This article provides a short overview of the main leaders of Stoic philosophy. If you are new to Stoicism, we invite you to sign up for our free 7-day course, which offers an introduction, Stoic exercises, interviews, a free book chapter from the cult Stoic bestseller The Obstacle is the Way and much more!
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 own thoughts, their own actions, their beliefs. Below are some short biographies of some of the most influential stoics, including Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, Cato, Zeno, Cleanthes, Hecato, Musonius Rufus. It’s important to remember that these are only the Stoics whose names survive to us—for every one of them there are dozens or hundreds of other brilliant, brave minds whose legacy is lost to us.
Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, born nearly two millennia ago is perhaps the best known Stoic leader in history. He was born in a prominent family but nobody at the time would have predicted that he would one day be Emperor of the Empire. Little is known of his childhood but he was a serious young man who enjoyed wrestling, boxing and hunting. Around his teenage years, the reigning emperor, Hadrian, childless and nearing death, picked his successor of choice, Antoninus. He was a senator who was also childless and was required to adopt Marcus, as per Hadrian’s condition. Antoninus eventually died in 161 and it is when Marcus’s reign began.
Marcus ruled for nearly two decades until 180, and his reign was far from easy: wars with the Parthian Empire, the barbarian tribes menacing the Empire on the northern border, the rise of Christianity as well as the plague that left numerous dead.
It is important to realize the gravity of that position and the magnitude of power that Marcus possessed. He held the most powerful position in the world at the time. If he chose to, nothing would be off limits. He could indulge and succumb to temptations, there was nobody that could restrain him from any of his wishes. There is a reason the adage that power in absolute absolutely corrupts has been a cliche throughout history. And yet, as the essayist Matthew Arnold remarked, Marcus proved himself worthy of the position he was in. As the famous historian Edward Gibbon wrote, under Marcus, the last of the ‘Five Good Emperors,’ “the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of wisdom and virtue”.
The guidance of wisdom and virtue. That’s what separates Marcus from the majority of past and present world leaders. Just think of the diary that he left behind, which is now known as his Meditations: It is essentially 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. It is the definitive text on self-discipline, personal ethics, humility, self-actualization and strength. If you read only one book this year, make it Meditations.
To read more on Marcus Aurelius, read our full profile on him, which also contains Stoic exercises from him, suggested readings and much more! To keep Marcus Aurelius’s wisdom front and center in your life, consider our limited edition print which features his timeless maxim which he wrote to himself: “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” Also, our popular memento mori medallion features a quote from Marcus Aurelius on the back: “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
SENECA THE YOUNGER
The second most prominent Stoic in history is Seneca who was born in southern Spain over 2,000 years ago and educated in Rome. He was the son of Seneca the Elder, a well regarded Roman writer as well as later in his life uncle to the poet Lucan. Seneca pursued a career in politics and became a high-ranking financial clerk.
His life took a sharp turn in 41 A.D. once Claudius became the emperor as he exiled Seneca to the island of Corsica on the premises of supposed adultery with the emperor’s niece. During his exile, he wrote a letter to his mother consoling her during his exile. Eight years later, in another twist, Agrippina, mother of future emperor Nero and wife of Claudius secured permission for Seneca to return and for him to become her son’s tutor and adviser. Nero later became one of the most notorious and tyrannical emperors in the history of the Roman Empire raising even more questions about Seneca’s character. Yet Seneca’s death, in 65 A.D., came by the orders of Nero himself (who thought Seneca was part of a plot against him).
Throughout all those turbulent periods Stoicism remained a constant in his life. Seneca’s exposure to the philosophy came from Attalus, a Stoic philosopher who was Seneca’s early teacher. Seneca was also an admirer of Cato, whose name appears regularly in his writing.
After his death Seneca was an influence on notable figures such as Erasmus, Francis Bacon, Pascal, Montaigne down to modern days. Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic are a required reading for men and women of action offering timeless philosophical advice on grief, on wealth, on power, on religion, and on life are always there when you need them. They include timeless advice like: “Believe me it is better to understand the balance-sheet of one’s own life than of the corn trade.” “We are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it.” “Think your way through difficulties: harsh conditions can be softened, restricted ones can be widened, and heavy ones can weigh less on those who know how to bear them.”
To read more on Seneca, read our full profile on him, which also contains Stoic exercises from him, suggested readings and much more!
What makes Stoicism fascinating to study is that three of its most well-known practitioners ranged widely in terms of where they stood in society. Think of the two Stoics we just studied. Marcus Aurelius was the emperor of the Roman Empire holding one of the most powerful positions in the world. Seneca was an adviser to an emperor, renowned playwright and one of the richest people in the Roman Empire. And then there is Epictetus, on the complete opposite, who was born as a slave. That’s what makes Stoicism so powerful: it can provide timeless principles to help us in both good and bad fortune, no matter our station our life.
