Zeno’s Republic was one of the earliest works written by the founder of Stoicism. It was well-known in the ancient world and seems to have been frequently quoted down to the time of the last famous Stoic, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, nearly five hundred years later. However, it was probably known in later centuries mainly through quotations in doxographies and commentaries. The work has long been lost and is known to us now only through a handful of fragments. For the curious, Malcolm Schofield’s The Stoic Idea of the City is a detailed scholarly analysis of the fragments relevant to reconstructing the contents of Zeno’s Republic. (Photo below of an anarchy symbol at the Areopagus, beside the Acropolis – where St. Paul addressed Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, who are believed to have had schools located nearby.)
The Republic was a response to Plato’s magnum opus of the same name. However, having studied in the Platonic Academy under later teachers, Zeno apparently engaged in a fairly serious critique of Plato’s philosophy in general, and his Republic in particular. We can potentially better understand some of the fragments from Zeno’s Republic by bearing in mind that it was largely written in opposition to Plato’s views, and using that knowledge to help guide our interpretation.
I’m going to begin with a summary of its key features and then provide the relevant fragments with some commentary. From the admittedly slender evidence, it appears we can say of Zeno’s Republic:
- It was a highly-regarded work, down to the time of Plutarch and perhaps even to Marcus Aurelius, and well-known, at least through excerpts.
- It said we should ideally look upon all other human beings as our fellow-citizens, having equal rights, apparently an early reference to Stoic cosmopolitanism.
- The emphasis is on a community founded on philosophical principles and constituted for the common good, rather than that of an elite.
- One lifestyle is held common to all, in some sense.
- Men and women, of all races, dress alike, presumably in the traditional garb of a Cynic or Stoic philosopher: a single coarse wool cloak wrapped around the body.
- Women are held in common and adultery is apparently not condemned, any laws against it being abolished, so that sexual relationships are not restricted by marriage.
- Temples are abolished because Zeus is omnipresent throughout the whole of nature and gods do not inhabit buildings constructed by men.
We might also infer, or speculate, based on the fragments, as follows:
- The Republic appears to imply that the distinction between citizens and resident foreigners should be abolished. (Zeno who was Phoenician by birth died a resident foreigner in Athens, not a citizen.)
- As all humans in the ideal Stoic republic are viewed as fellow-citizens with equal rights, like a common family or herd, it seems to imply that the institution of slavery must have been abolished.
- Likewise, no distinction is made between men and women. Saying that all people have equal rights therefore appears to imply that women would have equal rights to men. His student and successor, Cleanthes wrote a book entitled On the thesis that virtue is the same in men and women. From two surviving lectures by the Roman Stoic teacher Musonius Rufus, we can see that Stoics taught men and women should both be taught philosophy as both sexes are capable of attaining wisdom and virtue.
- The absence of law courts suggests that legal trials are considered unnecessary because all citizens are assumed to be wise and virtuous; courts are only required for the vicious. (It’s a Utopia.)
- Ancient Greek gymnasia were mainly used to train athletes for public games. The absence of gymnasia suggests either that athletes would obtain exercise in other ways or perhaps that public sports and games are abolished. The later Stoics, particularly Marcus Aurelius, do appear to look down on athletic games as a low form of entertainment for the masses. (They might view modern spectator sports the same way perhaps – passively watching sport for entertainment as opposed to actively doing sport for exercise or self-improvement.)
- Gymnasia were also used by sophists and philosophers for the education of young men. Women were prohibited from entering their grounds. We’re told that Zeno was critical of the Greek education system. So the abolition of gymnasia may be part of his critique of traditional education in general. The Academy of Plato, which Zeno had attended, and Lyceum of Aristotle were located in the grounds of gymnasia. So this may also imply the abolition of such schools. Would the alternative somehow resemble the Stoa Poikile, which consisted of a more open venue for philosophical debate close to where Socrates had lectured in the agora?
