Consult the oracle

There is a curious story about Zeno of Citium (333-261BC, founder of the school of Stoicism) told in a collection of philosopher’s lives by biographer Diogenes Laërtius (Lives of Eminent Philosophers).

Zeno “…consulted the oracle to know what he should do to attain the best life, and that the god’s response was that he should take on the colour (complexion) of the dead. Whereupon, perceiving what this meant, he studied ancient authors.” (7.2)

What does it mean to take on the colour of the dead? And how could this lead to reading the Classics?

One interpretation, in the context of ancient Greece, is that it meant to retire indoors and conduct intellectual pursuits thereby avoiding the effects sun exposure.  Another interpretation is that of mimicking the dead. To ‘take on the colour of the dead’ is to be like the dead (Socrates being the obvious model here).

Oracles are not straightforward speakers yet Zeno knew what do to with the advice he’d been granted. Perhaps he was going to read the Classics all along and saw confirmation in the oracle’s words?

Could we, then, be our own oracle? Can we predict our future path by doing exactly what we already know we want to do? Can we bring about our possible written works as though the oracle had uttered our course of life?

Ἑκάτων δέ φησι καὶ Ἀπολλώνιος ὁ Τύριος ἐν πρώτῳ Περὶ Ζήνωνος, χρηστηριασαμένου αὐτοῦ τί ράττων ἄριστα βιώσεται, ἀπο-κρίνασθαι τὸν θέον, εἰ συγχρωτίζοιτο τοῖς νεκροῖς· ὅθεν ξυνέντα τὰ τῶν ἀρχαίων ἀναγινώσκειν. τῷ οὖν Κράτητι παρέβαλε τοῦτον τὸν τρόπον. 7.2

2 Comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s