Stoic Saturday – Who were the Ancient Stoics?

Last week, I gave a (hopefully) straightforward explanation of Stoicism; what it is, and why you should care.

Want the short version? It’s an ancient philosophy that teaches how to achieve real happiness, and it doesn’t just talk the talk: Stoicism provides practical techniques to improve your mental wellbeing and emotional resilience.

Before diving deeper into Stoic practice, I thought it’d be good to look briefly at the ancient Stoics who have had the biggest impact on me, as a philosopher and an aspiring Stoic. They were interesting people living in interesting times, and it’s to their credit that what they taught remains relevant today.

Zeno of Citium

333 – 261 BCE

zeno

Zeno of Citium can reasonably be called the father of Stoicism. In his early philosophical career, he studied first under Crates the Cynic and then with Polemo at the Academy. Borrowing Cynical ethics and Academic logic, Zeno eventually founded his own school, where his habit of giving lectures at the Stoa Poikile led to his followers being called Stoics. He counselled these early Stoics to employ both reason and empathy in striving for “the good life,” which he defined as happiness married to virtue.

Seneca the Younger

c. 4 BCE – 65 CE

seneca

Seneca the Younger was a popular playwright and a successful investor as well as a philosopher, and he was exiled for the alleged crime of having sex with the Emperor’s niece. It’s hard to imagine a philosopher more removed from the stereotypical ivory tower than Seneca: he was even the personal tutor of the young Nero, who would ultimately have him assassinated out of fear of his influence. Seneca taught his students that satisfied desires only give birth to new and greater ones, and encouraged them to concentrate on appreciating what they already had.

Epictetus

c. 50 – 135 CE

epictetus

Epictetus was a high-ranking slave and imperial administrator. He is believed to have gained his freedom sometime after the death of the Emperor Nero, the man who’d had Seneca murdered. As a philosopher, his lectures were infamously long and uncomfortable. This was no accident; and the discomfort felt by his students was not just physical, but also mental and emotional. Epictetus called for ruthless examination of the self and its desires, and once remarked that if someone left one of his lectures feeling better, they couldn’t have been paying attention.

Marcus Aurelius

121 – 180 CE

marcus

After a celebrity and a slave, we come to an Emperor. Marcus Aurelius was the last of what Machiavelli would later term the “Five Good Emperors,” under whom the Roman Empire enjoyed unprecedented power, prestige and security. Marcus Aurelius was never renowned as a teacher or a preacher, and we know most of his philosophy through his letters To Himself. In thought and deed, Marcus was a Stoic through and through, applying its principles in the face of his physical frailty and the unparalleled stresses of being the most powerful man in history. Through his intelligence and wisdom, and facilitated by the practice of Stoicism, both Emperor and Empire thrived during Marcus’ reign.

From Zeno to Marcus, the ancient Stoics provide not only teachings but lives which encapsulate the meaning and value of Stoicism. Next week I’ll be getting my hands dirty with a practical Stoic technique to improve your happiness and emotional stability: in the meantime, let me know what you think, and feel free to drop me a line.

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