Tag Archives: Cynicism

How Spartan were the Stoics?

How Spartan were the Stoics?

LycurgusCopyright © Donald Robertson, 2013.  All rights reserved.

[This is still a draft.  I’m aware of a few more references, I’ve yet to incorporate but please let me know of any other relevant information.]

Several modern scholars have argued that the Stoics were influenced by Spartan society.  However, the evidence in this area is sparse and interpretation sometimes requires a degree of speculation.  The sources upon which we must draw are also not 100% reliable.  Nevertheless, there are a handful of quite striking references to the influence of Sparta on Stoic thought, which are worth considering…

The Spartans were famous for the fearsome training regime (agôgê) that they put all of their citizens through.  From age seven until about thirty, Spartans were rigorously trained to become ideal citizens and soldiers. The boys slept in a mess hall, on crude straw mats, and were given only a single garment, a cloak, to wear. They were taught to tolerate hunger and to endure pain and physical discomfort, including being ritually beaten.  They also undertook rigorous physical exercise and learned the ancient martial arts.  This notoriously severe “education”, or training in the virtues of self-discipline and courage, was emulated in certain respects by the Cynic philosophers, and subsequently by the Stoics, as we’ll see below.  You may have seen the highly-stylised (fantasy) portrayal of the agôgê in the opening scenes of the Hollywood film 300, about the famous Spartan battle of Thermopylae.  When the Stoics met to debate philosophy at the Stoa Poikile, as it happens, they did so in view of a painting of the Battle of Oenoe, between Athenian and Spartan warriors, which decorated the porch.

The Stoics’ typically concise way of talking may have been inspired, in part, by the Spartans.  The region surrounding the ancient city of Sparta was also known as Lacedaemon, or Laconia, from which comes the adjective “laconic”, still used today to mean an artfully terse manner of speech.  Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, was particularly renowned for his abrupt style of speech, and notoriously compressed syllogistic arguments.  Intriguingly, during a courtroom speech in which he criticises his friend Cato, the Roman statesman and Academic philosopher Cicero explicitly attributed Cato’s Stoic practices to “the Spartans, the originators of that way of living and that sort of language” (Pro Murena, 74).  Cicero appears to take it for granted that his audience, including Cato, the “complete Stoic”, will accept as uncontroversial his claim that Stoicism originated in the Spartan way of life and style of speech.

The Spartan Constitution

Zeno was a Phoenician from the town of Citium who arrived in Athens and, after training in several other forms of philosophy, eventually founded the Stoic school there. The neighbouring city-state of Sparta was at that time an enemy of the Athenian state. However, the Stoics appear to have admired the Spartans and Zeno’s account of the ideal Stoic Republic is thought by modern scholars to have been modelled primarily on ancient Sparta (Schofield, 1999).   After being shipwrecked near Athens, Zeno read about Socrates in Xenophon’s Memorabilia and was converted to the life of a philosopher.  He became a follower of the famous Cynic Crates, although he later studied also in the Platonic Academy under the scholarch Polemo.  Zeno lived as a Cynic and embraced voluntary hardship and poverty, something which he seemingly continued after founding the Stoa some twenty years from the time when his own training in philosophy had commenced.  Later, the Roman Stoic Epictetus would sum this aspect of Stoicism up neatly in his famous slogan: “Endure and renounce.”

Plato, Xenophon, and the Cynics also appear to have admired many aspects of Spartan society.  Indeed, Diogenes the Cynic was known so much for praising the Spartan way of life that it’s said an Athenian once asked him sarcastically why he didn’t go and live among them instead, to which he replied that a doctor doesn’t carry out his role among the healthy (Stobaeus, 3.13).  We’re likewise told that when asked where in Greece he had found good men, Diogenes answered “Men nowhere at all, but boys in Sparta”, which may be an allusion to the Spartan education system (agôgê) discussed below (Diogenes Laertius, 6.27).  Again, when returning from a trip to Sparta, someone asked him where he was going, and Diogenes answered: “From the men’s quarters to the women’s.” (Diogenes Laertius, 6.59).  There are also several anecdotes about notable verbal exchanges between Diogenes and unnamed Spartans.

