Book Review: Lives of the Stoics – The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius

Lives of the Stoics – The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius, by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, Profile Books, 2020, 326 pages, €19.95

Panaetius argues that if we are to live an ethical life and chose appropriate actions, we must find a way to balance:

1) the roles and duties common to us all as human beings;

2) the roles and duties unique to our individual daimon, or personal genius/calling;

3) the roles and duties assigned to us by the chance of our social station (family and profession);

4) the roles and duties that arise from decisions and commitments we have made.

Lives of the Stoics, p. 81

It has been a trying and challenging year. Although there is light at the end of this dark COVID-19 tunnel in which we find ourselves, this light – promised by miracle vaccines discovered in record time – sadly, may not come soon enough for many. The winter holiday season is supposed to make us jolly and joyful. But let’s be honest. For some, even under normal circumstances, it is not the best of times.

Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations, “[t]here is no role so well suited to philosophy as the one you happen to be in right now.” Words that were as relevant for his days as they are for ours. Some of us, our friends, our family members, may be or believe themselves to be in a difficult, dispirited, disconnected place with no relief on the horizon. Some of us may be blessed with unusual success, feeling euphoric. Some of us may simply be doing okay, grateful to have survived 2020 and happy to be where we are – physically, mentally, and professionally.

As each year comes to an end and as we prepare to usher in the new year, we tend to reflect on unkept resolutions, missed opportunities, wasted time, wishing we could have been more disciplined, more focused, and more resolute. We hope – not without a pinch of self-delusional romantic sanguinity – that next year will be better, more productive, more successful, and happier. As for me, the closer 31st of December approaches the more reflective I get, pensively looking in the rearview mirror in search of true North.

Wherever you may happen to be, you might find solace and encouragement from many of the classical writings – especially from the Stoics.

The Stoics lived in brutal but intellectually productive times. These ancient philosophers – like their contemporary poets, playwrights, and scientists – were undeniably brilliant. But they were also products of their environment. They excelled not so much because of their genius, but because of the sociopolitical environment in which they lived. It enabled their genius to flourish, making it possible to think the big ideas, to challenge norms, to search for meanings – including the meaning of our existence and what it takes to live a good life, whatever the status and station in the polity one exists.

At its core, Stoicism is a philosophy of life – a philosophy of mindfulness in cultivating one’s character through, and living by, the four virtues of justice, wisdom, courage, and temperance. Stoicism is as practical as the Stoics were cosmopolitan – teachers to the ordinary, tutors to the privileged, advisers to kings and emperors. My favorite is Epictetus. A Greek from Hierapolis, born a slave, abused and crippled by his master, freed as an adult, founder of one of the most prestigious schools. Epictetus’s lectures, reduced in the Enchiridion (handbook on lessons of living),1 For an updated version of Epictetus’s Enchiridion, see Massimo Pigliucci, A FIELD GUIDE TO A HAPPY LIFE: 53 BRIEF LESSONS FOR LIVING (2020). See also Sharon Labell, ART OF LIVING: THE CLASSICAL MANUAL ON VIRTUE, HAPPINESS, AND EFFECTIVENESS – EPICTETUS (Harper One 2007). influenced Marcus Aurelius, guiding him in life as he rose to become one of the most successful Roman Emperors, and to our benefit, inspired him to keep a journal – Meditations.

The Lives of the Stoics – The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman is a pleasant, informative, and entraining read – a fine introduction or primer for anyone interested in learning about Stoicism. Replete with historical details, philosophical tidbits, and witty gossips, Holiday and Hanselman – inspired by the ancient biographer Plutarch and relying on chronicles by Diogenes Laërtius, Cicero, and others – offer cogent mini bios of 27 influential Stoics in chronological order from Zeno (334 – 262 BC) to Marcus Aurelius (121–180 AD).

Aside from cogently distilling the philosophic teachings of the Stoics in simple prose, Holiday and Hanselman cover some interesting and relevant events of the periods in which each Stoic lived. This historical context makes for a more enjoyable and interesting read, but it also assists in providing a general overview of how and under what circumstances this philosophical school evolved, which, in no small measure, continues to be relevant today. As each short chapter comes to an end, and with the events and characters being intertwined, the reader is pleasantly coaxed on to the next chapter until the end, wishing the authors had continued to the modern Stoics.

To go into any of the lives of the Stoics would be a spoiler. I do, however, wish to mention a story about James Stockdale, who, as a Colonel in the US Navy, was shot down over Vietnam on 9 September 1965, and remained a prisoner of war until 12 February 1973. During his imprisonment, he was tortured almost daily and denied medical treatment. As he was parachuting down, recalling the teaching from Epictetus’s Enchiridion, he said to himself: “I am leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.”

Years after his release, when asked how he managed in prison, Stockdale replied:

I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.

As for his fellow POWs who did not make it out of Vietnam, he answered:

Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

Stockdale, who went on to become a highly decorated three-star Vice Admiral, had studied philosophy at Stanford for a year right before heading off to Vietnam. He was obviously influenced by Stoicism. Separating abiding faith from unsentimental discipline to cope with life’s hardships is one of Epictetus’s fundamental doctrines, shared by other Stoics. This dichotomy for surviving as a prisoner of war – clinging to the hope of returning home, while remaining resolutely focused on mustering the will and strength to do what it takes and to endure what one must to soldier through untold years of daily torture and deprivation – has been coined the Stockdale Paradox.

Epictus and James Stockdale

After reading Stockdale’s Vietnam story in the Lives of Stoics, I found his essay Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior. It is brilliant, inspirational, personal, heartwarming, and instructive.

As you await the arrival of the new year, if you are looking to read something with a bit of inspirational wisdom, comfort knowledge, or as I put it, soul-sustenance, I recommend the Lives of the Stoics. If you are not sure about investing in the Lives of the Stoics, I highly recommend reading Courage Under Fire.

Happy 2021!!!

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Author: Michael G. Karnavas

Michael G. Karnavas is an American trained lawyer. He is licensed in Alaska and Massachusetts and is qualified to appear before the various International tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Residing and practicing primarily in The Hague, he is recognized as an expert in international criminal defence, including, pre-trial, trial, and appellate advocacy.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Lives of the Stoics – The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius”

  1. I really love that quote from Epictetus: “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” Very wise words. I also find Stockdale’s story inspirational. Thanks!

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