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Zeno meets King Antigonus (Excerpt from Teach Yourself Stoicism)

Zeno Meets King Antigonus

Teach Yourself Stoicism and the Art of HappinessCopyright © Donald Robertson, 2013.  All rights reserved. 

Excerpt from Teach Yourself Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013).

Following on from his example of a musician, a cithara-player, with stage fright, anxiety about impressing his audience, Epictetus refers to the contrasting example of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism. Zeno had some intensive training in overcoming social anxiety when he first began to study philosophy, and attached himself to the great Cynic philosopher Crates of Thebes. We’re told, after his shipwreck, as he wandered Athens penniless, at first he felt overly-concerned about what others would think of him. So one day Crates asked him to carry a clay pot full of lentil soup through the busy crowds in the potters’ district in Athens. This sort of thing was actually a common Cynic exercise in developing “shamelessness”. Zeno was worried looking foolish and tried to conceal the pot under his cloak. When Crates spotted this he smashed it with his staff, splattering the soup all over Zeno’s body, so it ran down his legs. “Courage my little Phoenician”, said Crates, “it’s nothing terrible, only soup!” In modern CBT deliberate “shame-attacking” exercises, such as walking around a shopping centre with a banana on a leash, are sometimes used to help people progressively overcome their sense of shame about looking foolish in public.

Anyway, repeated exercises like these eventually seem to have cured Zeno of his self-consciousness, as Epictetus advises us to contemplate his exemplary lack of anxiety when meeting the powerful Macedonian king Antigonus II Gonatas, several decades later. Antigonus was the ruler of many lands, and a powerful military leader, who sought the company of intellectuals and philosophers, including some Cynics. He travelled to Athens several times to listen to Zeno teach at the Stoa Poikilê. According to the story, Zeno was completely unconcerned when first meeting him because Antigonus had power over absolutely nothing that Zeno saw as important in life, and Zeno desired nothing that Antigonus possessed. Antigonus was more anxious about meeting Zeno, because he desired to make a good impression on the philosopher, although that was beyond his direct control. There’s a famous legend, almost certainly a myth, that Alexander the Great once visited Diogenes the Cynic, whom he greatly admired, and asked if he could do anything for him. Notoriously, Diogenes was said to have replied: “Yes, could you step aside, you’re blocking the sunlight right now.” In both these stories, a great king, despite his material wealth and power, is suddenly reduced in status when faced with a penniless philosopher who’s completely “indifferent” to external things.

As Chrysippus reputedly said, the famous Stoic paradox would have it that “Besides being free the wise are also kings, since kingship is rule that is answerable to no one” (Laertius, Lives, 7.122). Zeno was the true “king” here, because he needed nothing except virtue, which was entirely under his own rule; whereas Antigonus was a king only over “indifferent” external things, and perhaps, like most people, still a slave with regard to his own passions. According to Plutarch, Antigonus became particularly attached to the teachings of Zeno, and he may well have considered himself an aspiring Stoic. We’re told he later wrote to Zeno pleading him to travel to Macedonia and become his personal tutor. By that time Zeno was too old and frail to make the journey himself so he sent Persaeus instead, one of his best students (Laertius, Lives, 7.6). Antigonus reputedly wrote him a letter saying: “While in fortune and fame I deem myself your superior, in reason and education I own myself inferior, as well as in the perfect Happiness [eudaimonia] which you have attained.”

New Book – Teach Yourself: Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013)

Teach Yourself:
Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013)

Teach Yourself: Stoicism and the Art of Happinessby Donald Robertson

Due for publication by Hodder, autumn 2013.  ISBN: 9781444187106.  You can pre-order from the publisher from Amazon and all major online booksellers.

Why, then, do you wonder that good men are shaken in order that they may grow strong?  No tree becomes rooted and sturdy unless many a wind assails it.  For by its very tossing it tightens its grip and plants its roots more securely; the fragile trees are those that have grown in a sunny valley.  It is, therefore, to the advantage even of good men, to the end that they may be unafraid, to live constantly amidst alarms and to bear with patience the happenings which are ills to him only who ill supports them. – Seneca, On Providence

This new addition to Hodder’s popular Teach Yourself series provides a detailed introduction to Stoic philosophy, with particular emphasis on applying Stoic ethics and therapy to modern living.  Donald Robertson is a registered psychotherapist, specialising in cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) for anxiety and other evidence-based approaches, with a background in academic philosophy.  He is the author of four previous books, two of which also deal with Stoicism and its relation to modern psychology and psychotherapy:

Stoicism and the Art of Happiness is the product of Donald’s experience over the past fifteen years, in his attempt to integrate the ancient wisdom of Stoic philosophy with modern evidence-based approaches to psychological therapy and stress management.

Chapters Include

  • Modern Stoicism
  • The Way of the Stoic: “Follow Nature”
  • The Promise of Philosophy (Eudaimona)
  • Interlude: Meet the Stoics
  • Stoic Ethics: The Nature of the Good
  • The Discipline of Judgement (Stoic Mindfulness)
  • Self-Awareness & the “Stoic Fork”
  • The Discipline of Desire (Stoic Acceptance)
  • Stoic Psychotherapy (Fear & Desire)
  • The View from Above & Stoic Cosmology
  • The Discipline of Action (Stoic Philanthropy)
  • Appropriate Action & the Reserve Clause
  • Love & Friendship in Stoicism
  • The Morning & Evening Meditations
  • Premeditation of Adversity
  • Contemplation of Death
  • Contemplation of the Sage