Lives of the Stoics


Paperback: 352 pages ISBN-10: 1788166019 ISBN-13: 978-1788166010



Short biographies of all the famous, and lesser-known, Stoics, to show what it means to live Stoically, and reveal the lessons to be learned from their struggles and successes. The result is a useful collection of insights and examples for anyone in search of living a good life.


The saying in Athens was that no one was more temperate than Zeno, but Cleanthes did more to establish the Stoic image of indifference to pain or discomfort as well as distaste for luxury. His cloak was once blown open by the cold wind to reveal not even a shirt underneath, a feat of asceticism that passersby spontaneously applauded.

Learn. Apply. Learn. Apply. Learn. Apply. This is the Stoic way.

All things end. Philosophy is there to remind us of that fact and to prepare us for the blows of life.

If you want the job done right, there’s no one better to do it than a Stoic. If you want someone to aid you in your crimes and corruption, there’s nobody worse.

It was all an early lesson that in an unpredictable world, the only thing we can really manage is ourselves—and that the space between our ears is the only territory we can conquer in any kind of certain and enduring way.

Antipater, who had spent his final moments counting the blessings of his voyage through life.

It’s a timeless question: If you actually knew what “success” and “power” looked like—what it did to the people who got it—would you still want it?

“Best,” to the Stoics, did not meaning winning battles. Superior did not mean accumulating the most honors. It meant, as it still does today, virtue. It meant excellence not in accomplishing external things—though that was always nice if fate allowed—but excellence in the areas that you controlled: Your thoughts. Your actions. Your choices.

In his writings, Posidonius held that the mind seeks wisdom and what is truly good, whereas the lower parts of the soul seek power and the glory of victory (like Pompey), as well as bodily pleasure.

We have competing parts within us, and what matters in life is which side we choose to turn ourselves over to.

The Stoic is supposed to be beyond grudges, beyond revenge, beyond petty competition or the need to win arguments. Certainly, they’re not supposed to do anything—let alone lie and mislead—out of spite.

Plutarch says that Cato was “accustoming himself to be ashamed only of what was really shameful and to ignore men’s low opinion of other things.” We naturally care what people think of us; we don’t want to seem too different, so we acquire the same tastes as everyone else. We accept what the crowd does so the crowd will accept us. But in doing this, we weaken ourselves. We compromise, often without knowing it; we allow ourselves to be bought—without even the benefit of getting paid for it.

Cato, on the contrary, cultivated self-control, propriety, but above all sternness. He did not vie in riches with the rich, nor in intrigue with intriguers, but with the energetic in merit, with the self-restrained in moderation, with the blameless in integrity. He preferred to be, rather than merely to seem, virtuous; hence the less he sought renown the more it overtook him.

A Stoic does the job that needs to be done. They don’t care about credit.

Whether one believed in ghosts or the supernatural, as Octavian likely did, was beside the point. Stoics must always keep their head. Even the scariest situations can be resolved with reason and courage. And even if you believe in silly things like ghosts or superstitions, you can’t let your life be ruled by them. You must be in charge—no excuses.

His definitions were straightforward, essentially defining virtue as types of knowledge. As he simply defines it: • Wisdom is the knowledge of what things must be done and what must not be done and what is neither, or appropriate acts (kathekonta). Within wisdom, we’ll find virtuous qualities like soundness of judgment, circumspection, shrewdness, sensibleness, soundness of aim, and ingenuity. • Self-control is the knowledge of what things are worth choosing and what are worth avoiding and what is neither. Contained within this virtue are things like orderliness, propriety, modesty, and self-mastery.

Justice is the knowledge of apportioning each person and situation what is due. Under this banner Stoics placed piety (giving gods their due), kindness, good fellowship, and fair dealing. • Bravery is the knowledge of what is terrible and what isn’t and what is neither. This included perseverance, intrepidness, greatheartedness, stoutheartedness, and, one of Arius’s most favored virtuous qualities—one he illustrated well in his own life—philoponia, or industriousness.

“None of the worthless are industrious,” Arius wrote. “For industriousness is a disposition able to accomplish unhesitatingly what is befitting through toil, and none of the worthless are unhesitating with regard to toil.”

As Arius would write, like Panaetius before him, we each have our own implanted gifts (aphormai), resources that can lead us to virtue. Our personalities suit us differently to different paths of ethical development. We all have different launching points, but these inborn tools together with hard effort will get us to where we want to go.

In a famous exchange, which is preserved to us by Epictetus, Agrippinus was approached by a philosopher who was wrestling with whether he should attend and perform at some banquet thrown by Nero, one that we can imagine Seneca had prepared a speech for. Agrippinus told the man he should go. But why, the man asked? Because you were even thinking about it. For me, Agrippinus said, it’s not even a question.

“The same purpose should possess both master and scholar,” Attalus said of his methods, “an ambition in the one case to promote, and the other to progress.”

This part of Seneca, his earnest commitment to self-improvement—firm but kind (“See that you don’t do that again,” he would say to himself, “but now I forgive you”)—was beloved by his teachers and clearly encouraged.