According to Athenaeus of Naucratis:
Pontianus said that Zeno of Citium thought that Love was the God of Friendship and Liberty and the author of concord among people, but nothing else. Hence, he says in his Republic, that “Love is a God, who cooperates in securing the safety of the city.” (Deipnosophistae)
From this we can infer that friendship and liberty were the important values of Zeno’s ideal Stoic republic and that it was designed to promote concord or harmony between its citizens, whose goal must presumably have been to live in agreement with Nature and in accord with wisdom and justice toward one another. From the other authors below, we have slightly more detailed information.
Plutarch is one of our main sources for information about Zeno’s Republic. Plutarch makes it clear that Zeno’s Republic was written as if it were a dream, i.e., a Utopian vision of an ideal society rather than a roadmap for practical political change. He writes:
Moreover, the much-admired Republic of Zeno, the founder of the Stoic sect, may be summed up in this one main principle: that all the inhabitants of this world of ours should not live differentiated by their respective rules of justice into separate cities and communities, but that we should consider all men to be of one community and one polity, and that we should have a common life and an order common to us all, even as a herd that feeds together and shares the pasturage of a common field. This Zeno wrote, giving shape to a dream or, as it were, shadowy picture of a well-ordered and philosophic commonwealth. (On the fortune or the virtue of Alexander)
However, he then goes on to make the bizarre claim that it was Alexander the Great who had come closest to realizing this ideal in practice. Alexander had died and his empire fragmented when Zeno was an adolescent boy. Now, it’s possible that Zeno may have made some such allusion in his own writings perhaps looking back upon the reign of Alexander and romanticizing it, although it sounds like this is Plutarch’s crude attempt to link Stoicism to the subject of the text.
What Plutarch tries to say is that Alexander ignored the advice of his tutor Aristotle to treat himself as the leader of the Greeks, and to view them as his kin, and to treat other people as if he was their master, viewing them as inferior, like plants or animals. Instead, Alexander viewed all men, Greek or barbarian, as his kin as long as they shared his values and he saw himself as unifying the whole world. So he implies a striking contrast between the more elitist (ethnocentric) political views of Aristotle and the more democratic and cosmopolitan views of the Stoics.
He bade them all consider as their fatherland the whole inhabited earth, as their stronghold and protection his camp, as akin to them all good men, and as foreigners only the wicked; they should not distinguish between Grecian and foreigner by Grecian cloak and targe, or scimitar and jacket; but the distinguishing mark of the Grecian should be seen in virtue, and that of the foreigner in iniquity; clothing and food, marriage and manner of life they should regard as common to all, being blended into one by ties of blood and children.
This passage may reflect language or ideas found in the Republic, although the analogy with the empire of Alexander the Great, seems strained. The latter remarks appear to reinforce the notion that the whole earth is regarded as one fatherland, or city, i.e., that the Republic endorsed ethical cosmopolitanism. Also, that individuals are to be regarded as foreign not on the basis of their race but on the basis of being vicious or not sharing the same values as the Stoic citizens. Plutarch also mentions that clothing and food, marriage and manner of life are regarded as common to all, probably implying that people would dress in a similar manner and, as we’ll see, that relationships were not restricted by marriage.
The allusion to a herd of animals feeding in a common pasture is intriguing because the later Stoics sometimes refer to the metaphor of the wise man as a bull protecting his herd, or kin, against predatory lions. So it’s tempting to wonder if this metaphor also goes back to Zeno’s Republic.
Diogenes Laertius quotes from a critic of Stoicism called Cassius the Skeptic, so these remarks have to be interpreted cautiously:
Some, indeed, among whom is Cassius the Skeptic, attack Zeno on many accounts, saying first of all that he denounced the general system of education in vogue at the time, as useless, which he did in the beginning of his Republic. And in the second place, that he used to call all who were not virtuous, adversaries, and enemies, and slaves, and unfriendly to one another, parents to their children, brethren to brethren. and kinsmen to kinsmen; and again, that in his Republic, he speaks of the virtuous as the only citizens, and friends, and relations, and free men, so that in the doctrine of the Stoic, even parents and their children are enemies; for they are not wise. Also, that he lays down the principle of the community of women in his Republic, and … teaches that neither temples nor courts of law, nor gymnasia, ought to be erected in a city; moreover, that he writes thus about money: that he does not think that people ought to coin money either for purposes of trade, or of travelling. Besides all this, he enjoins men and women to wear the same dress, and to leave no part of their person completely covered.
