Maverick Stoics: Dionysius the Renegade

Medieval eye surgery
Medieval eye surgery

Dionysius “the Renegade”, of Heraclea (c. 330 – c. 250 BC) was a heterodox Stoic, a maverick Stoic, and presumably initially a student of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism.  You can read a short chapter about his life and thought in Diogenes Laertius.  Before becoming a Stoic he studied philosophy under the physicist Heraclides of Heraclea, the Megarian philosopher Alexinus of Elis, who we know was critical of Zeno of Citium, and under Menedemus, founder of the Eretrian school of philosophy, who appears to have studied under Stilpo and the Megarian school.  This tells us Dionysius was an experienced and eclectic student of philosophy before becoming a follower of Zeno, although he also apparently shared with Zeno a background in the Megarian philosophical tradition. We know he also studied poetry and literature and sought to imitate the great Stoic-influenced poet Aratus.

However, we’re told Dionysius broke away from Stoicism after suffering a painful bout of ophthalmia, inflammation of the eyes, and declared that pleasure (hedone) was the true goal (telos) of life and not an “indifferent” as Zeno claimed. His story shows that although Zeno was in a sense a highly eclectic philosopher, and Stoicism apparently tolerated some disagreement and debate, belief in the “indifference” of pain was considered an essential doctrine.  Once someone rejected that view it made no more sense for them to call themselves a “Stoic”.  This was probably in part because the doctrine of the indifference of pain was considered so central to Stoicism.  However, it was probably also because by arguing that “pleasure” is the true goal of life Dionysius effectively drew closer to the position held by rival schools of philosophy, such as the Cyrenaics and possibly the Epicureans.  Dionysius’ story suggests that he defined “pleasure” in part as the absence of physical pain.  Indeed, we’re told Dionysius left the Stoa to join the Cyrenaic school following his change of heart.  In his chapter on the life of Zeno, Diogenes Laertius says that:

When Dionysius the Renegade asked [Zeno], “Why am I the only pupil you do not correct?” the reply was, “Because I mistrust you.”

Diogenes Laertius also, listing famous students of Zeno, includes:

Dionysius, who became a renegade to the doctrine of pleasure, for owing to the severity of his ophthalmia he had no longer the nerve to call pain a thing indifferent: his native place was Heraclea.

We know little more about Dionysius.  He wrote two books on freedom from passions (apatheia), two on training exercises (askesis), four on pleasure (hedone), among others.  However, Diogenes Laertius also wrote in his account of Heraclides:

Again, Dionysius the Renegade, or, as some people call him, the “Spark,” when he wrote the Parthenopaeus, entitled it a play of Sophocles; and Heraclides, such was his credulity, in one of his own works drew upon this forged play as Sophoclean evidence.  Dionysius, on perceiving this, confessed what he had done; and, when the other denied the fact and would not believe him, called his attention to the acrostic which gave the name of Pancalus, of whom Dionysius was very fond. Heraclides was still unconvinced.  Such a thing, he said, might very well happen by chance.  To this Dionysius, “You will also find these lines:

a. An old monkey is not caught by a trap.

b. Oh yes, he’s caught at last, but it takes time.”

And this besides: “Heraclides is ignorant of letters and not ashamed of his ignorance.”

The Myth of Hercules in Cynicism and Stoicism

There’s a new action movie out about the myth of Hercules, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and based on graphic novels by Steve Moore. It’s just a bit of silliness but it looks like it’s been well-made, at least in terms of the visual effects, etc.  Unlike another (not to be confused!) recent film, The Legend of Hercules, that was thoroughly panned by the critics, and somewhat surprisingly, this one looks like it actually draws, albeit loosely, on the myth of the Twelve Labours. This myth, and legend of Hercules, was of great importance to the Stoics, who followed their predecessors the Cynics in taking the demi-god as a kind of role-model.

The movie might be rubbish (we wait with baited breath!) but it’s inspired me to think again about the relevance of Hercules for the Cynic-Stoic tradition.  A lot of people are unaware of the importance placed on Hercules by the Stoics so I’ve pulled together some quotations quickly to help provide a bit of context. Apologies for just providing some rough notes at the moment. Treat this is a draft – I’ll work it into a more polished article later, time permitting.  (Hercules in Latin = Heracles in Greek, incidentally.)

