On Diogenes Laertius’s Biography of Zeno of Citiam

Diogenes Laertius’s chapter on Zeno of Citiam receives a privileged place in Book VII of his Lives (the chapter on Zeno is the first and longest biography in Book VII). Diogenes Laertius includes a number of letters in his biography of Zeno. Distinct from the Pre-Socratic philosopher also named Zeno, Zeno of Citiam was a Phoenician (from Cyprus). He was a tan-skinned and lanky “like an Egyptian vine.” He was a student of the Cynics under Crates in the Diogenes-tradition. He was the son of a merchant.

When he took a trip and shipwrecked on the shores of Athens he picked a copy of Xenophon’s Memorabilia and was struck by the force of its power (other accounts say Zeno’s father traveled frequently and brought books on Socrates back to his son). When he grew up Zeno became a writer. He wrote a Republic text modeled on Plato’s Republic (but it does not survive today -In fact, none of Zeno’s writings survive today). Diogenes Laertius lists Zeno’s other books that existed at the time which were many. He was reported to be a demure, sullen, frugal, ascetic who argued against arrogance and conceit.

Zeno of Citiam often delivered lectures walking up and down his Painted Stoa (a covered walkway) hence why his followers and successors were known as Stoics. Though he was a Phoenician by birth, the Athenians praised Zeno. Diogenes Laertius says, “For in truth he [Zeno] surpassed everyone in this aspect of virtue, and in dignity, and yes, by zeus, in happiness” (Book VII. 28).

Zeno explored the early tensions between mind and “the thing in itself.” Per Diogenes Laertes, Zeno analyzed the component parts of syllogisms, he defended reason against pleasure as the path toward eudaimonaia, as well as self-knowledge of personal limits. He thought virtue was the path to happiness, and virtue came through strength of habit. Humans cannot control events but we can control our responses to them. Thus there is a need for ceaseless self-reflection.

Diogenes Laertius relays all manner of amusing anecdotes pertaining to Zeno as well as the physical and ethical doctrines of the Stoics. Much of the chapter focuses on Zeno’s students: the Stoics. Zeno either died in his seventies from tripping and breaking a finger or else in his nineties of good health. He was buried by the Athenians.

For this reading I used the ‘Compact Edition’ of the Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertes translated by Pamela Mensch and edited by James Miller.

In the preface to the Compact Edition the editors note: “Our common goal has been to make Lives as accessible as possible to English-speaking readers -and at the same time to convey some of the essential strangeness of what philosophy once was, in hopes that readers may wonder anew at what philosophy might yet become” (xiii).

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