Zeno Meets King Antigonus
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.”