At first blush, the major Stoics - Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca - seem quite similar in the somewhat limited selections of their works that I have read.

Gen. Mattis carries Marcus Aurelius, Navy hero, James Stockdale survived on Epictetus, Prof. Margaret Graver on a personal level seems to favor Seneca.

Solely in the context of ethics, deportment, and advice for living, what might be distinctions between them.


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The famous emperor stoic Marcus Aurelius was heavily influenced by Greek stoic Epictetus according to reference here and here:

The philosophy of Epictetus was an influence on the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 121 to AD 180) whose reign was marked by wars with the resurgent Parthia in western Asia and against the Germanic tribes in Europe. Aurelius quotes from Epictetus repeatedly in his own work, Meditations, written during his campaigns in central Europe.

His most famous pupil, Arrian, studied under him as a young man (around AD 108) and claimed to have written his famous Discourses based on the notes he took on Epictetus’s lectures. Arrian argued that his Discourses should be considered comparable to the Socratic literature. Arrian described Epictetus as a powerful speaker who could "induce his listener to feel just what Epictetus wanted him to feel." Many eminent figures sought conversations with him. Emperor Hadrian was friendly with him, and may have heard him speak at his school in Nicopolis...He lived a life of great simplicity, with few possessions. He lived alone for a long time...

Quoting Epictetus, Stockdale concludes the book with: The emotions of grief, pity, and even affection are well-known disturbers of the soul. Grief is the most offensive; Epictetus considered the suffering of grief an act of evil. It is a willful act, going against the will of God to have all men share happiness.

So Epictetus was a powerful speaker and teacher leading a very simple life with his strongly inward oriented stoic philosophy. By contrast, Marcus Aurelius lived in a very challenging situation and he was mainly interested in applying stoic especially Epictetus's philosophy to practical affairs, so his main focus and contribution is more on the application side of stoicism which was recorded by his famous work Meditations. The book Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed by William O. Stephens describes Marcus Aurelius here as:

His one major surviving work, often titled 'meditations' but literally translated simply as 'to himself', is a series of short, sometimes enigmatic reflections divided seemingly arbitrarily into twelve books and apparently written only to be read by him. For these reasons Marcus is a particularly difficult thinker to understand. His musings, framed as 'notes to self' or 'memoranda', are the exhortations of an earnest, conscientious Stoic burdened with the onerous responsibilities of ruling an entire, enormous empire.

As for the later Seneca, he has been described as “a towering and controversial figure of antiquity” and “the world’s most interesting Stoic” according to here:

As a writer Seneca is known for his philosophical works, and for his plays, which are all tragedies. His prose works include a dozen essays and one hundred twenty-four letters dealing with moral issues. These writings constitute one of the most important bodies of primary material for ancient Stoicism. As a tragedian, he is best known for plays such as his Medea, Thyestes, and Phaedra. Seneca's influence on later generations is immense—during the Renaissance he was "a sage admired and venerated as an oracle of moral, even of Christian edification; a master of literary style and a model [for] dramatic art."

His works discuss both ethical theory and practical advice, and Seneca stresses that both parts are distinct but interdependent. His Letters to Lucilius showcase Seneca's search for ethical perfection and “represent a sort of philosophical testament for posterity”. Seneca regards philosophy as a balm for the wounds of life.

Ten plays are attributed to Seneca, of which most likely eight were written by him. The plays stand in stark contrast to his philosophical works. With their intense emotions, and grim overall tone, the plays seem to represent the antithesis of Seneca's Stoic beliefs. Up to the 16th century it was normal to distinguish between Seneca the moral philosopher and Seneca the dramatist as two separate people.

So Seneca was a versatile philosopher who also wrote many drama plays, similar to the later Friedrich Nietzsche. Also he's famous for his political involvement with Nero and his calm suicide ordered politically similar to that of Socrates...

In the context of ethics, deportment, and advice for living, they certainly share lots of principles. The difference can be discerned by their application scopes in details, each facing totally different contexts and eras. Epictetus shows more inward and theoretical on one extreme, while Marcus Aurelius focuses on more onerous and challenging practical problems on the other extreme, and Seneca borrows some Epicurus ethics as his moral maxims. So depending on your situation and perspective, you may find some inspirations and lessons from some of them...

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