While there are lots of ancient and modern texts about Stoicism, there isn't often much discussion about Stoic poetry.
Did any of the ancient Stoics write poetry themselves? What about poetry written about them as individuals or Stoic poems written about the philosophical school?
In this article:
So, without further ado, let's dive in!
One of the only true poems we still have by an ancient Stoic philosopher is Hymn to Zeus by Cleanthes. The successor of Zeno of Citum as the scholarch of the Athenian Stoic school, Cleanthes was originally a boxer.
A truly remarkable figure in the history of Stoicism, Cleanthes worked as a water carrier at night to support himself while studying philosophy during the day.
"Fate guides the willing, but drags the unwilling."
Hymn to Zeus is the most complete fragment we have of Cleanthes' writings. This is a poem where the writer argues, quite beautifully, that the highest privilege that can be experienced by any rational being is the praise and honor of Zeus.
Here is the full translation of Hymn to Zeus by Frederick C. Grant.
Most glorious of immortals, Zeus
The many named, almighty evermore,
Nature’s great Sovereign, ruling all by law
Hail to thee! On thee ’tis meet and right
That mortals everywhere should call.
From thee was our begetting; ours alone
Of all that live and move upon the earth
The lot to bear God’s likeness.
Thee will I ever chant, thy power praise!
For thee this whole vast cosmos, wheeling round
The earth, obeys, and where thou leadest
It follows, ruled willingly by thee.
In thy unconquerable hands thou holdest fast,
Ready prepared, that two-timed flaming blast,
The ever-living thunderbolt:
Nature’s own stroke brings all things to their end.
By it thou guidest aright the sense instinct
Which spreads through all things, mingled even
With stars in heaven, the great and small —
Thou who art King supreme for evermore!
Naught upon earth is wrought in thy despite, O God.
Nor in the ethereal sphere aloft which ever winds
About its pole, nor in the sea — save only what
The wicked work, in their strange madness,
Yet even so, thou knowest to make the crooked straight.
Prune all excess, give order to the orderless,
For unto thee the unloved still is lovely–
And thus in one all things are harmonized,
The evil with the good, that so one Word
Should be in all things everlastingly.
One Word–which evermore the wicked flee!
Ill-fated, hungering to possess the good
They have no vision of God’s universal law,
Nor will they hear, though if obedient in mind
They might obtain a noble life, true wealth.
Instead they rush unthinking after ill:
Some with a shameless zeal for fame,
Others pursuing gain, disorderly;
Still others folly, or pleasures of the flesh.
[But evils are their lot] and other times
Bring other harvests, all unsought–
For all their great desire, its opposite!
But, Zeus, thou giver of every gift,
Who dwellest within the dark clouds, wielding still
The flashing stroke of lightning, save, we pray,
Thy children from this boundless misery.
Scatter, O Father, the darkness from their souls,
Grant them to find true understanding
On which relying thou justly rulest all—
While we, thus honoured, in turn will honour thee,
Hymning thy works forever, as is meet
For mortals while no greater right
Belongs even to the gods than evermore
Justly to praise the universal law!
- Cleanthes, Hymn to Zeus
A number of poems and poetic epitaphs have been written about Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy.
The cold of winter and the ceaseless rain
Come powerless against him: weak the dart
Of the fierce summer sun or racking pain
To bend that iron frame. He stands apart
Unspoiled by public feast and jollity:
Patient, unwearied night and day doth he
Cling to his studies of philosophy.
- Unknown author, quoted by Diogenes Laertius
We are lucky to still have access to these odes to Zeno, thanks to Diogenes Laertius. A biographer of the Greek philosophers, we unfortunately know very little about the life of Laertius. It is due to his efforts, though, that we know much of what we do about the history of ancient Greek philosophy, as his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers is a principal source for this time period.
Here lies great Zeno, dear to Citium,
who scaled high Olympus,
though he piled not Pelion on Ossa,
nor toiled at the labours of Heracles,
but this was the path he found out to the stars
– the way of temperance alone.
- Epitaph composed for Zeno by Antipater of Sidon, from Diogenes Laertius
Though Diogenes Laertius has something of a controversial reputation among modern scholars, it is generally agreed that his accounts of philosophical teachings are reported with little attempt to expand or reinterpret them. Since so many primary sources have been lost from the time period, it is not an exaggeration to say that we would know much less about ancient Greek philosophy without his work.
