What I like about the three great Roman Stoics

I have been studying Stoicism somewhat seriously for a while now, and in particular, of course, the three great Roman Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus. Although all three of them espouse the same fundamental philosophy, there are, of course interesting differences among them, which attest to the fact that Stoicism was and is a vibrant set of ideas and practices, not something perennially and unalterably written on a stone tablet.

It is also very clear to the reader of the Letters to Lucilius (for instance), the Discourses, and the Meditations, that the three in question differed markedly in terms of their personalities, which in turn affected the way they understood and practiced Stoicism. Here I’d like to explore what I find captivating in each of the three great ones and what I’m learning from them in terms of my own practice.

Let me proceed in simple chronological order of appearance on the world’s stage, so to speak, beginning therefore with Seneca. Some of my fellow Stoics love him, others despise him — though one could make a reasonable argument that despising people is not good Stoic practice in the first place. He certainly was a complicated character, and even the most lenient interpretation of what we know of his life must lead one to conclude that he was a very imperfect prokopton. Then again, he clearly  and repeatedly says so himself.

There are two things I love about Seneca: his elegant prose, and the down-to-earth practicality of his advice. He is by far the most polished of the Great Three, though perhaps the comparison isn’t entirely fair, given that the Discourses were actually written by Arrian, one of Epictetus’ students, and that of course Marcus was writing to himself, not for publication. Nonetheless, here is a sample of what I’m talking about, both in terms of style and of subject matter:

“In this sense the wise man is self-sufficient, that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them. When I say ‘can,’ I mean this: he endures the loss of a friend with equanimity.” (Letters to Lucilius, IX. On Philosophy and Friendship, 5)

Or here:

“Furthermore, if you will pay close heed to the problem, you will find that the largest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a goodly share while we are doing nothing, and the whole while we are doing that which is not to the purpose.” (Letters to Lucilius, I. On Saving Time, 1)

Or again here:

“The wise man is without anger, which is caused by the appearance of injury, and he could not be free from anger unless he were also free from injury, which he knows cannot be done to him.” (On the Firmness of the Wise Person IX)

In every instance Seneca elegantly and straightforwardly introduces and expounds on a fundamental Stoic precept. The wise man is self-sufficient, but in the specific sense that he can endure the loss of a friend with equanimity; he is without anger, because he knows that no insult can damage him; and we should take seriously the common and thoughtless wasting of the only commodity we can never get back: time itself.

Seneca’s writing is clear, completely accessible without any prior knowledge of philosophy, or even of Stoicism (which cannot be said, for instance, of Epictetus). Especially in the Letters to Lucilius, it is easy ti imagine him as your benign uncle, or perhaps your good friend, a few years older than yourself, giving you gentle but actionable suggestions about things that actually matter to you. I always keep Uncle Seneca at the ready on my iPad.

Epictetus, instead, has very different qualities. I must admit to a bias in his favor, since he was my “first love” in Stoicism, the first ancient author I re-read seriously when I started practicing. He imprinted me, so to speak. The three characteristics of Epictetus that shine through both the Discourses and the Enchiridion, in my opinion, are his sharp analytical mind, his no-nonsense approach to practical philosophy, and his sense of humor — though probably sarcasm wouldn’t be a bad description, at the least in some instances.

Here is his sense of humor on display: “I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later.” (Discourses I, 1.32) Or: “Death is necessary and cannot be avoided. I mean, where am I going to go to get away from it?” (Discourses I, 27.7-8) And here is where he veers sharply toward sarcasm: “‘But my nose is running!’ What do you have hands for, idiot, if not to wipe it? ‘But how is it right that there be running noses in the first place?’ Instead of thinking up protests, wouldn’t it be easier just to wipe your nose?” (Discourses I, 6.30).