If we attempt to offer a defence of Zeno in response to this hostile account we might say:
- The general system of Greek education he’s alluding to was probably training in poetry and rhetoric, or possibly the related approach of the Sophists, which Stoics thought should be replaced by philosophy and probably some sort of physical training and self-discipline, perhaps modelled very loosely on the Spartan agoge.
- The Stoics do typically call the unwise slaves but they include themselves in this category because nobody is perfect, and they would probably say that we’re all hostile to one another to some extent, until we achieve wisdom.
- The remark about the principle of the community of women may be related to Plutarch’s remark about marriage being somehow held in common. The further remark below suggests that it means that among the wise, sexual relations are not to be restricted by marriage. In other words, it seems clear that the condemnation of adultery and any laws against it are abolished in Zeno’s Republic.
- The remark about temples is fleshed out by Lucan in the Pharsalia where Cato of Utica is portrayed explaining that for Stoics Zeus is omnipresent throughout Nature and therefore temples are unnecessary – gods do not inhabit buildings constructed by men.
- The reference to men and women wearing the same dress resembles Plutarch’s remark about clothing somehow being held in common.
- It’s not clear what leaving no part of their person completely covered means but Zeno and the Cynics were known for wearing only a single coarse wool cloak, wrapped around the body, with no undershirt, and often leaving the shoulders bare, so this may simply be a reference to men and women both wearing the traditional philosopher’s cloak, and philosophers often also walked barefoot.
To this Diogenes Laertius later adds:
They say too, that the wise man will love those young men, who by their outward appearance, show a natural aptitude for virtue; and this opinion is advanced by Zeno, in his Republic. And they also teach that women ought to be in common among the wise, so that whoever meets with any one may enjoy her, and this doctrine is maintained by Zeno in his Republic, and by Chrysippus in his treatise on the Republic […] and then, they say, we shall love all boys equally after the manner of fathers, and all suspicion on the ground of undue familiarity will be removed.
It would be hard to establish paternity if the law against adultery is abolished, so it follows perhaps that children would have to be held in common by the community.
From what Diogenes Laertius and others say, it appears Zeno’s Republic shared some common ground with the political views attributed to Diogenes the Cynic, to whom a Republic was also attributed.
He maintained that all things are the property of the wise, and employed such arguments as those cited above. All things belong to the gods. The gods are friends to the wise, and friends share all property in common; therefore all things are the property of the wise. Again as to law: that it is impossible for society to exist without law; for without a city no benefit can be derived from that which is civilized. But the city is civilized, and there is no advantage in law without a city; therefore law is something civilized. He would ridicule good birth and fame and all such distinctions, calling them showy ornaments of vice. The only true commonwealth was, he said, that which is as wide as the universe. He advocated community of wives, recognizing no other marriage than a union of the man who persuades with the woman who consents. And for this reason he thought sons too should be held in common.
And he saw no impropriety either in stealing anything from a temple or in eating the flesh of any animal; nor even anything impious in touching human flesh, this, he said, being clear from the custom of some foreign nations. Moreover, according to right reason, as he put it, all elements are contained in all things and pervade everything: since not only is meat a constituent of bread, but bread of vegetables; and all other bodies also, by means of certain invisible passages and particles, find their way in and unite with all substances in the form of vapour.
These Cynic teachings may possibly shed light on the meaning of the doctrines attributed to Zeno’s Republic.
The Epicurean Philodemus is also clearly hostile to the Cynic-Stoic tradition and he may be drawing on similar sources to Diogenes Laertius.
