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Ancient Words of the Past: Greek Philosophers

ZenoPhilosophers in ancient history often took on more than one position. Some were mathematicians, merchants, students, and then teachers. In this article, you will meet Citium Zeno and Xenocrates of Chalcedon , both from Greece.

Citium Zeno (~335 , 264 BC)

Zeno of Citium is known as a Greek philosopher that lived in Cyprus and later became the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy, which was taught throughout Athens from about 300 BC. This approach in thought was based upon the moral ideas of the Cynics, which centered on the goodness and calm mind that was associated when one lived a life full of virtue (with respect to nature). The Stoic way became rather successful as it took over as the leading choice in philosophy during the Hellenistic period , continuing on to the Roman era.

Zeno was born to a merchant and later became a student of Crates of Thebes, who gained the reputation as the most famous Cynic residing in Greece at the time. While learning with Crates, he was instructed to carry a pot of lentil soup about the city. After Zeno completed this task, Crates smashed the pot to pieces using his staff, where the lentil soup sprayed all over the student. Zeno grew embarrassed and wanted to run away, but Crates scolded him and replied , “Why run away, my little Phoenician? Nothing terrible has befallen you!”

Taking after his father, Zeno would also embrace the career of a merchant and would continue this position until he turned 42 years old. Afterwards, he devoted himself to establishing the Stoic school of philosophy. Legend has it that he experienced a shipwreck and roamed about the land until he found a shop full of books in Athens. It was then that he fell in love with the works of Socrates. He wanted to know where to find this man who wrote such words and asked the librarians.

As a response, the librarian pointed towards Crates of Thebes, who would become his teacher. Sadly, none of the works that Zeno produced has survived over time. Yet, his teachings were able to thrive , being passed on. Some of his words include:

“Fate is the endless chain of causation, whereby things are; the reason or formula by which the world goes on.”

“No evil is honorable: but death is honorable; therefore death is not evil.”

“Wellbeing is attained by little and little, and nevertheless is no little thing itself.”

Xenocrates of Chalcedon (396 ,314 BC)

The Greek philosopher of Chalcedon was also a mathematician and leader of the Platonic Academy from 339 to 314 BC. When studying the teachings of Xenocrates, you will find that they mostly mirror Plato, which he was known for trying to define more closely , often using math as a common element. He would separate three different forms of being (the sensible, the intelligible, and a third that combined the two). A follower would focus on opinion, intellect, and sense when scanning the philosophy promoted by Xenocrates.

Mathematics played an important role in the life of Xenocrates, as he wrote a book on the subject. He penned “On Numbers” and “Theory of Numbers,” which joined other publications that focused on geometry. Math was such a passion that Plutarch once wrote that Xenocrates tried to uncover the total amount of syllables that the letters of the alphabet could create. According to Plutarch, Xenocrates surmised that the total was 1,002,000,000,000. To get an idea of the kind of man Xenocrates was, consider one of his quotes:

“I have often repented speaking, but never of holding my tongue.”