Cleanthes (c. 301 B.C.E. - 232 or 252 B.C.E.), an early Stoic philosopher, succeeded Zeno of Citium as the second head of the Stoic school in Athens. A steady disciple and hard worker, he was not credited with intellectual brilliance, but was admired for his strength of character and high moral qualities. He studied under Zeno for 19 years, and upon Zeno’s death in 263 B.C.E., became leader of the school. He wrote at least 50 works, which contained little original thought but dealt with the themes put forth by Zeno. He became the teacher of Chrysippus, the third leader of the Stoic school.
Cleanthes is remembered as a person who embodied and showed Stoic ideals through his character, life, and behaviors.
Cleanthes was born c. 301 B.C.E. at Assos in the Troad. Most of what we know of his life comes from Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of the Philosophers. According to Diogenes, Cleanthes was originally a boxer who came to Athens with only four drachmas in his possession. He listened first to the lectures of Crates the Cynic, and then to those of Zeno, to whom he was a faithful disciple for nineteen years. He embodied many of the qualities that the Stoics regarded as virtue; he was known to be patient, hard-working, loyal, persevering and true to his beliefs.
It is thought that Cleanthes was very poor, and supported himself by working at night as a water carrier in the public gardens so that he could participate in philosophical discussions during the day. He was at times so poor that he wrote notes on Zeno's lectures on oyster shells and the shoulder blades of oxen because he could not afford to buy better materials. On one occasion, according to the custom of the city, he was brought before the court of justice, the Areopagas, to give an account of his manner of supporting himself. He then produced the gardener for whom he drew water, and a woman for whom he ground meal, as witnesses to prove that he lived by the labor of his hands. The judges of the court were struck with such admiration of his conduct, that they ordered ten minae to be paid him out of the public treasury. Zeno, however, did not allow him to accept it. One of his pupils, Antigonus Monophthalmus, afterward presented him with three thousand minae. According to Diogenes, he once brought one of the pieces of money which he had earned into the middle of a company of his acquaintances, and said, "Cleanthes could maintain even another Cleanthes if he were to choose; but others who have plenty of means to support themselves, seek for necessaries from others; although they only study philosophy in a very lazy manner."
Cleanthes recognized that his intellect was slow, and Diogenes says that he did not object to the name when he was called an ass; but only said that he was the only animal able to bear the burdens which Zeno put upon him. When he was reproached as a coward, he said, "That is the reason why I make but few mistakes."
Upon the death of Zeno in 263 B.C.E. he became president of the school by virtue of his character, though there were numerous brilliant disciples of Zeno in the school. He later became the teacher of Chrysippus.
Cleanthes died of starvation, some say at the age of either 80 or 99. As treatment for severely swollen gums, his doctors advised him to fast for two days. His condition improved so dramatically that he was urged to return to his former eating habits, but he refused, saying that as he was already halfway on the road to death, he would not trouble to retrace his steps. After his death, the Roman senate erected a statue in honor of him at Assos.
Cleanthes produced over 50 works on topics such as time, duty, freedom, love, marriage, virtues, justice, knowledge, time, dialectics, and Zeno’s system of natural philosophy. Only fragments remain, embedded in the works of later writers, except for a large segment of his Hymn to Zeus, preserved in Stobaeus.
Cleanthes apparently promulgated the teachings of Zeno rather than developing original ideas. He regarded the sun as the abode of God, the intelligent providence, or (in accordance with Stoical materialism) the vivifying fire or aether of the universe. Virtue, he taught, is life according to nature; but pleasure is not according to nature.
He originated a new theory as to the individual existence of the human soul; he held that the degree of its vitality after death depends upon the degree of its vitality in this life.
All links retrieved March 3, 2017.
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