Prodicus / Xenophon

Socrates reputedly admires the Sophist Prodicus, who was renowned for his inspirational lecture, which became known as The Choice of Hercules.  In his Memorabilia, Socrates’ friend and follower, the Athenian general Xenophon portrays Socrates recounting his own version of this story.  We’re told that it was reading Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates, and apparently this chapter in particular, that inspired Zeno after his shipwreck to embrace the life of a philosopher and become a follower of the Cynic Crates.  Later Stoics appear to also have revered this part of the Hercules myth and perhaps saw it as important insofar as it perhaps ultimately inspired the founding of the Stoa itself.


Diogenes Laertius says that Antisthenes was the original founder of Cynicism and that “he argued that hardship is a good thing” and pointed to Hercules as an example in this regard.  We’re told he wrote several texts referring to Hercules in their title, such as Heracles, or Of Wisdom or Strength.  Antisthenes was also respected by the later Stoics, and perhaps seen as a precursor of their own school.

Diogenes of Sinope

Hercules_PosterDiogenes Laertius states that Diogenes of Sinope, the Cynic, wrote a dialogue entitled Hercules.  If that’s true, it’s possible this may have been a response to the writings of the same name by his alleged teacher, or at least his inspiration, Antisthenes.

Diogenes was generally associated with the myth of Hercules and is even portrayed as explicitly modelling himself on the mythic hero.  For example, Diogenes is on sale at the slave market…

Buyer: Where are you from?
Diogenes: Everywhere.
Buyer: What do you mean?
Diogenes: You’re looking at a citizen of the world!.
Buyer: Is there anyone whom you strive to emulate?
Diogenes: Yes, Hercules.
Buyer: Then why aren’t you wearing a lion-skin? Though I’ll admit that your club looks like his.
Diogenes: Why, this old cloak is my lion skin, and like him I’m fighting a campaign against pleasure, not at anyone else’s bidding, but of my own free will, since I’ve made it my purpose to clean up human life. (Lucian, Philosophies for Sale)

This passage makes it crystal clear that the Cynics sought to emulate Hercules.

Diogenes Laertius says of Diogenes the Cynic that “he maintained that his life was of the same stamp as that of Hercules, in so far as he set freedom above all else.”

But you for your part should regard your rough cloak as a lion’s skin, and your stick as a club, and your knapsack as being the land and sea from which you gain your sustenance; for in that way the spirit of Hercules should rise up within you, giving you the power to rise above every adversity.  (Letter from Diogenes to Crates)

Diogenes tells Metrocles that he should have no shame about begging for food because even Hercules did so.

Now it is not for mere charity that you are begging, or to be given something in exchange for something of lesser value; no, for the salvation of all, you are asking for what nature requires, to enable you to do the same things as Hercules, son of Zeus, and so give back in exchange something much more valuable than what you receive.  (Letter from Diogenes to Metrocles)

Crates of Thebes

Crates was Zeno’s teacher and a student of Diogenes.  Like Diogenes before him, Crates was compared, metaphorically, to the figure of Hercules.

The poets recount how Hercules of old, through his indomitable courage, vanquished dreadful monsters, human and animal alike, and cleared the whole world of them; and this philosophical Hercules achieved just the same in his combat against anger, envy, greed, and lust, and all other monstrous and shameful urges of the human soul.  All these plagues he [Crates] drove out of people’s minds, purifying households and taming vice, he too going half-naked and being recognizable by his club, a man who had been born, moreover, at the same Thebes in which Hercules is supposed to have entered the world. (Apuleius, Florida 22; G18)

Diogenes Laertius concludes his account of the Cynics by writing:

They hold further that “Life according to Virtue” is the End to be sought, as Antisthenes says in his Hercules: exactly like the Stoics.

