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Lives of the Stoics by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman: Book Review, Key Lessons, Best Quotes, and More

front, Wisdom, and More

On this page, you will find:

  1. Book Review: Lives Of The Stoics
  2. Meet The Authors: Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman
  3. 5 Takeaway Lessons From Lives of the Stoics
  4. 10 Best Quotes From Lives of the Stoics
  5. What Is Stoicism?
  6. How Did Stoicism Begin?
  7. Who Were The Stoic Philosophers?

I. Book Review: Lives Of The Stoics

“For neither is it histories we are writing, but lives, nor is there by any means display of merit or vice in the most outstanding of actions, but often a trivial matter as well as a remark and some joke have offered a better illustration of character than clashes with countless casualties and the biggest battalions and sieges of cities.” — Plutarch

A wealthy but unhappy merchant loses everything. It turns out to be the best thing that ever happened to him. A boy is sold to a violent slave owner. A few decades later, the world’s most powerful gather at his feet to hear what he has to teach. A lawyer with talent and ambition reads and writes his way out of exile. His student becomes his deranged boss and he’d rather die than continue to work for the egomaniac. A girl wants to be like her father. Her bravery inspires her husband’s and they pull off a conspiracy that alters the course of history. A bookish recluse is handpicked to be king. He becomes one of the best to ever do it. 

They and twenty one others—with equally compelling lives spanning over five centuries—are bound by an unlikely thread. The school of Stoic philosophy. Theirs is a philosophy of and for doers. The Stoics believed that we don’t control the world around us, we only control how we respond. They believed our greatest gift is the ability to choose what to make of everything that happens in life. They believed in independent thinking and not doing things just because everyone else is doing them. They believed in having strong opinions and principles but being open to changing them if better ones come along. And they believed that the Stoic is revealed in their actions, that the philosopher’s laboratory is out in the real world, not a classroom. 

In their latest co-authored Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius, Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman don’t tell you these things. Not before they show you them. They take you into the laboratory. Zeno in Athens where he washed up after a shipwreck. Epictetus in Greece where he went after breaking out of the chains of bondage. Seneca in the court of Nero. Porcia Catonis in the eye of the Ides of March. Marcus Aurelius in the imperial purple leading Rome through wars and plague.

Holiday and Hanselmann’s previous collaboration, The Daily Stoic, has found a wide and diverse readership. Meeting the figures they profile in Lives, it makes sense. The Stoics were athletes, politicians, entrepreneurs, creatives, students, teachers, mothers, fathers, slaves, kngs. There’s seemingly no part of or position in the human experience that the Stoics didn’t experience. So this book is for you—whoever you are and whatever you’re experiencing, you will learn from the Lives of the Stoics.

II. Meet The Authors: Ryan Holiday And Stephen Hanselman

Ryan Holiday is one of the world’s leading authorities on Stoicism and how it applies to real life. With his timeless trilogyThe Obstacle Is the Way,  Ego Is the Enemy, and Stillness Is the Key—and the bestselling The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living, Holiday has introduced millions of readers around the world to the practical wisdom of some of history’s greatest men and women. His books are read by leaders and learners in politics, the military, professional sports, and more, and he gives talks on Stoicism all over the world.

Stephen Hanselman has worked for more than three decades in publishing as a bookseller, publisher, and literary agent. He is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, where he received a master’s degree while also studying extensively in Harvard’s philosophy department. Stephen is also the co-author of The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living, along with Ryan Holiday. In the book Stephen translated 366 Stoic passages from the big three stoics Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus and some of the lesser known like Zeno, Musonius Rufus, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus. Stephen is the founder of LevelFiveMedia, a literary agency with clients including Tim Ferriss, Jack Canfield, Ryan Holiday, and many others.

III. 5 Takeaway Lessons From Lives of the Stoics:

All We Control Is How We Respond

As a slave, Epictetus was reminded every day that he didn’t have much control. But from the lectures of Musonius Rufus and his own study of Stoicism, he came to understand what he later called our “most efficacious gift.” It’s what separates us humans from other animals, the essence of human nature—the power to always control how we respond. He like to illustrate it like this:

Every event has two handles—one by which it can be carried, and one by which it can’t. If your brother does you wrong, don’t grab it by his wronging, because this is the handle incapable of lifting it. Instead, use the other—that he is your brother, that you were raised together, and then you will have hold of the handle that carries.

It’s a matter of perception. There’s a global lock down—some look at it as a hopeless problem; others an unprecedented opportunity. There’s the collapse of an entire industry—some see a crippling devastation; others an exciting fresh start. There’s a standstill on the highway—some beat up their steering wheel; others pull out their book. We choose which handle to grab. And that, Epictetus taught, is the ingredient of freedom, whatever one’s condition.