These important precursors may have influenced the Stoic interest in Sparta.  According to the scholar P.A. Brunt, in his Studies in Stoicism (2013), “Old Sparta apparently evoked Stoic admiration, because of the strict and simple life prescribed by Lycurgus” (p. 287).  He writes:

Chrysippus referred to men “who had reached a certain stage of progress and had come to this stage in certain disciplines (agôgai) and habits”.  Agôgê  was the subject of a work by Cleanthes (SVF I 481).  The use of the term naturally brings to mind the Spartan agôgê , which Sphaerus in one at least of two books on Sparta, and which he helped to revive under Cleomenes III.  Persaeus too wrote about Sparta, discoursing on their common meals.  It seems probable that both of them shared, very probably with similar reservations, in Plato’s approval of the Spartan system of training the young for virtue. (p. 25, references omitted)

In his book, The Stoic Idea of the City (1999) Malcolm Schofield argues in a similar manner that Zeno’s Republic appears to have been heavily influenced by Cynic ideas about the simplicity and harmony of the ideal human community, and that Stoics may have looked to idealised accounts of Spartan society as an inspiration in this regard.  Schofield concludes that Zeno’s Republic was a somewhat more Spartan-influenced response to Plato’s famous dialogue of the same name.  In the ideal Stoic Republic, men and women wore similar clothing, and there would be no need for money, temples, or law courts.  However, there’s also some evidence that Zeno, following the Cynics, envisaged the ideal society as having no need for weapons, which seems remarkably un-Spartan.

The Stoics appear to have believed that the ideal Republic was based on mutual love between wise friends, living in complete harmony with one another.  However, perhaps more controversially, Schofield suggests that the early Stoics looked favourably on Spartan pederasty, something which may have contributed to the suppression of Zeno’s Republic and other writings by later generations of Stoics.  He writes:

Zeno, like the Spartans, makes love a distinctive element in his political system.  But it is a radically sublimated form of love (as in Plato); it is homosexual, but probably it can equally be heterosexual; and it has no connection with war. (Schofield, 1999, p. 56)

Although this perhaps involved some kind of intimate relationship between older and younger males, as in Sparta, it’s not clear whether it involved sex or not.  The Spartans appear to have believed that intimate relationships between young men encouraged them to become greater warriors, although several ancient sources concur that this relationship was non-sexual and Zeno’s “dream” of the ideal Stoic Republic may likewise have entailed a form of “Platonic” love between older and younger males, perhaps like the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades.

The Stoics, like many Hellenistic philosophers, particularly admired Lycurgus (820 – 730 BC) the semi-mythical founder of the Spartan constitution and the agôgê.  The Academic philosopher Plutarch wrote a biographical account of Lycurgus in which he mentions the high regard Antisthenes had for the Spartans.  He also claimed Lycurgus had seen very clearly that the welfare of any individual depends upon the concord and virtue in his city, which inspired him to develop the Spartan laws and constitution (Lycurgus, 31).  Plutarch adds that this was the basis of various philosophical accounts of the ideal state, such as Plato’s Republic.  However, he also says that Lycurgus’ Spartan constitution was the inspiration for the ideal republics described by Diogenes the Cynic and in Zeno’s Republic, quite possibly the founding text of Stoicism.  Persaeus and Sphaerus, two of Zeno’s most important students, both wrote books called On the Spartan Constitution.  Sphaerus also wrote three volumes entitled On Lycurgus and Socrates.  Moreover, Sphaerus was the tutor of King Cleomenes III of Sparta, in his youth.  He apparently assisted Cleomenes’ attempts to restore the agôgê after it had perhaps fallen into some sort of decline (Brunt, p. 91).

