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Stoicism

Book Review: Lives of the Stoics

The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius

The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius

Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman is a new book that explores the teachings of Stoic philosophers by telling the stories of their lives.

Holiday and Hanselman are well-known to many as the authors of the bestselling The Daily Stoic. Holiday is also the author of a trilogy of successful books inspired, among other things, by his interest in Stoic philosophy: The Obstacle is the Way, Ego is the Enemy, and Stillness is the Key.

Lives of the Stoics is due for publication in the US on September 29th, by Penguin Random House, and will be available in audiobook and ebook as well as hardback format. I was fortunate enough to receive an advance review copy. I’m an author myself and so I receive a lot of new books to review but I can honestly say this is the one I was most looking forward to reading.

Let’s begin by noting that it stands in the venerable tradition of such works as Diogenes Laertius’ classic 3rd century Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. That’s one of our main historical sources for biographical information on Stoic philosophers. Though invaluable to scholars, it’s incomplete, as only seven of the original 27 chapters dealing with Stoics survive today. Moreover, the original ended with a 1st century AD Stoic teacher called Cornutus, and never touched upon the lives of the ancient Stoics who are most famous today: Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Holiday and Hanselman’s work, however, gives us a comprehensive set of biographies covering the most famous Stoics of antiquity.

What I really want to stress, though, is the fact that this isn’t a book just for scholars. In the ancient world, philosophy was taught through lectures, discussions, books, essays — means not dissimilar to those used in academic philosophy departments today. It’s largely forgotten now that philosophy was also transmitted through stories, anecdotes, and biographies. Diogenes Laertius’ Lives is the best example of this but there are many famous anecdotes about the lives of ancient philosophers. We know virtually nothing about Diogenes the Cynic, for instance, except through stories about his life and notorious behaviour. Plutarch’s Lives is another celebrated work designed to teach readers about wisdom and virtue, by exploring the character and actions of famous historical figures.

Of course, ancient philosophy was also frequently transmitted in the form of dialogues, such as those of Plato and Xenophon. These often (but not always) embed philosophical insights and arguments within dramatic stories about the lives of their subjects. We cannot fully understand the words Socrates utters in Plato’s Apology, for instance, without knowing the drama of the historical context in which it takes place — he’s a man standing trial, about to lose his life.

When I wrote my most recent book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, I adopted this biographical approach to exploring the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius — and it works! Modern readers, perhaps especially those who are not academic philosophers, invariably find it easier to engage with and understand ancient philosophy when they know more about the lives and personalities of the philosophers themselves. As a student of philosophy myself, many moons ago, I was an avid reader of biographies about great thinkers from Wittgenstein to Freud. When you can imagine the thinker, their thoughts take shape more easily in your mind too. Holiday and Hanselman have provided us with an encyclopedic account of the lives of no less than twenty-five important Stoic philosophers — plus Cicero, an Academic, who gets an honorary inclusion. And, yes, one of them was a woman. (I’ve appended a list of the philosophers covered to this review.)

I think it’s obvious that this book will be indispensable to anyone who genuinely wants to learn about Stoic philosophy. It covers a wealth of material that’s not easily obtainable elsewhere and it does so with scholarly prowess, while managing to stay readable. The characters come to life and you’ll understand who the Stoics were in a way that will help you to understand what they stood for. This is more important than it might seem at first glance because, among other benefits, it helps to dispel some of the most common misconceptions about Stoicism:

  1. Stoics were not only men — see the chapter on Porcia Catonis.

  2. Stoics were not all wealthy statesmen— see the chapters on Zeno and Cleanthes.

  3. Stoics did not all dogmatically agree with one another — see the chapter on Aristo.

  4. Although Seneca supported the Emperor Nero, other Stoics opposed such tyrants — see the chapters on Thrasea and other members of the Stoic Opposition.

The misconception that Stoics are politically passive, because they emphasize emotional acceptance of our fate, is dispelled by the stories of political engagement throughout their lives. Many held important political offices, such as Junius Rusticus, a senior Roman statesman, and the mentor of Marcus Aurelius. Stoics were often advisors to powerful rulers and they wrote books about politics and kingship. Inevitably, by learning about their lives, it becomes easier to see how their philosophical beliefs influenced their actions both in private life and as members of society.

I find that many readers today still assume that we don’t know anything about the lives of the ancient Stoics just because they’ve never been introduced to the relevant historical sources. They even assume nothing is known about Marcus Aurelius, and yet we know a great deal about him because he was a Roman emperor and several histories survive of the period, as well as man fragments of textual evidence, and even numismatic and archeological evidence. A lot of this evidence requires patience to unearth and present in an accessible format. Holiday and Hanselman have done that for you in their Lives of the Stoics. I don’t know of any other book that compares to this in terms of the range of material it contains. If you read it, for sure, you’ll learn many valuable things about Stoicism that you wouldn’t otherwise have known.

Contents

  • Zeno the Prophet

  • Cleanthes the Apostle

  • Aristo the Challenger

  • Chrysippus the Fighter

  • Zeno the Maintainer

  • Diogenes the Diplomat

  • Antipater the Ethicist

  • Panaetius the Connector

  • Publius Rutilius Rufus the Last Honest Man

  • Posidonius the Genius

  • Diotimus the Vicious

  • Cicero the Fellow Traveler

  • Cato the Younger, Rome’s Iron Man

  • Porcia Cato the Iron Woman

  • Athenodorus Cananites the Kingmaker

  • Arius Didymus the Kingmaker II

  • Agrippinus the Different

  • Seneca the Striver

  • Cornutus the Common

  • Gaius Rubellius Plautus the Man Who Would Not Be King

  • Thrasea the Fearless

  • Helvidius Priscus the Senator

  • Musonius Rufus the Unbreakable

  • Epictetus the Free Man

  • Junius Rusticus the Dutiful

  • Marcus Aurelius the Philosopher King

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