10 Books You Should Read to Learn Stoicism
When you’re first learning about Stoicism, it can be hard to know where to start. There are a lot of Stoic books out there, ranging from ancient texts to modern self-help guides.
In this list of the 10 books you should read to learn Stoicism, you’ll find primary source texts as well as contemporary explorations of this ancient philosophy.
For some readers, starting with the writings of the Stoics might be a bit too much to digest at first, while others might find modern Stoic books to be more watered down than they’d like. Consider what your purpose is in learning about Stoicism before selecting your first book, and be open-minded to the reality that some books might just “click” with you more than others.
Since there are so many compelling books about Stoicism out there, we’ve also included some “honorable mentions” for books about historical Stoicism as well as more modern, self-help-focused guides.
What Is Stoicism?
Founded in Athens in the early 3rd century BC, Stoicism is a philosophy that originates from the teachings of Zeno of Citium. A school of thought in Hellenistic philosophy, Stoicism asserts that individuals can flourish when they practice the cardinal virtues and live in accordance with nature. According to the Stoics, this is how you can achieve eudaimonia, which is often translated as happiness, welfare, or good spirit.
If you want to live a good life, (after all, who doesn’t?) you might be interested to learn that the Stoics believed that being virtuous is both sufficient and necessary to that end.
Despite the fact that the philosophy is now more than two thousand years old, it has had a huge influence on many figures and movements throughout history and is even experiencing a renaissance in recent years.
Modern people are increasingly finding that Stoic principles can help guide them through their day-to-day lives, whether they are dealing with anxiety, stress, anger, or other unpleasant human states. The notion that you have to distinguish between what you have control over and what you don’t is another one of the ideas that are prominently discussed on Stoicism blogs and podcasts in this day and age.
If you’re interested in learning more about this ancient philosophy, check out our guide to Stoicism.
10 Books You Should Read to Learn Stoicism
There is no shortage of great books to choose from when you first start incorporating Stoicism into your daily life. Let’s check out ten of the best, including some ancient primary texts as well as some modern explorations of philosophy.
1. Meditations, Marcus Aurelius
Perhaps the most famous work by a Stoic philosopher is Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, which has been in print nearly as long as printing presses have existed. One of the remarkable things about this text is that it was never intended for publication, as it was the personal diary of the Roman emperor.
When you read Meditations, you are privy to the private thoughts of the world’s most powerful man. While there are a number of great modern overviews of Stoicism, this text allows you to see firsthand how the wisdom of the ancients is still very much applicable to our current times.
The book exists as a series of short notes that Aurelius wrote to himself while on campaign between 170 and 180 AD.
Considered to be one of the most profound works of ethical and spiritual reflection that has ever been written, inside you’ll find spiritual exercises that are filled to the brim with practical guidance, wisdom, and a deep understanding of human behavior.
Here are some of the best quotes from Meditations to give you a sense of what Aurelius was writing to himself as a source of guidance.
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” – Marcus Aurelius
““If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” ― Marcus Aurelius
“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love …” – Marcus Aurelius
“Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.” ― Marcus Aurelius
“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” ― Marcus Aurelius
2. Letters From a Stoic, Seneca the Younger
Another very accessible ancient text from a Stoic philosopher is Letters From a Stoic. If you’re looking for a one-stop-shop introduction to Stoicism, this is a fantastic place to start. This is considered by many to be one of the most readable and enjoyable of the ancient Stoic books.
Actually a compilation of letters written by the great philosopher, you can find Seneca’s thoughts on a wide variety of topics on these pages.
He covers everything from sadness, death, failure, and loss to friendship, wealth, success, happiness, and the meaning of life.
“If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.” ― Lucius Annaeus Seneca
“Enjoy present pleasures in such a way as not to injure future ones.” ― Lucius Annaeus Seneca
“Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach.” ― Lucius Annaeus Seneca
“You should … live in such a way that there is nothing which you could not as easily tell your enemy as keep to yourself.” ― Lucius Annaeus Seneca“
To win true freeedom you must be a slave to philosophy.” ― Lucius Annaeus Seneca
3. Discourses and Selected Writings, Epictetus
The Discourses of Epictetus were actually written by his most famous pupil, Arrian. He studied under Epictetus around 108 AD, when he was a young man. Having taken extensive notes on the lectures of the great Stoic, we have Arrian to thank for both of the works attributed to Epictetus, The Discourses, and the Enchiridion.
Arrian wrote a preface to the Discourses, in which he says that:
“whatever I heard him say I used to write down, word for word, as best I could, endeavouring to preserve it as a memorial, for my own future use, of his way of thinking and the frankness of his speech.”
Stoicism intends to be a practical philosophy, and the Discourses are a good place to engage with the intensely practical approach of Epictetus. One of the primary purposes of education, in the eyes of this great Stoic, was to learn how to distinguish between what is in our control and what isn’t. He believed that the application of his philosophical approach could lead people to happiness and freedom.
Ever since the Discourses were written, they have been greatly influential. Marcus Aurelius refers to them and quotes them, and they have been translated into many languages since the 16th century.
“The more we value things outside our control, the less control we have.” ― Epictetus
“Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace.” ― Epictetus
“Don’t put your purpose in one place and expect to see progress made somewhere else.” ― Epictetus
“Freedom is not achieved by satisfying desire, but by eliminating it.” ― Epictetus
“People with a strong physical constitution can tolerate extremes of hot and cold; people of strong mental health can handle anger, grief, joy and the other emotions.” ― Epictetus
4. Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Sayings, Musonius Rufus
When you first learn about Stoicism, you most likely are coming across the works of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca the Younger, and Epictetus. However, there are a number of other Stoics that offer accessible and profound insight into Stoic philosophy.
One such man was Musonius Rufus, who is often considered by scholars to be one of the four great Stoic philosophers. A major Stoic in ancient Rome, he taught the likes of Epictetus.
Rufus believed that philosophy was the practice of noble behavior, and was truly put to the test in his life as he was twice exiled from Rome. He advocated that people should not live for pleasure, but rather for virtue, because doing so would help save us from life-destroying mistakes.
Musonius Rufus also advocates for simplicity in one’s life, wearing minimal clothing and footwear and maintaining a basic, no-frills vegetarian diet.
Though it’s not known whether he ever wrote anything for publication, two of his students had the good sense to collect his philosophical opinions.
“We begin to lose our hesitation to do immoral things when we lose our hesitation to speak of them.” ― Gaius Musonius Rufus
“We will train both soul and body when we accustom ourselves to cold, heat, thirst, hunger, scarcity of food, hardness of bed, abstaining from pleasures, and enduring pains.” ― Musonius Rufus
“Only by exhibiting actions in harmony with the sound words which he has received will anyone be helped by philosophy.” ― Musonius Rufus
“Thus it appears that exile helps, rather than hinders body and spirit, by treating them better than they treat themselves.” ― Musonius Rufus
“Just as plants receive nourishment for survival, not pleasure-for humans, food is the medicine of life. Therefore it is appropriate for us to eat for living, not pleasure, especially if we want to follow the wise words of Socrates, who said most men live to eat: I eat to live.” ― Musonius Rufus
5. Enchiridion of Epictetus, Epictetus
The second book we have of Epictetus thanks to his student Arrian is the Enchiridion or Handbook. It’s worth noting that the content from this book does largely derive from Epictetus’ Discourses, but the modern Stoic can still benefit from reading both texts. Enchiridion is a compilation of practical rules rather than a summary of the Discourses.
If you’re looking for a Stoic manual of sorts, this is a good book to turn to. When compiling the text, Arrian focused on the ideas of Epictetus that had to do with applying philosophy to one’s day-to-day life. This is essentially a guidebook for achieving happiness and mental freedom no matter where you find yourself in life.
If you’re not convinced that you should pick this one up, consider that the Enchiridion was quite influential in the ancient world and medieval period. Thanks to the invention of the printing press and the translation of the text into Latin (and, consequently, many other European languages,) this book reached the peak of its popularity during the Neostoicism movement in the 17th century.
“People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them.” ― Epictetus
“It is better to do wrong seldom and to own it, and to act right for the most part, than seldom to admit that you have done wrong and to do wrong often.” ― Epictetus
“Do not try to seem wise to others. If you want to live a wise life, live it on your own terms and in your own eyes.” ― Epictetus
“In banquets remember that you entertain two guests, body and soul: and whatever you shall have given to the body you soon eject: but what you shall have given to the soul, you keep always.” ― Epictetus
“Neither should a ship rely on one small anchor, nor should life rest on a single hope.” ― Epictetus
6. The Inner Citadel, Pierre Hadot
Now that we’ve touched on some of the greatest books written by the ancient Stoics themselves, we can look to modern sources to learn more about this practical philosophy.
This book is the best read once you’ve already worked through Meditations, as it offers a deeper dive into the work of the great Roman emperor.
“From the point of view of the imminence of death, one thing counts, and one alone: to strive always to have the essential rules of life present in one’s mind, and to keep placing oneself in the fundamental disposition of the philosopher, which consists essentially in controlling one’s inner discourse, in doing only that which is of benefit to the human community, and in accepting the events brought to us by the course of the Nature of the All.” – Pierre Hadot
7. Lessons in Stoicism: What Ancient Philosophers Teach Us About How to Live, John Sellars
Diving headfirst into the works of the ancient Stoics can sometimes be a bit much for the individual that is on the first leg of their philosophical journey. If you’re looking for a short, solid introduction to the ideas of Stoic philosophy, consider checking out Lessons in Stoicism.
This book covers the key ideas of Seneca the Younger, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius and helps to weave them together. If your primary focus is determining how the ideas of these great men can positively influence our lives today, this is a very reasonable jumping-off point.
“We might judge so quickly that something is good, and do it so often, that we start to assume that the thing in question just is good in itself. But nothing external is inherently good; it’s all just matter in motion. Only a virtuous character is genuinely good.” – John Sellars
8. Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, Donald Robertson
One very readable introduction to Stoic philosophy comes from Donald Robertson, a cognitive-behavioral therapist that focuses on the relationship between ancient philosophy and modern psychotherapy.
If you find the style of modern self-help books to be accessible and more useful to you than combing through the pages of two-thousand-year-old texts, this is a great book with easy-to-digest theory and practical exercises.
“Health is generally preferable to illness and wealth to poverty, depending on how they’re used, but neither is of any value whatsoever when it comes to judging whether someone has lived a good life, according to the Stoics.” – Donald Robertson
9. A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, William Irvine
One of the most popular modern books on Stoicism is A Guide to the Good Life by William Irvine, which is a part of the recent resurrection of Stoic philosophy. However, if you’ve found the Stoicism subreddit in your research about this school of thought, you may have come across the fact that this book is actually pretty controversial in the community.
Countless people find that this is one of the most practical and clear accounts of the philosophy that’s out there. At the same time, many individuals have stated that essential points of Stoicism are distorted in the text, and the philosophy is so watered down that it presents a problematic portrayal of Stoic thought.
“Your primary desire, says Epictetus, should be your desire not to be frustrated by forming desires you won’t be able to fulfill.” – William Irvine
10. The Daily Stoic, Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman
One of the major players in the modern revival of Stoicism is undoubtedly Ryan Holiday. He’s written a number of bestselling books on Stoicism, one of which is a collection of 366 meditations on “wisdom, perseverance, and the art of living.”
Some people might find that the best way for them to get familiar with Stoicism is through collections of excerpts and quotes. If this is where you’d like to begin, this book is well-loved and highly regarded.
“The single most important practice in Stoic philosophy is differentiating between what we can change and what we can’t.” – Ryan Holiday
Historical Stoicism: Honorable Mentions
If you’re more interested in learning about historical Stoicism than the more modern self-help interpretations of ancient philosophy, check out these books.
The Stoics, F. H. Sandbach
For people that want to learn more about Stoic physics and cosmology, this book offers a much more in-depth look than the other resources on our list. Short but dense, this probably isn’t the best place to start but a wonderful supplement as you get deeper into your study of Stoicism.
The Stoics: A Guide for the Perplexed, M. Andrew Holowchak
If you want to learn more about the ancient Stoics but aren’t looking for anything too difficult to make your way through, check out this book by M. Andrew Holowchak. To help you grasp the main ideas and themes in Stoicism, Holowchak provides examples from both ancient times and the modern-day in order to illustrate the principles of philosophy.
