Throughout history, philosophy has been a guiding force for people all over the world, shaping opinions and crafting ideologies. The same can be said for Stoicism, a school of philosophy that can be traced back to Ancient Greece and started with Zeno of Citium.
Thousands of years later, Stoicism continues to play a role in the way people live their lives and learn from the lessons that stoics like Zeno and Marcus Aurelius preached. These lessons are captured in great detail by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman in Lives Of The Stoics.
The birth of Stoicism
Holiday frames the book through Stoicism’s journey from Ancient Greece to Ancient Rome, beginning with Zeno and ending with the rise of the philosopher king Marcus Aurelius. The philosophy itself is fascinating, holding to the four virtues of justice, wisdom, temperance and courage. It’s easy to see Stoicism as the absence of emotion, of enduring unspeakable things and carrying on, but it goes far beyond that.
Stoicism is an evolving principle that’s seen through the lives of the merchants, generals, athletes and slaves in Holiday’s book. Zeno was the prophet of Stoicism, yet the frugal Cleanthes was his apostle, striving for the joy of hard work and living a temperate lifestyle to his dying day.
Chrysippus of Soli, a born athlete and fighter, carried the philosophy on his back and fought to defend it against other schools of thought. He learned counter arguments and found a way to bring balance against Stoic rebels like Aristo, who saw good and evil as black and white and that only sages were fit to be rulers.
There was Zeno The Maintainer, who provided stability and allowed men like Diogenes and Antipater to bring Stoicism to Rome and into the halls of power.
In the second half of the book, Holiday concentrates on the Roman Stoics and how the philosophy shifted to take on pragmatic and binding principles through people like Panaetius, who founded the Scipionic Circle alongside the great general Scipio Africanus.
These teachings paved the way for Publius Rutilius Rufus, the last honest man of Rome who refused to bend to corruption and was willing to be exiled for his beliefs. There’s also Posidonius, a genius and friend of Rufus who saw the corruption that was eating away at Rome from the inside.
Then comes the cautionary tale of Diotimus The Vicious, who bent the virtues of Stoicism to his own will to slander and disgrace Epicureanism. Diotimus wasn’t the only example of someone who used the principles of Stoicism for his own ends. There’s a chapter dedicated to the life of Cicero and his ambitions to climb to the top of the Roman elite. While Cicero admired the Stoics and wrote about them extensively, he could never bring himself to embrace their principles.
Cato The Younger was the complete opposite. The Iron Man of Rome, Cato lived and breathed his principles, fighting against the rise of Caesar and ultimately giving his life for what he believed in. The same can be said for his daughter Porcia, who carried on her father’s fight until she couldn’t.
Applying stoicism to the modern day
Through all the chapters, Holiday weaves in advice on what we can learn from these great men and women who fought, bled and died for the virtues of justice, courage, wisdom and temperance.
The book ends with the following quote:
“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 avoid one more mistake, to take one step closer towards that ideal. Not perfection, but progress. That’s what each of these lives was about.”
It can be summed up by the idea that all of us are human. To be a Stoic isn’t to live without emotion or not to feel connected to anyone. It’s not only about self-improvement. It’s about living for others, of having the courage to stand up, to forgive, to take responsibility, to take action.