5 of the Greatest Stoic Philosophers of All Time

Ben Ravetta
8 min readJun 28, 2022


What is Stoicism?

You might have heard about stoicism by now. It’s a popular subject among influencers such as Ryan Holiday, who often tote stoicism as some sort of modern-day life hack.

Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

Stoicism is a school of thought that was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC. The Stoics were so named because of their location in the Stoa Poikile, or Painted Porch, one of the most prominent buildings in the Agora, or marketplace, of Athens. The Stoics taught that the best way to live life was in accordance with nature. This meant living a life of virtue and reason, and avoiding the extremes of emotions like pleasure and pain. The Stoics believed that by understanding and living in accordance with nature, humans could achieve a state of eudaimonia, or happiness and flourishing. Eudaimonia was not simply a state of pleasure, but a life lived in accordance with virtue and reason. The Stoics believed that humans could not control everything that happened to them, but they could control how they responded to events. This inner strength and fortitude was what would ultimately lead to a life well lived. The Stoic school of thought continued to be influential throughout the Roman Empire and into the Renaissance. Many famous thinkers like Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus were all Stoics who wrote about their philosophy and how it could be applied to daily life. The Stoic ideas of inner strength and fortitude continue to be relevant today, as we face our own challenges and obstacles.

Marcus Aurelius (c. 161 — c. 180 AD)

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Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor who ruled from 161 to 180 AD. He was the last of the Five Good Emperors, and is also considered one of the most important Stoic philosophers. His Meditations, which are a collection of personal thoughts and reflections, have been praised for their wisdom and insight.

Aurelius was born in Rome in 121 AD, to a wealthy and influential family. His father, Marcus Annius Verus, was a senator, while his mother, Domitia Lucilla, came from a family of consuls. Aurelius was raised in a very privileged environment and received an excellent education. He studied rhetoric, literature, and philosophy, and was particularly influenced by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus.

When Aurelius was just 19 years old, his father died. This had a profound effect on him, and he began to question the purpose of life. He turned to Stoicism for answers, and this would shape his thinking for the rest of his life.

Aurelius married Faustina the Younger in 145 AD, and they had 13 children together. Faustina was a kind and loving wife, but she was also known for her extravagance. This caused some financial difficulties for the family, but Aurelius always remained devoted to her.

In 161 AD, Aurelius became emperor after the death of his adoptive father, Antoninus Pius. He ruled alongside his co-emperor, Lucius Verus. The two emperors were very different in personality, but they respected and trusted each other.

Aurelius’ reign was marked by military conflict. In 165 AD, a plague broke out in Rome, killing millions of people. Then, in 168 AD, the Marcomanni tribe invaded Italy from the north. Aurelius led the Roman army against them and was successful in driving them back. However, the war took a heavy toll on his health and he contracted a serious illness.

Despite his ill health, Aurelius continued to rule Rome with wisdom and compassion. He was a just ruler who cared deeply about his people. He also continued to study Stoicism and write his thoughts down in his Meditations. Aurelius died in 180 AD at the age of 59. He was succeeded by his son Commodus, who would go on to become one of the most notorious emperors in Roman history.

Aurelius’ life was one of great achievement. He was an excellent ruler and a wise philosopher. His Meditations remain an important source of wisdom and inspiration for people today.

Seneca (ca. 4 BC — AD 65)

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, fully Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, dramatist, and — in one work — satirist of the Silver Age of Latin literature. Seneca is generally considered as a philosopher who wrote between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. His works include treatises on ethics, natural disasters, anger management, and consolation, as well as plays, which are all written in Latin. As a tragedian, he is best-known for his plays set during the reign of Nero, namely Octavia and Thyestes.

Seneca was born in Corduba in Hispania, and raised in Rome, where he was trained as a rhetorician and lawyer. He gained prominence as a lawyer and advisor to the emperor Claudius, but his true passion was philosophy. In AD 41, Seneca was exiled to Corsica by Claudius on false charges of adultery with the emperor’s niece; Seneca spent eight years in exile before returning to Rome at the request of Nero.

During his time in exile, Seneca wrote several philosophical works, including On the Shortness of Life and On Anger. In On the Shortness of Life, Seneca argues that life is too short to waste on things that do not matter, and that one should focus on what is truly important. In On Anger, Seneca argues that anger is destructive and counterproductive, and that one should strive to control it.

After his return to Rome, Seneca became a tutor and advisor to Nero. He also wrote several plays, including Octavia and Thyestes. Octavia is a tragedy about the Roman emperor Nero’s wife Octavia, who is falsely accused of adultery and exiled. Thyestes is a tragedy about the revenge of Atreus against his brother Thyestes.