Don’t Do It Alone

It’s impossible to miss this recurring theme in Lives of the Stoics—all of the Stoics had a beloved teacher or mentor. There would be no Zeno without Crates. No Cleanthes without Zeno. No Chryssipus without Cleanthes. No Seneca without Attalus. No Epictetus without Musonius Rufus. Marcus Aurelius without Rusticus—who turned him onto Epictetus. 

The Stoics knew that life is hard. We can’t do it alone. We need help. Only beasts can do it alone, Marcus said. We need guidance from those who are further ahead on the path. We need teachers and mentors. 

Be The Red Thread

The little known Stoic philosopher Agrippinus, we are told by Epictetus, was asked by a fellow philosopher whether or not he should attend some banquet put on by the abominable Nero. “Go ahead,” Agrippinus said. The man was confused—why should he go if Agrippinus wasn’t? Because you were even thinking about it. For me, Agrippinus said, it’s not even a question, 

“I don’t even consider the possibility.” Why, the man asks once more, why not just be like the rest of us? 

We are all threads in a garment, Agrippinus explained to the man, and “you think of yourself as no more than a single thread in the robe, whose duty it is to conform to the mass of people.” He compared the man to a single white thread indistinguishable from all the others. But “I want to be the red,” Agrippinus said, “that small and brilliant portion which causes the rest to appear comely and beautiful. . . .‘Be like the majority of people?’ And if I do that, how shall I any longer be the red?”

Beautifully said. And a reminder to all of us. Embrace who you really are. Embrace what makes you unique. Be red. Be the small part that makes the rest bright.

Keep Your Head

Athenodorus was the advisor to Octavian, the first emperor of Rome. He told Octavian to always follow this piece of advice, “Whenever you feel yourself getting angry, Caesar, don’t say or do anything until you’ve repeated the 24 letters of the alphabet to yourself.” 

It is inevitable that we will be provoked in life. We’ll find ourselves in situations where we are tempted to lose our head. We’ll be cut off in traffic. We’ll be spoken to rudely. We’ll be lied to, insulted, shown a side of someone we didn’t know was there. Regardless of what it is, when you feel like you’ve been wronged or feel yourself getting angry—you would do well to remember Athenodorus’ advice. And Seneca’s, who studied Athenodorus’s example, “A punishment that’s delayed can still be imposed, but once imposed, it can’t be withdrawn.” 

Value The Four Cardinal Virtues

At the core of the lives of the Stoics are the four cardinal virtues: wisdom, self-control, justice, and courage.

“Marcus Aurelius,” Holiday and Hanselman tell us, “both politically and philosophically—would put those four virtues on the ultimate pedestal. If we ever find something better than ‘justice, honesty, self-control, courage. . .if you find anything better than that, embrace it without reservations,’ he wrote—they must be very special indeed.”

Every situation, every moment is an opportunity to exemplify one or a combination or all of the four cardinal virtues. Indeed, as all of the lives in the Lives of the Stoics show—there is no challenge, no problem so big that it can’t be made better with courage, moderation, justice, and wisdom.

IV. 10 Best Quotes From Lives of the Stoics

“Unlike the so-called ‘pen and-ink philosophers,’ as the type was derisively known even two thousand years ago, the Stoics were most concerned with how one lived. The choices you made, the causes you served, the principles you adhered to in the face of adversity. They cared about what you did, not what you said.” 

“Cleanthes offered the analogy of the way that a trumpet focuses our breath into a brilliant sound. This too would be a metaphorical insight that remains central to stoicism: that obstacles and limitations—if responded to properly—create opportunities for beauty and excellence.”

“There is sometimes no better way to strengthen your defense than to learn your opponent’s offense, and this is precisely what a good philosopher does. Today we called this ‘steel-manning’—you don’t need to cheat by assuming the worst about the ideas you’re arguing against. Instead, you can engage with them seriously and earnestly, winning by merit, not by mischaracterization.”

“Panaetius, while born to privilege, chose not to settle into that comfortable life of ease. Instead, he openly embraced duty and the responsibility of a much broader stage. He took the resources he was given and leveraged them, becoming the best version of himself and contributing as much as he could to the big projects of his time. Each of us, he believed, is obligated to do the same.”

“All things end. Philosophy is there to remind us of that fact and to prepare us for the blows of life.”

“[Seneca] he quibbled with the idea that death was something that lay ahead of us in the uncertain future. “This is our big mistake,” Seneca wrote, “to think we look forward toward death. Most of death is already gone. Whatever time has passed is owned by death.” That was what he realized, that we are dying every day and no day, once dead, can be revived.”

“Politics is a dirty business. It is now and it was then. In Rome, as in the modern world, power attracts ego. It corrupts. It rewards vanity. It disincentivizes responsibility. It is filled, and always will be filled, with liars, cheats, demagogues, and cowards.”

