Review of 'Lives of the Stoics' by Ryan Holiday

tl;dr: 'Lives of the Stoics' teaches us about applying Stoicism to our daily lives through the telling of the stories of the various philosophers who helped shape it.



This book is a series of mini-biographies of about twenty-five philosophers who were instrumental in creating, defining, challenging and evolving Stoicism. They range from the creator Zeno to Chrysippus the codifier, from Cicero the avowed non-stoic but who followed its tenets, to Seneca the author and historian, from Epictetus the free man to Marcus Aurelius the philosopher-king. The lives of these illustrious personages inform us about the history of their era while also putting their personal story front and centre. We learn about their struggles, challenges, their influences on philosophy and vice versa, their achievements and failures.

I found the book to be appealing initially. But as I read more, my attention started wandering due to the deluge of information without much of a context. I started skipping a few of the biographies and went to those that I had heard about. This method worked better in retaining my interest. Some of the people I read about are as follows.

Zeno converted the loss of his business due to a shipwreck into an opportunity to learn more about life and started Stoicism.

Cleanthes worked at night as a gardener and studied philosophy during the day.

Chrysippus fought hard for the principles of Stoicism.

Diogenes the Diplomat mixed philosophy with real-life pragmatism and started the process of converting Rome into an ally of Athens.

Antipater began moving Stoicism from looking at everything as black and white into more nuanced shades of grey and introduced the concept of family life as a virtue.

In addition to all these people, I also read about Cato the traveller, Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.

'Lives of the Stoics' is more like a history book than a primer on Stoicism. I did learn a little bit about the core ideas of this philosophy through the lives of the philosophers. Some of the key things I discovered are that the Stoics were most concerned with how one lived. They cared about what one did and not what one said. Their four virtues are Courage, Temperance, Justice and Wisdom. Unfortunately, Stoicism in modern English has the meaning of being indifferent to pain and suffering. Instead, simplistically put, it should be more like accepting the moment as it is by not allowing oneself to be controlled too much by emotions.

Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman have written 'The Daily Stoic' and 'The Daily Stoic Journal' - which seem to be more of a primer than this book. I haven't read either of them - so I can't compare and contrast them to 'Lives of the Stoics'.

Overall, I think this book will be useful for those who already know about Stoicism but want to learn more about how it started and evolved through the ages.

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