Why Be a Stoic When You Can Be an Epicurean?

By Lee Lanzilotta

Seneca and Marcus Aurelius really seem to be having a moment these days. This ancient philosophy has been repackaged for a modern, attention span-less audience by websites like Daily Stoic and regurgitated in countless annoying Instagram posts. The “Ancient Wisdom” of Marcus Aurelius flourishes on Reddit. I suspect that this is related to the way Seneca writes and the effectiveness of Marcus Aurelius’ image-based self promotion. His statues look exactly like the kind of trusted, fatherly guy one would seek advice from. As for Seneca, even in translation – which is what most people who profess interest in his works are reading, because so few people truly read Latin – he is exceedingly readable. His style has convinced me that even the most serious academic paper should be a true pleasure to read. Yet, as Jenny has pointed to me, none less than Nietzsche joked that Seneca wrote first, then philosophized. This is not exactly implausible. While I won’t deny that his intimate, witty writing impresses me, I am somewhat less impressed by Stoic philosophy.

34. Seneca et hoc genus omne.
Das schreibt und schreibt sein unaussteh-
lich weises Larifari,
Als gält es primum scribere,
Deinde philosophari.

34. Seneca et hoc genus omne.
They write and write their desiccat-
ing learned la-di-da-di,
as if primum scribere,
deinde philosophari.

Nietzsche, Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft

To be fair, Epicurus isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. He’s weird too. I tried to explain Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura to my Dad once and he sneered sarcastically, saying “sounds like a bunch of smelly hippies.” I will not deny that it’s a bit like being a Hobbit, except I am not sure Epicurus would endorse the practice of second-breakfasts because such grand eating habits are hard on the stomach and pleasure is found in the avoidance of pain. Still, I think a life of peaceful, frugal simplicity focused on the cultivation of friendships and the avoidance of conflict in a rural setting is certainly healthier than the ambitious, money-focused lifestyle I was raised with. We don’t need golden statues or great halls that resound with cithara-song, or smart-houses with refrigerators bursting with take-out that won’t even be eaten, not when we can recline in a forest reading and laughing with a dear friend. Seeking wealth, power, and material excesses at the expense of our fellow men, which will never bring us anything but stress, seems a waste of the brief time we’ve got on this Earth.

Also, as someone who was terrorized as a child by images of Hellfire and certain for many years of my own damnation (Catholicism is not for me, unfortunately), I find great relief in the idea that the Gods are wholly uninterested in our affairs and that there is no afterlife. The idea that all we have is this world in which we live came as a great relief after years of fretting about the next world. This freed me, allowing me to focus on the present more fully. While some of my more, ahem, interesting friends have laughed at my Epicurean stance and expressed a vaguely Orphic attitude towards death, I still believe that worrying about reincarnation or golden tablets is a waste of my time. Reading the writings of Epicurus and Lucretius has made me much calmer and happier. My recent move to a commuter town surrounded by lovely forests most ideal for reading the poetry of fellow Epicurean Horace has also helped – something I partly used Lucretius to justify. I get why so many Ancient poets were Epicureans. It is the ideal philosophy for writers and artistic types.

Quite frankly, people who post translations of Marcus Aurelius quotes on instagram make stoicism more annoying than it needs to be. This is even true of some people who can read stoic authors in the original, arguably. I used to know a classics student who insisted on shaving without shaving cream as an eccentric expression of stoic discipline, but this seems needlessly uncomfortable and dramatic to me. If one must take up ascetic practices, like a simpler diet, surely this should serve the larger purpose of bringing greater tranquility to one’s life, rather than tormenting oneself like a hermit in a hairshirt. Anyway, even Seneca himself suggests a moderate appearance, with a tunic neither gleaming nor grimy (Sen. Ep. Mor. 5). I’m not sure how a face scratched by shaving without soap fits into that.

Still, I’m not such a hardcore Epicurean that I avoid all other ideas – that would be foolish and narrow-minded. For example, some of Epicurus’ ideas regarding atoms are incompatible with current scientific knowledge. I do not entirely subscribe to Epicurean attitudes towards friendship. Cicero’s On Friendship, which probably doesn’t even count as philosophy by most people’s standards, remains a significant influence on me. I am also not wholly against stoicism. I remain fond of reflecting upon some of the ideas in Seneca’s De Brevitate Vitae and his Epistulae Morales. A stoic friend of mine once calmed me down when I was fretting about applications to an academic program by reading certain letters of Seneca with me. These ideas are not entirely without value. Even if I am mostly interested in Epicurus, I try to engage with a variety of philosophical disciplines. Perhaps once my Greek is better I’ll become a Platonist, like some of my friends, although I don’t think this is very likely. 


  1. Nice wqriting, Lee! Your jest at the Stoics’ expense is a masterstroke, painting a vivid image of a Classics student’s struggle against the tyranny of the razor, all in the name of virtue. It’s a reminder that philosophy, much like shaving, is best approached with the appropriate aids lest we irritate our skin—or our sensibilities—unnecessarily.
    And let’s not overlook your casual swipe at the Instagram Stoics, a breed that reduces Marcus Aurelius to bite-sized, shareable wisdom, perfectly curated between latte art and sunset photos. Your critique is both a testament to the depth of your understanding and a nudge to those who might confuse profundity with pretension.
    Yet, amidst the laughter and the sarcasm, there’s a genuine appreciation for the pursuit of knowledge, a reminder that philosophy, at its best, is a buffet, not a fixed menu. Your willingness to dine at the Epicurean table while keeping an eye on the Stoic spread—and even considering a future Platonist appetizer—speaks to a voracious intellectual appetite. May your philosophical feasting never cease, and your razor always glide smoothly, lubricated by the cream of wisdom

    • Thank you for such a kind – and eloquent – comment! I like the metaphor of philosophy as a buffet of wisdom. Many different traditions have ideas from which we can draw strength or inspiration, after all.

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