He then describes the Cynic doctrine in a way that may be a continuation of this allusion to Antisthenes’ Hercules:

They also hold that we should live frugally, eating food for nourishment only and wearing a single garment. Wealth and fame and high birth they despise. Some at all events are vegetarians and drink cold water only and are content with any kind of shelter or tubs, like Diogenes, who used to say that it was the privilege of the gods to need nothing and of god-like men to want but little.

They hold, further, that virtue can be taught, as Antisthenes maintains in his Hercules, and when once acquired cannot be lost; and that the wise man is worthy to be loved, impeccable, and a friend to his like; and that we should entrust nothing to fortune. Whatever is intermediate between virtue and vice they, in agreement with Ariston of Chios, account indifferent.


Diogenes Laertius says that Cleanthes was called “a second Hercules” and he says that after being insulted by a poet who mocked him, Cleanthes accepted his apology graciously.  He explained that as Hercules was ridiculed by the poets without being moved to anger, it would be absurd for him to be upset by verbal abuse.


Lucan, the Stoic nephew of Seneca, recounts the myth of Hercules in his epic poem, The Civil War, which portrays Cato of Utica as a kind of Stoic superman, and appears to juxtapose his heroism in Africa (“Libya”) with that of the legendary Hercules.


There are several intriguing references to the myth of Hercules in the surviving Discourses of Epictetus.

What do you think that Hercules would have been if there had not been such a lion, and hydra, and stag, and boar, and certain unjust and bestial men, whom Hercules used to drive away and clear out? And what would he have been doing if there had been nothing of the kind? Is it not plain that he would have wrapped himself up and have slept? In the first place then he would not have been a Hercules, when he was dreaming away all his life in such luxury and ease; and even if he had been one, what would have been the use of him? and what the use of his arms, and of the strength of the other parts of his body, and his endurance and noble spirit, if such circumstances and occasions had not roused and exercised him? Well then must a man provide for himself such means of exercise, and seek to introduce a lion from some place into his country, and a boar, and a hydra? This would be folly and madness: but as they did exist, and were found, they were useful for showing what Hercules was and for exercising him. Come then do you also having observed these things look to the faculties which you have, and when you have looked at them, say: Bring now, 0 Zeus, any difficulty that thou pleasest, for I have means given to me by thee and powers for honouring myself through the things which happen. (Discourses, 1.16)


Who would Hercules have been, if he had sat at home? He would have been Eurystheus and not Hercules. Well, and in his travels through the world how many intimates and how many friends had he? But nothing more dear to him than God. For this reason it was believed that he was the son of God, and he was. In obedience to God then he went about purging away injustice and lawlessness. But you are not Hercules and you are not able to purge away the wickedness of others; nor yet are you Theseus, able to purge away the evil things of Attica Clear away your own. (Discourses, 2.16)


Hercules when he was exercised by Eurystheus did not think that he was wretched, but without hesitation he attempted to execute all that he had in hand. And is he who is trained to the contest and exercised by Zeus going to call out and to be vexed, he who is worthy to bear the sceptre of Diogenes? (Discourses, 3.22, On Cynicism)


It was the fortune of Hercules to visit all the inhabited world.  Seeing men’s lawless deeds and their good rules of law casting out and clearing away their lawlessness and introducing in their place good rules of law. And yet how many friends do you think that he had in Thebes, bow many in Argos, how many in Athens? and how many do you think that he gained by going about? And he married also, when it seemed to him a proper occasion, and begot children, and left them without lamenting or regretting or leaving them as orphans; for he knew that no man is an orphan; but it is the father who takes care of all men always and continuously. For it was not as mere report that he had heard that Zeus is the father of men, for he thought that Zeus was his own father, and he called him so, and to him he looked when he was doing what he did. Therefore he was enabled to live happily in all places. And it is never possible for happiness and desire of what is not present to come together. For that which is happy must have all that it desires, must resemble a person who is filled with food, and must have neither thirst nor hunger. (Discourses, 3.24)