“You will not find many statues of Cato in Rome or many books about him. For some reason, the honors go to the conquering generals and the tyrants instead. His great-grandfather had once said that it was better to have people ask why there wasn’t a statue in your honor than why there was. In the case of Cato the Younger, it’s even simpler: His character was the monument, his commitments to justice and liberty and courage and virtue are the pillars of the temple that stands to this day.”

“If Marcus had naturally been perfect, there would be little to admire. That he wasn’t is the whole point. He worked his way there, as we all can.”

“As Epictetus wrote, “Is it possible to be free from error? Not by any means, but it is possible to be a person stretching to avoid error.” That’s what Stoicism is. It’s stretching. Training. To be better.”

V. What Is Stoicism?

“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only they truly live. Not satisfied to merely keep good watch over their own days, they annex every age to their own. All the harvest of the past is added to their store.” — Seneca

Stoicism was a school of philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early third century BC. Its name is derived from the Greek stoa, meaning porch, because that’s where Zeno first taught his students. The philosophy asserts that virtue (meaning, chiefly, the four cardinal virtues of self-control, courage, justice, and wisdom) is happiness, and it is our perceptions of things—rather than the things themselves—that cause most of our trouble. Stoicism teaches that we can’t control or rely on anything outside what Epictetus called our “reasoned choice”—our ability to use our reason to choose how we categorize, respond, and reorient ourselves to external events.

For more, check out this piece: What Is Stoicism? A Definition & 9 Stoic Exercises To Get You Started

VI. How Did Stoicism Begin?

Stoicism began around 304 BC. Fittingly, it began with misfortune. Zeno was a Phoenician merchant. His family made their fortune trading Tyrian, the purple dye used to dye the robes of kings. On a voyage across the Mediterranean, Zeno was shipwrecked. Zeno made it safely to shore where he watched his ship and his cargo sink. His irreplaceable fortune was gone. He made his way to the nearest city, Athens, and walked into a bookstore. The bookseller happened to be reading works about Socrates. Spellbound, Zeno asked the bookseller where he could meet someone like Socrates. He introduced Zeno to an Athenian philosopher named Crates. According to the ancient biographer Diogenes Laertius, the once devastated merchant later rejoiced, “I made a prosperous voyage when I suffered shipwreck.” For it was the shipwreck that drove Zeno to philosophy. He began studying under Crates and slowly began developing the thinking and the principles that we now know as Stoicism. 

To read more about Zeno, read our full profile on him, which also contains Stoic exercises from him, suggested readings and much more!

VII. Who Were The Stoic Philosophers?

The ancient Stoic philosophers came from almost every imaginable background. One was a slave, another was emperor. One was a water carrier, another a famous playwright. Some were merchants, others were independently wealthy. Some were Senators and others were soldiers. What they all had in common was the philosophy that they practiced. Whether they were chafing under the shackles of slavery or leading the Roman army, they focused not on the external world but on what was solely in their own control: Their thoughts, their actions, their beliefs. Below are short biographies of three of the most influential stoics: Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus. 

Who Is Marcus Aurelius?

Marcus Aurelius was born in 121 AD to a fairly typical Roman family. Certainly, no one would have predicted that the boy one day be the Emperor of the Roman Empire. But Hadrian (Emperor from 117 to 138), who would have known Marcus through his early academic accomplishments, clearly sensed potential. Because by Marcus’ 17th birthday, Hadrian,  childless and nearing death, made an extraordinary decision. He was going to make Marcus Aurelius the emperor of Rome. Because Marcus was too young to rule, Hadrian settled on a plan to adopt a 51 year old man named Antoninus Pius on the condition that Antoninus in turn adopt Marcus. Marcus would lie in wait as Antoninus unexpectedly and unbelievably lived and ruled for twenty three years. Antoninus died and Marcus finally became Emperor in 161 AD at the age of forty. His reign of nearly two decades wasn’t easy: wars with the Parthian Empire, the barbarian tribes menacing the Empire on the northern border, the rise of Christianity, as well as the Antonine plague that killed millions. 

But as Cassius Dio put it: “In addition to possessing all the other virtues, he ruled better than any others who had ever been in any position of power.” Marcus is known to us today as one of the few exceptions to the rule that absolute power corrupts absolutely. It was Stoicism that provided him the framework he lived and ruled by. In the journal that he left behind, we see Marcus reminding himself that there is nothing better than the four Stoic virtues, that his only job is to be a good person, that life’s greatest rewards follow from unselfish actions. That journal is now known as his Meditations. There’s no document quite like it—the private thoughts of the most powerful man in the world, admonishing himself on how to be more virtuous, more just, more immune to temptation, wiser. 