Cleanthes in his book On the Way to Dress mentions it [the Republic] with praise as a work of Diogenes, and gives a general account of its contents, with further discussion of some particular points; and Chrysippus in his work On the State and Law makes mention of it…. In his work On the State, while talking about the uselessness of weapons, he says that such a view was also stated by Diogenes, which is something that he could only have written about in his Republic. In the treatise Things which should not be chosen for their own sake, Chrysippus states that Diogenes laid down in his state that knucklebones should serve as legal currency. This is to be found in the work of which we are talking and also in the first book of the treatise Against those who have a different idea of practical reason. In his work On the life in accordance with reason he also makes mention of [Diogenes’ Republic], together with the many impieties contained in it, to which he gives his approval; and he frequently mentions the work and its contents with praise in the fourth book of his treatise On the beautiful and pleasure. And in the third book of his work on justice he speaks of cannibalism as a teaching…. Diogenes himself in his Atreus, Oedipus, and Philiscos acknowledges as his own teachings most of the foul and impious ideas that are to be found in the Republic. Antipater in his work Against the Philosophical Schools mentions Zeno’s Republic and the doctrines that Diogenes expounds in his Republic, expressing amazement at their impassibility. And some say that the Republic is not by the Sinopean but by someone else…We must now go on to summarize the noble thoughts of these people, expending as little time as possible in describing their opinions. It pleases these holy people, then, to assume the lives of dogs, to speak shamelessly and without restraint to everyone without distinction, to masturbate in public, to wear a doubled cloak [rather than a shirt underneath a cloak], to abuse young men whether they love them or not, and whether or not the young men willingly surrender themselves or have to be forced … boys are held in common by all… they have sexual relations with their own sisters and mothers and other close relatives, and with their brothers and sons. To achieve sexual gratification, there is nothing that they will abstain from, not even the use of violence. The women make advances to men, and seek to persuade them in every way to have intercourse with them, and if they fail in their efforts, offer themselves in the market-place to anyone whatever. Everyone misbehaves with everyone else, husbands have intercourse with their maidservants, wives abandon their husbands to go off with those who better please them. The women wear the same clothing as men and take part in the same activities, differing from them in no way at all.
It’s difficult to imagine this is what Zeno had in mind. It may well be more like a caricature or exaggeration of his teachings. The final sentence is interesting in light of other evidence that suggests the Stoics taught that virtue is the same in men and women, and that they should wear the same attire.
The satirist Lucian of Samosata, a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius, appears to describe the Stoic Republic as follows in his dialogue Hermotimus, or the Rival Philosophies.
Lycinus: I conceive Virtue, then, under the figure of a State whose citizens are happy – as your professor, who is [a Stoic philosopher], phrases it,- absolutely wise, all of them brave, just, and self-controlled, hardly distinguishable, in fact, from Gods. All sorts of things that go on here, such as robbery, assault, unfair gain, you will never find attempted there, I believe; their relations are all peace and unity; and this is quite natural, seeing that none of the things which elsewhere occasion strife and rivalry, and prompt men to plot against their neighbours, so much as come in their way at all. Gold, pleasures, distinctions, they never regard as objects of dispute; they have banished them long ago as undesirable elements. Their life is serene and blissful, in the enjoyment of legality, equality, liberty, and all other good things.
Hermotimus: Well, Lycinus? Must not all men yearn to belong to a State like that, and never count the toil of getting there, nor lose heart over the time it takes? Enough that one day they will arrive, and be naturalized, and given the franchise.
Lycinus: In good truth, Hermotimus, we should devote all our efforts to this, and neglect everything else; we need pay little heed to any claims of our earthly country; we should steel our hearts against the clingings and cryings of children or parents, if we have them; it is well if we can induce them to go with us; but, if they will not or cannot, shake them off and march straight for the city of bliss, leaving your coat in their hands, if they lay hold of it to keep you back, in your hurry to get there; what matter for a coat? You will be admitted there without one.