The Spartan agôgê

300-Spartan-AgogeIt’s not clear exactly why this is so but there are obvious similarities between the Spartan agôgê and the Cynic way of life, which influenced Zeno and subsequent Stoics.  As Hadot writes:

In his life of the Spartan legislator Lycurgus, Plutarch describes the way in which Spartan children were brought up: once they reached the age of twelve, they lived without any tunic, received only one cloak for the whole year, and slept on mattresses which they themselves had made out of reeds.  The model of this style of life was strongly idealised by the philosophers, especially the Cynics and Stoics. (Hadot, 1988, p. 7).

Hadot says that this idealisation was something of a “mirage” because Sparta was such a warlike, totalitarian state, where all citizens were trained to serve the state, whereas the Cynics and Stoics considered personal morality the goal of life.

From Spartan education, they retained only its training for perseverance, its return to a natural life, and its contempt for social conventions. (Hadot, 1988, p. 8)

However, following Socrates, philosophers of the Cynic and Stoic schools, which some ancient authors place in the same “succession” or lineage, dressed in a similar manner, wearing the famous rough, grey, “philosopher’s cloak”, which Hadot believed was Spartan in origin.

One might add that the philosophers’ cloak (Greek tribôn, Latin pallium) worn by the young Marcus Aurelius was none other than the Spartan cloak, made of coarse cloth, that had been adopted by Socrates, Antisthenes, Diogenes, and the philosophers of the Cynic and Stoic tradition. (Hadot, 1988, p. 8).

In other words, this interest in Sparta may span the whole history of Stoicism, enduring for five centuries, from Zeno its founder to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the last famous Stoic, who even dressed in a similar manner, perhaps in emulation of the Spartans.

The Roman Stoics

The most highly-regarded Stoic teacher of the Roman imperial period, Musonius Rufus, says that a youth brought up “in a somewhat Spartan manner”, who is not accustomed to soft living, will be more able to absorb the Stoic teachings that death, pain, and poverty are not evils and their opposites are not good (Lectures, 1).  He links this to an anecdote about Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoa, and a Spartan boy, who had been trained well for virtue and therefore easily grasped Stoic philosophy at a practical level.  Elsewhere he tells his students that Spartan boys who are whipped in public without shame or feelings of injury set a good example for Stoics, insofar as philosophers must be able to scorn blows and jeering, and ultimately even death (Lectures, 10).

He called the ancient Spartans the very best of the Greeks and praised Lycurgus as one of the greatest of all law-makers, because of the austere lifestyle he instigated for Spartan youths, which he encourages his own students to emulate, particularly noting those aspects most akin to the tough Cynic lifestyle, often admired by Stoics.

Consider the greatest of the law-givers.  Lycurgus, one of the foremost among them, drove extravagance out of Sparta and introduced thriftiness.  In order to make Spartans brave, he promoted scarcity rather than excess in their lifestyle.  He rejected luxurious living as a scourge and promoted a willingness to endure pain as a blessing.  That Lycurgus was right is shown by the toughness of the young Spartan boys who were trained to endure hunger, thirst, cold, beatings, and other hardships.  Raised in a strict environment, the ancient Spartans were thought to be and in fact were the best of the Greeks, and they made their very poverty more enviable than the king of Persia’s wealth. (Musonius Rufus, Lectures, 20)

Musonius’ most famous student was Epictetus, who became an influential Stoic teacher in his own right.  Indeed, Epictetus is the only Stoic teacher whose teachings survive today in book-length, although half of the Discourses recorded by his student Arrian are lost.  We have a fragment from the anthologist Stobaeus in which either Epictetus or Musonius Rufus – the attribution is unclear – is seen also to praise the personal example set by Lycurgus:

Who among us is not amazed at the action of Lycurgus the Spartan?  When a young man who had injured Lycurgus’ eye was sent by the people to be punished in whatever way Lycurgus wanted, he did not punish him.  He instead both educated him and made him a good man, after which he led him to the theatre.  While the Spartans looked on in amazement, he said: “This person I received from you as an unruly and violent individual.  I give him back to you as a good man and proper citizen.” (Stobaeus, 3.19.13)

