The story of Stoicism began with a tragic event– a Phoenician merchant losing absolutely everything and being left in a state of financial, emotional, and physical ruin. Zeno’s shipwreck is an event from which we can learn a tremendous amount about both the origin of Stoic philosophy as well as how we can apply its ideas to our actual lives.
What exactly happened when Zeno’s ship and all of its cargo were destroyed? What events transpired after the fact that led to the creation of Stoicims?
In this post, we’re going to examine what we know about one fateful day that changed the course of philosophy and history forever.
Zeno of Citium (c. 334-262 BCE) was a Hellenistic philosopher and the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy. He was born in Citium, a city on the island of Cyprus, and is best known for his significant contributions to ethics, moral philosophy, and the development of Stoicism.
Most of what we know about Zeno's life comes from the Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, written by Diogenes Laertius in the 3rd century AD.
Zeno was born into a merchant family in Citium, Cyprus. He is said to have been well-educated from a young age, and he likely received a broad education in the Greek philosophical tradition.
At the time, Citium was a Phoenician colony. Scholars debate whether his ancestry was Greek or Phoenician, as both ethnic groups lived in Citium during this time. Some modern scholars argue that he had a Greco-Phoenician background, but most believe he was a Phoenician.
“Man conquers the world by conquering himself.”
– Zeno of Citium
All that is definitively known about Zeno's life in terms of his ancestry is that his name was Greek, the higher education he received was Greek, and there isn't any evidence that points to Zeno knowing any languages beyond Greek. His father's name, Mnaseas, could be of either Greek or Phoenician origin, respectively having meanings of "mindful" and "one causing to forget." There is, unfortunately, no record of who his mother was or her name.
In some accounts, Zeno is described as a dark-skinned person with a haggard appearance. Though he was wealthy, he is said to have lived a spare and ascetic life.
This type of lifestyle coincides with what he would have learned from Crates of Thebes, as Cynic philosophy proposes that one should reject all conventional desires, including wealth, power, worldly possessions, and fame.
Another important aspect of Cynicism, however, was shamelessness– the ability to live free from the constraints of society without shame. It is said that Zeno was far too modest to incorporate this aspect of Cynicism into his life. In an effort to cure him of this, Crates made Zeno carry lentil soup in a pot through the pottery district (Ceramicus).
Zeno tried to keep the pot hidden as he was ashamed, and, seeing this, Crates used his staff to break the pot. Filled with embarrassment, Zeno tried to run away. Legend has it that Crates yelled after him:
"Why run away, my little Phoenician? Nothing terrible has befallen you."
According to historical accounts, Zeno experienced a shipwreck while traveling to Athens as a merchant. He lost all of his precious cargo in the shipwreck.
The story goes that after his shipwreck, he arrived in Athens and, while passing by a bookstore, he began reading a book by Xenophon. This book, called Memorabilia, contained Socratic dialogues that greatly influenced Zeno.
"They live best, I think, who strive best to become as good as possible: and the pleasantest life is theirs who are conscious that they are growing in goodness."
- Socrates, as recorded in Xenophon's Memorabilia
It is through this experience that Zeno was introduced to Crates of Thebes, who became Zeno’s teacher. His shipwreck and subsequent encounter with Crates of Thebes played a crucial role in the development of his philosophical journey and the founding of Stoicism.
In this post, we’ll go into much greater detail about what is known about the shipwreck as well as the Stoic meaning behind this event.
Zeno initially studied under philosophers such as Crates of Thebes (a Cynic philosopher) and Stilpo (a Megarian philosopher). He also studied the works of other philosophers, including Heraclitus, Socrates, and Plato. These diverse influences would shape his own philosophical system.
Other philosophers that Zeno studied under include the dialecticians Phio and Diodorus Cronus. Furthermore, it’s said that Xenocrates and Polemo both taught Zeno Platonist philosophy.
Around 300 BCE, Zeno began teaching his own philosophical ideas in Athens.
He founded the Stoic school of philosophy, which takes its name from the Stoa Poikile (Painted Porch), a public gathering place where Zeno and his followers would discuss their ideas. The fact that they met in public was in stark contrast to other philosophical schools at the time, which typically met in private locations– for example, Plato’s Academy and Epicurus’ Garden.
"Follow where reason leads."
- Zeno of Citium
It was on this painted porch that it all began-- Stoicism went on to become one of the most influential philosophical schools in the Hellenistic and Roman periods.
Zeno is the man we have to thank for the initial Stoic ideas upon which later Stoics expanded.
“Happiness is a good flow of life.”