Indisputably, Stoicism and that journaling practice explains this utterly anomalous event in human history—how one man did not go the way of all the other kings. Refusing to flee Rome and his responsibilities during the plague, in 180 AD, began to show symptoms of the disease. He was told he had only a few days to live. His friends, advisors, Rome—the sadness spread wider and faster than the plague. “Weep not for me,” began Marcus’s last words, “think rather of the pestilence and the deaths of so many others.” On March 17, 180, at age fifty-eight, Marcus Aurelius died. “Rome—and us, her descendants,” Holiday and Hanselman write in  Lives of the Stoics, “would never see such greatness again.”

To read more on Marcus Aurelius, read our full profile on him, which also contains Stoic exercises from him, suggested readings and much more! And to keep Marcus Aurelius’s wisdom front and center in your life, our popular memento mori medallion features a quote from Marcus on the back: “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”

Who Is Seneca?

Seneca was born in 4 BC in Corduba, Spain. He was the son of a wealthy and regarded Roman writer named Seneca The Elder, who wanted an active and ambitious political career for his boy. He selected the Stoic Attalus to tutor Seneca. Attalus had a reputation for his eloquence and his rigorous style of instruction in the law, in rhetoric, in critical thinking. Seneca took to this challenging education with enthusiasm and just as his father wanted, he was ready to appear in court as soon as lawyers in Rome were legally able to (17). 

In 41 AD, however, Seneca’s life took a sharp turn when Claudius became emperor and brought up Seneca on bogus adultery charges before banishing him to the island of Corsica. Most likely, it was another blanket persecution of philosophers by an insecure emperor. In any case, Seneca spent nearly nine years in exile. In 50 AD, in another twist, Agrippina, having married Claudius secured permission for Seneca to return to Rome. Plotting for her son Nero to be emperor, Agrippina wanted Seneca’s brilliant political, rhetorical, and philosophical brain to influence her son’s. Suddenly, at fifty-three years of age, Seneca’s life was spun into a whirlwind that history has not quite yet fully wrapped its head around. Nero became one of the most notorious and tyrannical emperors in the history of the Roman Empire raising plenty of questions about Seneca and his role in creating such a horrific figure. It should be mentioned here that Seneca’s death, in 65 AD, came by the orders of Nero himself (who wrongly thought Seneca was part of a plot to assassinate Nero and replace him with Gaius Piso).

Throughout all the chaos and turbulence that was Seneca’s life, Stoicism remained a constant. In fact, it was in exile that he picked the practice of writing philosophical letters. Though addressed to his friend Lucilius, Seneca is explicit in his ambition that these letters reach a wide audience. They are published today as Letters from a Stoic, sell many thousands of copies a year in countless languages, and are a required reading for men and women of action looking for timeless philosophical advice on grief, on wealth, on power, on anger, on relationships, on life

To read more on Seneca, read our full profile on him, which also contains Stoic exercises from him, suggested readings and much more!

Who Is Epictetus?

Epictetus was born in 50 AD in Hierapolis (present day Turkey) and is a testament to Stoicism’s universality. He wasn’t the most powerful man in the world like Marcus Aurelius. He wasn’t one the wealthiest people in the world like Seneca. No—Epictetus’ circumstances couldn’t have been further from those of the other two most well-known Stoics. Epictetus was born as a slave. 

Though his owner Epaphroditus was notoriously violent, Epictetus was permitted to attend the lectures of the Stoic Musonius Rufus. Musonius became his mentor and when Epictetus obtained his freedom shortly after the emperor Nero’s death, he dedicated himself fully to teaching Stoicism. “Almost immediately, Epictetus gained a large following,” Holiday and Hanselman write in Lives of the Stoics. “His school and his standing were enough that by 93 AD, when Domitian banned philosophers from Rome, Epictetus was one who was driven to exile.” He was banished to Greece where he set up another school. 

The five hundred mile trip from Rome apparently didn’t deter people. Because once again, students flocked to hear Epictetus’ insights. The poor, the affluent, the powerful, and even the future emperor Hadrian, we’re told, made the trek to sit at Epictetus’ feet. It wasn’t long before Epictetus’s lectures made their way to Marcus Aurelius, who frequently quotes Epictetus in Meditations, including famously thanking his tutor Rusticus “for introducing me to Epictetus’s lectures—and loaning me his own copy.” And that’s part of what makes Stoicism so powerful. The least powerful and the most powerful. The poor and the rich. No matter where you are on the spectrum of stations in life, Stoicism helps live a good life. 

To read more on Epictetus, read our full profile on him, which also contains Stoic exercises from him, suggested readings and much more!

P.S. Lives of the Stoics is available for pre-order and is set to release on September 29!