“You’ve wandered all over and finally realised that you never found what you were after: how to live. Not in syllogisms, not in money, or fame, or self-indulgence. Nowhere.” The Stoics aimed to answer the timeless question, ‘How can I make my life count?’”
Lives of the Stoics — The Art of Living
Timeless Lessons of Life
The book, Lives of the Stoics, by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, will change me forever. There were so many remarkable moments: the build up to the philosopher king Marcus Aurelius, the history behind the Nero I had so often heard about in Church (for his persecution of Christians), the realisation that there is a grand misconception about those who lived millennia ago: they were not all barbarians but some of the most astute, intelligent, and practical minds to have ever lived. I learnt that “philosophy is not some fun diversion but something to be taken deadly seriously”, something to live by — a pathway to a truly great life.
If you were to sum Stoicism up, it would be this:
Do not talk about it.
I will provide a summary not of the details of the stoics, for instance, Cicero writing 500 words a day each night, but the timeless lessons from their lives — a guide to life that has proved itself irrespective of the ages. Without further ado, here are the lessons of life.
The Stoics cared what you did, not what you said. They were not unfeeling beasts of burden who suffered through life and only looked inward, but rather people who bled and died for change, whether it was appreciated and successful or not. They asked: What is right? What is true north? They wanted to find tranquility, purpose, self-control, and happiness.
“You’ve wandered all over and finally realised that you never found what you were after: how to live. Not in syllogisms, not in money, or fame, or self-indulgence. Nowhere.”
Zeno, The Prophet
334 BC — 262 BC
Books are a way to gain wisdom from those no longer with us. Is it not remarkable how many have come before us? How much wisdom there is that we have ignored?
Aristo, The Challenger
306 BC — 240 BC
Believed that virtue was the path to happiness and that circumstances always and uniquely alter the value of things. He believed that working within the system is a much more effective way of changing minds than challenging everyone and everything. He also believed that we did not need any rules or books, just the north star: virtue.
Chrysippus, The Fighter
279 BC — 206 BC
“It is not wrong to seek after the things useful in life but to do so while depriving someone else is not just.”
“Let no one think that ideas that change the world do so on their own.” — Many are sent to the dustbin of history.
There is sometimes no better way to strengthen your defence than to learn your opponent’s offense. Philosophy, Chrysippus believed, was the “cultivation of rightness of reason.” To have but not want, to enjoy without needing — that is what he aimed for.
Antipater, The Ethicist
Unknown — 129 BC
Antipater brought back Stoicism from the extremes to the common sense approach: it was no longer black or white or “virtuous or vicious.” Nevertheless, he was intent on establishing clear principles from which every action must descend.
Ethical behaviour is like being an archer: We train and practice, we draw back the arrow and aim it to the best of our abilities. But we know full well that despite this, many factors outside our control influence where the arrow hits the target — or if it falls short entirely. That’s why we know that our true worth doesn’t reside in whether or not we get a bull’s eye. Focus on the process, not the outcome.
We must ensure that our self-interest does not override the inner compass each of us is born with. Do the right thing.
“What’s bad for the hive is bad for the bee and vice versa” — Marcus Aurelius
Panaetius, The Connector
185 BC — 109 BC
Stoicisim was born in Athens, but it came of age and to power in Rome.
Learn. Apply. Learn. Apply.
This is the Stoic way.
We are still struggling to find the right balance between nationalism and globalism, the concerns of the many and the concerns of ourselves. We must find a way to balance our roles and duties from our decisions and commitments. We must live consistently with our own nature (tendencies and needs) and our duties, whilst make the most of the resources we have been given.
Life is not theoretical — it is violent and forceful. It is not just a contest with ourselves but actual combat. Thus, we need to be prepared for the blows that will inevitably fall upon us. Panaetius made philosophy more practical and accessible for people.
The Ancients faced the same questions as us: Who am I? What should I do with my life? How can I make my life count? It’s why we should learn and read.
“It is a fine thing also, when we gain advantage from the friendship of great men, to turn it to the welfare of our community.” — Plutarch
Publius Rutlius Rufus, The Last Honest Man
158 BC — 78 BC
When the state is beyond redemption and helplessly corrupt, the wise man will stay away.
Power attracts ego, rewards vanity, dis-incentivises responsibility.
Posidonius, The Genius
135 BC — 51 BC
In an unpredictable world, the only thing we can really manage is ourselves. Good times rarely make for great people, or great governments. You can and should be interested in everything because you can learn wisdom from everything. The more you experience, the more you learn.
The cost of ambition and insatiable appetites: if you knew what “success” and “power” looked like — what it did to the people who got it — would you still want it?
It’s so easy to be corrupted and cut off from virtue. Be wary of ambition. Avoid the mob. Being the best is excellence in those areas you control: your thoughts your actions, your choices. Good habits and lifestyle — set in place y the mind — are checks against the irrational parts of the soul (which want glory, victory, power, and bodily pleasure.
