Cleanthes

(331- 232 B.C.E.)

 

Cleanthes was a Stoic philosopher and the second head of the Stoic school. Born in Assos in the Troad, he came to Athens, where he attended first the lectures of Crates the Cynic and later those of Zeno of Citium, founder of the Stoa or "Porch," whose teachings Cleanthes afterward followed. Renowned for his industry and limitless patience, he was esteemed for his high moral qualities and complete lack of arrogance. Ancient opinions tended to discount any originality of mind in him, describing him as a plodder and awarding him the title of "the Ass." Under his leadership the fortunes of the Stoic school seem to have faltered by were revived by its "second founder," Chrysippus. Yet, one may question so low an estimate of his capabilities; after all, his famous pupil, Chrysippus, held him in reverence. Gentle in his dealings with opponents, choosing to see the cogency (rather than the failings) of their arguments, he is said to have written fifty works, only fragments of which are extant.

He is best remembered for his Hymn to Zeus, fine poetry which admirably summarizes the leading tenets of early Stoicism: wonder and submission to the world order; fate blended with free will. Carrying forward Zeno’s assimilation of the Heraclitean doctrine of flux and transforming his dualism of fire (god) and formless matter (the active and passive principles), Cleanthes created the lofty pantheism so strikingly expressed in his famous Hymn.

He also stressed the materialistic temper of Zeno’s doctrine: whatever is, is at once capable of acting and of being acted upon. For all of this, there is an antecedent cause, and since "cause" means cause of the motion of any body and since only body can act on body, it follows that the antecedent cause is as corporeal as the matter upon which it acts. The two principles are thus coextensive. Cleanthes coupled this Pansomatism with the physical property tonos, tension, to formulate the Stoic explanation of the structure of the universe, thus accounting for the destinies of all particulars: the tension of the one omnipresent substance is the cause of the universal flux. Application of the concept of tonos to natural philosophy (Zeno and Cynics restricted it to ethics) is largely due to Cleanthes; it is his contribution to the elaboration of Stoic physics.

For the early Stoics, investigation into man’s destiny turned on their conception of the summum bonum: true happiness is the morally honorable life derived from nature’s recommendation; "live according to nature" has ever since been a Stoic hallmark. With Cleanthes the emphasis on nature (ambiguous with Zeno) was first marked out, taking the nature of the universe alone as that with which man’s life ought to be in accord. (without adding the nature of man, an elaboration of Chrysippus)

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last Updated: 6/3/19
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