The last famous Stoic, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, was largely influenced by the teachings of Epictetus in his practice of Stoicism.  Although he does phrase it in an ambiguous manner, at the start of the Meditations, Marcus appears to praise someone called Diognetus for introducing him, in his youth, to a lifestyle based on the agôgê “and to set my heart on a pallet-bed and an animal pelt” (Meditations, 1.6).  Again, this appears to suggest that, as a Stoic, he sought to emulate certain aspects of the Spartan training regime and lifestyle, presumably as a means of training himself in the virtues of courage (or endurance) and self-discipline.

Likewise, in the Historia Augusta, which contains a brief biography of Marcus Aurelius, we’re told that from early childhood his education was handed over to notable philosophers.

He studied philosophy intensely, even when he was still a boy.  When he was twelve years old he embraced the dress of a philosopher, and later, the endurance – studying in a Greek cloak and sleeping on the ground.  However, (with some difficulty) his mother persuaded him to sleep on a couch spread with skins.  He was also tutored by Apollonius of Chalcedon, the Stoic philosopher […]

The Sale of Diogenes the Cynic by Pirates

The Sale of Diogenes the Cynic by Pirates

Diogenes-the-Cynic-BillboardDiogenes of Sinope, the founder of Cynicism was greatly admired by the Stoics as a near-sage. The two schools were sometimes even considered part of a single “Cynic-Stoic” tradition. Diogenes became a legendary character and many stories and anecdotes circulated about him in the ancient world, contributing to his status as a Stoic role-model. According to Epictetus, “Diogenes was set free by Antisthenes, and said that from that point forward he could never be enslaved by anyone again” (Discourses, 4.1).  He meant that, although the two men perhaps never met in person, Diogenes was set free by the philosophical teachings of Antisthenes, one of Socrates’ circle of friends who founded his own Socratic sect, credited as the main forerunner or sometimes even the founder of Greek Cynicism.

Epictetus goes on to discuss the particularly well-known, although probably fictitious, story about Diogenes being captured by pirates, which apparently came from a book called The Sale of Diogenes by the 3rd century BC Cynic philosopher and satirist Menippus. The story goes that Diogenes was captured by the notorious pirate captain Skirpalos and his crew, while sailing to the island of Aegina. His captors were initially quite brutal to Diogenes and the other captives, giving them barely enough food to survive but he bore his misfortune well, rising above their maltreatment with greatness of spirit. Unintimidated as always, he rebuked the pirates saying that if one has pigs or sheep to sell, one fattens them up and keeps them healthy, yet they kept the finest of animals, human beings, on sparse food, until they were reduced to skeletons and worthless to sell. Listening to reason, the pirates began to feed all their prisoners better.

They took him to Crete where he was put up for auction as a slave. Just before the sale began he sat down to share some bread with the other prisoners, who were weeping at their misfortune. Seeing one man was too upset to eat, Diogenes reassured him, urging him to have some food, and telling him to stop worrying and just take the moment as it comes. Such auctions typically began by asking where the slave was from to which Diogenes gave his standard reply, that he was from “everywhere”, being a citizen of the world, the original meaning of “cosmopolitan. After making fun of the auctioneer by laying down and pretending to be a fish, in typical Diogenes style, he then berated the audience, giving them a lecture on how to go about buying men. He said that if they are buying a pot or plate, or presumably a fish, they test first that it is good quality but when buying men they merely look them over rather than testing their character properly. When the auctioneer asked him what he was skilled at, Diogenes replied “Governing men”, much to everyone’s amusement. Diogenes then pointed out a wealthy Corinthian man in the audience, called Xeniades, who was dressed in rather ornate robes, saying “Sell me to that man, he could do with a master!” Somehow, Diogenes had managed to invert the whole situation by acting as if he were the one shopping for a “slave” to govern.