He [Zeus] does not supply me with many things, nor with abundance, he does not will me to live luxuriously; for neither did he supply Hercules who was his own son; but another (Eurystheus) was king of Argos and Mycenae, and Hercules obeyed orders, and laboured, and was exercised. And Eurystheus was what he was, neither king of Argos nor of Mycenae, for he was not even king of himself; but Hercules was ruler and leader of the whole earth and sea, who purged away lawlessness, and introduced justice and holiness; and he did these things both naked and alone. (Discourses, 3.26)


What would Hercules have been if he said, How shall a great lion not appear to me, or a great boar, or savage men? And what do you care for that? If a great boar appear, you will fight a greater fight: if bad men appear, you will relieve the earth of the bad. Suppose then that I lose my life in this way. You will die a good man, doing a noble act. (Discourses, 4.10)


Chrysippus the StoicEnrolments have now started officially for Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training, our new online course, from the Stoicism Today team responsible for Stoic Week 2012 and 2013.

You’ve got until Monday 19th May, next week, to register on our new Modern Stoicism website and enrol on the course, as that’s the official start date of the four-week programme.

So far interest has far outstripped our expectations…  Over 500 people have registered on the site, and almost half of them have enrolled on the course in the first few days after it was made available.  So it looks like there will be a good community developing online.

You’ll need the enrolment key to join the course, which we can now reveal: Zeno300

Please feel free to contact Donald Robertson, the site admin, at the address below, if you need any more help or have any questions.

🔥 Quick update on Modern Stoicism: we now have 50+ people enrolled on new Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training course and about 500 registered users on website.

Modern Stoicism

Enrolment proper starts tomorrow, 12th May, and the course begins the following Monday (19th May).


Stoic Attitudes Script

Zeno-Poster-British-Museum.jpgThis script is being recorded now, after some changes were incorporated based on feedback to the initial draft version.  Thanks to everyone who contacted me.  However, if you want to add any further suggestions for future revisions please feel free to do so.

[Feel free to post your comments or feedback below...]


Take a moment to settle down and make yourself comfortable…  either lying down somewhere or just reclining in an armchair…  Find a position where you can be at ease and rest for a while without having to move around much…  Lie down with your legs straight and your arms by your sides, if possible, or sit with your feet flat on the floor and your hands resting on your lap…  If you wear glasses, you can take them off …  Close your eyes and relax…  Allow yourself to enter a more contemplative or receptive frame of mind…

Notice the sensations in your body and any thoughts or images that pass through your mind…  Become a detached observer of these things for the time being…  If you notice any sensations in your body or hear any sounds from around the room, or outside, that’s okay…  Develop indifference toward potential distractions, rather than trying to block them from your mind…  Just acknowledge whatever enters your awareness, shrug it off, and return your attention gently to the process at hand…  If you doze off, that’s fine too… for a few minutes after awakening, just continue to imagine what it would feel like to really adopt a more profoundly Stoic attitude toward life…

By listening to this recording, you’re going to give yourself an opportunity to contemplate certain typical ideas from Stoic philosophy…  We’d like you to use it at least once per day, for a few weeks, so that you can really observe the consequences of doing so…  If these ideas are new to you, you can just begin by contemplating them patiently in a detached manner, studying their meaning…  You can always choose what to accept and what to disregard from this recording…  However, if the words you’re listening to are consistent with your own beliefs and values, you might want to try absorbing them more deeply, by mentally-rehearsing these attitudes and ways of thinking…

If you like, imagine that with every inhalation of breath, you’re absorbing Stoic values and beliefs more deeply into the core of your being… and with every exhalation you’re allowing wisdom and virtue to spread through your character and out toward the world around you, through your words and actions…  Imagine what it would be like to completely identify with the attitudes being described…  Ask yourself, what would it be like to really absorb these attitudes, take them for granted, and live in accord with them?  What sort of person would you become if you accepted Stoic ideas and made them part of your character?  What would it feel like to really think about things this way?  Keep the Stoic goal in mind: you’re listening to every word with the intention of improving your character and progressing toward wisdom and virtue…