Thou madest self-sufficiency thy rule,
Eschewing haughty wealth, O godlike Zeno,
With aspect grave and hoary brow serene.
A manly doctrine thine: and by thy prudence
With much toil, thou didst found a great new school,
Chaste parent of unfearing liberty.
And if thy native country was Phoenicia,
What need to slight thee? came not Cadmus thence,
Who gave to Greece her books and art of writing?
- Epitaph from Zenodotus, from Diogenes Laertius
The Stoics themselves weren't typically poets, but this doesn't mean they entirely steered clear of the arts.
For example, Seneca the Younger was a dramatist in addition to being a philosopher and statesman. There are ten plays that are typically attributed to Seneca.
"Life is short and art is long."
- Seneca the Younger
There is such a stark contrast between the philosophical writings of Seneca and his dramatic works that people up to the 1500s would distinguish the dramatist Seneca and the moral philosopher Seneca as two different people. In his plays, we find a truly grim tone and intense emotional content.
O ye who’ve learnt the doctrines of the Porch
And have committed to your books divine
The best of human learning, teaching men
That the mind’s virtue is the only good!
She only it is who keeps the lives of men
And cities, – safer than high gates and walls.
But those who place their happiness in pleasure
Are led by the least worthy of the Muses.
- Athenaeus the epigrammatist, from Diogenes Laertius
Above is a lovely poem written to the Stoics, praising them for their dedication to virtue. This is a great example of the impact that the Stoics had on Greek philosophy and the Western world as a whole, providing a clear contrast between a life lived in pursuit of virtue and one lived in pursuit of pleasure.
Of course, there is always the possibility that some of our favorite Stoic philosophers did write poetry that simply didn't survive to the modern day. In fact, we don't have any actual writings of Epictetus and instead only have lectures and discourses that were transcribed by Arrian, his student.
"Slave, poor as Irus, halting as I trod,
I, Epictetus, was the friend of God."
- Epigram by unknown author
The above quote is an epigram to Epictetus, which highlights one of the most incredible aspects of his story. Born into slavery, Epictetus had more reason than anyone to see himself as a victim or feel he was owed something by life. Rather than going this route, though, he dedicated his life to studying philosophy and teaching others how to best lead their own lives.
In Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, he notes that he learned "to abstain from rhetoric, and poetry, and fine writing."
This has led to quite a bit of discussion about whether Aurelius disproved of poetry and the arts in general.
Another similar quote is found in his journals in Book I, Chapter XIV:
"From the gods I received that ... I was no great proficient in the study of rhetoric and poetry, and of other faculties, which perchance I might have dwelt upon, if I had found myself to go in them with success."
Exactly why Aurelius seems skeptical of poetry is up for debate, but some have posited that it is in line with Plato's concerns regarding the potential for art and rhetoric to be persuasive of points without deeper consideration of truth or justice.
"No form of nature is inferior to art; for the arts merely imitate natural forms."
- Marcus Aurelius
In the above quote, we get a glimpse into the way that Aurelius viewed art as a whole.
He speaks much of the beauty of life and the nature of beauty, such as in the following quote:
"Anything that is beautiful is beautiful just as it is. Praise forms no part of its beauty, since praise makes things neither better nor worse. This applies even more to what it commonly called beautiful: natural objects, for example, or works of art. True beauty has no need of anything beyond itself."
- Marcus Aurelius
While art can be beautiful, as Aurelius states above, perhaps the distinction is that art should never be mistaken as more beautiful than nature itself. Since art is just an imitation of nature, it will always fall somewhat short.
Though we have no poems written by Aurelius in the modern day, it can certainly be said that his writing was quite poetic and beautiful at times. The powerful nature of his writings imbued with deep wisdom that is still applicable to this age, is noted in the following epigram.
If thou would’st master care and pain,
Unfold this book and read and read again
Its blessed leaves, whereby thou soon shalt see
The past, the present, and the days to be
With opened eyes; and all delight, all grief,
Shall be like smoke, as empty and as brief.
- Epigram from Anthologia Palatina
The Stoics had a significant impact on the history of Greek philosophy and the Western world. It is, therefore, no surprise that their praises have been sung by poets both in their time and ever since.
