Review: Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman
By a strangely fortuitous set of circumstances, I happened to read Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living From Zeno to Marcus Aurelius by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman amidst a comically inept but no less dangerous attempt by an American president to nullify his electoral defeat and remain in power in defiance of American law and tradition. In this particular moment, it’s hard not to read the book as anything less than an implicit broadside against President Donald Trump and his enablers. Though Holiday and Hanselman themselves refrain from such a direct case, the parallels between the early twenty-first century America and the ancient Greco-Roman world of the ancient Stoics are simply too uncanny to ignore.
But Lives of the Stoics has much more offer than yet another extended historical analogy to contemporary American politics and society that will likely fade in the years to come. Above all else, it’s an eminently readable call to the philosophical life – or at least a life that’s imbued with a more philosophical outlook. Though it lacks the intellectual weight of other modern Stoic texts by the likes of Donald Robertson, Massimo Pigliucci, or William Irvine – to say nothing of the academic works by scholars like Margaret Graver or Gretchen Reydams-Schils – Lives of the Stoics remains an engaging and lively guided tour through the origins, evolution, and practice of Stoic philosophy in the ancient world.
While no one will confuse Lives of the Stoics with an academic tome, the book does make a real contribution to the burgeoning canon of modern Stoicism. More intellectually in-depth contemporary treatments of Stoic philosophy tend to focus on those later Roman Stoics like Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius whose written works have survived the millennia more or less intact. These books also usually trace the school’s genealogy back to its founder, Zeno of Citium (or Kition), and his two successors as head of the Stoa, Cleanthes and Chrysippus of Soli. As Holiday and Hanselman note, much of the work of this founding generation has unfortunately been lost to posterity – including, for instance, the more than 705 volumes known to have been written by Chrysippus during his pivotal tenure as head of the school.
Often left out of these narratives are lesser-known but no less important figures in the development of Stoic philosophy like Diogenes of Babylon, the fifth head of the Stoa, and Panaetius, the school’s leader toward the end of second century BCE. It’s here where the book’s value lies: by shining a spotlight on these obscure yet influential Stoics, Holiday and Hanselman allow us to see Stoic philosophy evolve and grow in something resembling real time. We watch as new heads of the Stoa like Diogenes and his immediate successors, Antipater of Tarsus and Panaetius, put forward new ideas to fill in gaps or extend the philosophy’s scope, reach, and intellectual power.
Lives of the Stoics reminds us that Stoicism did not emerge fully formed from the mind of Zeno after he found himself shipwrecked in Athens. It accreted and accumulated new ideas and concepts over time, providing a beautiful illustration of the school’s own focus on humanity’s capacity for both reason and moral progress. Through their set of biographical narratives, Holiday and Hanselman demonstrate that Stoicism was and remains a living philosophy, valuing wisdom above all while maintaining a strong allergy to dogma. Or as Seneca put it in a letter to his friend Lucilius (33.11), “Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come.”
As much as anything else, Stoicism recommends active participation in public life as the best way to serve and advance the common good. It’s a theme that emerged early on in the history of the philosophy, with its founding triumvirate writing now-lost abstract and theoretical works on politics in an ideal society. “These debates,” Holiday and Hanselman observe, “were little more than arguments of different types of utopia.” The turn to practical politics and public engagement came when Diogenes of Babylon traveled with a gaggle of fellow philosophers to Rome in order to plead with the newly ascendent Mediterranean hegemon for leniency toward their own home city of Athens.
By all accounts, Diogenes charmed Rome’s elites and helped win a reduced fine for Athens. In so doing, he marked himself out as the first Stoic philosopher to contend directly with the problems of practical politics – but he would be far from the last. As the biographical narratives in Lives of the Stoics progress, we see various Roman Stoics struggle to meet their philosophical obligation to engage in public life and maintain their principles amidst the morally treacherous and often fatal politics of the late Roman Republic and the subsequent Empire. Before serving as head of the Stoa, for instance, Panaetius actively engaged in Roman politics and policy through his personal involvement in the political and intellectual circle centered on the general Scipio Aemilianus.
But as Holiday and Hanselman show, subsequent Stoics would find this commitment to an active public life one of their most trying philosophical obligations. There’s no clear exemplar of how one should square philosophical ideals and principles with practical political engagement to be found in Lives of the Stoics (save Marcus Aurelius),though there are many potential role models and guides to choose from. Like Seneca millennia ago, Holiday and Hanselman hold up Marcus Porcius Cato – staunch defender of the republic and nemesis of Julius Caesar – as perhaps the best example to follow.
While Seneca held up an idealized Cato as a moral role model in his letters to his friend Lucilius, Holiday and Hanselman have to contend more directly with Cato’s rather mixed historical record. Modern accounts of the fall of the Republic by Anthony Everett and Edward Watts, for instance, make it clear that Cato’s own inflexibility helped bring about the demise of his cherished Republic. As Holiday and Hanselman themselves acknowledge, “Cato’s inflexibility did not always serve well the public good.” We may admire Cato for his willingness to stand by his principles up to the end, but it seems equally clear that his moralistic obstinacy and rigidity was as much a vice as a virtue.
For his part, Seneca typically comes in for harsh criticism due to his association with the deranged emperor Nero. Perhaps that’s because Seneca left behind so much written material with which to judge the apparent contradictions between his philosophical commitments and his well-compensated political work for one of Rome’s most notorious tyrants. But I personally find it hard to be so unsympathetic toward Seneca and his predicament, in particular his failure to bring out the best in Nero. In his own philosophical writings – especially the letters on ethics to Lucilius written late in his life – Seneca comes across as a deeply flawed human being struggling to live up to his principles under trying circumstances. Unlike Cato, he does give the impression of a man parading his own moral righteousness around for all to see.
