Lives of the Stoics | Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman | Book Summary


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Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman


From the bestselling authors of The Daily Stoic comes an inspiring guide to the lives of the Stoics, and what the ancients can teach us about happiness, success, resilience and virtue.

Nearly 2,300 years after a ruined merchant named Zeno first established a school on the Stoa Poikile of Athens, Stoicism has found a new audience among those who seek greatness, from athletes to politicians and everyone in between. It’s no wonder; the philosophy and its embrace of self-mastery, virtue, and indifference to that which we cannot control is as urgent today as it was in the chaos of the Roman Empire.

In Lives of the Stoics, Holiday and Hanselman present the fascinating lives of the men and women who strove to live by the timeless Stoic virtues of Courage. Justice. Temperance. Wisdom. Organized in digestible, mini-biographies of all the well-known–and not so well-known–Stoics, this book vividly brings home what Stoicism was like for the people who loved it and lived it, dusting off powerful lessons to be learned from their struggles and successes.

More than a mere history book, every example in these pages, from Epictetus to Marcus Aurelius–slaves to emperors–is designed to help the reader apply philosophy in their own lives. Holiday and Hanselman unveil the core values and ideas that unite figures from Seneca to Cato to Cicero across the centuries. Among them are the idea that self-rule is the greatest empire, that character is fate; how Stoics benefit from preparing not only for success, but failure; and learn to love, not merely accept, the hand they are dealt in life. A treasure of valuable insights and stories, this book can be visited again and again by any reader in search of inspiration from the past.


Life of Zeno

Stoicism may have grown into a towering world philosophy but it had humble beginnings. This influential school of thought all started with one man, a devastating shipwreck, and a humble porch stoop.

Our story starts in the Mediterranean, in the fourth century BCE, with a wealthy merchant called Zeno.

Zeno made a good living by trading in a rare purple dye made from sea-snail blood. But one day, his comfortable life came crashing down when a ship carrying his precious cargo was wrecked at sea. Zeno and his family lost everything.

Stoicism was forged in the fire of hardship.

Some people would have been broken by this devastating turn of events, but not Zeno. He confronted his bad luck with resilience and courage – exactly the sort of qualities that Stoicism would come to represent. Rather than dwell on his misfortune, Zeno moved to the city of Athens, the beating heart of Ancient Greece, and reinvented himself as a philosopher.

He’d chosen the right place.

Fourth century Athens was centered around both business and, shamefully, the slave trade. The city’s commercial success and its slave labor force meant that the city’s educated elite had plenty of time to ponder life’s biggest existential questions. Before long, Zeno found a respected teacher called Crates of Thebes to introduce him to the basics of philosophy.

Crates wasted no time in giving Zeno an eccentric first lesson using a pot of lentil soup. Crates asked him to take this soup across the city. Believing that this task was beneath him, Zeno took the soup through the back streets in order to avoid being seen. But when Crates noticed him sneaking around, he tipped the soup all over him as a lesson on not caring so much about what other people thought.

Before long, Zeno became a respected philosopher in his own right. He founded a new philosophy, called Stoicism, and formulated its four guiding principles: courage, wisdom, temperance, and justice.

Like the Stoics who came after him, Zeno believed that philosophy should not be confined to the classroom but should instead be put into action in daily life. So, rather than shouting from a bell tower or in a grand lecture hall, Zeno and his followers discussed their ideas on a porch in the middle of Athens known as the Stoa Poikile. Perhaps the greatest testament to Zeno’s modesty is that he named his philosophy after this very porch rather than after himself.


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Life of Cleanthes

These days, society doesn’t really care how a philosophy professor lives his life. In Ancient Greece, though, philosophers were an object of fascination to their fellow citizens. Everyone had an opinion on their ideas and their characters, and in the case of our next Stoic, these opinions weren’t always pleasant.

Cleanthes was born in 330 BCE on the Aegean coast, and he would become one of Zeno’s most devoted students. Born into a poor family, Cleanthes struggled and toiled all his life. But while most of us seek to escape hard labor, Cleanthes welcomed it.

Cleanthes believed a spartan life was its own reward.

