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Zeno of Citium

Photo Credit: Paolo Monti from BEIC Library

Best Practices From the Past: Zeno of Citium

Life lessons we can learn from the founder of Stoicism: Zeno of Citium.

Welcome to the first post on a segment called Best Practices From the Past. This segment aims to learn about historical figures and see if we can apply their best practices to our lives.

Stoicism is an Ancient Greek philosophy that has become popularized over the years in large part of social media and podcasts. I was first exposed to it through reading Ryan Holiday’s book “the obstacle is the way” (yes we are big fans of Ryan Holiday on the site.). However, now several successful people ranging from famous athletes to top military leaders talk about it so I have been reading a lot about it for the past couple of months.

 Now more than ever Stoicism is important because it is essentially a philosophy to accept what is and to focus only on the things within your control. The founder of Stoicism was a man named Zeno. 


Who is Zeno of Citium?

Zeno was pretty bad*ss. He was a merchant living in modern-day Lebanon that sold purple dye across the Mediterranean. This was not any ordinary purple dye as it was extracted by slaves from the blood of sea snails and dried outside for a long time. Imagine dissecting thousands of decaying shellfish by hand in the hot sun just for a couple of grams of this precious dye. Royalties from across the Mediterranean paid a pretty penny for this dye because it was a sign of wealth and high status and Zeno was probably making a good living himself from this valuable family business. 


Things seemed to be working out for Zeno as the family business was booming. However, just as life has had other plans for us, it had other plans for Zeno. Around the age of 22, Zeno was transporting his cargo across the Mediterranean when his shipwrecked and the cargo sunk into the sea. He found himself washed ashore on a beach near Athens shocked and devastated. It is unknown what caused this wreck but the fact is Zeno lost everything and he was in a foreign place.

Losing everything during this time period meant EVERYTHING. There weren’t any insurance policies, credit cards, or business loans for Zeno to use. The worst possible scenario just played out for Zeno and he desperately was seeking help. Rumor has it, he went to the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi to get a sense of this future given his new situation. The Oracle told him to “ “dye himself with the color, not of dead shellfish, but of dead men.” 


Zeno was confused as he didn’t understand what the Oracle meant. So Zeno stumbled around Athens wandering the streets not sure what to think. He ended up wandering into a bookstore and at random chose to read a book by a famous Athenian general named Xenophon. This book contained some stories about a guy named Socrates and Zeno became obsessed with him. 

Zeno was fascinated by the ideas and philosophy of Socrates as Socrates believed that everything in life was inherently good and humans can obtain happiness through effort. Zeno was so impressed by Socrates that he asked the bookseller where he could find a man like him. Just then the bookseller pointed to a man walking by. The man the bookseller pointed to was Crates of Thebes, the most famous Cynic philosopher of that time. 

Zeno rushed out to meet Crates and his life would never be the same. Zeno stopped being a tradesman and started to dive deep into the study of philosophy. While under the wing of Crates Zeno experienced a lifestyle very different from the previous ones he was used to. Crates himself was born rich and gave up his wealth to live in poverty and study philosophy. 


In one famous story, Crates had Zeno carry a pot of lentil soup around Athens all day. Zeno tried to carry the soup through the back streets and alleyways hoping he was not seen because at the time this soup was for poor people. In an attempt to humble Zeno, Crates tracked down Zeno and smashed the pot. The soup splashed all over Zeno and he ran away obviously feeling a bit embarrassed. While running away Crates shouted to Zeno “Why are you running, little Phoenician? Nothing terrible has happened to you!


This simple yet profound statement is fundamental in Stoicism. Crates taught Zeno one of the most important life lessons he could ever learn. The lesson is that perspective is everything and that events in our lives are only bad if we allow them to be. 


There's a second way to view this incident. The lentil soup Zeno was carrying could be representative of our responsibilities and the “baggage” of our lives. It could be the things we think define us such as our job title, the amount of money in our bank account, or our social media presence. Once those things are stripped from our lives we come to realize how little importance they are. 


After this incident, Zeno realized how self-conscious he was and started to change his mindset. Zeno went on the study multiple schools of philosophy for 20 years and began to build his philosophy along the way. He would eventually move his discussions to the Stoa Poikile also known as the Painted Porch. 

Why Did Zeno Pick a Porch? 

It’s incredibly fitting that Zeno would choose a porch as a spot to speak. He could have picked a church, temple, or city center but instead, he picked a place that was welcoming to all.


 In today’s world, a porch is a place you have meaningful conversations while looking out and noticing the simplicity of life. It’s a place where time seems to slow down and the only thing that matters is what’s going on right in front of you. A porch is a place where you feel truly present. 

Zeno the Teacher

As a teacher, Zeno wasn’t concerned with popularity but rather he put quality over quantity when it came to his students. There are two particular stories about Zeno the teacher that I like. One of them is that he would force popular students to shave their heads to keep admirers away. The other story is that he would send wealthy students to sit on a dusty old bench to get dirt on their clothes, and then to rub shoulders with city beggars. 


In both of these stories, Zeno is trying to humble his students. Just like Crates did for Zeno, Zeno wanted to do the same for his students. Learning to be humble is essential because there is always going to be someone smarter, stronger, or better looking than you. That is why it is important to not flex your knowledge right away whether that be about politics, health, or decision-making. Hence, the popular phrase 

You Have Two Ears And One Mouth—For A Reason.


It may come to your surprise that the common phrase comes from Zeno himself. Considering his background and journey from where he started I am not surprised he coined such a simple yet profound phrase. 


Zeno’s Death 

Zeno died around 262 B.C.from an apparent suicide. One day he was walking out of school and suddenly tripped and broke his toe. Lying on the earth, he quoted a line from the Niobe of Timotheus, “I come of my own accord; why call me thus?” and then, suffocated himself realizing that this was a sign.  


I include the story of his death because it symbols a life of accomplishment and a new beginning. Zeno was an old man when he broke his toe but he realized he lived a full life. He was a rich man that lost everything all his fortune and because of it, ended up creating a 2,000-year-old philosophy that inspires people today. It turned out the shipwreck was the best thing that could happen to him. According to the ancient biographer Diogenes Laertius, Zeno joked,


 “Now that I’ve suffered shipwreck, I’m on a good journey.”


I believe very few people die feeling like they have nothing left to give. It seems Zeno gave all of his energy towards studying and teaching leaving no energy wasted. I think that's the goal of life, to give everything you have so when it’s your time to go you feel free to go knowing that you did your best and left nothing in the tank. Now, a broken toe isn’t catastrophic compared to 2,000 years ago but you never know when you will go. So starting living like it could happen tomorrow. It’s cliche but it’s true given what has happened over the past 2 years.

Accept the Challenges and Start Living

That's my call to action to you. I chose to write about Zeno because he accepted the challenges in his life and lived a better one because of it. Challenges are going to happen but if you take the risks of pursuing what you want to do in life you will be able to face the challenges better equipped. For the ones that have their whole lives ahead of themselves (like myself), I will leave you with this quote from Zeno. 


“Well-being is realized by small steps, but is truly no small thing.” – Zeno

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Written By: Nathan Payonk

Author of Newsletter: Nathan Payonk