"Democritus maintains that there can be no great poet without a spite of madness."
- Marcus Tullius Cicero
The following poem discusses a notion that isn't often touched upon in modern Stoic discourse. Though contemporary discussion of the philosophy likes to stay away from anything metaphysical, the Stoics did not shy away from talking about God or the gods (the distinction between one deity or many deities often being a matter of translation.)
Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.
For every street, every market-place is full of Zeus.
Even the sea and the harbour are full of this deity.
Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus.
For we are indeed his offspring…
- Aratus, from Phaenomena, referenced in Acts 17.28 by St. Paul
Epictetus said that we should "think more often of God than [we] breathe." The above poem displays the idea that Zeus is in everyone and everything, and was even referenced by St. Paul in Acts 17.28:
"For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we are indeed his offspring.’"
- Acts 17:28
Finally, let's take a look at some more recent poetry that discusses Stoicism or has strong Stoic elements.
Emily Bronte lived for thirty years between 1818 and 1848. A novelist and poet who is most famous for penning Wuthering Heights, this poem is an interesting example of the view of Stoicism during the Victorian era.
Riches I hold in light esteem,
And Love I laugh to scorn;
And lust of fame was but a dream,
That vanished with the morn:
And if I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me
Is, "Leave the heart that now I bear,
And give me liberty!"
Yes, as my swift days near their goal:
’Tis all that I implore;
In life and death a chainless soul,
With courage to endure.
When you search around online for Stoic poetry, one of the most common pieces you'll come across is Invictus by William Ernest Henley.
“God has entrusted me with myself. No man is free who is not master of himself. A man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things."
The content of the poem mirrors the writings, lectures, and ideas of the great Stoic philosophers, such as the above quote from Epictetus. The word "Invictus" means "undefeated" or "unconquerable" in Latin, and discusses, among other things, having courage in the face of death.
Out of the night that covers me,Black as the pit from pole to pole,I thank whatever gods may beFor my unconquerable soul.In the fell clutch of circumstanceI have not winced nor cried aloud.Under the bludgeonings of chanceMy head is bloody, but unbowed.Beyond this place of wrath and tearsLooms but the Horror of the shade,And yet the menace of the yearsFinds and shall find me unafraid.It matters not how strait the gate,How charged with punishments the scroll,I am the master of my fate,I am the captain of my soul.
Another popular poem with Stoic elements is If by Rudyard Kipling. An example of Victorian-era stoicism, Kipling wrote the poem in 1895 as a tribute to Sir Leander Starr Jameson.
Victorian-era stoicism focused on self-discipline and the notion of maintaining a "stiff upper lip." While ancient Stoic philosophy touches upon a lot more than simply exercising great restraint in the expression of emotion or fortitude in the face of adversity, this poem certainly captures the spirit of stoicism as it was understood in the Victorian era and, to some extent, how it is still most popularly understood today.
If you can keep your head when all about youAre losing theirs and blaming it on you,If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,But make allowance for their doubting too;If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;If you can meet with Triumph and DisasterAnd treat those two impostors just the same;If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spokenTwisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:If you can make one heap of all your winningsAnd risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,And lose, and start again at your beginningsAnd never breathe a word about your loss;If you can force your heart and nerve and sinewTo serve your turn long after they are gone,And so hold on when there is nothing in youExcept the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,If all men count with you, but none too much;If you can fill the unforgiving minuteWith sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
Written in the early 1920s and widely distributed in the 60s and 70s, Desiderata is also often cited as having Stoic elements.
Even just a cursory glance at the poem gives you a better sense of why exactly that is. Max Ehrmann proposes that one should:
Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
Reading a bit of Stoic writing every day is a great way to keep yourself on track to live a virtuous and flourishing life. While there's plenty of Stoic material out there-- everything from primary source material like Meditations to modern books about Stoicism-- it can be nice to mix things up and tap into a more poetic view of Stoic concepts.
Stoicism is a philosophy that isn't intended to exist within academia. Instead, it is a practical philosophy that one can actually apply to one's daily life. By regularly engaging with Stoic writing, ideas, and quotes, you can work to live a deliberate life that sets you on a path to contentment and inner peace.
Are you searching for more resources to help you on your journey to the good life? Check out our Stoic Quotes blog for more articles, quotes, philosophical musings, and inspiration!