99 Stoic Quotes on Purpose and the Meaning of Life

Updated October 27, 2022

Why are we here? These Stoic quotes on purpose and the meaning of life can certainly help us to answer that eternal, burning question.

It's easy in our chaotic world to feel like there is no rhyme or reason to our lives, but Stoicism can provide a powerful antidote to that kind of nihilistic thinking.

Let's consult with some of the greatest minds of history to gain a better understanding of purpose, meaning, and duty, and how to live a happy, virtuous life.

Marcus Aurelius Quotes on Purpose

The Stoics believed that a clear purpose is essential to a virtuous, good life. Marcus Aurelius was no exception-- he wrote that we were each created for a specific purpose, and it is our duty to carry that purpose out.

"A man's true greatness lies in the consciousness of an honest purpose in life, founded on a just estimate of himself and everything else, on frequent self-examinations, and a steady obedience to the rule which he knows to be right, without troubling himself about what others may think or say, or whether they do or do not that which he thinks and says and does."

– Marcus Aurelius

"Never act without purpose and resolve, or without the means to finish the job."

– Marcus Aurelius

"People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time-even when hard at work."

– Marcus Aurelius

"Without a purpose, nothing should be done."

– Marcus Aurelius

"From Apollonius I learned freedom of will and undeviating steadiness of purpose; and to look to nothing else, not even for a moment, except to reason."

– Marcus Aurelius

Epictetus Quotes on Purpose

The teachings of Epictetus largely focused on self-management, integrity, and personal freedom. In the following quotes, we see that this Greek slave-turned-philosopher wholeheartedly argued that people focus on a higher purpose and resist the urge to get distracted by things that are of little value or importance in the grand scheme of things.

epictetus image and stoic quotes on purpose and the meaning of life

"Focus not on what he or she does, but on keeping to your higher purpose. Your own purpose should seek harmony with nature itself. For this is the true road to freedom."

– Epictetus

"Getting distracted by trifles is the easiest thing in the world… Focus on your main duty."

– Epictetus

"Don't be concerned with other people's impressions of you. They are dazzled and deluded by appearances. Stick with your purpose. This alone will strengthen your will and give your life coherence."

– Epictetus

"In trying to please other people, we find ourselves misdirected toward what lies outside our sphere of influence. In doing so, we lose our hold on our lifes purpose."

– Epictetus

He is free who lives as he wishes to live; who is neither subject to compulsion nor to hindrance, nor to force; whose movements to action are not impeded, whose desires attain their purpose, and who does not fall into that which he would avoid."

– Epictetus

"Freedom and happiness come from understanding - and working with - our limits. Begin at once a program of self-mastery. Stick with your purpose. Do not seek external approval. Do not worry about anything outside of your control. The only things you command are your thoughts and actions. We choose our response. Stop aspiring to be anyone other than your own best self: for that does fall within your control."

– Epictetus

"There is only one thing for which God has sent me into the world, and that is to develop every kind of virtue or strength, and there is nothing in all the world that I cannot use for this purpose."

– Epictetus

Seneca Quotes on Purpose

Much like Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, Seneca the Younger wrote that an aim in life is essential for a good, happy life. Without a purpose, we can't know what direction we are trying to head in.

seneca image and quote about purpose

"Man's ideal state is realized when he has fulfilled the purpose for which he is born. And what is it that reason demands of him? Something very easy-that he live in accordance with his own nature."

– Seneca the Younger

"We all sorely complain of the shortness of time, and yet have much more than we know what to do with. Our lives are either spent in doing nothing at all, or in doing nothing to the purpose, or in doing nothing that we ought to do. We are always complaining that our days are few, and acting as though there would be no end of them."

– Seneca the Younger

"Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind."

– Seneca the Younger

Marcus Aurelius on the Meaning of Life

Understanding the meaning of life is no small feat, and all thinking people ruminate on this riddle from time to time. In the following Marcus Aurelius quotes, we gain some insight into what the great emperor and philosopher thought about the meaning of life-- chiefly that we are here to do acts on behalf of mankind, all while pursuing truth and acting with reason.

marcus aurelius image and quote about life

"The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane."

– Marcus Aurelius

"Never forget that the universe is a single living organism possessed of one substance and one soul, holding all things suspended in a single consciousness and creating all things with a single purpose that they might work together spinning and weaving and knotting whatever comes to pass."