- Zeno of Citium
Here are some of the key principles he emphasized that helped shape the future of Stoic thought:
Zeno continued to teach and develop Stoic philosophy in Athens until his death, around 262 BCE. His ideas were carried on by his students and successors, including Cleanthes and Chrysippus, who further refined and expanded Stoicism.
Diogenes Laertius records that Zeno died in the following manner:
“As he was leaving the school he tripped and fell, breaking his toe. Striking the ground with his fist, he quoted the line from the Niobe:
'I come, I come, why dost thou call for me?'
and died on the spot through holding his breath.”
The contributions of Zeno were not lost upon the Greeks at the time of his death. An epitaph was composed at his funeral, which stated:
“And if thy native country was Phoenicia,
What need to slight thee? Came not Cadmus thence,
Who gave to Greece her books and art of writing?”
The reference here is that Cadmus, the legendary hero of Phoenicia, had given the Greeks the gift of the alphabet. Zeno, similarly, gave the Greeks the gift of Stoicism as a Phoenician.
Through the story of Zeno, we see clearly just how impactful one man can be on the entire course of history.
“We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.”
- Zeno of Citium
He had a significant influence on subsequent philosophers and thinkers throughout history. Some of the notable individuals and philosophical traditions that were influenced by Zeno and the Stoic school that he created include:
Late in the 4th century BC, Zeno was sailing on the Mediterranean with a boat full of an incredibly valuable commodity– Tyrian purple die.
Tyrian die was a highly valued and prestigious dye extracted from a type of sea snail found in the Mediterranean, particularly near the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre. It was used to color fabrics, especially clothing worn by royalty and high-ranking officials.
On the day that Zeno experienced a shipwreck, he lost absolutely everything. It’s unknown what events led to the shipwreck itself, but it’s clear that Zeno was devastated in every possible way– financially, emotionally, and physically.
Having survived the shipwreck, Zeno headed to Athens. There, he went to a bookstore where he came across Memorabilia, a famous text by the Greek philosopher, historian, and military leader Xenophon.
Thrilled by the depiction of Socrates in this book, Zeno asked the bookseller where he could meet more people like Socrates. At the same moment, fatefully, the most famous Cynic in Greece happened to walk by– Crates of Thebes. The bookseller pointed to him and changed history forever.
Zeno became the student of Crates and was deeply influenced by Cynicism in his creation of Stoicism. Had the shipwreck never occurred, Zeno wouldn’t have found himself in that Athenian bookstore, and he may have never come under the tutelage of Crates.
We learn in the work of Diogenes that Zeno first became interested in philosophy after consultation with the Oracle of Delphi.
Another fascinating component to the story, I simply can’t resist telling you a bit about how the Pythia at Delphi could have pushed the founder of Stoicism toward philosophical thought.
The Oracle of Delphi, also known as the Pythia, was a priestess in ancient Greece who served as the mouthpiece for the god Apollo at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. The Oracle of Delphi was one of the most famous and influential oracles in the ancient world, and people from all over Greece and beyond would visit the temple to seek her guidance and prophecies.
The Oracle of Delphi operated through a process of divination and prophecy. Pilgrims seeking answers to important questions or guidance on various matters would present their inquiries to the Pythia. She would then enter a trance-like state, thought by some to be induced by inhaling the fumes rising from a chasm in the temple, known as the "chasm of the Oracle." In this altered state of consciousness, Pythia would deliver her responses, which were often cryptic and required interpretation.
Over time, the influence of the Oracle waned, and the temple was eventually destroyed in the 4th century CE by the Roman emperor Theodosius. As you may have guessed, this was related to Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire– the emperor was motivated to remove all traces of paganism.
Diogenes tells us that Zeno went to the Oracle of Delphi and asked her what he needed to do to attain the best life.
Though this might seem quite cryptic indeed (as the Oracle’s responses often were), Zeno took it to mean that he should study the works of ancient authors.
Zeno’s shipwreck is considered an actual historical event, not just a mythological origin story. At the same time, there is clearly a larger metaphorical meaning to the event in how it relates to the tenets of Stoicism.
Stoicism teaches that we should accept external events as they are inherently beyond our control. We should, therefore, accept them with equanimity and without excessive emotional distress.
“I made a prosperous voyage when I was shipwrecked.”
- Zeno of Citium
In the above quote, we even see that Zeno had a bit of a sense of humor about the whole endeavor. He was able to see that one of the worst things that could happen to a person was actually the catalyst for his life's work.
