In this excerpt Mark Vernon unravels what it really means to call yourself a ‘stoic’
Life did not appear to be going well for Zeno of Citium. Born just after Epicurus, almost 70 years after the death of Socrates and 15 years since the death of Plato, he seemed condemned to life as a merchant. His father traded in the reddish-purple semi-precious stone, porphyry. The son felt he had to maintain the family business, though he strained to leave Citium, on the island of Cyprus, precisely because his father’s trading expeditions around the Mediterranean brought philosophy into their home. The patriarch of the family had an interest in philosophy and on his trips would often buy manuscripts of Plato’s dialogues. The young Zeno devoured them and longed to get to Athens. The home of Socrates felt very distant. Things got worse. Zeno was now undertaking expeditions himself. The Mediterranean was the ancient European world’s highway, but it was a dangerous one, populated by natural and human threats: storms and pirates. One day, Zeno was caught in a storm. His ship was wrecked. To a life of frustration was added disaster. Only, he managed to save himself and swimming ashore realised that his ship had gone down off coast from Piraeus. The port of Athens. He followed the walls that led into the city, and found his way into a bookshop.
The story goes that he picked up a collection of memoirs by Xenophon, a soldier who had known Socrates. The buzz of reading of the man, from a first hand witness, in the city of his birth was overwhelming. When a wild-looking character passed by the shop door, and the bookseller told him that was a follower of Socrates, Zeno immediately took after him. He was called Crates. ‘I want to follow Socrates,’ Zeno said. ‘Here. Hold this bowl of lentil stew,’ Crates replied. An unexpected instruction, but Zeno obliged. After an hour, he became embarrassed. After another, annoyed. He tried to hide the bowl, juggling it this way and that. Crates noticed. With a single swipe, he smashed the pottery. The mess dribbled down Zeno’s tunic. Humiliated now, any residual enthusiasm was shattered in new waves of frustration. ‘What’s wrong,’ Crates retorted coolly. ‘Nothing terrible has happened’ – for he was a Cynic, a pun on the Greek for dogs because these philosophers lived like them, it was said. They interpreted Socrates’ uncertainty to imply that social mores and conventions trap us. How we eat, the way we dress, where we live, who we marry. The myriad of unwritten rules hold us hostage in rigid customs that are actually as ill founded as any intellectual claims, be they from sophists, politicians or poets. Be freed from them, the Cynics taught. They did so by showing how they were free of them themselves. Lentils dripping down your front was a mild humiliation compared to some of the ordeals a Cynic might endure. For Zeno, it was too much.
But the story does not end there. He preserved a sense of the importance of ascetics from Crates, though in the days and weeks that followed his arrival in Athens decided that not all conventions are bad. Most simply don’t matter that much. A less extreme philosophy of life began to emerge.
Zeno took to sitting in the marketplace in the shade of one of the painted colonnades or stoa. Soon, he attracted followers. Stoicism was born, the philosophical school that turned into the most successful of them all in the Greco-Roman world. Around 350 years later, the Stoic called Seneca was summoned to tutor the emperor. (Unfortunately for him, that emperor was Nero.) Another century on, and a Stoic became emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Zeno had born frustration, disaster and humiliation with just enough patience. His life turned out alright.
This ‘biography’ of Zeno is impossible to verify. It’s told by Diogenes Laertius, a third century CE collector of myths and fables, teachings and records of the lives of the philosophers, many of whom were ancient to him already. But the story was remembered for a reason. It captures the essential convictions of the Stoics. They believed that life was grounded in a benign principle they called the logos. Logos is one of those Greek words that can be translated in numerous ways, as word or reason, discourse or principle, law or activity, allure or attraction. The earliest extended Stoic text to survive the centuries is a hymn to Zeus, penned by Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoic school. He praises the high god for the logos that ‘moves through all creation’. He celebrates it as the wellspring of unity, direction, meaning, purpose. Suffering, he argues, arises from refusing the logos. Ignorance of its workings leads men and women into all manner of false hopes and expectations – the pursuit of fame and fortune, of pleasure for pleasure’s sake, that is Epicureanism, we might infer. But troubles resolve themselves in the letting go inherent in learning to follow the logos.
Their training was an attempt, gradually, to orient the whole of your life to its deep, barely perceptible ways. Stoics strove to ‘go with the flow’, one of their phrases, to become aware of their own humdrum, persistent anxieties and concerns so as to not be bound by them. To borrow an analogy from Chrysippus, the third head of the school: consider a cylinder rolling down a hill. Life is like that. Once it gets going, it will take you in this downward direction regardless of how you resist.
Your freedom, therefore, lies in embracing the knocks and blows, trusting that all ends well in the valley. Suffering arises from hating and bemoaning and cursing and fearing the knocks and blows. Though it’s far easier to say than do, the Stoics argued that there is another way.
Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist, writer, broadcaster and teacher. He has a PhD in philosophy, and degrees in theology and physics. He teaches an online course on Ancient Philosophy here.
The Idler Guide To Ancient Philosophy (Idler Books) is available here.