Epictetus was born nearly 2,000 years ago in Hierapolis (present-day Pamukkale in Turkey) as a slave in a wealthy household. Epaphroditus, his owner, gave him the permission to pursue liberal studies and it is how Epictetus discovered philosophy through the Stoic Musonius Rufus who became his teacher and mentor. Later, Epictetus obtained his freedom shortly after emperor Nero’s death and started teaching philosophy in Rome for nearly 25 years. This lasted until emperor Domitian famously banished all philosophers in Rome. Epictetus fled to Nicopolis in Greece where he founded a philosophy school and taught there until his death.
Epictetus has coined some of the most memorable Stoic quotes: “To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it occurs.” “Let death and exile, and all other things which appear terrible, be daily before your eyes, but death chiefly; and you will never entertain any abject thought, nor too eagerly covet anything.”
He was a key influence to Marcus Aurelius and to many other powerful men and women over the last two millennia. What is fascinating is that this influence came by pure luck. Epictetus never actually wrote anything down. It is through his student Arrian that we have a written account of his lessons. And if everyone from Emperors to war heros have been grateful as they found guidance, solace and strength in Epictetus’ lessons, then there must be something for us. But only if we choose to.
To read more on Epictetus, read our full profile on him, which also contains Stoic exercises from him, suggested readings and much more!
CATO THE YOUNGER
Cato is the fourth Stoic we look at, and one who has always been considered as one of the people who truly lived the Stoic values, each and every day. Although he never wrote anything, his actions speak loudly about what it means to live the philosophical life. In his own day, he was a soldier and an aristocrat, a senator and a Stoic. The last in a family line of prominent statesmen, Cato spent a lifetime in the public eye as the standard-bearer of Rome’s optimates, traditionalists who saw themselves as the defenders of Rome’s ancient constitution, the preservers of the centuries-old system of government that propelled Rome’s growth from muddy city to mighty empire.
History remembers Cato as Julius Caesar’s most formidable, infuriating enemy—at times the leader of the opposition, at times an opposition party unto himself, but always Caesar’s equal in eloquence, in conviction, and in force of character, a man equally capable of a full-volume dawn-to-dusk speech before Rome’s Senate and of a 30-day trek through North Africa’s sands, on foot.
For George Washington and the entire revolutionary generation, Cato was Liberty—the last man standing when Rome’s Republic fell. For centuries of philosophers and theologians, Cato was the Good Suicide—the most principled, most persuasive exception to the rule against self-slaughter.
George Washington and his peers studied Cato’s life in the form of the most popular play of that era: Cato: A Tragedy in Five Acts, by Joseph Addison. The great men of the day quoted this play about Cato in public statements and in private correspondence. When Benjamin Franklin opened his private diary, he was greeted with lines from the play that he had chosen as a motto. John and Abigail Adams quoted Cato to one another in their love letters. When Patrick Henry dared King George to give him liberty or death, he was cribbing from Cato. When Nathan Hale regretted that he had only one life to give for his country—seconds before the British army hanged him for high treason—he was poaching words straight from Cato.
We leave you with one lesson from Cato. Criticized for his silence, he would say, “I begin to speak only when I’m certain what I’ll say isn’t better left unsaid.” Think of this lesson today as you impulsively seek to add your opinion or thoughts to every and any matter in your life.
To read more on Cato, read our full profile on him, which also contains Stoic exercises from him, suggested readings and much more!
ZENO OF CITIUM
Of all the Stoics, Zeno has one of the most fascinating stories of discovering philosophy. On a voyage between Phoenicia and Peiraeus, his ship sank along with its cargo. He ended up in Athens, and while visiting a bookstore he was introduced to the philosophy of Socrates and, later, an Athenian philosopher named Crates. These influences drastically changed the course of his life, leading him to develop the thinking and principles that we now know as Stoicism. According to the ancient biographer Diogenes Laertius, Zeno joked, “Now that I’ve suffered shipwreck, I’m on a good journey,” or according to another account, “You’ve done well, Fortune, driving me thus to philosophy,” he reportedly said.
Zeno began his teaching at the Stoa Poikile which was located at the Ancient Agora of Athens. This is the famous porch that Stoicism was named after that you probably remember briefly mentioned in your high school or college philosophy class. But the name wasn’t always that—in fact, initially his disciples were called Zenonians but only later they came to be known as Stoics.
Of course, Stoicism has developed since Zeno first outlined the philosophy but at the core of it, the message is the same. As he put it, “Happiness is a good flow of life.” How is it to be achieved? Peace of mind that comes from living a life of virtue in accordance with reason and nature.
