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Lives of the Stoics

The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius

By Ryan Holiday, Stephen Hansel
  • Read in 13 minutes
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  • Contains 8 key ideas
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Lives of the Stoics by Ryan Holiday, Stephen Hansel

Lives of the Stoics (2020) explores Stoicism through the lives of its earliest followers. Packed with insights into the leaders, wars, and politics of classical antiquity, these blinks provide a fresh yet historical look at this popular philosophy.

Key idea 1 of 8

Stoicism was forged in the fire of hardship.

Stoicism may have grown into a towering world philosophy but it had humble beginnings. This influential school of thought all started with one man, a devastating shipwreck, and a humble porch stoop. 

Our story starts in the Mediterreanean, in the fourth century BCE, with a wealthy merchant called Zeno. 

Zeno made a good living by trading in a rare purple dye made from sea-snail blood. But one day, his comfortable life came crashing down when a ship carrying his precious cargo was wrecked at sea. Zeno and his family lost everything. 

The key message here is: Stoicism was forged in the fire of hardship. 

Some people would have been broken by this devastating turn of events, but not Zeno. He confronted his bad luck with resilience and courage – exactly the sort of qualities that Stoicism would come to represent. Rather than dwell on his misfortune, Zeno moved to the city of Athens, the beating heart of Ancient Greece, and reinvented himself as a philosopher. 

He’d chosen the right place. 


Fourth century Athens was centered around both business and, shamefully, the slave trade. The city’s commercial success and its slave labor force meant that the city’s educated elite had plenty of time to ponder life’s biggest existential questions. Before long, Zeno found a respected teacher called Crates of Thebes to introduce him to the basics of philosophy. 


Crates wasted no time in giving Zeno an eccentric first lesson using a pot of lentil soup. Crates asked him to take this soup across the city. Believing that this task was beneath him, Zeno took the soup through the back streets in order to avoid being seen. But when Crates noticed him sneaking around, he tipped the soup all over him as a lesson on not caring so much about what other people thought. 


Before long, Zeno became a respected philosopher in his own right. He founded a new philosophy, called Stoicism, and formulated its four guiding principles: courage, wisdom, temperance, and justice.

Like the Stoics who came after him, Zeno believed that philosophy should not be confined to the classroom but should instead be put into action in daily life. So, rather than shouting from a bell tower or in a grand lecture hall, Zeno and his followers discussed their ideas on a porch in the middle of Athens known as the Stoa Poikile. Perhaps the greatest testament to Zeno’s modesty is that he named his philosophy after this very porch rather than after himself. 





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