Though his reputation as a philosopher grew, he continued to study Stoicism during the day and work as a water carrier for wealthy Athenians at night. He could have easily quit this manual labor – there were many people who were willing to pay for Cleanthes’ time and knowledge. But Cleanthes always refused these offers, even when the Macedonian king, Antigonus II Gonatas, invited Cleanthes to become his personal tutor.

As a Stoic, Cleanthes understood that there is honor in hard work and that even a lowly job like water-carrying, when done well, is noble and virtuous. Cleanthes didn’t see a contradiction between his two occupations: philosopher and laborer. In fact, he was of the opinion that being a water carrier helped him to become a better philosopher. When we think about it, it’s not difficult to see why. Physical labor, while exhausting, allows our minds to wander and observe people. It gives us the headspace to think about our ideas, quietly, while carrying out our tasks.

Like many true Stoics, Cleanthes also lived a very frugal life. He was even reported to write down his thoughts on oyster shells and ox bones so that he didn’t have to buy papyrus paper. Through his spartan lifestyle, Cleanthes exemplified the Stoic virtue of indifference to discomfort.

But not everyone appreciated this hard-working, penny-pinching, philosophy student.

His fellow Athenians mocked the fact that he’d spent 20 years studying under his teacher, Zeno. He was dubbed a simpleton: a sluggish lump of stone that could not be molded. But Cleanthes handled his critics with good humor. Instead of being offended when people laughed at him, he often responded by poking fun at himself, too. Like many Stoics, Cleanthes used humor as a way to avoid complaining or dwelling on discomfort.


Life of Cicero

Born in Ancient Rome in 106 BCE, Cicero is best remembered today for his book Stoic Paradoxes. In this fascinating work, Cicero discusses the counterintuitive nature of Stoicism’s central ideas. For example, why do Stoics say that virtue is all one needs when money and good health are also essential for life? And how could Stoics believe that only wise people were rich when so many philosophers were living in poverty?

If it weren’t for Cicero’s writings, many of these Stoic ideas and paradoxes would be lost to modern audiences. But although he did Stoicism a great service by immortalizing its ideas in ink, Cicero often failed to follow its teachings in his own life.

Not every Stoic practiced what they preached.

Born to an unknown family in a small town outside Rome, Cicero spent his young adult life climbing the career ladder at a dizzying pace. Eventually, he was named the consul of Rome and commander of the Roman army. During his meteoric rise, Cicero gained popularity when he successfully prosecuted a corrupt magistrate called Verres, who had stolen vast sums of money from the people of Sicily.

But although his actions embodied the Stoic values of justice and courage, his motives were a little less virtuous. In fact, Cicero was largely driven by vanity, personal ambition, and the pursuit of fame and riches – the very opposite of Stoic principles.

Before long, Cicero’s disregard of Stoic teachings would have disastrous consequences.

Soon after he took up his post as consul, Cicero faced a dangerous rival in the form of a Roman senator, Catiline. When Catiline attempted to stage a coup and stationed an army outside Rome, Cicero took decisive but immoral action. He chose to execute Catiline’s supporters for their rebellion – without trial. By the time Cicero was finished, thousands of men had been killed. In this shameful incident, Cicero had allowed his fury to guide him. But as a student of Stoicism, he should have known that justice, rather than passion, is the best master.

In later years, Cicero also failed his life’s greatest test due to a lack of courage.

In 49 BCE, Julius Caesar and his fearsome army were on the brink of grabbing power in Rome, and Cicero was invited to be part of the Republic’s military fightback. But Cicero chose to do nothing. Instead of having the courage to fight against tyranny, he sat back and accommodated Caesar when he eventually became Rome’s dictator.


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Life of Cato the Younger

Some people are born fearless. While the rest of us will choose the easy path more often than the difficult, more true one, these rare individuals always stick to their convictions, even in the face of danger. An example of a person who embodies such characteristics, our next historical figure demonstrated the Stoic virtue of courage. But, as you’ll learn, his sense of conviction sometimes led him to the wrong choices.