We have competition parts in us, the north and south, the good wolf and the bad wolf, which side will we choose to turn to? Which wolf will we feed?
Diotimus, The Viscious
Unknown — Unknown
The good we do in life is easily forgotten, but the evil we do lives on and on. No matter how much training or reading we have done, a snap decision made in the moment can undo all of it. That one deed can overwhelm and obscure everything else that you did in your life, like Brutus.
Cicero, The Fellow Traveller
106 BC — 43 BC
This man was not a Stoic but it is due to his writing that we know much of the ancient Stoics. He produced 500 lines a night. He used philosophy and literature as a vehicle for realising his potential, as a way to get ahead.
Seneca wrote of the importance of choosing someone to see as a ruler to measure and guide oneself against — who will be your Cato?
Cicero would get nearly everything he wanted yet came to regret it. He suffered craving, not being praised enough.
Our choices may earn us a few years of life, but at what cost? Virtue is the only good, sufficient for happiness. All virtues and vices are equal. Only the sage is fully free. The wise person alone is fully rich.
“Would that he had been able to endure prosperity with more self-control and adversity with more fortitude… He invited enmity with greater spirit than he fought it.”
Cato, The Younger, Rome’s Iron Man
95 BC — 46 BC
“There are not many men like Cato…” — People were hostile towards him because his very essence seemed to shame them.
In accepting what the crowd does so they accept us, we weaken ourselves, we compromise often without knowing it, we allow ourselves to be bough — without even the benefit of getting paid for it.
The results of doing well, “will not disappear as long as you live” whilst taking a shortcut or doing something bad may provide some relief, “the pleasure will quickly disappear [and] the wicked thing will stay with your forever” — just how Brutus’ assassination tarnished his life.
Porcia Cato, The Iron Woman
70 BC — 43/42 BC
Porcia was all action and no talk. She had no desire to be credited. She died as the republic died its final death.
We must do what needs to be done.
Athenodorus Cananites, The Kingmaker
74 BC — 7 AD
The Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire and the first Caesar: Octavian — Augustus Caesar.
You must be in charge — there are no excuses: keep in mind temperance, wisdom, and diligence.
Even if you believe in them, you cannot let your life be ruled by ghosts and superstitions. He balanced teachings on sobriety and hard work with a focus on tranquility and friends.
The mind must be replenished with pleasure, Athendorus believed, or it was likely to break under pressure, or be susceptible to vices.
Busy yourself with practical matters, rather than given in completely to stress and grief.
Whenever you get angry, do not say or do anything until you’ve repeated the 24 letters of the alphabet to yourself.
Arius Didymus, The Kingmaker II
70 BC — 10 AD
Under the reign of Augustus, the population rose to some 45 million inhabitants.
“Do not, I implore you, take a perverse pride in appearing the most unhappy of woman and reflect also that there is no great credit in behaving broudy in times of prosperity when life glides easily with a favouring current: neither does a calm sea and fair wind displays the art of the pilot: some weather is wanted to prove his courage. Like him, do not give way, but rather plant yourself firmly, and endure whatever burden may fall upon you from above. There is nothing that fastens a reproach on Fortune than resignation”
It is not enough to know the values, you must implement them.
We need guidance and we need to love the process of getting better, or we will regress to the level of everyone else. We all have our own implanted gifts (aphormai), resources that can lead us to virtue. We all have different launching points.
“We must focus on the task at hand, and waste not a moment on the tasks that are not ours.”
Agrippunus, The Different
Unknown — 67 AD
We are all threads of a garment — most people are indistinguishable from each other, one thread among countless others. Most people are happy confirming. Yes, the beauty of the garment is made by threads that stand out, but it’s equally true that the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.
Individuality and conformity — what many people pay lip service to — it’s almost a new form of conformity — we talk about being our unique selves but deep down we know it’s just talk. Under pressure, when it really counts, we do the same things as everyone else.
He believed that the right thing is obvious, if you have good character.
Seneca, The Striver
4 BC — 65 AD
You must crave nothing.
“It takes a while for young people to find themselves and forcing them to curtail their curiosity is expedient but often costly.”
“Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day.” Death is not something we look forward to, ‘most of death is already gone. Whatever time has passed is owned by death. We were sentenced to death at birth.
How the powerful ought to treat someone without power reveals who they are.
You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. Likewise, all a Stoic can do is show up and do their work.
“When the state has the Way, accept a salary; when the state is without the way, to accept a salary is shameful” — Confucius
Seneca tutored Nero, the deranged, cruel, unjust, and ruthless emperor. He never stopped to question any of it.
“Crimes often return to their teacher”. The evil herself drinks the largest portion of her own posion.
Gaius Rubellius Plautus, The Man Who Would Not Be King
Stoicism trains us to focus in even the most distracting of situations, to be able to tune out anything and everything — even creeping death — so that we can lock in on to what matters.
“He who indulges empty fears earns real fears” — Seneca: Nero’s order to kill Plautus despite him not being a threat.