For an example of his style of philosophical argumentation: “Since reason is what analyses and coordinates everything, it should not go itself unanalysed. Then what will it be analysed by? Obviously by itself or something different. Now, this something different must either be reason or something superior to reason – which is impossible, since there is nothing superior to reason.” (Discourses I, 17.1-2)

As for his no-nonsense approach to instilling Stoic principles in his students, how about the following? “This is how I came to lose my lamp: the thief was better than I am in staying awake. But he acquired the lamp at a price: he became a thief for its sake, for its sake, he lost his ability to be trusted, for a lamp he became a brute. And he imagined he came out ahead!” (Discourses I, 29.21) Or: “Paris was Menelaus’ guest, and anyone who saw how well they treated each other would have laughed at anyone who said they weren’t friends. But between the two a bit of temptation was thrown in the form of a beautiful woman, and over that there arose war.” (Discourses II, 22.23)

There is no getting around the fact that reading Epictetus gives a very distinct pleasure from reading Uncle Seneca. Epictetus really talks to you like the sort of teacher you always wished you had in school but probably never did. He cares about your progress, but he doesn’t cut you any slack when you don’t make an effort.

Marcus is, again, a whole different story. Reading the Meditations really does feel like reading my own diary, and no, that’s not because I have delusions of grandeur and hope some day to become an emperor. It’s that Marcus seems to struggle with something that resonates very closely with me, though perhaps not quite as dramatically as for him: he is a misanthrope who’d rather minimize contact with the rest of humanity, and yet is also moved by a strong sense of duty to play well his many roles, of emperor, general, husband, father, friend, student.

This is a famous example of what I’m referring to: “Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (Meditations II.1)

Or consider this: “Labor willingly and diligently, undistracted and aware of the common interest. … Be cheerful also, and do not seek external help or the tranquillity that others give. A man then must stand erect, not be kept erect by others.” (Meditations III.5)

Or this: “With what are you discontented? With the badness of men? Recall to your mind this conclusion, that rational animals exist for one another, and that to endure is a part of justice, and that men do wrong involuntarily.” (Meditations IV.3)

And finally this: “When you are offended at any man’s fault, immediately turn to yourself and reflect in what manner you yourself have erred: for example, in thinking that money is a good thing or pleasure, or a bit of reputation, and the like.” (Meditations, X.30)

So this is what the Big Three represent for me, respectively: the articulate and pragmatic uncle, the sharp teacher with a sense of humor, and an at the least partial reflection of myself seen through the mirror of time and philosophy. It’s really good company all around.

9 thoughts on “What I like about the three great Roman Stoics

  1. I echo the comments here with an enthusiastic two thumbs up. My only original comment is that I love the interjections of humour in your writing, Massimo. “…though one could make a reasonable argument that despising people is not good Stoic practice in the first place.” (Well, I laughed. Perhaps those who despise Epictetus wouldn’t.)

    Again, thank you for all the work you do and helping to show me the way as I try to get a handle on Stoicism.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Regarding Seneca, it’s not I despise him. Far from it. I enjoyed and continue to enjoy his writings. It’s my frustration with people who put him up as a model of Stoicism which he is not. There have been modern scholars who conclude him to be a hypocrite. But what confirms it for me is his contemporaries who personally witnessed his actions felt the same way, too. Seneca not only failed to apply Stoicism (assuming he tried) but was involved in adultery and exiled his enemies, which are the opposite of Stoicism. Stoicism proposes to be a philosophy of practical application, ideas you practice in everyday life, not simply to talk about. A Stoic should be more than espousing pretty words. So it would be a disservice to advertise him as a proper Stoic much less a great Stoic. Hence I will disagree with you here, Massimo. I respect you immensely as you probably know and our disagreement here won’t change my view of you.

    All the while Musonius has been left out of the equation of a great Stoic. Musonius is renowned in his day and his contemporaries, from everyday Romans to emperors. Even the esteemed and often critical Epictetus approves of Musonius’s Stoic teachings and application in life. It would be beneficial for all of us to learn Musonius since he successfully applied Stoicism to his life, especially if you are a family-oriented person. I will be working to restore Musonius to his proper place in Stoic history and hope you would join me.


  3. Suntzu,

    As you say, we’ll keep disagreeing about Seneca, the accounts of his contemporaries are actually mixed, and some of the more negative ones are known to be from people with an axe to grind. Nevertheless, there is more than enough room for doubt about Seneca’s character, and I certainly agree with you that Stoicism is about practice, not just pretty words.

    Regarding Musonius, the only reason I left him out is because we have so little written by him that survives, not because his stature was not more than deserving.


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