What is a Stoic Sage?

In Stoicism, the Stoic Sage represents an ideal: a figure who lives a life in perfect alignment with wisdom, virtue, logic, and reason. This person is seen as having achieved moral and intellectual perfection, always acting rationally, and remaining calm and composed no matter what happens around them.

Although it’s considered almost impossible to become a Sage (the ancient Stoics themselves doubted one had even existed), the concept serves as a guide for people to aim for with regards to being rational, virtuous, and emotionally balanced in their day-to-day lives.

In his book Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, the biographer Diogenes Laertius writes the following about sages:

“The wise man is said to be free from vanity; for he is indifferent to good or evil report… the good are genuinely earnest and vigilant for their own improvement, using a manner of life which banishes evil out of sight and makes what good there is in things appear… At the same time they are free from pretence… Nor indeed will the wise man ever feel grief; seeing that grief is irrational contraction of the soul… They are also, it is declared, godlike; for they have a something divine within them.”

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers: Zeno VII 117.119

The Ideals of Stoicism

To understand what it is to be a Stoic Sage, a truly wise man or woman, we first need to know what they’re trying to achieve and why.

To help us with this, we’ll be looking to the foundational principles of Stoicism.

Stoic philosophy, founded by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC, was grounded in the idea that virtue is the only good and that to live a good and fulfilling life, we must display virtue in everything we do.

This display of virtue is the foundation of Stoic ethics.

The Stoics also believed that in order to consistently display virtue, we must learn to use reason and logic to make sure we are able to choose our thoughts and actions despite our emotions or feelings.

If we are unable to use reason, we risk allowing our emotions and external circumstances to control our actions. When this happens, we have no choice about whether we act with virtue or not; we are no longer in control.

The four cardinal stoic virtues are: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice.

Stoics believe that external events are beyond our control; thus, we should accept whatever happens calmly and dispassionately. Through this lens, the Stoic Sage refers to a symbol of the ultimate achievement in Stoic practice. It’s the perfect Stoic role model, free from negative emotions and in a state of ataraxia.

In his writing On Anger, the Stoic philosopher Seneca writes:

There are misfortunes which strike the sage – without incapacitating him, of course – such as physical pain, infirmity, the loss of friends or children, or the catastrophes of his country when it is devastated by war. I grant that he is sensitive to these things, for we do not impute to him the hardness of a rock or of iron. There is no virtue in putting up with that which one does not feel. (On the Constancy of the Sage, 10.4)


The Importance of a Role Model

Role models have always been a part of human nature.

A role model can show us our own potential, give us a blueprint to follow to succeed, inspire us by showing us what’s possible, and demonstrate ethical and moral behaviour.

To the Stoics, the Sage is their role model. It’s an idea of the Stoic ideal, an example of what’s possible with the right knowledge, effort, and self reflection.

While we might not succeed in achieving sagehood; in his essay, On the Happy Life, Seneca explains the importance of having something to aim for.

“I am satisfied, if every day I take away something from my vices and correct my faults. I have not arrived at perfect soundness of mind, indeed, I never shall arrive at it: I compound palliatives rather than remedies for my gout, and am satisfied if it comes at rarer interval—and does not shoot so painfully. Compared with your feet, which are lame, I am a racer. I make this speech, not on my own behalf, for I am steeped in vices of every kind, but on behalf of one who has made some progress in virtue.”

Seneca, On the Happy Life XVII

How Can We Use the Sage in Modern Times?

In practical application, using Stoicism today means pursuing wisdom, practicing self-control, and developing an understanding of the natural order of both ourselves and the world around us.

While the concept of a Stoic Sage might seem like an unattainable ideal, the principles that define it can be studied and applied to your day-to-day life.

Choosing a role model:

To start, we can look to the Stoics (or elsewhere) to find a role model who represents the kind of person we want to be or displays the qualities we would like to see in ourselves.

This could be Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Gaius Musonius Rufus, Seneca, or Zeno of Citium.

These models don’t have to come from ancient philosophy; they could be a sports personality, an artist, a colleague, a parent, or a friend.

Practical Applications:

Once we have our role model, we can learn more about them.

Find out how they think, how they deal with adversity and challenges, what they value, and their thoughts and beliefs about the world.

For example, if you choose Marcus Aurelius, you can read biographies and his Meditations.

Following this study, when you find yourself in a difficult situation or you’re unsure how to act in any given situation, you can look to Marcus Aurelius and think about whether or not there is any wisdom you can draw from them to reflect stoic principles or other virtues they display.


Characteristics of a Stoic Sage

Unwavering Virtue

In Stoic theory, as we’ve seen, the Stoic Sage is often characterized as someone who has achieved moral excellence and intellectual perfection.

They are seen as having mastery over their own beliefs and actions and, as such, can deliberately choose to display virtue and Stoic ethics in everything they do.

The Sage demonstrates impeccable judgment and maintains a state of tranquility regardless of external circumstances.

Rational Mastery

For a Stoic, rationality and logical thinking are the cornerstones of the entire philosophy, especially when facing difficulties.

The Sage, therefore, is someone who has mastered the art of living according to reason.

They are unfazed by irrational fears or desires, and their actions are always in harmony with nature, which for Stoics, means acting in accordance with reason.

It’s worth noting that the sage has control over their desires; they can decide to avoid excess and live frugally where needed.

In his Letters, Seneca write

“Philosophy calls for plain living, but not for penance; and we may perfectly well be plain and neat at the same time. This is the mean of which I approve; our life should observe a happy medium between the ways of a sage and the ways of the world at large; all men should admire it, but they should understand it also.”

Seneca, Letters 5.5


Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Can anyone become a Stoic Sage? While becoming a Stoic Sage in the absolute sense might be an inaccessible ideal for most people, a strive towards this ideal can lead to significant personal growth and wisdom.

  2. How is the Stoic Sage relevant today? The Stoic Sage represents ideals like rationality, virtue, and tranquility, which remain profoundly relevant in our contemporary pursuit of a balanced and meaningful life.

  3. What are the primary virtues of a Stoic Sage? The Stoic Sage embodies four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance.

  4. How does Stoicism define happiness? In Stoicism, happiness, or eudaimonia, is achieved through living in accordance with nature, which means acting rationally and virtuously.

  5. Is Stoicism a form of passive acceptance? No, Stoicism advocates for active engagement with the world, but with an acceptance of what cannot be controlled, focusing instead on internal virtues.

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