Perhaps surprisingly, Diogenes was purchased by Xeniades who took him back to Corinth and put him in charge of his children and indeed his whole household.  Diogenes immediately set about telling them how to run their lives, what clothes to wear, etc., and overseeing the athletic training of Xeniades’ sons. Although he trained them to live simply and to endure hardship, the boys apparently loved their teacher. He reputedly turned down the opportunity to be ransomed by his friends. Diogenes did such a good job that Xeniades said it was as if his house had been blessed with a good “guardian-spirit” and the philosopher stayed on there until his death. Xeniades sometimes complained that by being bossed around by his own slave things had become somewhat back-to-front, as if Diogenes had become the master and Xeniades his slave. Diogenes gave the philosophical reply that Xeniades should obey his instructions, based on his expertise in the art of living, just as even if a doctor or a navigator were a slave, their advice would still be followed.

The point of the story seems to be that Diogenes’ wisdom and virtue made him a natural ruler, a true king, whatever his unfortunate external circumstances, and this was bound to shine through. Where someone has expertise we should listen to them, regardless of their status, and Diogenes had expertise in the art of living.

Verses from the Cynic Philosopher Crates of Thebes

Verses from the Cynic Crates


We have several fragments of poetry attributed to Crates of Thebes, the Cynic philosopher who followed Diogenes of Sinope and was the first teacher of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism.

The first fragment, cited by Diogenes Laertius, treats their characteristic knapsack (pera) as a metonym for the Cynic life, portraying it as an ideal city, perhaps comparable to the ideal Republic postulated by philosophers of different schools.  It is surrounded by an ocean of folly, or vapour (tuphos), the Cynic’s favourite word for the illusion of conventional values, the view of the majority that prizes “external goods” such as material wealth and public acclaim, etc.  However, because this city is populated by people who live  simple and wise life, with only the most basic possessions, ironically, they do not attract foolish or lewd citizens and their poverty means there is no reason for anyone to invade them.  By “fair and fat”, he means beautiful and wealthy, in its own paradoxical way.  The word for thyme is virtually identical to the word for courage or being highly “spirited” (thumos), which is apparently a play on words: the reader is to take it that the realm of the Cynic knapsack, by consisting of simple living, is characterised by the virtue of bravery.

There is a city, Pera in the wine-dark sea of folly,

Fair and fat, though filthy, with nothing much inside.

Never does there sail to it any foolish stranger,

Or lewd fellow who takes delight in the rumps of whores,

But it merely carries thyme and garlic, figs and loaves,

Things over which people do not fight or go to war,

Nor stand they to arms for small change or glory.

Again, from Diogenes Laertius, these lines express the Cynic notion of being a citizen of the world:

Not one tower does my country have, not one roof,

But for home and city, the entire earth lies

At my disposition for a dwelling.

Crates reputedly came from a wealthy family but disposed of all his money on becoming a Cynic.  Here he refers to his former wealth as vapour (tuphos) again, implying its insubstantial and ephemeral nature.  According to Diogenes Laertius, elsewhere he wrote:

This I own, what I have learned and thought, and the Muses’

Solemn precepts; but all my riches are gone like empty smoke.

The Greek Anthology includes the following lines of his Hymn to Frugality, which describes it as a species of temperance:

Hail, Goddess and Queen, beloved of the wise,

Frugality, worthy offspring of glorious Temperance,

Your virtues are honoured by all who practise righteousness.

Plutarch, in Rules for the Preservation of Health, cites these lines, commenting that Crates “believed that civil strife and despotism were brought about in the main by luxury and extravagance”.  Lentil soup was a cheap and simple meal traditionally associated with the Cynic way of life:

Do not throw us into strife

By preferring fine dishes to lentil soup.

Teles of Megara quotes these lines, referring again to the characteristic knapsack of the Cynic, and to lupin seeds, another typically cheap meal associated with them:

You have no idea what power a knapsack holds,

And a quart of lupins, and freedom from care.

