These are dark times we live in; one party is drifting towards socialism and the other seems unmoored and unrealistic. Both are plagued by internecine warfare and when not bickering among themselves they bicker with each other. America is worse off because of that and it can be hard to hold your head high in times like these that try men’s souls. Well, it’s difficult to do so unless you’re a stoic. That’s why I read Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius and why I recommend that you do the same.
Lives of the Stoics is a masterful history of stoicism in the ancient world. Tracing the course from its founder, Zeno of Athens, to its most famous adherent, the still-exalted Emperor Marcus Aurelius, it teaches the reader both about what Stoicism is and how it developed over the year due to the actions of a smattering of great men.
In this review, I will give both a summary of Lives of the Stoics by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman and my opinion on the book. Hopefully, after reading this review, you will be inspired to check out the book for yourself and give it a read.
Summary of Lives of the Stoics by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman
Lives of the Stoics is not your typical philosophical work. While it does teach the reader some about the core tenets of socialism, it’s not a book about the various vagaries of the philosophy and the small details of it.
Instead, it’s a book about how the philosophy became as influential as it is. What started off as the opinions of a merchant in Athens who taught students on a porch, called the Stoa Poikile, gradually rose to prominence and became the philosophy of one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen. How did that happen? How could one philosophy among many from a city-state Greece, which was quickly becoming a backwater as the Roman Empire rose, become so widely popular and adhered to?
In the view of Holiday and Hanselman, that happened because a long line of great men picked up the torch and championed the ideology. Those men are who The Lives of the Stoics is about.
To teach the reader about those men and one woman, some of them famous and some lesser-known, Lives of the Stoics is divided into 26 chapters, each of which gives a brief history of what each figure did to advance or develop stoicism.
Those figures are, in chronological order: 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 Rugus 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, Helvidus Priscus the Senator, Musonius Rufus the Unbreakable, Epictetus the Free Man, Junius Rusticus the Dutiful, and Marcus Aurelius the Philosopher King.
Not all of those figures are heroes and Holiday and Hanselman don’t shy away from saying so. Cicero didn’t live up to his ideals; unlike Cato, he bent the knee to Julius Caesar and did not defend the Roman Republic from that aspiring dictator. Diotimus’s contribution was a series of petty attacks, delivered in the form of forged “licentious letters,” that slandered Epicurus, who had been dead for years. Seneca continued to serve a tyrant (Nero) because doing so made him rich; he was vain and wanted to be remembered.
But there were others who were heroes of history, men who stood far above their contemporaries and still inspire us with their wisdom and virtue. Cato gave his life for his country and its republican system, fighting Caesar and losing his life for doing so. Epictetus was a slave whose leg was twisted until it broke by his cruel master, yet he remained unbroken in spirit and eventually became one of the most famous and influential stoics. Marcus Aurelius, despite being emperor of a vast empire, did not give in to a life of luxury, ease, and sloth; instead, he fought to defend Rome’s border, voluntarily shared power with his boroher, and focused on living a life of virtue.
Those heroes are the people who moved the wheels of history, ensuring that stoicism would be remembered and stuck to in the years that followed them. The examples set by their lives, lives of virtue and honor, inspired the generations after them to stick to the tenets of stoicism. Tenets such as that, as is said by the authors of Lives of the Stoics, “self-rule is the greatest empire; that character is fate; that there is benefit to preparing not only for success, but also for failure; and that learning to love, not merely accept, the hand we are dealt is the key that opens to door to the good life.”
Those are values still worth honoring and upholding. Lives of the Stoics will teach you how some of the Classical World’s greatest figures lived them out in their lives and how you can do the same. It is, at its core, a lesson on both the history and application of stoicism.
My Take on Lives of the Stoics
I found Lives of the Stoics to be a terrific book. It was interesting and informative, an excellent narrative history that taught me both about a philosophy and about the men who developed that philosophy into its current form.
Those qualities alone would make it a great book. With our 24/7 news cycle and constant focus on the present and near future, it can be hard to remember that some of the most important lessons to learn come from far in the past. Lessons about the danger of selling your soul to a tyrant, even if for noble reasons, as is shown by Seneca, the lesson that even the most devastating of events shouldn’t break your spirit, as shown by Zeno, and the importance of actually living out your ideals, as shown by the contrast between Cicero and Cato. We need to remember to look to the past so as to develop our lives in the present.
But that’s not all. Lives of the Stoics is a book you should read now because it is a book for our times. These times, while nothing compared to the horrific bloodshed that defined the rule of Nero, the civil wars that led to the deaths of countless Romans as Rome transitioned from Republic to Empire, or the general misery and brutality that was the Classical World, are still bad.
Things might not be as bad as they were in the days of Greek and Roman dominance, as is recorded in The End is Always Near and The Lives of the Noble Greeks, but they are still bad. Hundreds of thousands of businesses were put out of business by the lockdowns, even more businesses have been burned to the ground by rioters, and we’ve been shut up in our houses for months. Yet worse, our political scene is as bad as it has been in a long time.
Luckily, Lives of the Stoics addresses those issues. During the Antonine Plague, Marcus Aurelius went about life as normal and continued to, as he would say, “get out of bed and build something.” When Roman politics became bitter, acrimonious, and dangerous, the stoics continued to defend that which they believed in, whatever the cost. When their businesses failed due to no fault of their own, they kept on keeping on and rebuilt from the ground up, as many Americans will have to do.
Stoicism is what helped them do so. It gave them the ideals and backbone needed to stand up to whatever life threw at them, a skill that we would be better off if we learned.
Overall, Lives of the Stoics is a great book. It’s written quite well, full of interesting facts of history that would be otherwise forgotten, organized in a way that makes sense given the subject matter (chronologically), and is a book that is highly relevant to our times. I enjoyed reading it and think you will too.
You should read Lives of the Stoics. There’s no political agenda to it, other than the idea that everyone should pursue justice, whatever the cost. But that’s not a partisan idea, nor should it be one. It’s an idea that is at the root of the Western justice system, a system we should all want to maintain and uphold.
Lives of the Stoics is not political, but its ideas should be at the root of our lives and our political system. Pursuing justice, living honorably, and maintaining a stiff upper lip no matter the circumstances you find yourself in are all noble goals. We would be better off if our politicians embodied those ideals and if we lived them out every day. Perhaps by reading books like Lives of the Stoics we can relearn how to do so and be examples of the paragons of virtue that we hope to see in the world.
By: Gen Z Conservative