Now let’s begin…  In a moment, I’m going to start counting from ten, all the way down to zero…  Imagine that with each number I count you’re relaxing more deeply into a comfortable posture and state of mind…  becoming more absorbed in this process and the ideas you’re now contemplating…  If you’re ready to absorb these attitudes more deeply you might want to imagine that you’re now entering a progressively more open and receptive frame of mind…  Let go of everything else for the time being… relax… and allow your attention to become totally absorbed in these words…

Now take a deep breath in… hold it… exhale slowly… relax… and let go completely…  Breathe naturally…  Now on the count of ten…  Let go and relax more deeply…  On the count of nine…  Keep letting go and relaxing…  On the count of eight…  Relaxing deeper and deeper…  On the count of seven…  More and more relaxed…  six… keep letting go…  five… half-way there…  four… relaxing deeper and deeper and deeper… three… almost completely relaxed… two… relaxing in your body and deep within your mind… one… letting go of everything else… and zero… just let go…  relax completely…  and do nothing for a while… give all of your attention to the words and ideas you’re hearing right now…  Allow yourself to relax into a positive frame of mind and to benefit from what you’re doing…


Now listen carefully to these words and try to imagine what it would be like to really hold some of these Stoic attitudes very deeply indeed…

Some things are under your direct control and other things are not…  You’re mindful of this distinction throughout the day, especially when faced with challenging situations…  Your priority is to do what’s up to you to the best of your ability, with wisdom, integrity, and strength of mind.  You calmly and rationally accept that external events sometimes do not turn out as you may have wished, and that some things are not under your control in life…  The most important thing in life is the quality of your own actions, that they should be wise and good, healthy and praiseworthy in your own eyes…  everything else is of secondary importance…

Peace of mind comes from abandoning fears and desires about things outside your control…  It’s not things that upset us but our judgements about things, especially irrational value-judgements… or placing too much importance on external things beyond our direct control… You can rationally prefer that things go one way or another, without demanding that they do so, and becoming upset if they do not…  You’re prepared to face either success or failure, in external events, with equal calm and serenity…  Difficult or challenging situations don’t have to make you distressed.  You remind yourself of this daily, especially when faced with challenging situations: It’s not things that upset us, but our judgement about things…  Dwelling on unhealthy feelings such as excessive anger increasingly seems pointless and unnecessary to you.  You can take a stand against things and assert yourself without becoming upset…

You love the truth…  You love wisdom, truth and understanding… and you seek to grasp your own nature and that of the world around you…  Virtue, or strength of character, is grounded in practical wisdom, and knowledge of what’s genuinely good, bad, or indifferent, in life.  Your true values are becoming clearer to you, and your actions more consistent with them…  You love virtue, excellence, and strength of character…  You admire wisdom, justice, courage and self-mastery in others… and seek, day by day, to cultivate these virtues in your own life…  You love to contemplate heroic, admirable and praiseworthy individuals…  Historical figures, fictional characters, and people you’ve encountered in your own life…  You pinpoint their good qualities, study them, and seek to emulate their virtues appropriately in your character and actions…

You view strength of character as both healthy and praiseworthy, and as the basis of true fulfilment in life…  A good person can have a good life even when facing difficult circumstances.  It’s your attitude toward life that determines whether it is good or bad, whether you flourish or not as a human being.  Other people’s opinions are far less important to you than your own sense of what’s wise or foolish, right or wrong…  Health, wealth, and reputation may sometimes be preferable in life but they’re not necessary to excel and flourish as a human being – all you truly need is virtue and strength of character.

You dare to be wise…  You dedicate each moment of the day to improving yourself, to living wisely and in accord with your own true values and the virtues you hold most dear.  You don’t allow negative feelings to hold you back but you act in accord with wisdom and your underlying values, even if it takes you outside of your comfort zone, and requires patience, courage, endurance, and self-discipline…  You take pride in your ability to face adversity calmly and rationally…

You love what’s best in yourself and others…  You feel a growing sense of affinity for your own true nature, as a rational and social being, and your place within the world…  You feel a natural affection toward the rest of mankind, and a sense of being at one with the universe as a whole…  You never lose sight of your own and other people’s capacity for wisdom and virtue…


You live centred in the present moment…  You’re constantly aware of the transience of material things, including human life itself.  You’re conscious of your own mortality… and make the most of each day that’s given to you, as if it were a sacred gift…  The past is gone and the future is unknown.  You focus your attention where it belongs in the “here and now” and on the quality of your voluntary thoughts and actions, as they shape your life.

