Diogenes Laertius on the Stoics, I: Zeno

Lives of the Eminent PhilosophersStill in preparation for Stoic Camp New York 2015, I’ve been reading parts of Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, a classic whether or not your interests in ancient philosophy lie specifically with the Stoics or not.

I focused, of course, on book VII: The Stoics. There Diogenes gives an account of the lives of Zeno (the founder of Stoicism), Ariston, Herillus, Dionysius, Cleanthes (the second head of the Stoa), Sphaerus, and Chrysippus (the third head of the Stoa, the most famous and influential of the early Stoics after Zeno himself). I will provide only a few notes on some of the major figures, as they struck my curiosity, but the whole thing is definitely worth a read.

(Incidentally, pretty much nothing is known of Diogenes’ own life, rather ironically. Even the date of the book itself is uncertain, but it was probably written in the 3rd Century CE.)

One of the first things we learn about Zeno is that he was “fond of eating green figs and of basking in the sun.” He was a student of the Cynic Crates, and studied under a number of other teachers in Athens for about a decade.

Diogenes recounts the story of Zeno’s losing his ship in a storm, arriving in Athens with pretty much nothing of his own, and turning to philosophy. He is quoted as saying that, in consequence, “I made a prosperous voyage when I suffered shipwreck.”

We learn of why the Stoics are so-called (they take their name from the painted porch, the Stoa, where they met in public), and that Zeno was held in high esteem by the Athenians, who gave him the keys to the city walls and a golden crown, and erected a statue in his honor.

Here is a story I liked about Zeno: “A Rhodian, who was handsome and rich, but nothing more, insisted on joining his class; but so unwelcome was this pupil, that first of all Zeno made him sit on the benches that were dusty, that he might soil his cloak, and then he consigned him to the place where the beggars sat, that he might rub shoulders with their rags; so at last the young man went away. Nothing, he declared, was more unbecoming than arrogance, especially in the young.”

And here is another gem: “To a stripling who was talking nonsense his words were, ‘The reason why we have two ears and only one mouth is that we may listen the more and talk the less.'”

Zeno was apparently very frugal, capable of high levels of endurance, and used to dress lightly. He had become a proverb: “More temperate than Zeno the philosopher” was a current saying about him, tells us Diogenes.

One more anecdote: “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.'”

It isn’t certain how he died, and Diogenes gives a number of versions. According to one, Zeno died at the ripe old age of 98, in perfect health. But another story says that he had suffered a series of ailments due to old age and committed suicide by starvation. Other sources say that he once tripped, slammed his hand on the ground and said: “I come of my own accord; why then call me?”