I remember hearing a description of it all once before from an old man, who urged me to go there with him. He would show me the way, enroll me when I got there, introduce me to his own circles, and promise me a share in the universal Happiness. But I was stiff-necked, in my youthful folly (it was some fifteen years ago); else might I have been in the outskirts, nay, haply at the very gates, by now. Among the noteworthy things he told me, I seem to remember these: all the citizens are aliens and foreigners, not a native among them; they include numbers of barbarians, slaves, cripples, dwarfs, and poor; in fact any one is admitted; for their law does not associate the franchise with income, with shape, size, or beauty, with old or brilliant ancestry; these things are not considered at all; any one who would be a citizen needs only understanding, zeal for the right, energy, perseverance, fortitude and resolution in facing all the trials of the road; whoever proves his possession of these by persisting till he reaches the city is ipso facto a full citizen, regardless of his antecedents. Such distinctions as superior and inferior, noble and common, bond and free, simply do not exist there, even in name.
Hermotimus: There, now; you see I am not wasting my pains on trifles; I yearn to be counted among the citizens of that fair and happy State.
Lycinus: Why, your yearning is mine too; there is nothing I would sooner pray for. If the city had been near at hand and plain for all to see, be assured I would never have doubted, nor needed prompting; I would have gone thither and had my franchise long ago; but as you tell me – you and your bard Hesiod – that it is set exceeding far off, one must find out the way to it, and the best guide. You agree?
In this account, the Stoic Republic is clearly a Utopian ideal. Some observations:
- The Stoic Republic here, like Plato’s Republic, is a Utopian state which exemplifies virtue.
- The citizens are therefore all conceived of as perfectly wise, courageous, just, and self-disciplined, like the ideal Sage. Crime is absent because they all live in perfect harmony.
- The explanation given is that money, status, and property being abolished there’s no motive to steal or fight, etc. The citizens enjoy perfect equality and liberty, along with other goods.
- We should strive toward this ideal Republic, even though it’s a distant goal, even putting it ahead of our own country.
- We should try to bring our children and parents along with us but if not, our attachment to them should not hold us back.
- He mentions being admitted even without a coat, seeming to allude to the attire of Stoic philosophers, who traditionally wore only a cloak wrapped around the body and nothing else.
- The citizens are all immigrants to this city, none are natives, perhaps implying that nobody is born wise.
- Barbarians, slaves, crippled (like Epictetus), dwarves, and the poor (like Antisthenes), are all accepted as citizens, perhaps alluding to the Stoics accepting anyone as a student of philosophy, unlike some other schools, which were more the province of wealthy aristocratic young men. Before the time of Socrates, philosophy had mainly been studied by the Athenian elite but he was notable for introducing it to the marketplace and discussing philosophy with former slaves and prostitutes like Phaedo of Elis, Aristodemus the dwarf, several women, those who were poor such as Antisthenes, and those from foreign cities such Euclid of Megara.
- The distinction of superior and inferior, bond and free, being abolished, and slaves being admitted seems to imply that slavery is abolished in this state, and everyone is granted full citizenship on entry.
In the first book of The Meditations, Marcus gives thanks that he learned to love his family, truth, and justice from the Aristotelian Claudius Severus. He learned from him the concept of a republic in which the same law applies to all, administered with equal rights and freedom of speech, where the sovereign’s primary value is the freedom of his subjects. Marcus never mentions Zeno by name and we’ve no idea to what extent his vision of the ideal “republic” would resemble the Republic of Zeno but his comments are striking and worth mentioning in this context.
From my “brother” [Claudius] Severus, to love my kin, and to love truth, and to love justice; and through him I learned to know Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dio, Brutus; and from him I received the idea of a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed. (Meditations, 1.14)
It may seem odd to modern readers that Marcus refers to a republic with “kingly government” that makes the freedom and equality of citizens its priority. We’re told by Diogenes Laertius that the Stoics advocated government with a mixed constitution, which is perhaps what Marcus envisaged, i.e., a combination of direct democracy, rule by elected officials and senators, and the appointment of an emperor who lived as close as possible to the style of a private citizen. His role would be to serve the people and collaborate with the senate, like Antoninus and Marcus, rather than operating like a dictator, as emperors like Nero and later Commodus did. (The Roman emperor was traditionally acclaimed by the legions and approved by the senate, often under duress; it’s not clear how they would be fairly appointed in a more free and equal republic.)