Born in Rome in 95 BCE, Cato the Younger was a contemporary of Cicero. However, these two men could not have been more different in their outlook on life. Where Cicero cared only for his own interests, Cato only ever cared about what was right.

Cato the Younger chose Stoicism over pragmatism.

As a young child, Cato refused to speak on an unscrupulous soldier’s behalf. In response, and in an attempt to force him to relent, the soldier held him over a high balcony by his ankles. Amazingly, Cato remained unafraid, neither pleading for his life nor even blinking at the prospect of death. Eventually, the soldier pulled him back up and acknowledged that this four-year-old boy had a stronger will than he did.

Cato’s Stoic sense of conviction would guide his adult life, too.

As a leading politician, Cato spent his career fighting Rome’s endemic corruption and working to advance the rights of the plebs – Rome’s lower classes. The other elites resented his principled stance, but all that mattered to Cato was that his actions were righteous. That, he said, was what it meant to be a true philosopher and a true Stoic.

But Cato’s unwavering commitment to righteousness would eventually lead to disastrous consequences.

His problems began when Pompey, one of the political elite, asked to marry Cato’s daughter. Cato knew that the only reason Pompey wanted to join their two families in this way was that he sought to make a political alliance with him. The marriage would have been the more expedient thing to do, but to Cato, the arrangement seemed unjust and underhand. So he refused.

Had Cato put aside his convictions for a moment and thought about the situation pragmatically, though, he would’ve realized the danger in saying no.

After Cato’s refusal, Pompey instead married Julius Caesar’s daughter, Julia. The marriage gave Caesar a major political boost and together, the two men forged a new and autocratic future for Rome. Before too long, Caesar would invade Rome and destroy the Republic.

All of this could’ve been avoided if Cato had chosen to descend from his moral high ground, just a little, and formed the alliance with Pompey.


Life of Porcia Cato

As we traverse the philosophical landscape of antiquity, you may be wondering where all the women are. Unfortunately, much as in the rest of human history, women have mostly been erased from the story of Stoicism.

Still, there’s no greater example of Stoic fortitude than the unsung women who endured all the same tyranny, wars, and hardships as their male counterparts. They gave birth, without pain relief, to the Catos, the Ciceros and the Zenos of Ancient Rome and Greece, but their struggles and sacrifices went unrecorded and unappreciated by the history books.

There is only one female Stoic whose brave deeds have been recorded.

This woman’s name was Porcia Cato, and she was the daughter of Cato the Younger.

After suffering the loss of her first husband during Rome’s civil war, Porcia remarried a man named Brutus. During their marriage, Brutus and his fellow co-conspirators plotted to kill Julius Caesar, who was now the emperor and dictator of Rome. Aware that her husband was planning something but unsure of what, Porcia decided to take extreme action to show Brutus that she was a worthy confidante.

Now, while most of us would simply ask to be told what the plot was, Porcia stabbed herself in the thigh with a knife.

When Brutus returned home, he found her bleeding profusely. “Look,” Porcia said, “at the pain, I can endure.” By hurting herself in this way, she sought to prove that she possessed a tough and Stoic character and would therefore be able to withstand extreme pain if necessary. She wanted to show him that she would not break down under interrogation if she were ever tortured for information. Upon seeing this proof of his wife’s iron will, Brutus immediately shared the details of the plot with her. And when he and the other men savagely stabbed Caesar to death, Porcia was waiting at home, praying that everything had gone to plan.

Tragically, this was not the last time that Porcia would demonstrate her Stoic courage and indifference to pain.

Just two years after Caesar’s assassination, Brutus was killed in a civil war started by Mark Antony, one of Caesar’s diehard supporters. Although there are conflicting accounts about exactly what happened, one writer reports that, when Porcia learned of her husband’s death, she rushed to the fireplace and swallowed hot coals. In doing so, she dramatically took her own life so that she might be reunited with her husband in the afterlife.


Life of Seneca

What do you do when embracing one Stoic virtue means turning your back on another? This was the dilemma faced by Seneca the Younger, the most famous Stoic philosopher of all time.

Like Cicero, Seneca is best remembered for his literary accomplishments and especially for his book of letters and essays, On Morality. But although Seneca is celebrated for his words on the topic, he showed poor moral judgment during his time on earth.

