Marcus studied Epictetus’ life. Epictetus studied Musonius Rufus’. Seneca studied Cato’s. Cato studied Cato the Elder’s, who happened to be in the crowd when Stoicism was first introduced to Rome from Greece by Diogenes. Diogenes studied in Athens under Chrysippus. Chryssipus studied Cleanthes and Cleathes studied Zeno and Zeno studied Socrates, who we could call the godfather of the Stoics. Indeed, the lives of each of these Stoics influenced the lives of the Stoics who came after them.
Seneca would say that to study philosophy was to annex the past into our own time. That each of us needed to “choose ourselves a Cato,” someone to measure ourselves against, someone to inspire and call us to greatness. Several of the Stoics did just that, even writing “biographies” of them, though it’s important to understand this wasn’t biography as we understand it today.
Biographers of antiquity didn’t care much where Cato was born. It didn’t matter fully whether Zeno washed up in Athens in the year 312 or 302 BC. “It is not histories I am writing, but lives,” Plutarch would write, “and in the most glorious deeds there is not always an indication of virtue or vice, indeed a small thing like a phrase or a jest often makes a greater revelation of a character than battles where thousands die.” (Oh, and his grandson would be one of Marcus Aurelius’s philosophy teachers, by the way). They were interested in character as much as accomplishment.
To study philosophy, we do well to study philosophers. To have heroes whose lives we dissect and learn from. What did they do well? Where did they fall short? What were their tragic flaws? What was the source of their greatness? Forget obscure works, forget complicated text—look at the deeds, the Stoics would say. You know a philosopher by their fruits, by the way they applied those lessons in their lives.
To hear of these study habits from the ancient Stoic lineage, and to read what is written today about Stoic practices in modern day, you would think they are wholly unconnected. Two epochs, one having unearthed the remnants of the other from the discard pile of history and ancient philosophy. In fact, the chain of Zeno to Marcus was never broken and it does not need to end.
Indeed, it continued on to Montaigne, and then George Washington two centuries later, and then Admiral Stockdale two centuries after that…and now to you. That is, if you continue to study. If you continue to look backwards to help yourself move forward.
So that’s our question for you today: Are you studying? And if so, who are you studying?
Very exciting news, Ryan’s book Lives of the Stoics is on sale for $1.99 everywhere ebooks are sold! Lives of the Stoics is modeled off Plutarch and contains 26 biographies of the most important Stoics from history. If you are looking for great men and women to study, this is the book! It was a debut #1 bestseller and will never be cheaper than it is right now.