To read more on Zeno, read our full profile on him, which also contains Stoic exercises from him, suggested readings and much more!
Cleanthes was the successor to Zeno and second head of the Stoic school. Born in Assos, he arrived in Athens and began attending lectures by Zeno. To support his philosophical studies and his pursuit of wisdom during the day, he would work as a water-carrier (his nickname was the Well-Water-Collector, Φρεάντλης in Greek) which prompted a court summoning. How could a man spend his entire day studying philosophy, the court wondered. Proving his hard work and industry during the night, he was let go (the court was so impressed that they even offered him money but Zeno made him refuse).
But we need to step back. Who was this industrious philosopher? Cleanthes of Assos (c. 330 BC – c. 230 BC) was originally a boxer who arrived in Athens. According to Diogenes Laërtius, Cleanthes arrived with only four drachma in his pockets and began attending Crates the Cynic’s lectures and only later he started showing up at Zeno’s. He later became his successor as the head of the Stoic school—a post he held for an impressive period of 32 years—and Cleanthes’s pupil, Chrysippus, later became one of the most important Stoic thinkers.
Reading about Cleanthes one finds a curious lesson relayed by Diogenes Laërtius: “When someone inquired of him what lesson he ought to give his son, Cleanthes in reply quoted words from the Electra: Silence, silence, light be thy step.” And as a Stoic he also held that living according to nature is living virtuously.
To read more on Cleanthes, read our full profile on him, which also contains Stoic exercises from him, suggested readings and much more!
HECATO OF RHODES
One philosopher consistently keeps coming up again and again in Seneca’s writings. Although Cato, Epicurus and many other prominent philosophers are mentioned, it is probably Hecato who has earned himself the most quotations in Seneca’s work. A few examples that Seneca has used: “Cease to hope, and you will cease to fear. ” “What progress, you ask, have I made? I have begun to be a friend to myself.” “I can show you a philtre, compounded without drugs, herbs, or any witch’s incantation: ‘If you want to be loved, love.’”
While Hecato was a prolific writer in his time—we know of several treatises of his name, including “On Goods,” “On Virtues,” “On Passions,” “On Ends,” “On Paradoxes,” “Maxims.”—none of these have survived.
GAIUS MUSONIUS RUFUS
You can see above how Epictetus was a key influence to Marcus Aurelius, but who was the mentor behind Epictetus’s philosophy? It was Gaius Musonius Rufus, who was born around 30 AD in Volsinii, Etruria. He became a prominent Stoicism teacher in Rome until the reigning Emperor at the time, Nero, discovered a conspiracy plotting against him and banished Musonius to the desolate island of Gyaros in the Aegean Sea—similar to the exile of Seneca, and the difficulties of Epictetus’s life. Musonius eventually returned to Rome under Galba in 68 but only to be exiled again, this time by Vespasian. While Vespasian initially banished all philosophers in 71, Musonius himself was exiled in 75, which speaks to how highly esteemed his reputation was in Rome at the time. He would return to Rome only after Vespasian’s death and live there until his own end.
For Musonius, philosophy was concerned with practical matters how to live one’s life. It was about virtue and goodness—nothing else mattered. We can rise above pain and pleasure, death and evil. Without a doubt, Musonius was one of the most practical philosophers. As professor William O. Stephens, one of the Stoic professors we have interviewed, described Musonius’ philosophy and approach in this way: “…the philosopher does not study virtue just as theoretical knowledge. Rather, Musonius insists that practice is more important than theory, as practice more effectively leads us to action than theory. He held that though everyone is naturally disposed to live without error and has the capacity to be virtuous, someone who has not actually learned the skill of virtuous living cannot be expected to live without error any more than someone who is not a trained doctor, musician, scholar, helmsman, or athlete could be expected to practice those skills without error.”
It would be the Greek scholar Origen who’d point out, more than a century after Musonius’ death, that “as an example of the best life,” we have him and Socrates. It is why Musonius is often referred to as “the Roman Socrates.” And just like with Socrates, we’d all be better off to keep in mind Musonius character as a role model in life. One example: After being exiled several times he’d exclaim, “How could exile be an obstacle to a person’s own cultivation, or to attaining virtue when no one has ever been cut off from learning or practicing what is needed by exile?”
To learn more and follow Musonius Rufus’ example of living a good life, order his Lectures and Sayings translated by Cynthia King.
Want more? We invite you to sign up to our free 7-day course, which offers an introduction, Stoic exercises, interviews, a free book chapter from the cult Stoic bestseller The Obstacle is the Way and much more!
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