A Fortunate Storm

More than three hundred years before the birth of Christ, a merchant ship loaded with purple dye was making its way from Citium in Cyprus to Athens. As the ship approached Piraeus, it was caught in a storm, and shipwrecked. Not an unusual incident in those days. It would have been long forgotten but for the fact that there was, among the survivors, a young man, twenty-two years of age. His name was Zeno.

After surviving the shipwreck, Zeno arrived in Athens. He liked the city so much that he lived there for the next fifty years of his life. One day he wandered into a bookstore and started reading something written by the philosopher Socrates, who was long dead by then. Zeno was quite impressed by the writings of Socrates and asked the bookstore keeper whether there was anyone like Socrates among the living. The librarian looked up and saw Diogenes walking across the street. “You are in luck my friend,” the bookstore owner said to Zeno, pointing to Diogenes, “Follow that man!” Zeno did.

Diogenes was a Cynic. A Cynic at that time was not someone we would call a cynic these days. The Cynics then believed that the purpose of life was to live in agreement with nature. As rational beings, we could attain the good life by rigorous training and by adopting an ascetic way of life. This meant rejecting all desires for wealth, power, sex, and fame; leading a simple life free from all possessions.

Zeno quite liked the philosophy. He totally absorbed the teachings of Diogenes and practiced asceticism but also studied the Megarian and the Platonist schools of philosophy.

In the year 301 BC, when he was 33 years old, Zeno began teaching his own brand of philosophy in the collanade on the North side of the Agora of Athens known as the Stoa Poikile or painted porch. Because of this, his (and his followers’) teachings came to be known as Stoicism.

Like the Cynics, Zeno taught that we should be rational and follow nature. But he softened the ascetic part of Cynicism. Stoics argued, “Why be ascetic when there are things to be enjoyed? Like everyone else, let’s enjoy the nice things that come our way, but unlike everyone else, let’s be prepared to let go of nice things when they are taken from us.” Sort of having the best of both worlds.

You can read more about the origins of Stoicism in A Fortunate Storm, available exclusively at The Stoic Gym. Get your free eBook Edition today.