Let me first talk about the Stoics. The four major Stoics ranked by popularity are Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, and Musonius. While most modern students of Stoicism focus on Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, I am partial to Musonius and his student Epictetus. If I were to choose one Stoic who exemplified Stoicism the most, it would be Musonius. He is the least known yet arguably the most important of them all.
Musonius, a Roman aristocrat, not only taught Stoicism but lived it. From what I was able to gather from historical accounts, Musonius was not only physically strong but also mentally strong. Despite his environment and surroundings, his reputation was beyond reproach according to not only later prominent philosophers but also his contemporaries. He practiced what he preached and thus earned people's respect. People can disagree with his advice but they cannot disagree with his logic on why it would be beneficial since he was a living example of that benefit.
So it would not be surprising that Musonius's student, Epictetus, a former slave, would be another philosopher who exemplified Stoicism in life application. The always stern and critical Epictetus rarely praised anyone except Socrates, Diogenes, Chrysippus, and Musonius. Given that rather short list, it is also telling that Musonius was the only one Epictetus knew personally.
While major Stoics are excellent with crafting fine words, Stoicism unequivocally demands that Stoics go beyond fine words and apply those words in everyday life. With this in mind, I conclude that only Musonius and Epictetus applied Stoicism in real life with authority and without mistakes and hesitation (qualities that would meet Sun Tzu's own standards). Therefore, it would be in the reader's best interest to read and study the words of Musonius and Epictetus if they truly want to understand and benefit from Stoicism.
Like Socrates, Musonius wrote no books but his teachings can be found from secondhand accounts. Thus, very few materials from Musonius survived, probably contributing to his low popularity among the Stoics. But like a skilled doctor who prescribes the least amount of medicine to effectively treat a disease, in Musonius's case it's not the quantity that is important but the quality.
Since Epictetus learned Stoicism directly only from Musonius, one could surmise that much of what Epictetus taught was passed down from Musonius himself. And what Epictetus taught in his Discourses -- as transcribed by Arrian, a renowned student of Epictetus -- was pure brilliance.
Epictetus's Discourses is such a masterpiece that I could say it is on par with Sun Tzu's Art of War in wisdom and is a must-read book for all life learners.
There is an obscure but splendid concept in the Discourses that tells of how a philosopher can always win in life's endeavors. How that is accomplished is quite simple yet insightful. If he or she can ascertain daily what truly belongs to him or her, then he or she cannot lose.
Boiling it all down, what truly belongs to a philosopher is how he or she behaves -- the only thing that he or she can control. Everything else doesn't belong to him or her. Everything else includes the countless variables that happen in life such as other people's actions -- things that are outside of your control. In other words, there is no shame in being an innocent victim but there is shame in being the perpetrator.
There is another wonderful concept in the Discourses that tells of how a philosopher can be confident in things outside of his control but he or she must be cautious about his or her own actions. Again, the idea is the duty lies in our own specific actions and reactions, and not the behaviors of others because they don't belong to us.
Now, I want to overlay a few of Stoicism's finest principles just discussed above with one of Sun Tzu's finest:
In ancient times, those who are skilled in warfare gained victory where victory was easily gained. Therefore, the victories from those skilled in warfare are not considered of great wisdom or courage, because their victories have no complications. No miscalculations mean the victories are certain, achieving victory over those who have already lost." Sun Tzu's Art of War
Furthermore, if our only duty was to choose the path that we can control, how can miscalculations be made unless we choose to miscalculate? Therefore, a philosopher (such as Sun Tzu, Musonius, and Epictetus) would never fail. He or she would be successful in all of his or her dealings in life.
The purpose of today's blog entry is to share with you a little bit about Stoicism, which like The Art of War, contains universal wisdom that transcends both time and place. Perhaps such wisdom can be useful and relevant for you in your own situation right now and in the future as well.