– Marcus Aurelius

"Everything is here for a purpose, from horses to vine shoots. What's surprising about that? Even the sun will tell you, "I have a purpose," and the other goods as well."

– Marcus Aurelius

"Am I doing anything? I do it with reference to the good of mankind. Does anything happen to me? I receive it and refer it to the gods, and the source of all things, from which all that happens is derived."

– Marcus Aurelius

"Every man's life lies within the present; for the past is spent and done with, and the future is uncertain."

– Marcus Aurelius

"Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones."

– Marcus Aurelius

"The fruit of this life is good character and acts of common good."

– Marcus Aurelius

"The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing."

– Marcus Aurelius

"It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live."

– Marcus Aurelius

"What we do now echoes in eternity."

– Marcus Aurelius

 

marcus aurelius image and quote about life good and evil

"Life is neither good or evil, but only a place for good and evil."

– Marcus Aurelius

"Remember that man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant; all the rest of his life is either past and gone, or not yet revealed."

– Marcus Aurelius

"Mark how fleeting and paltry is the estate of man - yesterday in embryo, tomorrow a mummy or ashes. So for the hairsbreadth of time assigned to thee, live rationally, and part with life cheerfully, as drops the ripe olive, extolling the season that bore it and the tree that matured it."

– Marcus Aurelius

"The act of dying is one of the acts of life."

– Marcus Aurelius

"The universe is transformation, life is an opinion."

– Marcus Aurelius

"Remember that even if you were to live for three thousand years, or thirty thousand, you could not lose any other life than the one you have, and there will be no other life after it. So the longest and the shortest lives are the same. The present moment is shared by all living creatures, but the time that is past is gone forever. No one can lose the past or the future, for if they don't belong to you, how can they be taken from you?"

– Marcus Aurelius

"Every instant of time… is a pinprick of eternity."

– Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius on Living a Good Life

One of the reasons that we are so concerned with understanding the meaning of life is so we can know how to live the best possible life. If the meaning of life is that there is no meaning, then it follows that we should simply eat, drink, and be merry while we're alive. The Stoics didn't believe that the universe is some chaotic accident, though-- they believed the universe is rational and ordered.

So, how are you supposed to live a good life according to the Stoics? As you'll see in these Marcus Aurelius quotes, the answer is to live in accordance with nature.

"How can a man find a sensible way to live? One way and one only- Philosophy. And my philosophy means keeping that vital spark within you free from damage and degradation, using it to transcend pain and pleasure, doing everything with a purpose, avoiding lies and hypocrisy, not relying on another person's actions or failings. To accept everything that comes, and everything that is given, as coming from that same spiritual source."

– Marcus Aurelius

"Always run to the short way; and the short way is the natural: accordingly say and do everything in conformity with the soundest reason. For such a purpose frees a man from trouble, and warfare, and all artifice and ostentatious display."

– Marcus Aurelius

"Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it--turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself, so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal."

– Marcus Aurelius

"Reason and the reasoning faculty need no foreign assistance, but are sufficient for their own purposes. They move within themselves, and make directly for the point in view. Wherefore, acts in accordance with them are called right acts, for they lead along the right road."

– Marcus Aurelius

"The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature."

– Marcus Aurelius

"Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them."

– Marcus Aurelius

"Give thyself time to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around."

– Marcus Aurelius

"To live each day as though one's last, never flustered, never apathetic, never attitudinizing - here is the perfection of character."

– Marcus Aurelius

"Remember this - that there is a proper dignity and proportion to be observed in the performance of every act of life."

– Marcus Aurelius

"Do every act of your life as if it were your last."

– Marcus Aurelius

"Let men see, let them know, a real man, who lives as he was meant to live."

– Marcus Aurelius

"Where life is possible at all, a right life is possible; life in a palace is possible; therefore even in a palace a right life is possible."

– Marcus Aurelius

"No longer talk at all about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, but be such."

– Marcus Aurelius

"Take it that you have died today, and your life's story is ended; and henceforward regard what future time may be given you as uncovenanted surplus, and live it out in harmony with nature."

– Marcus Aurelius

"Deem not life a thing of consequence. For look at the yawning void of the future, and at that other limitless space, the past."