You’re mindful of your thoughts, actions, and feelings…  You pay attention to your character, the type of person you’ve become, in any given situation…  When you notice the early-warning signs of distress, you respond by telling yourself that your initial thoughts and feelings are merely impressions in the mind, and not the things they claim to represent.  You take a step back from troubling thoughts and feelings…  You view them calmly and rationally, from a distance, almost as if they were the thoughts of another person.  You consider where they’re leading you and whether or not they’re  contributing to genuine happiness and fulfilment in life.  Do they serve your fundamental values?  How would someone who truly lives with wisdom respond to the same situation?  Do your initial impressions upset you by placing too much importance on external events?

You enjoy contemplating what the ideal Stoic or wise person would say or do in the face of different challenging situations.  You train your mind in emotional resilience, by facing the full range of human catastrophes in your imagination while your practice rising above them and viewing them serenely, with detached indifference.  You patiently wait for your feelings to settle down, allowing you to reflect on things calmly and rationally and to consider how best to respond in accord with your values.

You measure everything against your true goal in life…  You’re always watchful as to whether your thoughts and actions accord with your deeper values and the character strengths or virtues you wish to develop…  You’re gaining enough serenity to accept the things you cannot change, courage to change the things you can, and wisdom to know the difference between them.  You flourish by living wisely and in harmony with nature…  the nature of the universe as a whole… meeting with equanimity the events that befall you and the people that you encounter in daily life… and cultivating your own true nature as a rational and social being by making progress every day toward wisdom and strength of character…


Now, just allow those thoughts to sink in for a moment longer, and continue to imagine what it would mean to live in accord with Stoic attitudes and behaviours… imagine becoming more and more Stoic every day and making progress toward genuine wisdom and strength of character…

In a moment, I’m going to begin counting from one up to five…  As I do so, allow your attention to expand throughout your body and out into the room around you, and the wider world, as you prepare to conclude the exercise…  You’re getting ready to take some of those ideas into the real world, and your daily life…  Taking them forward in your character and actions, and the way you deal with people you meet and whatever events may befall you…

Beginning now, on the count of one…  Expanding your awareness through your whole body, into your fingers and toes…  two…  beginning to breathe a little bit more deeply… three… getting ready to move and interact with the world around you… four…  starting to blink and open your eyes… five… opening your eyes in your own time… take a deep breath and begin to move your arms and legs… rub your eyes if you want and make yourself comfortable as you start to move your body…  Continue to be mindful of your thoughts, actions, and feelings, as you gradually begin to engage once again with the world around you…

[Please post your comments or feedback below...]

New Online Course: Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training

Stoicism and ResearchTime for some important news…

The new e-learning course on Stoic practice will be called Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training.  It starts on Monday 19th May and continues for four weeks.  We’ll begin enrolling people on the course around 12th May to give you time to get prepared and complete the initial questionnaires, etc.

The course is free of charge, of course, and it’s part of the same programme of research and events developed by the team responsible for Stoic Week.

Each week will cover a different area of Stoic practice.

  1. Orientation and Preparation
  2. Stoic Virtues
  3. Stoic Mindfulness
  4. Stoic Resilience

You’ll be asked to complete a series of pre- and post-study questionnaires: three measures of psychological wellbeing used in research and the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS) we developed.  You’ll be asked to follow some simple Stoic practices each week including meditation exercises, self-monitoring, listening to audio recordings, and also participating in structured discussions with other course participants online.

We’re treating it as a pilot trial and collecting data from participants to measure the effects.  320 people have already registered in advance as users on our new website and you should join them by creating an account if you want to take part in the e-learning course and research study.

Modern Stoicism

If you have any questions about the course or our research, or you’re having any technical problems registering on the site, please don’t hesitate to get in touch by email.


Donald Robertson

Site Admin