Zeno of Citium - not to be confused with Zeno of Elea! - had an impact on culture, religion, and philosophy far beyond the time and space he occupied during his life. Born approximately 336 B.C. in Citium, a Phoenician city on the island of Cyprus, he would have been familiar with both Greek and Phoenician cultures and languages, although to which extent we cannot say with certainty. An experienced merchant, he was shipwrecked on the Greek coastline near Piraeus, and ended up in Athens around 312 or 314 B.C. (he was apparently on a mission to transport purple dye from Phoenicia). His family of origin seems to have been populated with merchants.
There is some ambiguity about the details of his life. The exact dates of his birth and of his arrival in Athens are not precise. Some scholars suspect that he may have traveled to Athens voluntarily, instead of being shipwrecked. There are accounts that he may have been sold into slavery for a brief time, and his freedom regained when a friend purchased it for him. For philosophical purposes, however, we do not need such biographical particulars. What interests us most about Zeno of Citium is his ideas.
In any case, he was in Athens around the age of 22, penniless. Several vignettes describe his entry into philosophy: in one of them, Zeno frequents a bookstore, and is drawn to the works of Socrates - by which we must understand the works of Plato. When Zeno expressed an interest in meeting thinkers like Socrates, the shopkeeper directed him to Crates the Cynic. Zeno got his start in philosophy with Crates, and there are certain clear similarities between Zeno's Stoicism and Cynicism. It was probably while working with Crates that Zeno wrote his Republic, not to be confused with Plato's book of the same title.
Eventually Zeno's school of philosophy became distinct from Cynicism. Perhaps originally cited as 'Zenonians' by contemporaries, Zeno's students soon became known as 'stoics' because Zeno lectured from the Stoa Poikile or 'painted porch' in the agora or marketplace in Athens. This distinction seems to have been in place starting around 300 B.C.
Given the fragmentary nature of the direct textual evidence about Zeno, early Stoicism appears as a hodgepodge of concepts. In part, Zeno's Stoicism - which must be clearly distinguished from later Stoicisms - can be negatively defined, inasmuch as he consciously contrasted himself to other philosophies.
While Epicurus, who'd gained attention around 306 B.C., built his Lebensphilosophie around the concepts of randomness and pleasure, Zeno organized his philosophy of life around an orderly universe governed by the laws of nature and around individual goodness attained by practicing virtue. The concept of Natural Law will be central to Zeno's Stoicism.
In a deliberate contrast to Plato's Republic, Zeno's book seems anarchistic or libertarian: he envisions a society with no currency or money; his understanding of God excluded the need for temples; he posits that a truly rational society, composed of rational individuals, will also not need a legal system or courts of law. Like Plato's book, Zeno's text raises the question of whether the author envisioned these as concrete suggestions for practical concrete implementation, or whether he considered his ideal to be unreachable perfection, presented as an abstract example of his values, but not as a blueprint for social engineering.
Many accounts describe Zeno as ugly and ascribe eccentric behaviors to him; one account implies that Zeno was overly conscious of social propriety, a quality of which Crates tried to cure him by publicly causing him to be doused with lentil soup. Such apocryphal narratives are entertaining, but their accuracy may be in doubt; some contradict each other: one reports that Zeno associated mainly with the undesirable residents of Athens, while another relates that he was highly honored by the city. Again, while enjoyable, such details are philosophically uninteresting.
Much of what we know about Zeno's doctrines comes from later Stoics and some historians; the imprint of Crates and the Cynics is clear in Zeno's thinking. Zeno presents us with an early version of Natural Law theory: it is in the structure of the universe itself that good and evil, right and wrong, are to be understood. To be good or right is to be in harmony with the nature of the universe. Later Stoics will sharpen the idea that the universe may be an organism, a living thing, a mind.
A few astronomical breakthroughs are ascribed to Zeno, along with that fatalism and acceptance which are characterized by the non-philosophical use of the word 'stoic'.
Zeno died around 256 B.C., allegedly after interpreting a minor accident as a sign from the universe that it was time for him to die.