“This is our big mistake,” Seneca wrote, “to think we look forward toward death. Most of death is already gone. Whatever time has passed is owned by death.”

He writes in Thyestes, “It is a vast kingdom to be able to cope without a kingdom.” This too he was painfully experiencing. For the third time in his life Seneca had lost next to everything. He believed, as he would now write to Lucilius, that “the greatest empire is to be emperor of oneself.”

There was an irony in Nero’s attack on Plautus that he would not have appreciated but Seneca had long predicted. As he wrote in Oedipus, “He who indulges empty fears earns himself real fears.”

A Stoic must learn when to walk away when the cause is hopeless. Seneca realized this too late, well after he was complicit in enabling Nero.

Nero had eliminated another enemy, and a potential check against his excesses. But as Seneca had warned him, crimes return upon those who commit them, and no one can murder or kill enough to make themselves invincible.

fortified against the chances of fortune.”

You do your job, I’ll do mine, the Stoic says. You be evil, I’ll be good. Let everything else come what may.

To Musonius, the sign of a successful philosopher was not the loud cheering of supporters. It was silence. Because it meant the audience was actually thinking—it meant they were wrestling with the difficult ideas that the speaker was getting across.

As he said, “And yet would not anyone admit how much better it is, instead of exerting oneself to win someone else’s wife, to exert oneself to discipline one’s desires; instead of enduring hardships for the sake of money, to train oneself to want little; instead of giving oneself trouble about getting notoriety, to give oneself trouble how not to thirst for notoriety; instead of trying to find a way to injure an envied person, to inquire how not to envy anyone; and instead of slaving, as sycophants do, to win false friends, to undergo suffering in order to possess true friends?”

He had reminded Thrasea that there is no reason to choose a heavier misfortune if we can make do with the one in front of us. We can train ourselves to be satisfied with the difficulties fortune has chosen to give us.

But what of all the comforts he was deprived of? Musonius chose to think about what he still had access to—the sun, water, air.

Musonius Rufus believed that we were like doctors, treating ourselves with reason. The power to think clearly, to get to the truth of a matter, that was what nursed that rock-hard, unbreakable citadel of a soul that he had. He was not interested in shortcuts, he said, or smelling salts that “revive … but do not cure the disease.”

“A stone, because of its makeup, will return to earth if you throw it up in the air,” Epictetus recounts Musonius telling him. “Likewise, the more one pushes the intelligent person away from the life he was born for, the more he inclines towards it.”

Like Epictetus, he had cultivated a distinct distaste for the rich and the corruptions of their money. So he liked to taunt them. We’re told by one witness that Musonius once awarded a thousand sesterces to a charlatan posing as a philosopher. When someone stepped in to say that this man was a liar and unworthy of such a gift, Musonius was amused. “Money,” he replied, “is exactly what he deserves.”

“If one accomplishes some good though with toil, the toil passes, but the good remains,” he said. “If one does something dishonorable with pleasure, the pleasure passes, but the dishonor remains.”

We must do the right thing, no matter how difficult, Musonius was saying. A Stoic must avoid doing the wrong thing, even if the reward for it is great.

“The ruin of the ruler and the citizen alike,” Musonius told him, “is wantonness.”

No one can take away our ability to remain undaunted.

“Philosophy is nothing else than to search out by reason what is right and proper and by deeds put it into practice.” Rufus had said this, but more important he had lived it.

“Freedom is the prize we are working for: not being a slave to anything—not to compulsion, not to chance events,” Seneca had written.

If a person wants to be happy, wants to feel fairly treated, wants to be rich, according to Epictetus, they don’t need life to be easy, people to be nice, and money to flow freely. They need to look at the world right. “It’s not things that upset us,” he would say, “it’s our judgment about things.” Our opinions determine the reality we experience. Epictetus didn’t believe it was possible to be offended or frustrated, not without anyone’s consent.

Persist and resist. The ingredients of freedom, whatever one’s condition.

A Stoic’s greatest, most impressive triumph, he said, is not over other people or enemy armies but over oneself—over our limitations, our tempers, our egos, our petty desires. We all have these impulses; what sets us apart is if we rise above them. What makes us impressive is what we are able to make of this crooked material we were born with.

The emperor Hadrian, who would have known young Marcus through his early academic accomplishments, sensing his potential, began to keep an eye on him. His nickname for Marcus, whom he liked to go hunting with, was “Verissimus”—a play on his name Verus—the truest one.

His dictum in life and in leadership was simple and straightforward: “Do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter.” No better expression or embodiment of Stoicism is found in his line (and his living of that line) than: “Waste no more time talking about what a good man is like. Be one.”

As Epictetus wrote, “Is it possible to be free from error? Not by any means, but it is possible to be a person stretching to avoid error.” That’s what Stoicism is. It’s stretching. Training. To be better. To get better. To avoid one more mistake, to take one step closer toward that ideal. Not perfection, but progress—that’s what each of these lives was about. The only question that remains for us, the living heirs to this tradition: Are we doing that work?