Why you should read “Lives of the Stoics” by Ryan Holiday

How to live a good life

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The only reason to study philosophy is to become a better person. Anything else, as Nietzsche said, is merely a “critique of words by means of other words.”

This quote from ’s book “Lives of the Stoics” summarizes perfectly the message you will find in the book.

According to the Stoics, life is about being a better person.

If you are here, you probably know already a bit about stoicism. Stoicism is the philosophy of having a personal ethic and an objective view on the world.

Of course, you can be a stoic without being a philosopher. It is a philosophy of life that focus on positive emotions while trying to avoid the negative ones. It helps individuals focus on the 4 fundamental virtues : Courage, Temperance, Justice and Wisdom.

So If you try to see the best in anything that happens in your life, you’re a stoic. As simple as that.

But it’s actually not so simple to act as a stoic. They are so many temptations around us. It’s so easy to get angry or hateful when something bad happens to us.

That’s where this book gives its true value. It is a beautiful history book about how stoicism was build. From ancient Greece to Marcus Aurelius.

But it does so by describing the life of each “Stoic” that somehow influenced this school of thinking.

Sometimes this influence was good, sometimes not and sometimes it’s complicated. The chapters are mostly linear, with each new philosophers being either a student of the previous one or a successor (and often both).

You will discover 500 hundred years of history, between 300 BC and 200 AD. What is absolutely mind blowing is that many philosophers in this book didn’t actually wrote anything that survived 2000 years to arrive to us. We know them mostly from what other people wrote about them.

And this illustrate one of the most important lesson of this book :

Stoics cared about you did, not what you said.

And history remembers what you did more than what you said.

A Tumultuous History

Stoicism has a very simple beginning. The philosophy starts in Athens, which was at the time one of the biggest and most vigorous commercial center of the world.

A guy named Zeno experienced a shipwreck and lost a fortune. But he chose to see the bright side and work on what he could do instead of complaining. He taught others about this mindset. And Stoicism was born.

Of course it’s a bit more complicated than that but to be fair, not that much. Zeno’s first successors then developed the philosophy and fought the concurrent school of thoughts.

The start is simple, but the development of Stoicism is not.

Everything became more messy when Rome came into play. The development of the Roman Empire greatly influenced Stoicism. But the opposite is also true, Stoicism influenced heavily the development of the Roman Empire.

At first Rome didn’t want any philosophers in its walls. But soon it became impossible to stop the spreading of philosophy, and especially Stoicism.

Once Stoicism started to develop, it also stayed close to power. Very often you had stoic philosophers that were advisors to the emperor.

One of the saddest example of this is the relationship between Seneca and Nero. Nero being one of the most terrible emperor (and human being) of the time.

Seneca was his tutor and tried as best as he could to influence his pupil. But sadly it didn’t work and Nero executed his plans without any regards for ethics. He assassinated his own mother and brother, made his old tutor kill himself and a lot of other atrocities that you can read in the book.

Sometimes though, the relationship is very beneficial. The best example of this is Junius Rusticus, who had Marcus Aurelius as his student. This relationship ended up with Marcus Aurelius being the Philosopher King. Not a perfect king, nor a perfect man. But one trying really hard to behave properly, according to ethics, wisdom and courage.

What blow me away is how Marcus Aurelius behave according to a strict ethic even though he suffered so many horrible things. He had 13 children but 8 died at a relatively young age. He was emperor when a terrible epidemy devastated the empire. And their was continuous wars happening at the same time against the German tribes.

He could have abused his power. He could have not cared about what was happening. A lot of other emperors did. But he chose to not do it. He lived according to his own principles and what he considers was good. No matter what.

That’s part of what you can find in the book. A story of how tiny decisions made by simple people influenced history.

5 Things about Stoicism to learn from this book

1) What a stoic is

Through examples we can really learn a lot. This book is full of examples. And one of the best quote from it just simply and clearly states what a stoic is.

There is no better definition of a Stoic: to have but not want, to enjoy without needing.

Just meditate on this for a second. It’s a truly wonderful way of living.

2) What a stoic can accomplish

Being a stoic or having a stoic friend can be a wonderful experience. Here is how Ryan beautifully describe what it’s like to have a relationship with a stoic.

If you want the job done right, there’s no one better to do it than a Stoic. If you want someone to aid you in your crimes and corruption, there’s nobody worse.

It links to another great quote often used to describe a stoic.

No better friend, no worse enemy.

3) Being honest is the greatest value

Being an honest person is not always easy. Sometimes it can put you in dangerous situations or create you enemies. As the saying goes :

Doing the right thing could cost a person everything.

But not doing the right thing can be very costly as well. You will just have to pay yourself in regrets and shame.

Do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter.

4) A stoic can endure anything

Being a stoic can be seen as not such a fun situation. But it also has pros. Like inner peace.

The space between our ears is the only territory we can conquer in any kind of certain and enduring way.

You can always control your thoughts. It’s not easy but it’s always in your control.

The greatest empire is to be emperor of oneself.

5) Who you are doesn’t matter

To be a good stoic and live a happy and fulfilled life you don’t need to be rich. You don’t need to have a special status or international fame.

You just need to have an idea on who you want to be and how you want to behave. And then do your best everyday to follow this path as best as possible.

There is no position so high or so low that it is not improved by the four virtues: justice, temperance, wisdom, and courage.

You are not going to be perfect. You will make mistakes along the way. But just trying is already a sign that you are heading in the good direction.

A French soul with a European heart. We can all learn from each other. Let’s do that here.