Zeno's shipwreck represents an external event that he had no control over. Instead of becoming overwhelmed by the loss of his valuable cargo or the shipwreck itself, he turned what could have been the most disastrous event of his life into a major turning point in philosophy and history itself.
Stoics emphasize the importance of adapting to the circumstances we find ourselves in.
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself with are externals, not under my control, and which have to do with the choice I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.”
Zeno's response to the shipwreck was to adapt to his new situation, which led him to Athens. No one would blame Zeno for being absolutely destroyed by this event– after all, he had lost absolutely everything. Instead, though, he was able to make use of his situation in a way that ultimately led to the creation of Stoic philosophy.
Stoicism places a strong emphasis on cultivating inner virtue, wisdom, and character.
“It is in virtue that happiness consists, for virtue is the state of mind which tends to make the whole of life harmonious.”
- Zeno of Citium
Zeno's encounter with philosophy through the reading of Xenophon's Memorabilia and his subsequent study under Crates of Thebes exemplify the Stoic pursuit of wisdom and virtue. Instead of wallowing after his crisis, he forged forward with determination in pursuit of the best possible way to live.
Stoicism encourages individuals to detach themselves from external possessions and desires. Zeno's loss of his possessions in the shipwreck is seen as an opportunity to free himself from material attachments and focus on what truly matters—his character and moral development.
“Freedom isn’t secured by filling up on your heart’s desire but by removing your desire.”
In a post on The Daily Stoic, the author sums up the story of Zeno’s shipwreck and makes it applicable to all of our lives through the title: “It’s only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything.”
This is truly a powerful message. We have all had bad days, and many of us have had experiences that felt like our entire life was crumbling around us. The opportunity, however, to use misfortune as the first step on the path to greatness is waiting there– if we are willing to grab it.
I’ve written a lot about the concept of “amor fati,” a Latin phrase that means “love of one’s fate.” In our modern world, we tend not to talk much about ideas that skew even the least bit mystical, despite the fact that studies have found even nonreligious people tend to believe that life events “happen for a reason.”
“When a dog is tied to a cart, if it wants to follow, it is pulled and follows, making its spontaneous act coincide with necessity. But if the dog does not follow, it will be compelled in any case. So it is with men too: even if they don’t want to, they will be compelled to follow what is destined.”
- Zeno of Citium
When you look at your own life, there are probably situations that you felt were “meant to be.” A strange sequence of events unfolds that you never would have imagined, and all of a sudden, you’ve met the person you’re going to marry, or you realize that you’re on the wrong career path, or you stumble upon a tremendous opportunity,
Reading the story of Zeno’s shipwreck produces an overwhelming sense of the workings of fate in human history– how is it that one nearly tragic event could have such a big impact on philosophy and the story of humanity? What if one thing had happened differently– would we be here talking about Stoicism today?
Embracing fate means recognizing that everything that happens is good or, at the very least, necessary. This means even the rotten, terrible, no-good things that happen to you are actually good because they are a part of the workings of the rational order of the Universe.
Finally, another important concept we talk about a lot is that strength and growth don’t actually usually come from the good times. It’s our roughest experiences, our most painful days, months, and years, that force us to grow. As Nietzsche famously said (slightly paraphrased,) “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”
"I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent— no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you."
If Zeno had let himself be completely destroyed by the shipwreck, he would just be another of the billions of nameless people lost to history. We wouldn’t know his name, and worse yet, we wouldn’t be able to benefit from his ideas and teachings. How different would the world look if the Stoic school had never been founded? How would it have changed the course of history in terms of the Roman Empire, the evolution of early Christianity, and even events in our modern day?
When life knocks you down, you have a choice to make, whether you know it or not. You can wallow in the pain and wonder, “Why me?”– plenty of people go that route. On the contrary, you can take a page out of Zeno’s book and use the opportunity to learn valuable lessons that can help you become a more capable, wiser person.
Who knows? Maybe the next disaster that befalls you will drive you to change the course of history for the better.
In the story of Zeno’s shipwreck, we encounter fascinating ideas about how we can best deal with the adversity we face in life. On one fateful day, Zeno lost everything. Rather than wallowing in despair and disappearing into history, never to be spoken of again, he embraced his own fate and turned what could have been a forgotten tragedy into a history-altering event.
We are all better off for the fact that Zeno experienced adversity on that day. Stoicism is a powerful philosophy that we can use in our lives to focus on the things we can change and work towards becoming the best possible versions of ourselves.
Are you interested in learning more about Stoic philosophy? If so, make sure you check out our Stoic Quotes blog for more articles, quotes, and philosophical musings!
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