– Marcus Aurelius

Epictetus on the Happy Life

Epictetus was a strong proponent of the idea that philosophy is something that should be practically applied to one's life, not just something to talk about. He believed that the key to happiness was in recognizing what was within your control and what wasn't-- and acting accordingly. This means learning to accept the things that aren't in your control and focusing your energy on the things you can control.

"All human beings seek the happy life, but many confuse the means - for example, wealth and status - with that life itself. This misguided focus on the means to a good life makes people get further from the happy life. The really worthwhile things are the virtuous activities that make up the happy life, not the external means that may seem to produce it."

– Epictetus

"Don't explain your philosophy. Embody it."

– Epictetus

"First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do."

– Epictetus

"Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish; but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life."

– Epictetus

"No greater thing is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen."

– Epictetus

"Freedom and happiness are won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control."

– Epictetus

"To accuse others for one's own misfortunes is a sign of want of education. To accuse oneself shows that one's education has begun. To accuse neither oneself nor others shows that one's education is complete."

– Epictetus

"When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude toward it; you can either accept it or resent it."

– Epictetus

"What is a good person? One who achieves tranquillity by having formed the habit of asking on every occasion, "what is the right thing to do now?""

– Epictetus

"Try to enjoy the great festival of life with other men!"

– Epictetus

"Don't demand or expect that events happen as you would wish them do. Accept events as they actually happen. That way, peace is possible."

– Epictetus

Marcus Aurelius Quotes About Duty

If you are able to really internalize the notion that you have duties in this life, it can completely change what it feels like to wake up in the morning. In the modern world, many of us try to run from responsibility and live a life of comfort and leisure. Though this might seem like the easiest thing at the moment, it doesn't ultimately contribute to our ability to live a virtuous and good life in the long run.

"Everything - a horse, a vine - is created for some duty... For what task, then, were you yourself created?"

– Marcus Aurelius

"It is man's peculiar duty to love even those who wrong him."

– Marcus Aurelius

Keep yourself simple, good, pure, serious, and unassuming; the friend of justice and godliness; kindly, affectionate, and resolute in your devotion to duty."

– Marcus Aurelius

Epictetus on Duty

In the philosophy of Epictetus and the Stoics as a whole, the notion that certain things are out of our control extends to our lot in life. We don't choose what we are born into, the family we are born into, where we are born, and much more.

To Epictetus, these are, therefore, things you should accept. Rather than shaking your fist at the sky that you weren't born the child of a billionaire with an Italian villa, focus on the duty of playing your role in life to the best of your abilities.

epictetus image and quote about the meaning of life

"We do not choose our own parts in life, and have nothing to do with those parts. Our duty is confined to playing them well."

– Epictetus

"Remember that you are an actor in a play of such a kind that the author chooses...For this is your duty, to act well the part that is given to you; but to select the part belongs to another.
Even as the Sun doth not wait for prayers and incantations to rise, but shines forth and is welcomed by all: so thou also wait not for clapping of hands and shouts and praise to do thy duty; nay, do good of thine own accord, and thou wilt be loved like the Sun."

– Epictetus

Seneca the Younger Quotes on Duty

Now let's check in with Seneca the Younger to see what he has to say on the topic of duty. He argues that the highest duty is to make sure our words and our actions are in alignment. In another quote, he proposes that the "whole duty of man" involves practicing temperance when we are blessed with abundance and "patient courage" when we are facing obstacles and difficulties in life.

"The true felicity of life is to be free from anxieties and pertubations; to understand and do our duties to God and man, and to enjoy the present without any serious dependence on the future."

– Seneca the Younger

"Who-only let him be a man and intent upon honor-is not eager for the honorable ordeal and prompt to assume perilous duties? To what energetic man is not idleness a punishment?
The whole duty of man is embraced in the two principles of abstinence and patience: temperance in prosperity, and patient courage in adversity."

– Seneca the Younger

"The highest duty and the highest proof of wisdom - that deed and word should be in accord."

– Seneca the Younger

"It is man's duty to live in conformity with the divine will, and this means, firstly, bringing his life into line with 'nature's laws', and secondly, resigning himself completely and uncomplainingly to whatever fate may send him. Only by living thus, and not setting too high a value on things which can at any moment be taken away from him, can he discover that true, unshakeable peace and contentment to which ambition, luxury and above all avarice are among the greatest obstacles."

