- Three Foundational Works for the Purists
- Modern Books on Stoic Philosophy
Stoicism, despite having originated in the third century BC, shares a lot in common with the modern mindfulness movement. The Stoics espoused a system of personal ethics that prioritized observable truths over emotions and assumptions.
Today, the term “stoic” is often used pejoratively to describe cold-hearted, unfeeling people. In truth, Stoics are very emotional people who happen simply choose to concern themselves only with matters they can control. Likewise, they accept all of the influences on their lives that they cannot control for what they are: things outside of their control. They see their thoughts as what they are: passing sensations no different from an itch or a papercut.
If this sounds interesting to you, you’re not alone. I and many others have spent years studying Stoicism and how its wisdom can be applied to modern life.
The library of literature on Stoicism is rapidly growing as more people wake up to the value these ancient principles can have in our modern lives. And while this is a great thing, it can be hard to know where to begin. As I reflect on my own journey discovering Stoicism, I hope that sharing my picks for the very best books on Stoic philosophy will help you find your own way:
Three Foundational Works for the Purists
Stoicism was founded by a philosopher called Zeno of Citium, but it was popularized by three critically important thinkers: Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus.
Real talk: If you’ve but a casual interest in Stoicism, these books are not the best places to start. They have been translated and re-translated over centuries, and can be quite dry and academic to read.
Don’t get me wrong, these are phenomenally important works in the realm of Stoic philosophy. But if you’re just looking for a clear and actionable overview of Stoicism, I’d recommend skipping over these and jumping straight to Modern Books on Stoic Philosophy.
While the practice of Stoicism predated Marcus Aurelius’ lifetime by over four centuries, the Roman Emperor is likely the most prominent name in Stoic philosophy known in modern times. To this day, his Meditations are cited as a favorite book of world leaders, U.S. presidents, and military commanders. Written over about 20 years of his life, Meditations was intended to be personal notes for Aurelius’ eyes only. It is hard to understate just how timeless the words of Aurelius remain even to this day: “If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs thee, but thy own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now.” If you’re looking for an essential primer on Stoic philosophy, look no further than Meditations.
Letters from a Stoic by Seneca
Seneca was a famous playwright and Stoic philosopher who, predating Aurelius, lived between 4 BC and about 65 AD. Seneca was born into a wealthy, prominent family in Rome. His father, Seneca the Elder, was a famed rhetorician and writer, and immersed Seneca in the study of rhetoric and philosophy from a young age. Seneca ended up becoming one of the most prolific writers and statesmen of his time. Letters from a Stoic is a compilation of 124 letters that Seneca wrote to Lucilius about the topic of Stoicism near the end of his life. Unlike Aurelius’ meditations, it is likely Seneca wrote these letters with the expectation that they might someday be published. As a result, the letters provide a deeply coherent and well-organized account of Stoic philosophy as it manifests in everyday life.
Discourses and Selected Writings by Epictetus
Epictetus was born a slave in 50 AD and miraculously was able to earn his freedom when he was just 18 years old. He began teaching philosophy in Rome, and eventually founded his own school of philosophy in Nicopolis. It was at this school that Epictetus’ star pupil, Arrian, wrote Epictetus’ Discourses and Selected Writings as notes from the great philosopher’s lectures. Unlike the Stoic works of Aurelius and Seneca, Epictetus’ Discourses became widely influential the moment it was written. Passages from Discourses are often cited in Aurelius’ Meditations. Discourses is unique because, rather than recount Epictetus’ planned lectures or instruction, this work is a transcription of the open discussion that followed his lectures. The insights that arise from these discussions are powerful and incredibly practical.
Modern Books on Stoic Philosophy
However timeless the works of Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus may be, these texts can be extremely difficult to draw insights from given their age and their intended audience (or lack thereof).
If you’re just getting started with Stoicism, I recommend beginning with some of these excellent modern works. These books frame Stoic philosophy in terms that someone living in the twenty-first century can read and immediately relate to. More importantly, these works build on the concepts put forward by Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus by layering in complementary insights from modern schools of thought like mindfulness and the law of attraction.
A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine
If you’re a complete beginner and looking for an accessible yet still thorough primer on the tenants and history of Stoicism, look no further than A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine. In his excellent overview, Irvine distills the teachings of Stoic philosophers into terms relatable to anyone around today. Despite the fact that Irvine himself is a professor of philosophy, his style and approach treat the study and practice of Stoicism more like a personal lifestyle choice than an academic pursuit. It’s this concrete framing that makes A Guide to the Good Life not only a life-changer in its practicality but also an absolute delight to read.
The Practicing Stoic by Ward Farnsworth
Another excellent introduction to Stoic philosophy is Ward Farnsworth’s The Practicing Stoic. Farnsworth, rhetorician and Dean of the University of Texas School of Law, writes with an impressive degree of precision. He provides an in-depth overview of the history of Stoicism as well as its tenants and how they connect to modern life. In the latter pages of the book, he dispels common criticisms of Stoics (e.g. that they are heartless and empty inside) by addressing them in practical and highly relatable examples.
Cognitive psychotherapist Donald Robertson has quickly become one of the foremost modern thinkers about Stoic philosophy. In How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, Robertson describes and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, undeniably the world’s most famous Stoic, in a format that’s one part biography, one part self-improvement guide. Robertson marries an in-depth study of Aurelius’ firsthand Meditations with over twenty years of primary and secondary research on the topic. The result is a totally unique and inspiring account of Aurelius’ life and his philosophy of discipline, logic, and acceptance.
The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is a prolific thinker and writer on the topic of ancient philosophy—Stoicism, specifically—and its applicability to our modern lives. In The Daily Stoic, Holiday provides an incredibly unique and powerfully practical approach to the introduction of Stoic philosophy. Rather than parts and chapters, The Daily Stoic is organized into months and days. Each day highlighting a quote from one of the great Stoic philosophers and a couple paragraphs of analysis. The idea is to create a habit: Spend a few minutes every day reading the days quote, its analysis, and then meditating on that concept. It’s an incredibly satisfying way to consume the information, with the power to really change your life for the better.
How to be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci
Massimo Pigliucci’s How to be a Stoic focuses on Stoicism through the lens of Epictetus, specifically. Pigliucci’s masterful storytelling places himself alongside Epictetus on a stroll down the streets of Rome as they discuss Stoic philosophy. It is a refreshingly creative and accessible introduction to Stoicism, well-researched and passionately written. Despite what the title might imply, this is not a step-by-step guide to becoming a Stoic. Such a thing cannot exist. Instead, How to be a Stoic immerses you in the Stoic life and mindset so that you can absorb the philosophy firsthand.
Stoics are commonly perceived as being overly logical, lacking compassion, and incapable of empathy. But these surface-level perceptions provide a partial and heavily distorted view of the philosophy. Stoics value acceptance and truth above all else. They seek only to control that which they can control and to accept all else. Such a shift in mindset is liberating and emboldening. Each of these books about stoic philosophy have the power to inspire real change in your life. Whether you’re new to Stoicism or looking to take your practice to the next level, there is something here for you to get started.
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