Book review: Finally, a proper biography for all the Stoics

“Lives of the Stoics” by Ryan Holiday

I began reading this book with a relatively good knowledge on Stoicism, after reading the 3 “main books” of Meditations, Discourses, and Letters, while adding Enchiridion and On the Shortness of Life into the “ancient” mix. For the modern Stoicism I have read books written by several authors including what many consider as the “main 3 modern philosophers” of Donald Robertson, Massimo Pigliucci, and of course Ryan Holiday with his Obstacle, Ego, and Stillness, while I have been reading The Daily Stoic in its 4th cycle for this year. This, of course, not to mention all the Daily Stoic e-mails, all the podcasts on Stoicism, and the many wonderful articles on Stoicism on Medium.

Hence, when I start reading this book immediately after its release date on 29 September 2020, my instant reaction was finally a biographical book on the lives of the Stoics that I’ve been reading so much about! A book that shows how the Stoic practices were being implemented by the greats. I cannot help but feeling like Star Wars fans when watching Episode 1 for the first time and saw that many Jedi Warriors in action, or more precisely, when I open the book I feel like a little girl wearing princess dress in Disneyland.

I took my time reading it though. Oh no no no, I’m not going to read it like the last time I read Ryan Holiday’s book (devoured it in 4 days and poof the magic was over before it even began). So I savour it, pace it, and enjoy slow reading it very much. And 26 Stoics biographies become 26 days of different role models to meditate from, with one Stoic philosopher a day inspiring me in more ways than I had imagined.

First and foremost, there’s Zeno’s acceptance on destiny and how to make the best out of his situation. Cleanthes’ hard working ethic, industriousness, quick wit, and integrity. Diogenes’ diplomatic skills. Antipater’s kindness and personal approach to his surroundings, and his philosophy on marriage and kids. The awesome Scipionic circle and the way Panaetius embedded Stoicism into the Roman Republic life. And Helvidius Priscus’ bravery to speak his mind.

Then there’s the unflinching moral standing of Rutilius, “the last honest man in Rome”, despite his corrupted surrounding in the Roman high rankings (one virtue that bite him back real hard, which is even a greater lesson to learn on how to deal with personal injustice). Thrasea’s steely courage as an opposition senator to Mad dictator Nero, and the way he deals with the grave injustices around him. Cato’s daughter Porcia, whom as a Stoic herself can withstand so many losses and uncertainties with only her philosophy as her bedrock of sanity. And ultimately for me, how Chrysippus developed his Stoic mentality from his running days (which, as a runner my self, makes him the perfect role model for me) and ever the great researcher and writer, how he codified all the Stoic lessons as well as diligently learn from rival schools to perfecting his defend of Stoicism. The fact that Cornutus inherited a full 700 of Chrysippus’ books when Persius died speaks volume on Chrysippus’ industriousness.

While Chrysippus remains my favourite Stoic, there are some others that really at par: The brilliance and endless curiosity of polymath Posidonius and the way he makes observations, gather data and use the data, while especially useful for me is his views on the corrupted world of politics (he advised many great men, including the great Roman general Pompey whom even travelled to Rhodes to meet Posidonius for advice). Moreover, there’s everyone’s favourite philosopher Cato, with his integrity, brevity, oratory brilliance, and the way he live his life that embodies the perfect Stoic character whom practices Aristo’s idea of being indifferent to everything but virtue.

There are also Athenodorus and Arius whom become the advisors of Rome’s first emperor Octavian, which thanks to these men’s advises Octavian was able to turn Rome from bricks to marbles. There’s Musonius Rufus, “the Roman Socrates”, a great embodiment of the four virtues of Stoicism whom teaches the importance of hard work and endurance, and always try to find opportunities to do good wherever he was and no matter the circumstance (which serendipitously, the very morning I read the chapter about him was the day I had to make one of the most defining decisions in my life, and it could not go any smoother thanks to the brief but powerful lessons about him). And of course everybody’s favourite teacher Epictetus, whose biographical chapter I highlighted the most, and the embodiment of Plato’s philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius.

But then there’s Cicero. While he never claim to be a Stoic, he trained under one (Posidonius), he took care of the blind Stoic Diodotus, commented in one of his writings that the Stoics are the true philosophers, and it is through his writings that much of what we know about Stoicism in the ancient world survives. And it shows how much influence he had on Stoicism just by the long coverage in this book as the only non-Stoic Stoic biography that could easily mistaken as one of Robert Greene’s coverage. What’s with all the associations but never the actual label of a Stoic? It is simply because he also studied under teachers from every school during his 2 years in Athens, to gain wisdom and knowledge from all of them. And it shows immediately from reading this chapter that his behaviour is nowhere near Stoic-like.

The book also perfectly illustrate the conflicts and infighting within the school of Stoicism, with the argumentative and boldness of Aristo challenging the very cornerstone of Stoic philosophy established by Zeno and solidified by Cleanthes. And I love the fact that the Stoics were not perfect human beings whom also struggle with their own demons just like the rest of us, just like the story of Diotimus, or the one error of judgement that made an otherwise flawless Junius Rusticus forever remembered in history as the Stoic that prosecute a Christian, or the un-Stoic like advice by Stoic philosopher Arius to emperor Octavian to kill his enemy’s child to secure the throne (but then again Arius provide us with the best summary of Stoicism’s 4 virtues). 

I also find hard to digest Plautus’ non-action against Nero’s smear and aggressive attacks, confused whether that’s a very Stoic temperance for something outside his control or a lack of courage and a passive acceptance of Amor Fati. And of course there’s the ever conflicting Seneca. While his thinking reflect a Stoic way of thinking, his actions proof otherwise. For example, being a disciple of the frugal school once led by Cleanthes he can throw lavish parties using money he get from his murderous boss.

Of course, Ryan Holiday never claim that the Stoics were perfect human beings, and in fact one way or another all of them eventually violate the lessons of Stoicism to varying degrees. That’s just the imperfect human nature. Nevertheless, for every flawed Stoic there are several tremendous ones that reflect the four virtues of wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice.

Two biographies stands out for me as badass examples of this attitude. First, the story of Agrippinus, with his bravery in the era of 2 corrupt and violent emperors Claudius and Nero, which become one of the role models for none other than Epictetus. His clear principles are indeed admirable, and his temperance in facing his own injustice and banishment is one of the most memorable key moments in Stoic history. He indeed did not add to his troubles by bemoaning them, nor did he compromise his composure or his dignity for any matters whether big or small. And second, the story of Julius Canus, whom was playing chess with a friend while awaiting to be executed by Emperor Caligula, when the guard came to execute him. He then joked to his friend saying “you will testify that I was one piece ahead” and calmly went on to his death chamber with no fear as if it’s just a regular daily task.

Ultimately, the Stoics were not some people wearing robes sitting idly talking about theories. But they’re merchant, long distance runner, wrestler, senator, military general, slave, governor, teacher, mayor, even emperor. They were real people with real-life jobs trying to function in a broken and chaotic society. This is where this book stands out from the rest of the pact, as we get to see the Stoic philosophy directly implemented in action, through 26 different personalities in an environment not that different than ours.

I have a bucket list to someday travel from Cyprus to Greece all the way to Rome following the steps of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Stoa. I expect to found almost no statue or historical artifact of Stoicism, however, as that would not be very Stoic of them (no ego-boosting statues, no trail of extravagant riches, etc). But instead I would be walking in the streets where these great philosophers once walked, and inspired the way they were inspired in their own respective times. And when that faithful day comes, what better book to bring and re-read along the journey than this one? A pure masterclass by Ryan Holiday, as always.