Thrasea, The Fearless
14 AD — 66 AD
Thrasea chose Cato as his Cato. He was inspired by the Scipionic circle.
“You have been born into times in which it is well to fortify the spirit with examples of great courage.”
Helvidius Priscus, The Senator
25 AD — 75 AD
Addressed the emperor as if he were a commoner. He stood up for what is right. “I’ll do my job. You do yours.”
Musonius Rufus, The Unbreakable
20–30 AD — 101 AD
Applause at a philosopher’s words is a waste of time: “They are not hearing a philosopher speaking but a flute player performing”. Stoicism is not here to make you cheer, be swayed by the charm of words and the rhythm of phrases, but to provide a pragmatic, real approach to tackling life. You must wrestle with the difficult ideas, which may challenge deep held assumptions.
A good marriage is one where the couple strive to outdo each other in devotion, where they inspire each other to greater virtue.
We ought to suffer in a way that gets us somewhere worth going, not fame, making profit… Suffer and endure towards virtue.
“If one accomplishes some good, though with toil, the toil passes, but the good remains. If one does something dishnourable with pleasure, the pleasure passes, but the dishnor remains.” Bad things can overshadow everything.
“Do not be irked by difficult circumstances but reflect on how many things have already happened to you in life in ways that you did not wish and yet they have turned out for the best.”
The power of self-control, the danger of excess. Find by reason what is right. By deeds, put it into practice.
Epictetus, The Free Man
55 AD — 135 AD
For most of the Stoics, privilege was dripping from most of their writings. Thus, when they spoke of freedom, it did not mean much.Epictetus, on the other hand, knew slavery from birth.
Epictetus was “the ultimate symbol of the ability of human beings to find true freedom in the darkest of circumstances”. He demonstrated that anyone can be truly great internally. When his master broke his leg, he smiled and said, “didn’t I warn you?”
Choice defined the core of his beliefs: we are not the full author of what happens in life but it is our business to act well the character assigned to us.
“Philosophy is not some fun diversion but something deadly serious.”
“The philosopher’s lecture hall is a hospital, you shouldn't walk out of it feeling pleasure, but pain, for you, aren’t well when you enter it.”
If a person gave your body away to some passerby, you’d be furious, yet we so easily hand our mind over to other people, letting them inside our heads or making us feel a certain way.
What is up to us and what is not up to us? That is our chief task in life. We must remember that each situation has two handles.
Our opinions determine the reality we experience. Our mind is complicit in the provocation. Do not respond impulsively to impressions. The two biggest faults in life are lack of self-restraint and of endurance. We must persist and resist — they are the ingredients of freedom.
Forget everything but action. Don’t talk about it. Be about it. “Don’t explain your philosophy, embody it.”
Junius Rusticus, The Dutiful
100 AD — 170 AD
You cannot retreat exclusively into ideas. You must contribute. Gave Marcus Aurelius a copy of Epictetus’ sayings that would change the course of his life:
“A book given. A book read. Such a simple exchange, but done between the right two people at the right time- as it was here — can be enough to change the world.”
What if — gasp — the heretic knew something you didn’t? What if most people, even the disruptive ones, were genuinely sincere in what they were doing?
Marcus Aurelius, The Philosopher King
121 AD — 180 AD
Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Try and define yourself by: “Upright. Modest. Straightforward. Sane. Cooperative. Disinterested.”
Reservations are not the same thing as cowardice.
“It is in our modern reactionary, divisive focus on ‘privilege’ that we have forgotten how much we all have in common as human beings, how we all stand equally naked and defenceless against fate whether we possess worldy power or not.”
“To forgive a man who has wronged one, to remain a friend to one who has transgressed friendship, to continue faithful to one who has broken faith.”
“Waste no more time talking about a good man is like, be one.”
Stoics were not beyond pain, beyond material desire, beyond bodily desire.
“When jarred, unavoidably, by circumstance, revert at once to yourself, and don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better grasp of harmony if you keep on going back to it.”
“Every day and night keep these thoughts like these at hand. Write them, read them aloud, talk to yourself and others about them” — Epictetus. We must remind ourselves regularly because it is so easy to forget. Focus on their strengths and be tolerant of their weaknesses.
If there are comforts, take advantage of them, if not, don’t miss them.
“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.”
“Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them. It’s good to keep this in mind.
- Restrain yourself from excess pleasure.
- Toughen yourself up — good times create weak men. Anyone can be good in good times.
- See obstacles as opportunities to demonstrate yourself.
- Remember that everything lies in perception.
- For you to be harmed you have to believe you have been harmed: your mind is complicit in the harming.
- We must endure, we must persist, and not just for anything but the things that bring good into the world. “We must suffer and endure towards virtue”. We must persist and resist.
- We do not teach by words, we teach by example, by actions. “Truth is rarely heard, but generally seen.”
- All of life is preparation for death
- “A life is not important, except in the impact it has on other lives.”
- Your influence comes from what you do, not what you say or write.
- Focus on progress, not perfection.