachmas, he promptly paid two hundred: to such lengths would he go in his love of learning.” (D.L. 7. 25)

The zealous Zeno, however, was a pioneer in that he succeeded in creating a completely new, independent and systematic philosophy, which uses knowledge to provide man with a life in harmony with his nature, a blissful life. Still today, we should feel grateful to Zeno –this great philosopher– who meticulously studied the philosophical tradition, while listening to the best teachers of his day, and in the end managed to critically embody the great wealth of ancient Greek philosophy either by embracing his predecessors’ best answers, or by giving his own answers to the questions being posed. Working hard, he devised a new original philosophical system that can teach any human being the way to enjoy life.

Christina Kourfali teaches Stoic philosophy as a way of life in Thessaloniki of Greece, and has established a community called Stoiccloud. She is the author of Live Like The Stoics: How to Get Self-Awareness and Serenity, and a variety of articles on Stoic philosophy. She has spoken at related conferences, and is a high school director teaching self-awareness to her adolescent students.

One thought on Studying Philosophy in Athens: the Case of Zeno by Christina Kourfali

  1. Akumfi Ameyaw says:

    So little yet bigger given true dimensions and directions to life,I want more philosophical knowledge.

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