Stoicism at the Academy

The Academy’s name is synonymous with the philosophy of Plato but it also plays a part in the history of Stoic philosophy. Zeno of Citium studied at the Platonic Academy for at least a decade before founding his own Stoic school, located in the Agora of Athens. Toward the end of his life a monument was erected in the grounds of the Academy. It was a pillar with an inscription commemorating Zeno’s exemplary virtue and temperance, and honouring his contributions to philosophy.

The Academy was one of Athens’ ancient gymnasia or recreational grounds. It contained a wrestling school, libraries, shrines, etc. (It was described as a pleasant wooded grove, until the Roman dictator Sulla cut down its trees to rebuild his siege engines in the 1st century BC.) The Academy was most famously associated with Plato’s philosophy, with which it quickly became synonymous after he set up his school and began teaching there. However, other philosophers also taught in the grounds of the Academy. Socrates appears to have walked there discussing philosophy, while Plato was still a young student of his, and his rivals the Sophists probably gave speeches there.

You do not escape my notice, Zeno, slipping in by the garden door, stealing my doctrines and clothing them in a Phoenician style!

Polemon of Athens

Centuries later, Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, spent ten years attending lectures in the Platonic school at the Academy, which at that time was headed by a successor of Plato called Xenocrates of Chalcedon. Over the years, Zeno began to build a reputation himself as an expert on dialectic, however, he continued to attend lectures at the Academy, delivered by Xenocrates’ successor, Polemon of Athens, a rebellious youth who turned his life around and became renowned for his temperance as a philosopher. Zeno was therefore admired for showing intellectual humility by attending the public lectures of a famous rival philosopher. Nevertheless, Polemon is said to have joked: “You do not escape my notice, Zeno, slipping in by the garden door, stealing my doctrines and clothing them in a Phoenician style!” In other words, he borrowed ideas from Polemon’s Academic philosophy and incorporated them into Stoicism.

After founding the Stoic School, Zeno earned such a reputation as a teacher and role model to the youth that when he reached an advanced age, the Athenians passed a decree publicly honouring him and had it inscribed on two stone pillars “one in the Academy and the other in the Lyceum”. It begins with the words:

Whereas Zeno of Citium, son of Mnaseas, has for many years been devoted to philosophy in the city and has continued to be a man of worth in all other respects, exhorting to virtue and temperance those of the youth who come to him to be taught, directing them to what is best, affording to all in his own conduct a pattern for imitation in perfect consistency with his teaching, it has seemed good to the people – and may it turn out well – to bestow praise upon Zeno of Citium, the son of Mnaseas, and to crown him with a golden crown according to the law, for his goodness and temperance, and to build him a tomb in the Ceramicus at the public cost.

This information seems to be derived by our source, Diogenes Laertius, from an earlier author Antigonus of Carystus, whose Successions of Philosophers was written in the 3rd century BC, shortly after Zeno’s death. Antigonus of Carystus adds that to the inscription were added the words “Zeno of Citium, the philosopher”, as Zeno had insisted that his status as a foreign immigrant at Athens should not be forgotten.

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