As influential as Zeno of Citium has been, nothing that he wrote has survived to modern day.
Around 300 BC in Athens, he was one of the most revered teachers. His claim to fame is that he founded Stoicism, a school of philosophy chiefly interested in how we ought to live.
Our understanding of his approach to Stoicism, then, comes from second-hand sources. While the philosophy has continued to evolve, with popular interpretations coming from great Romans like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, much of it grew on the roots Zeno nurtured.
He divided his thinking into three categories: logic, which he equated with the study of things like knowledge, perception, and thought; physics, which was his approach to nature and science; and ethics, which concerned itself with the daily conduct of living and being.
Out of these three, however, it was ethics that he was primarily interested in, seeing the other two categories as means – a framework to support and carry his conclusions.
Zeno’s ideas were built on older methodologies of the Cynics and the thinking of Socrates, but rather than lean toward one side or the other, he mixed and matched as he saw fit.
Naturally, there is some disagreement about what exactly Zeno’s system laid out and the finer details of his approach, but in broad strokes, we can paint a fairly accurate picture.1
It’s easy to get caught in the deeper mysteries of reality, and in the process, we sometimes forget to pay attention to what it actually means to live as a matter of daily conduct. The Stoics, like Zeno, showed how we can close this gap by:
• Living in accordance with our nature
• Seeing virtue as the source of goodness
• Having a neutral valuation of the world
Today, the word stoic connotates resilience and fortitude, but there is more to it than that.
Living in Accordance With Our Nature
Currently, science studies the natural world and tries to pinpoint it as either a means to other ends, like controlling and predicting our surroundings, or simply as a thing of value in itself.
In a Stoic worldview, these reasons may be good enough, and they can fit into the broader framework, but they stop short of the primary reason for studying nature and its phenomena: to better understand ourselves and how our personal actions fit into the cosmic dance.
As beings of evolution, we have aspects of nature embedded into us. We have inclinations toward both change and harmony, competition and cooperation, pursuits and comforts.
Now, of course, certain traits have a stronger pull in some people than others, and when we are young, many of these traits are raw, but as we age and as we experience, we can use reason to move us away from instinct toward an understanding that accords with the world.
If we follow this path of reason, what we are often left with are core motivations that drive us to pursue our interests, core motivations that move us to take care of those around us, and core motivations to overcome different challenges that life throws our way.
The key thing to note here is that the Stoics were against blind romanticism, where feelings and pleasures guide what we do. No, Zeno taught that we use experience and then refine it with reason as a way to harmonize with the world and that’s what should guide us.
Once a certain refinement has been reached, then its pull works like a compass, one we shouldn’t fight if it’s telling us that we should go in the other direction when we are stuck.
At any point in life, there is a larger wave around our body that gives form to many of our characteristics, and it’s on us to both ride this wave and to let it flow through us as we do.
Seeing Virtue as the Source of Goodness
Once we have a clear understanding of our relationship to both our nature and the broader nature, we are absolved from all of the uncertainties that we are likely to face but one.
This brings us to the core of the Stoic worldview: their ethics. At the end of the day, very little of this matters unless, in some way, we change our actions, conducts, and ways of being.
While using reason and experience to align ourselves with our surroundings is a start, it’s not the end. There are still conflicts that we are likely to face, namely those that challenge us, where the broader nature is putting undue stress on our own personal experience.
When, for example, we get hurt, or when reality fails to meet our expectations, or when we lose people we care about, there is clearly a conflict, and harmonizing things isn’t easy.
Here Zeno would say that any action or conduct is right if it is simply good. And what does he mean by good? Well, something is good if it is virtuous: when you use your reason to change what it is in your control (which is your reaction) and let go of what isn’t (a problem).
When you put virtue at the center, as the most meaningful thing to strive toward, you take full responsibility for how you experience reality because virtue is born within you; not in the outside world. If something is wrong, it’s because you are not matching your responsibility.
It may be true that people are treating you unfairly, or that it wasn’t your fault, or that life in general is just hard, but once a non-reversible event has occurred, you can do one of two things: fight it or harmonize with it. And if you can’t change the world, the only way to harmonize with it is to change your reaction: to create goodness by doing the virtuous thing.
The better your reaction, the more virtuous of a life you live, and the more good you create.
Having A Neutral Valuation of the World
The importance of virtue highlights the value of managing our internal reality: that what is good and true comes from looking inward. Fair enough, but what about the outside world?
If the only source of goodness is the part of us in charge of managing our reaction to outside events, then what exactly is the point of caring about anything in the world surrounding us?
This question is where Zeno and his followers diverged away from the Cynics, a different brand of philosophers, who Zeno built his ideas on. The Cynics claimed that the outside world didn’t matter at all. As long as you kept your internal world in check, you were fine.
The Stoics, however, argued that it does matter. The objects we experience and live around may not carry positive or negative values in themselves, but they play an important role.
Everything in the outside world is neutral. In itself, it’s neither good nor bad; it simply is. That said, the way our internal virtue and goodness interacts with this world is of consequence. For example, it’s more preferable to avoid sickness by being cautious than to walk into it.
Striving for health and wealth and community, things that help to preserve us, are natural and preferable, as long as we don’t confuse them as the source of our virtue and goodness.
Once we have refined our innate reason, and once we pursue the core motivations that it has imbued in us, not interacting with this world of external objects would be an act against the harmony. It would be creating a conflict where there otherwise would not be one.
Many Stoics that lived after Zeno had a different relationship with the external reality and its demands, making a case for things like duty, but they all agreed that it plays a key role.
All You Need to Know
It’s a simple idea: control what you can and let go of what you can’t. But it takes more than just saying it and knowing it for it to truly kick into effect in the day to day business of living.
Zeno of Citium, the first Stoic, may not have left behind a perfectly clear system for us to study, but there is enough there to guide us toward our own variations of the framework.
There are three key things we can learn from him:
I. Live in accordance with nature. By using our experience to study nature and then refining this experience with reason, we can harmonize our drives with the broader reality around us. We are a very small part of the cosmic dance, one that moves through us, and it’s our job to ensure that we are living in ways that are honest to it.
II. See virtue as the source of goodness. If there is a conflict between our experience and the broader nature, we can either fight against it or seek to harmonize with it. It’s our responsibility to adjust our reactions to things once they have occurred and once they are outside our control. Virtue and goodness are born from how well we do this.
III. Have a neutral valuation of the world. Things that exist externally aren’t good or bad in themselves; they are neutral. Nonetheless, even though virtue is born within and goodness can only be created internally, the external world does have a role to play. Health and wealth and community are preferable to the alternatives.
We may have our own terminology for it, but something like virtue is inherent in all of our conceptual model of reality. Our job is simply to remember what we already know.
Being stoic has a lot to do with being resilient and strong, yes, but it’s also a way of life.
Join 40,000+ readers for exclusive access to my newsletter: