Stoicism is one of the most popular practical philosophies right now. It was never meant to be used in classrooms, but rather in real life – with our everyday problems. How do confront difficult situations? What’s important in life, and what is not? How can we be happy, and what leads happiness? These are the sort of questions stoicism deals with.
It was originally founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium, but quickly spread through the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. Today, the most known stoic philosophers are: 1) Marcus Aurelius, also emperor of the Roman Empire. 2) Seneca, a rich and powerful figure who was the tutor of emperor Nero. And 3) Epictetus, originally born as a slave, but later set free, who founded his own Stoic school.
Just by looking at the 3 main philosophers of stoicism you can see that the diversity is huge: from the lowest ranks of society, to the most powerful man of the planet (at that time). This just goes to show that stoicism can be applied in any situation and that anyone can benefit from its teachings.
There are no major theories in stoicism, no theoretical discussions. It’s meant purely for practice. So if you want to be more steadfast, less emotional, and more satisfied with your life it’s worth taking a look at the stoic teachings.
Now, a lot has been written about stoicism, and not all of it is as useful as it’s made out to be. So here is a curated stoic reading list with the 10 best books on stoicism that we’ve seen. We hope you enjoy it!
One of the most popular introductory books to stoicism is A Guide To The Good Life. In it, William Irvine translates the ancient stoic concepts and advice to a modern setting. If you’re looking for a good introduction to the stoic philosophical concepts, and some pointers on how to apply it to your own life, this book is a good first start!
The second introductory book on this list is the one from Massimo Pigliucci, an American-Italian philosopher and modern stoic. He used to run his own popular blog on stoicism for the 21st century (now unfortunately behind a paywall), and is one of the Internet’s best resources on modern applications of stoicism.
It’s not surprise that his introductory book on stoicism is very good and would be a perfect place to start your stoic journey as well.
One of the unique things about stoicism is that we can still read the original texts written by the ancient philosophers. And not just that: if you read Marcus Aurelius’ personal meditations, or the essays from Seneca, you get the feeling it could you been written yesterday – rather than 2000 years ago.
The first ancient stoic text on the list is the Meditations from Marcus Aurelius. These reflections from a Roman emperor were never meant to be published, but luckily for us they have been! In short notes written for himself, the emperor reminds himself of important moral and stoic lessons, and makes observations on the world around him.
He reflects on how to be humble, disciplined, and how to control your emotions. But also how to be a good person, with frequent reminders to do the right thing no matter the circumstances are.
The Meditations from Marcus Aurelius are full of wisdom, and it is nothing short of astonishing that we can still read the personal diary and reflections of the stoic emperor. Do yourself a favor and savor this material – it can truly be life changing for some people. The most modern translation is the one by Gregory Hays, which we would recommend to everyone.
A second ancient text from the Stoics is Seneca’s letters. Out of all of the old Stoic texts, Seneca is probably the most readable and most enjoyable. He writes directly to the reader, and even though the letters are addressed to a friend, it’s quite clear that Seneca had posterity in mind as well.
Seneca’s letters touch upon many different topics. From friendship, death, being wealthy, sadness, failure, loss, success, to the point of life and happiness. The central theme of all letters, however, is the stoic philosophy. Through the stories, examples, and ‘coaching’ in the letters you can really get a better understanding of what it means to be a stoic in practice.
During his lifetime Seneca also wrote multiple longer essays that expand on his philosophy. Three of his most popular essays are bundled in this short book. If you’re looking to start reading the original Stoic texts, this bundle is a good place to start.
The first essay, On the Shortness of Life, is probably his most famous one. In it he argues that life is not short at all, it’s more than long enough – you just need know how to use it properly. If you waste your time, and make no effort to do the things you truly want to do, then yes, you will find that life is short. But a person who has his priorities and goals straight will find this to be no issue.
The second essay, On the Tranquillity of the Mind, deals with emotions, ambition, dissatisfaction, depression, and in general with the state of mind. In it, Seneca tries to help a friend deal with excessive worry and anxiety.
Finally, the book contains the essay Consolation to Helvia. After being exiled to Corsica, Seneca writes this essay to his mother in which he urges her not to mourn or feel sadness, since he does not feel it himself either. Exile is simply a change of place, and it makes no sense to feel distressed by events you cannot control. This essay shows the true practical application of Stoicism into practice and is fascinating to read.
The last of the 3 famous ancient stoic philosophers is Epictetus. He was, in contrast to Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, a low ranking member of society. In fact, he started his life as a slave and worked for many years in the household of wealthy freedman. Later on he gained his own freedom and established a stoic school of philosophy.
Out of the three, Epictetus is definitely the most dogmatic and sometimes difficult to read. If you want to delve deeper after reading some of the other books on this list, this book is not a bad place to start however.
Especially Epictetus’ Enchiridion (literally: “in the hand”, or handbook) is good: it’s a summary of his philosophy and reflects on all the main points of his work. The full discourses are a bit tougher. They are transcribed directly from the classroom, and thus not as polished or as easy to read.
Stoicism is not a dead branch of practical philosophy. There are still new books being written and ideas being developed. Arguably the two most popular modern practical books on stoicism are by Ryan Holiday.
The first, The Obstacle is the Way, is based on a quote by Marcus Aurelius:
The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.
Some people get bogged down by obstacle, and give up. But others get energized and motivated to conquer the obstacles and problems in our path. How we interpret our situation, and how we act on that, determines if we can transform our problems to opportunities.
The second book from Holiday that uses stoic principles and applies it in a modern way is Ego is the Enemy. Our ego is not something we normally really think about or question. But whilst reading this book it becomes clear that in many ways our ego can be toxic or dangerous. Especially in modern days where we tend to inflate our egos by creating a persona on social media, and posting every little tidbit about our lives. It’s pure grandeur and ego inflation.
Holiday shows in Ego is the Enemy that our ego is holding us back, and that it’s setting us up for failure. This is right in line with the old stoic thinkers, who urged the need to stay humble, focused, and apply yourself for the greater good – not just for you yourself.
The Inner Citadel is an academic text that delves into the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Because the Meditations are written in short entries, and because a background or overall philosophy is missing, it can be useful to read an analysis on Marcus Aurelius. Pierre Hadot does this very well and offers new insight into the Meditations, Aurelius’ philosophy, as well as the Stoic thinking.
This book is not recommended if you’re just starting out on your stoic reading journey. But if, after reading a few books from this list, you want to get a deeper understanding on Stoic philosophy, then there is no better place to start than Hadot.
Seneca is in many ways a paradoxical figure. A rich man advocating for a simple life. A collector of exotic things urging us not to attach value to external things. A man urging us to live a good life, to be a good person, who taught and mentored Nero, one of the cruelest emperors of Rome.
Dying Every Day looks at the life of Seneca, and his relationship with Nero, in a clear and refreshing way. It shows Seneca’s struggles, the complexities of being a stoic and trying to control Nero, and how ultimately his student became the person who ordered his death.
Stoicism Online: Further Resources
The books on the stoic reading list above are a great way to start exploring this practical philosophy. There are, of course, many more resources and good books on stoicism (and one day we might do a follow-up to this list!).
But stoicism is currently also going through a revival. New books and insights are being published, online communities of stoics are being set up, and more and more people are interested in this philosophy of life.
Here are some of the best online resources:
- Modern Stoicism
- Daily Stoic
- Pigliucci’s blog (now defunct, but the archives are still there)
- Donald Robertson’s blog
- Reddit’s r/stoicism community
- Twitter accounts of Stoic Emperor and Ancient Sage. Both offer (new) reflections based on old philosophies.
Interestingly (for international readers more so perhaps), stoicism is not just going through a revival in the English speaking world. There are new communities developing in Polish, Dutch, Indonesian, and probably countless other languages.
So besides the above books there is much to explore on stoicism on the internet as well. And this speaks about the qualities of this practical philosophy: people around the world are finding usefulness and strength in the writings of the ancient stoics. These texts and the philosophy helped people 2000 years ago, and it’s still helping people today.
So why not give it a try yourself as well?
Now over to you: what is your opinion on these books? Are there any additional stoic books or resources that have helped you? Let us know in the comments!
Featured image credit: Dogancan Ozturan (Unsplash)