Apparently, the meals emblematic of the Cynic way of life, lupins and lentil soup, are particularly associated with flatulence, and this happens to be a topic the Cynics also liked to mention.  For example, the following anecdote is recounted by Montaigne:

In the midst of a discussion, and in the presence of his followers, Metrocles let off a fart.  To hide his embarrassment he stayed at home until, eventually, Crates came to pay him a visit; to his consolations and arguments Crates added the example of his own licence: he began a farting match with him, thereby removing his scruples and, into the bargain, converting him to the freer stoic school from the more socially oriented Peripatetics whom he had formerly followed.

The Cynic Prayer of Crates

The Cynic Prayer of Crates

Crates-in-BookCrates of Thebes was Diogenes the Cynic’s most famous pupil and the main teacher of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism.

Glorious children of Mnemosyne and Olympian Zeus,

Pierian Muses, hearken to my prayer!

Grant me food without fail for my belly,

Which has ever made my life simple and unenslaved…

Make me useful rather than sweet to my friends.

Glorious goods I do not wish to gather, as one

Who yearns for the wealth of a beetle or riches of an ant;

No, I wish to possess righteousness and collect riches

Which are easily borne, easily gained, and conducive to virtue.

If these I win, I will propitiate Hermes and the holy Muses

Not with costly offering but with pious virtues.

From the Emperor Julian, the Apostate’s Orations.  This is a Cynic appropriation of a famous verse-prayer by Solon, the Athenian sage and statesman.  Solon prayed for prosperity and reputation, and to be sweet (pleasing) to his friends.  Crates, makes a pointed contrast by praying instead for just enough food as the body naturally requires, enough “riches” to survive and live simply, and he seeks to be useful rather than pleasant to his friends, by helping to make them better (more virtuous) people, even if that sometimes requires harsh words or actions.  Virtue replaces wealth, throughout, as the chief good in human life, being likewise what the gods value.

Poems about Diogenes the Cynic

Poems about Diogenes the Cynic

Diogenes-the-CynicHere are some lines of ancient Greek verse about Diogenes of Sinope, the founder of Cynic philosophy.  I’ve also included some ancient verse about his student Monimos of Syracuse.

The staff and cloak are mentioned as typical accoutrements, along with the knapsack.  What is the main thing Diogenes gets praised for here?  Teaching the doctrine of self-sufficiency (autarkeia), or self-reliance, which is paradoxically described as the “easiest path through life”.

He is now no more, the Sinopean,

The staff-bearer with the doubled cloak who lived in the open air,

But has gone off because he pressed his lips and teeth together

And held his breath; for he was Diogenes in very truth,

A son of Zeus and hound of heaven.

Cercidas of Megalopolis, in Diogenes Laertius.  “Diogenes” means son of Zeus, and “Cynic” comes from the word for dog.  These verses describe some of the stereotypical accoutrements and behaviours of the Cynics.  Death by holding one’s breath was considered a form of suicide favoured by philosophers.

Even bronze yields to time, but your glory,

O Diogenes, will remain intact through all eternity,

Since you taught mortals the doctrine of self-sufficiency

And showed them the easiest path through life.

Engraved on bronze statues of Diogenes the Cynic erected in Corinth following his death, according to Diogenes Laertius.  These lines might be taken to refer to what was considered the essence of the Cynic philosophy, the legacy of Diogenes being what the ancients describe as a “short-cut to virtue” consisting of a life of voluntary poverty and self-imposed hardship for the purposes of philosophical training.

The following relates to Monimos of Syracuse:

There was a man named Monimos, Philo, a wise one,

But none too famous – who carried a knapsack?-

Not one but three.  Never did he use a saying

Like “Know thyself”, by heaven, or other of the quoted

Proverbs, no, he went much further, the dirty beggar,

And declared all human suppositions to be illusion.

From Menander’s comedy The Groom.  Monimos, a student of Diogenes the Cynic, seems to be mocked here for being greedy compared to other Cynics, and carrying three knapsacks of food.