Surprisingly, from an Aristotelian, Marcus learned of the Stoic opposition to Nero, two of the leading figures being Thrasea and Helvidius. (Notably Marcus mentions these famous Stoics but not Seneca, whose collaboration with Nero they criticized.) The other figures he has in mind are thought to be as follows… Cato of Utica, the famous Stoic who opposed Julius Caesar, and tried unsuccessfully to prevent him turning the Roman Republic into a dictatorship. Brutus, his nephew, influenced by Stoicism and Platonism, who was the leading assassin of Caesar. And the Dio he mentions is most likely Dio Chrysostom, a student of Epictetus, who opposed the Emperor Domitian, and was influenced by a mixture of Cynicism, Platonism, and Stoicism. The overall theme is one of political opposition by philosophers against the tyrannical Roman emperors Nero and Domitian, and the dictator Julius Caesar.
The following come from the Historia Augusta and describe Marcus’ rule in terms that echo his remarks about freedom in The Meditations.
And now, after they had assumed the imperial power, the two emperors [Marcus and Lucius] acted in so democratic a manner that no one missed the lenient ways of [Antononius] Pius; for though Marullus, a writer of farces of the time, irritated them by his jests, he yet went unpunished. (Historia Augusta)
We’re told that in terms of his relationship with the Senate, he would say:
It is juster that I should yield to the counsel of such a number of such friends than that such a number of such friends should yield to my wishes, who am but one.
Like Antoninus before him, he presented himself as ruling collaboratively with the Senate and even respecting their authority. By contrast, autocratic emperors like Nero and Commodus chose to sideline the Senate.
The following is particularly striking when compared to Marcus’ remarks above:
Toward the people he [Marcus] acted just as one acts in a free state. He was at all times exceedingly reasonable both in restraining men from evil and in urging them to good, generous in rewarding and quick to forgive, thus making bad men good, and good men very good, and he even bore with unruffled temper the insolence of not a few. (Historia Augusta)
C.R. Haines quotes the following statements as characteristic the language used by Marcus in imperial rescripts attributed to him:
- “No one has a right to let his own negligence prejudice others.”
- “Let those who have charge of our interests know that the cause of liberty is to be set before any pecuniary advantage to ourselves.”
- “It would not be consistent with humanity to delay the enfranchisement of a slave for the sake of pecuniary gain.”
- “It would seem beyond measure unfair that a husband should insist upon a chastity from his wife which he does not practise himself”
- “Nothing must be done contrary to local custom.”
Addenda: Politics in the Stoa
The traditional Stoic curriculum is usually divided into three main parts: Logic, Ethics, Physics. However, we’re told by Diogenes Laertius that Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoa, makes not three, but six parts, Dialectic, Rhetoric, Ethics, Politics, Physics, Theology. For other Stoics, politics was probably subsumed under ethics. Diogenes also tells us:
Again, the Stoics say that the wise man will take part in politics, if nothing hinders him – so, for instance, Chrysippus in the first book of his work On Various Types of Life – since thus he will restrain vice and promote virtue.
As we’ve seen, the Republic of Zeno was perhaps the most important early Stoic text and depicts a Utopian political state. Perhaps his On Laws also dealt with politics, as it sounds, like Zeno’s Republic, as if it may have been intended as a critique of Plato’s book of the same name. Other books by early Stoics that sound as if they may have dealt with politics or related topics such as laws and constitutions include:
Persaeus’ Of Kingship, The Spartan Constitution, and A Reply to Plato’s Laws in seven books. Sphaerus’ On the Spartan Constitution, On Kingship, On Law, and three volumes entitled On Lycurgus and Socrates, Lycurgus being the legendary author of the Spartan constitution. Cleanthes’ The Statesman, On Counsel, On Laws, On Deciding as a Judge, and On Kingship. Chrysippus’ The Republic and On Justice.
The Stoic Handbook
Sign up today for our free email course on the Stoic Handbook. You'll receive weekly emails with my commentary on passages from Epictetus.