Lesser-known individuals profiled in Lives of the Stoics may perhaps provide more salutary examples of engagement in public life while maintaining one’s principles. One in particular stands out: Publius Rutilius Rufus, a political figure from the generation that preceded the fall of the Republic. Rutilius stood out for his “fierce but quiet honesty” and opposition to the corruption of the late Republic, and later found himself exiled to Smyrna on false charges of corruption ginned up by his political enemies. He refused to return from exile when offered the opportunity, saying he would rather Rome be embarrassed by his banishment than suffer the likely civil war that would allow him and other exiles to come home. It’s a compelling counterexample to Cato’s destructive self-righteousness.
Still, it’s difficult to read Lives of the Stoics at this particular moment in time as anything other than a damning indictment of President Trump and his enablers. Lines that might otherwise seem rather apolitical or unexceptional assessments of ancient Roman politics and society take on a sharper edge and cut close to the bone of contemporary American politics and society. After describing an encounter Panaetius had with the corpulent King Ptolemy VIII of Egypt, for instance, Holiday and Hanseman go on to observe that “Fat and lazy heads of state are another recurring character of history.”
The Roman politician and general Marius comes in for particular scorn: the authors note that all that matters to populist politicians like him “is their iron grip on their ignorant base and the power that comes from it.” Following their account of the philosopher and gifted polymath Posidonius’s encounter with Marius on his deathbed, Holiday and Hanselman pause to raise “a timeless question: If you actually knew what ‘success’ and ‘power’ looked like – what it did to the people who got it – would you still want it?” Posidonius, they continue, went on to write down his “firsthand observations about the costs of ambition and insatiable appetites” he’d seen in would-be dictators and tyrants from Sicily to Athens. When Marcus Aurelius repeatedly references the common good in his Meditations nearly two centuries later, moreover, Holiday and Hanselman view it as noteworthy “considering how nearly all of his predecessors [as emperor] viewed the purpose of the state.”
Beyond these explicit observations on the corruptions of power and ambition, Lives of the Stoics serves as a powerful but largely implicit rebuke to contemporary American politics and society. As related by Holiday and Hanselman, the virtues and character traits advocated, pursued, and sometimes embodied by the ancient Stoics stand diametrically opposed to those displayed by President Trump and his hangers-on. Just as the lives of the ancient Stoics themselves stood in stark contrast to the likes of Caligula and Nero, the biographical narratives presented in Lives of the Stoics stand in stark contrast to President Trump’s willful and ongoing detachment from the reality of his electoral defeat.
Lives of the Stoics may read as a strong reproach Trump and his enablers, but it levels this charge in ways that ensure that the book itself will will endure beyond the current presidency. Holiday and Hanselman content themselves with creating a deep but implicit contrast between the philosophy they champion and America’s current political leadership. They do not need to make direct attacks or accusations against Trump and his fellow-travelers; those of us living through the present moment of executive derangement will find their indictment clear enough.
But Trump represents only the most deranged and extreme incarnation of the negative traits and impulses all too prevalent in our national politics and shared social life. Too often, many of us working in politics and policy lose sight of the common good, our philosophical commitments, and our personal relationships – in a word, the things that make life worth living – as we indulge our conjoined desires for power and notoriety. Making matters more absurd, we frequently define power and notoriety in preposterously narrow ways: the next rung on the professional ladder, an appointment to a particular position, or a favorable mention from a former administration official on social media. Even mere proximity to power often proves seductive enough. These pathologies coursed through our political and social lives well before the advent of the Trump presidential campaign, and they will persist when he leaves office in January 2021.
In that way, Lives of the Stoics points toward universal aspects of the human condition and the timeless truths of philosophy. It’s an exceptionally welcome call to remain true to ourselves and our most basic principles as we participate in public life. As it is, we’re too easily led astray by the temptations of greed, power, or moral vanity and self-righteousness. Unlike Cato, we need to recognize when and where we might be deceiving ourselves. Ideology and ambition don’t override our most fundamental moral obligations and philosophical duties to ourselves and others, much less our shared humanity. In the end, we ought to remember why we’re involved in public life in the first place and attempt to navigate its rocks and shoals as best we can.
All in all, Lives of the Stoics proves itself a worthy addition to the modern Stoic canon. As with Holiday’s other books, Lives of the Stoics comes across as perhaps too breezy and casual in tone. A number of his modern analogues feel deeply incongruous, from a comparison of the founders of PayPal with the post-World War I “Lost Generation” and the Scipionic Circle of Panaetius to the use of lyrics from the Alice in Chains song “Nutshell” to help explain the attitude of the philosopher and statesman Agrippinus. These faults don’t undermine the book as a whole, but they do occasionally clash with the subject matter and unnecessarily jar the reader.
Still, Lives of the Stoics remains an excellent invitation to the philosophical life. We see how Stoic philosophy accretes and evolves over time – and how its adherents tried to put it into practice, however imperfectly. For that reason alone, the book makes a valuable contribution to the contemporary Stoic canon. As Holiday and Hanselman put it in their conclusion, “That’s what Stoicism is. It’s stretching. Training. To be better. To get better. To avoid one more mistake, to take one step closer to the ideal. Not perfection, but progress – that’s what each of these lives was about.”
Hopefully, Lives of the Stoics will whet the philosophical appetite of novice readers encountering Stoicism for perhaps the first time – and lead them to explore the modern Stoic canon more deeply, to say nothing of picking up some academic works on the philosophy and the writings of the ancient Stoics themselves. Even if Lives of the Stoics encourages its readers to take a slightly more reflective and philosophical perspective on their own lives, it will have made a difference.