Today, the philosophy of Stoicism is categorized into three time periods: Early Stoa, Middle Stoa, and Late Stoa. The works of Late Stoa do not survive in their entirety but are more intact and voluminous than any other time period of Stoic philosophy.
The works of the Late Stoa writers, and today the most famous of the Stoics or, the “Main Three Stoics”, is that of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca the Younger, and Epictetus.
Below is a brief look at each.
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
Marcus Aurelius was the emperor of Rome starting in 161 AD and continued until his death in 180 AD. His book or personal journal known today as The Meditations or simply Meditations, is one of the most widely read works of the ancient time and showcases the mentality and mindfulness of the emperor during his final years.
During his reign as emperor, Marcus was the most powerful man in the world. He was known as the last of the “Five Good Emperors”, a time characterized by substantial peace which brought stability to Rome. He was known for his calm demeanor, his pursuit of knowledge and virtue was one of his highest qualities.
While he brought great strength and stability to Rome, his reign was not without adversity. During his time as emperor, the country faced wars with Parthia and the Germanic tribes.
He was crowned the Philosopher King, a title which was bestowed upon those who held great power, and pursued a simple life through wisdom and intelligence.
SENECA THE YOUNGER
“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.”
Seneca the Younger was the son of the Roman writer Seneca the Elder. He was one of the most known and regarded philosophers, dramatists, and statesman during his lifetime. Compared to other Stoics, much of Seneca’s work still survives, his most notable works being Letters from a Stoic and his essay On the Shortness of Life.
Around 41 AD, Seneca was exiled to the island of Corsica by emperor Claudius. Seneca was offered to return from exile after eight years when he was requested to become the tutor of Nero. Nero would grow into one of the most powerful and notorious emperors of Rome.
Later in his life, Seneca would find himself accused of being a traitor to Nero and was implicated in a plot to overthrow the emperor. Nero sent down the orders for Seneca to be killed. Seneca was forced to commit suicide in 65 AD.
“Circumstances don’t make the man, they only reveal him to himself.”
Epictetus was born into this world as a slave. The household to which he was a slave was a wealthy one and his master allowed him to pursue an education in liberal studies. It is from this that Epictetus began studying Stoic philosophy through the teachings of Musonius Rufus.
After Nero’s death, Epictetus was granted freedom from his masters and went on to teach Stoic philosophy for nearly 25 years. Epictetus would eventually be forced to flee Rome for Greece when the Roman emperor Domitian banned all of the philosophers from the country. Epictetus would make the most of his situation and continue teaching philosophy in Greece until his demise.
The writings that survive today of Epictetus are not his own, but rather, notes written by one of his students, Arrian, who composed his lessons in what is now known as The Discourses of Epictetus and The Enchiridion.
The works of Epictetus were amongst the most influential on Marcus Aurelius.
In addition to the three main Stoics, there is a handful of works and Stoic philosophers who are influential throughout the philosophy and whose work, at least in part, survive to this day.
Zeno was the founder of Stoic philosophy and he began teaching the philosophy around 300 BC. The Stoic philosophy which Zeno started was based on ideas and morals which he learned from the Cynic school of philosophy around this time. Where the two differed was that Zeno believed living a virtuous life consisted of living good in accord with Nature and having a clear-mind to better understand ourselves.
Cleanthes was a student of Zeno’s and the second head of the Stoic philosophy. As a student of Zeno’s, Cleanthes became known as “the ass” while a student of Zeno’s because of his slowness which was said to be a characteristic of his lac of intellect.. It is said that he greatly enjoyed this nickname as it demonstrated his ability to accept and carry anything Zeno gave him. Like many philosophers and writers, Cleanthes lived dual lives wherein during the day he studied and promoted philosophy while at night he was a water-carrier, “drawing water in the gardens.”
Chrysippus was the third head of Stoic philosophy and is the last of the Stoic philosophers from the Early Stoa period. He was known as a prolific writer and spent his time teaching and expounding on the ideas which Zeno and Cleanthes had set forth for the philosophy. Chrysippus was known for his love of learning and had a great desire to pursue intellectual studies. He is known today for building out the Stoic philosophy to what the later Stoics would come to study and worked diligently to protect the school from criticism that arose through the teachings of Zeno and Cleanthes, as well as solidify its importance to protect against future attacks.
Musonius Rufus was a Stoic philosopher in the 1st century AD and is remembered today for both being the teacher of Epictetus as well as his writings which survive partially in the form of speeches he had given. His approach to philosophy was built on the belief that anyone could pursue it and how philosophy was a practical instrument to help individuals in almost any situation.
Cato the Younger is one of the most regarded of all the Stoics for his virtue and continued pursuit of living the values of Stoic philosophy. Cato had a long career in both the military and politics, and was known for his guidance and wisdom. Cicero, the famous orator and statesman, regarded Cato as one of the brightest of all the philosophers. Cicero goes so far as to write How to Grow Old in the voice of Cato in order to properly convey the wisdom of the Stoic.