Seneca was eventually accused of complicity in a conspiracy against Nero, and was ordered to take his own life. He did so by opening his veins and allowing himself to bleed to death.

Seneca’s philosophical works were influential in the development of Stoicism, and his plays were influential in the development of Latin tragedy.

Epictetus (c. 55 — c. 135 AD)

Epictetus was a Stoic philosopher. He was born a slave at Hierapolis, Phrygia (present day Pamukkale, Turkey), and lived in Rome until his banishment, when he went to Nicopolis in northwestern Greece for the rest of his life. His teachings were written down and published by his pupil Arrian in his Discourses and Enchiridion. Epictetus taught that philosophy is a way of life and not just a theoretical discipline.

The Stoics believed that the world is governed by fate, and that our individual actions are determined by this fate. Epictetus believed that we should accept what is determined for us, and make the best of it. He also believed that we should be free from our passions and desires, which can lead us astray from our true purpose in life.

Epictetus was an advocate of self-control and living in harmony with others. He believed that we should use our reason to guide our actions, and not be controlled by our emotions. He also believed that we should treat others with respect and compassion, and not take advantage of them.

Epictetus’ philosophy has been influential throughout history. His ideas were adopted by the early Christians, and later by the Stoics of the Renaissance. His teachings continue to be relevant today, as we face many of the same challenges that he did: how to live in a world that is often beyond our control, and how to find meaning and purpose in our lives.

Zeno (ca. 334 BC — 262 BC)

Zeno of Citium was a Greek philosopher who founded the Stoic school of thought. He was born in Citium, Cyprus in 334 BC and died in 262 BC. Zeno’s philosophy was based on the belief that the universe is governed by reason and that humans should use their reason to live in harmony with nature. The Stoics believed in self-control, justice, and living in accordance with nature. Zeno’s teachings were influential in the development of Roman Stoicism.

Zeno was born into a wealthy family and was educated in Athens. He studied under the Cynic philosopher Crates of Thebes. Zeno was influenced by Cynic philosophy, which taught that one should live a life of simplicity and self-sufficiency. After the death of his father, Zeno sold all of his possessions and gave the money to Crates. He then began teaching philosophy in the Stoa Poikile, or “Painted Porch,” which became known as the Stoic school of thought.

Zeno’s most famous student was Chrysippus, who would go on to develop the Stoic doctrine further. Zeno’s philosophy focused on four main principles: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Wisdom is the ability to see things as they really are and to act accordingly. Courage is the ability to endure hardship without complaint or fear. Temperance is the ability to moderate one’s desires and appetites. Justice is the virtue of treating others fairly and acting in accordance with natural law.

The Stoics believed that humans are rational beings and that we should use our reason to guide our lives. Reason is seen as a gift from the gods that allows us to live in harmony with nature. The goal of life is to achieve eudaimonia, or “human flourishing.” This can be achieved through self-control, living in accordance with nature, and using our reason to make wise decisions.

The Stoics believed that humans are social animals and that we should treat others fairly and justly. They also believed in cosmopolitanism, or the idea that all human beings are citizens of the world community regardless of their nationality or ethnicity. The Stoics believed that we should live according to nature, or what they saw as God’s will for us. Nature is seen as orderly and benevolent, so living in accordance with it will lead to happiness and fulfillment.

Cleanthes (331/2 BC–232/1 BC)

Cleanthes was a Stoic philosopher and the third head of the Stoic school in Athens. He was a pupil of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, and succeeded him as the school’s leader when Zeno died in 264/3 BC. Cleanthes was also a close friend and associate of Chrysippus, the second head of the Stoic school, whom he succeeded. Like Zeno and Chrysippus, Cleanthes was a native of Citium in Cyprus.

Cleanthes’ philosophical views were very similar to those of his predecessors. He was a monistic pantheist, believing that everything in the universe is part of a single divine substance or principle which he called God or Nature. He also believed that this divine substance is intelligent and purposeful, and that human beings are part of Nature and subject to its laws.

Cleanthes’ most important contribution to Stoic thought was his development of the doctrine of providence. This doctrine holds that God or Nature is concerned with and takes care of human beings and all other parts of creation. It also holds that human beings should co-operate with Nature by living in accordance with its laws.

The main source for our knowledge of Cleanthes’ philosophy is his only surviving work, Hymn to Zeus. This work is a hymn addressed to Zeus, in which Cleanthes praises Zeus as the supreme ruler and providential caretaker of the universe. The Hymn also contains an important discussion of Stoic physics and cosmology.

In addition to his philosophical works, Cleanthes also wrote poetry and prose hymns. Some of his best known poems are his “Hymns to Fortune” and “Hymns to Virtue”. His prose hymns include an “Ode to Zeus” and an “Ode to Night”.