It’s not a simple task to point out the one philosopher who can be defined as the shining example of Stoic wisdom. Though, Stoicism is not an ideology and it doesn’t require sages to lead it. All Stoics would agree that the teaching is what matters, not a representation of the sage or the worship of idols.
In the early beginnings of Stoic philosophy Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic school was deeply influenced by a certain philosopher who wasn’t a Stoic himself. When Zeno came to Athens around 315 – 313 BC, he read Xenocrates’ work “Memories of Socrates” and Plato’s “Defense of Socrates”. Later he was amazed by Socrates’ firmness of character.
Zeno believed that Crates, who was a cynic philosopher, had the most resemblance to Socrates. This is why Zeno became his student. Soon after, around 300 BC Zeno founded his own school, where the Socrates’ legacy continued to live.
The Stoic sage is not a Stoic philosopher at all, but rather Socrates. Even in the late Stoic period, in the philosophy of Epictetus, Socrates’ influence didn’t fade. It is worth mentioning that Epictetus explicitly mentions Socrates 77 times in Discourses, and in Enchiridion 7 times.
Below, I’ll quote some of Epictetus’ thoughts on Socrates, in them you’ll find how much influence Socrates truly had over the stoic:
But that which is great and superior perhaps belongs to Socrates and such as are like him. – Discourses
In this quote Epictetus refers to the Reason which improves our character. Socrates’ mind was still, yet dynamic. He could pierce through other minds with ease, letting them face the difficulty of reflection. His aim was to make you think for yourself – which is the ideal Stoics strive to accomplish..
So Socrates was not in prison, for he was there willingly. – Discourses
Again, Epictetus reminds us that freedom isn’t the one of the body, but rather that of the mind.
Did Socrates persuade all his hearers to take care of themselves? Not the thousandth part. – Discourses
I’d like to say something about this one too. Here, Epictetus suggests that the attempt to persuade someone misses the point of education. Because one should be able to come to conclusions by listening to one’s own mind.
When you are going to meet with any person, and particularly one of those who are considered to be in a superior condition, place before yourself what Socrates or Zeno would have done in such circumstances, and you will have no difficulty in making a proper use of the occasion. – Enchiridion
Here, Epictetus suggests we associate our state of mind with that of Socrates’ and of Zeno’s. We must understand that reason is universal, and as a free man exercises it freely.
Socrates in this way became perfect, on all things improving himself, attending to nothing except to reason. But you, though you are not yet Socrates, you ought to live as one who wishes to be a Socrates. – Enchiridion
The last quote is worth examining. Epictetus was amazed with how Socrates improved himself just by listening to his reason. And this is clear because Socrates’ influence is visible in all stages of the Stoic periods (early, middle and late).
This leads to another question, why was Socrates that important to Epictetus and the other Stoics like Zeno?
The Answer lies in the similarity of principle which is – Reason.
Marcus Aurelius also mentions Socrates in his Meditations, but not as often as Epictetus. One of the quotes alludes to how impotent the general population’s opinions are.
Socrates called the opinion of the commoners the scarecrows which children are afraid of. – Marcus Aurelius
All in all, we examined what a Stoic sage would look like. In Stoic terms, that was Socrates in most cases, he was the powerful hidden influencer. What Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius respected in Socrates was his self-control and reason. Those were the true tenants that drove the philosophy towards its full development.