According to Stoic philosophy, we all have a moral duty to involve ourselves in politics in order to contribute to the public good. Perhaps it was this Stoic principle that, in 50 CE, drove Seneca to take up an invitation to tutoring a 12-year-old child – a boy who was destined to become the next emperor of Rome. The child’s name was Nero, and he was the adopted son of Emperor Claudius.

Seneca’s Stoic legacy is tainted with blood.

But Nero’s behavior was cruel and entitled, lazy and vain. Seneca tried to teach him the Stoic values of wisdom, justice, and mercy, but with little success. Even as a child, Nero was showing unmistakable signs of the man, and the ruler, he would become.

Four years later, Nero’s mother Agrippina murdered his father, Claudius, clearing the way for the 16-year-old Nero to become emperor himself. And it wasn’t long before this new boy-emperor showed his own evil tendencies. First, Nero murdered his mother, and then he slaughtered every single male relative who might be a future rival to the throne.

Where was Seneca during this bloodshed? Shamefully, he was right by Nero’s side as his faithful teacher. For the next 15 years, Seneca remained loyal to Nero, even as the young emperor revealed himself to be a tyrannical psychopath.

While Seneca did encourage Nero to have mercy on his enemies, when this failed, he didn’t have the courage or the self-discipline to walk away.

Instead, Seneca took the opportunity to amass more wealth than any other philosopher in history and lived a decadent lifestyle. He may have told himself that he was doing his Stoic political duty by staying so close to power, but in reality, his wealth was built on Nero’s evil deeds.

Ultimately, Seneca lacked the moral strength of other Stoics like Cleanthes and Cato. Rather than living his philosophy, he wrote about it. You’ll have to judge for yourself whether that was enough.


Life of Marcus Aurelius

It’s often said that absolute power is absolutely corrupting. And all too often, history has shown this to be the case. But our final Stoic figure seems to be the exception to the rule. Through the shining example of his own life and leadership, he showed us what humanity is truly capable of. And arguably, it was thanks to his Stoicism that he achieved such greatness.

We are talking about Marcus Aurelius, the world’s first philosopher-king.

Born to a respected Roman family in 121 CE, Marcus was just 17 years old when the heirless Emperor Hadrian chose him as his successor and invited him to join the imperial family. While many young men would let this huge change in fortune go to their heads, Marcus remained the kind and humble boy he’d always been. Even when he moved into the palace, he still visited his tutor’s houses rather than letting them come to him.

The key message here is: Marcus Aurelius led the Roman empire with Stoic humility and compassion.

Incredibly, one of his first acts was to share power with his adoptive brother Lucius, naming him co-emperor. Consider what a radical act this was when other rulers like Nero had murdered their rivals. But Marcus’ benevolence didn’t stop there. When he learned that one of his closest political allies, Cassius, was plotting a coup against him, Marcus quickly forgave the conspirators for their betrayal and wept when someone killed Cassius in revenge.

As a true Stoic, Marcus ensured his decisions were always guided by the interests of ordinary Romans rather than his own comfort. Just consider his actions when the Roman empire was ravaged by the Antonine Plague. Needing to refill Rome’s dwindling treasury, Marcus could easily have raised his people’s taxes. But instead, he took all the ornaments from his imperial palaces and sold them to the highest bidder.

From Marcus’ writings, we know that he worked hard to live up to his Stoic philosophy.

In his book Meditations, he writes about his feelings of jealousy, anger, and lust. But whereas many of us give in to these emotions, Marcus sought to master them. He writes of finding guidance in Stoic wisdom, using it to create a moral framework for his leadership.

Ultimately, Marcus Aurelius’ life and writings are perhaps the most potent demonstration of the power of Stoicism. Because this philosophy is about improving our imperfect human selves so that we can stay true to our values, whatever life throws at us.

Stoicism teaches us the virtues of courage and justice and implores us to do our political duty for the greater good. The founding fathers of Stoicism did not always live up to their own philosophy, but through their lives and their mistakes, we can learn the value of selfless integrity and the dangers of vanity and decadence.


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