– Seneca the Younger

Stoic Quotes on Purpose

The Stoics influenced countless great thinkers in the last several thousand years-- let's take a look at what some of them have to say about purpose in life.

"At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want."

– Laozi

"Your purpose in life is to find your purpose and give your whole heart and soul to it."

– Gautama Buddha

"I know of no such unquestionable badge and ensign of a sovereign mind as that of tenacity of purpose."

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

"It is not enough that we are truthful; we must cherish and carry out high purposes to be truthful about."

– Henry David Thoreau

"Those who have failed to work toward the truth have missed the purpose of living."

– Gautama Buddha

"The strongest wind cannot stagger a Spirit; it is a Spirit's breath. A just man's purpose cannot be split on any Grampus or material rock, but itself will split rocks till it succeeds."

– Henry David Thoreau

"There is really no insurmountable barrier save your own inherent weakness of purpose."

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, men cannot live without a spiritual life."

– Gautama Buddha

"Our chief usefulness to humanity rests on our combining power with high purpose. Power undirected by high purpose spells calamity, and high purpose by itself is utterly useless if the power to put it into effect is lacking."

– Theodore Roosevelt

"The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it."

– William James

"This life is worth living, we can say, since it is what we make it."

– William James

Stoic Quotes on the Meaning of Life

What do Thoreau, Laozi, William James, and the Buddha have in common? They all propose Stoic meanings to life.

"Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like."

– Laozi

"Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence."

– Henry David Thoreau

"The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well."

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

"I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor."

– Henry David Thoreau

"In the end these things matter most: How well did you love? How fully did you live? How deeply did you let go?"

– Gautama Buddha

"Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact."

– William James

"The purpose of life seems to be to acquaint a man with himself and whatever science or art or course of action he engages in reacts upon and illuminates the recesses of his own mind. Thus friends seem to be only mirrors to draw out and explain to us ourselves; and that which draws us nearer our fellow man, is, that the deep Heart in one, answers the deep Heart in another, - that we find we have (a common Nature) - one life which runs through all individuals, and which is indeed Divine."

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Stoic Quotes on Duty

Here are some thoughts from history's great minds about duty-- some of which preceded the Stoics and some of which were most likely influenced by them.

"It is better to do one's own duty, however defective it may be, than to follow the duty of another, however well one may perform it. He who does his duty as his own nature reveals it, never sins."

– Laozi

"Don't waste life in doubts and fears; spend yourself on the work before you, well assured that the right performance of this hour's duties will be the best preparation for the hours and ages that will follow it."

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

"No man who is corrupt, no man who condones corruption in others, can possibly do his duty by the community."

– Theodore Roosevelt

"What I must do is all that concerns me, not what people think. This rule,equally arduous in actual and intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude."

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

"The men and women who have the right ideals . . . are those who have the courage to strive for the happiness which comes only with labor and effort and self-sacrifice, and those whose joy in life springs in part from power of work and sense of duty."

– Theodore Roosevelt

"You will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it."

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

"If we must accept fate we are not less compelled to affirm liberty, the significance of the individual, the grandeur of duty, the power of character."

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Stoic Quotes on How to Live a Good Life

Finally, let's finish off with some thoughts on how to live the best possible life based on the Stoic understanding of meaning and purpose.

"Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you."

– Laozi

"Circumstance does not make the man. Circumstance reveals man to himself."

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

"When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be."

– Laozi

"Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing."

– Theodore Roosevelt

"Do your work, but do your thing."

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Courage, hard work, self-mastery, and intelligent effort are all essential to successful life."

– Theodore Roosevelt

"The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes."

– William James

Are you looking for more inspirational and profound thoughts from some of the greatest minds of the ancient world and beyond? Head over to our Stoic quotes page to pick the brains of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, and more on a wide range of topics.

 

Written by: Sophia Merton
Sophia received her BA from Vassar College and has always maintained a deep interest in the question of how best to live one’s life. She hopes to help others understand how they can apply Stoicism in their day-to-day lives in order to become the person they want to be, embrace the present moment, pursue their purposes, and rid themselves of unnecessary anxiety.

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This website provides the best stoic quotations on the topics of life, death, control, anxiety, and wisdom in general.

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