The Royal Purple of Stoicism

Short story about Tyrian purple dye and the origins of Stoicism.

Tyrian PurpleThis is a short story that I used to explain Stoicism to my five year old daughter, Poppy.

The story of Stoic philosophy begins with a shipwreck. The ancient Phoenicians made their fortune by trading a famous purple dye extracted from the murex sea snail. It’s called Tyrian or Royal Purple. It was used to dye the robes of kings but making it was one of the worst jobs in the world. Many thousands of decaying shellfish had to be labouriously dissected by hand just to extract a few grams of this incredibly valuable dye.

One day a Phoenician merchant called Zeno of Citium, from the island of Cyprus, was transporting his cargo of this dye across the Mediterranean when he was caught in a storm. The ship sank but he survived, washed ashore at a port near Athens. He watched helpless on the beach as his precious cargo, his entire fortune, dissolved into the ocean. His fortune came from and now returned to the sea.

Zeno was absolutely distraught. He’d lost everything and was left wandering the streets of Athens, a foreign city, in rags. The legend says he travelled to the famous Delphic Oracle pleading for guidance from the god Apollo.

The Oracle said Zeno was to dye himself with the colour, not of dead shellfish, but of dead men. Zeno trudged back to Athens and sat down at a bookseller’s stall, feeling completely lost. He had no idea what this could possibly mean. He picked up and started reading a book at random. It was written by a famous Athenian general called Xenophon.

Murex ShellfishThe bookseller told him that Xenophon, the author, was once walking through a dark alleyway in Athens when a figure in the shadows held out a wooden staff and blocked his way. The mysterious stranger said “Excuse me, but can you tell me where someone should go if they want to buy some goods?” Xenophon was puzzled but replied, “Of course, we’re right beside the agora, one of the finest marketplaces in the world, you can buy clothes, jewellery, food, whatever your heart desires, just around the corner.” The stranger laughed and said “Thank you. But one more question, can you tell me where someone would go if they want to become a good person?”

Xenophon was completely thrown – he had no idea how to answer. So the stranger stepped out of the shadows and introduced himself… as Socrates. He said: “Well you should come with me then. Together we’ll try to discover how someone can learn to become a good person. That’s surely far more important than knowing where to obtain other sorts of goods.” From that day onward, Xenophon became one of Socrates’ closest friends and one of his most distinguished students. Many years later, after Socrates was executed, Xenophon wrote down some of the most profound things he remembered him saying. That book was called The Memorabilia of Socrates, and the shipwrecked Zeno now found himself reading it.

So what did it say? Well, the majority of people believe there are lots of good things and lots of bad things in the world, all different sorts of things. But Socrates said… they were all wrong. He said that there’s only one good thing and it’s inside us not outside us. He called it both sophia meaning “wisdom” and also arete meaning “excellence of character”. Indeed, the word “philosopher” just means “someone who loves wisdom”. So people asked Socrates why someone who loved wisdom would hang around in the agora of all places, the bustling market. He liked to answer paradoxically: he said it was so he could constantly remind himself how many different things there were that he did not need in life.  And he used to recite to himself the lines from a comedy:

The purple robe and silver’s shine
More fits an actor’s need than mine.

As Zeno was reading these tales about Socrates he suddenly realised what the Oracle meant when she said he had to dye himself with the colour of dead men. His destiny was to study the lives and opinions of philosophers like Socrates, from previous generations, and permanently colour his mind with their teachings.

Zeno put down the parchment, jumped up, and asked the bookseller: “Where can I find a man like this today?” And he replied, “Talk to that guy over there!” Because by chance the famous Cynic philosopher Crates of Thebes was walking right past them. Zeno trained with Crates and other Socratic philosophers for the next twenty years. He flourished and became famous as a philosopher himself. So he used to say: “My most profitable journey began on the day I was shipwrecked and lost my entire fortune”. Eventually he founded his own school on a public porch in Athens called the Stoa Poikile, near the agora where Socrates used to teach. And his followers became known as the Stoics or Philosophers of the Porch.

So having started with the first famous Stoic let’s conclude by mentioning the last, who lived nearly five hundred years later. He was one of the most powerful men in European history, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Marcus also mentions the purple Phoenician dye, which Zeno had lost in his shipwreck. He liked to say that even his own imperial purple robes were nothing more than sheep’s wool dyed in putrid shellfish gore. These external things are really nothing, he said, compared to the goal of wisdom. And what matters in life is not how we colour our clothing, but how we colour our minds.