Stoicism, John Sellars
This is another book that serves as a useful introduction to Stoicism. Unlike other modern Stoicism books, the focus here is more on physics and logic. For individuals that really want to sink their teeth into it from a philosophical standpoint and not just a self-help standpoint, this resource is a great tool.
Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics: An Introduction to Hellenistic Philosophy, R. W. Sharples
Of course, Stoicism didn’t emerge or exist in a vacuum. The primary competing philosophies during the time of Stoic thought were Skepticism and Epicureanism. This book takes a look at the places where these schools of thought overlap and where they diverge, which can help the reader get a better sense of the playing field in which Stoicism initially existed.
Roman Stoicism, E. Vernon Arnold
This book was published more than one hundred years ago in 1911 but has stood the test of time. Quite long but written in a clear and understandable way, some readers might enjoy taking a look at the history of Stoic philosophy from its origin in Greece to its prominence in Rome and its influence on early Christian thought.
Modern Stoicism: Honorable Mentions
If your primary interest is learning about the Stoic concepts that you can apply to your everyday life, the following books are easy and enjoyable reads that countless individuals have found useful.
How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, Donald Robertson
Another popular book by cognitive behavioral therapist Donald Robertson, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor takes a look at the fascinating life of Marcus Aurelius while also incorporating insights from modern psychology.
For individuals that are most interested in books that will help them apply Stoicism to their daily life, this is another great resource. A highly readable and practical look at Stoicism and how it can be practiced in the modern day, this book has a lot of overlap with Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness.
The structure of this book is primarily a biographical look at Marcus Aurelius while offering sidenotes of Stoic exercises and theory.
Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living From Zeno to Marcus Aurelius, Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman
Some people are critical of the popularization of Stoicism by figures like Ryan Holiday, who argue that the philosophy has been watered down and cherry-picked to the extent that it’s more self-help and less philosophy.
Regardless, it’s hard to not mention the books by Holiday because they are some of the best-selling modern Stoic texts out there.
This book contains short biographies of twenty-six major and minor figures in Stoicism. Less of a scholarly endeavor and more of an inspirational how-to-live-like-a-Stoic book, this could still be a good way to introduce yourself to the figures that strove to live by the Stoic virtues.
How to Be a Stoic, Massimo Pigliucci
This is another practical guide to using Stoicism in modern life in the same vein as Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness and A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Easy to read and able to compress complex ideas in understandable terms, this book is also a suitable introduction to applying Stoic philosophy to your daily life.
The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph, Ryan Holiday
Another self-help book that draws from Stoic wisdom, The Obstacle Is the Way is a popular, easy-to-digest look at some of the ideas of this ancient philosophy. That being said, it isn’t the most suitable book if you’re mostly interested in learning about Stoicism from a more scholarly angle.
Other Stoic Books Worth Checking Out
As you continue on in your Stoic journey, you might be interested in checking out some other books that, while not directly about Stoicism, portray Stoic concepts.
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
Without giving away any spoilers, we’ll just say that this Russian novel (which is often considered one of the greatest fiction books of all time, by the way,) definitely wrestles with notions of virtue, vice, and the laws of nature.
Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl
Man’s Search For Meaning is the story of a young psychiatrist that managed to find meaning in the suffering of a Nazi concentration camp. You’ll often find quotes from this book popping up on lists of Stoic quotes across the internet, as the attitude proposed by Frankl in the face of a completely inhumane and brutal situation is not just deeply inspiring, but also Stoic.
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, Candice Millard
Theodore Roosevelt, in many ways, was the embodiment of the Stoic notion that adversity leads to growth. There are too many incredible stories about this American president than we have space to include here, such as the one where he got shot during a speech and finished the speech.
During his incredible life, where he certainly adopted the principles of self-control and fortitude, Roosevelt spent eight months in the wilds of the Amazon jungle. He only brought eight books to accompany him on his journey, two of which were works of ancient Stoic philosophers (Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and Enchiridion by Epictetus.)
If you’re looking for a true story full of incredible hardships and extraordinary events that illustrates the adventures of a man deeply influenced by Stoic philosophy, check out River of Doubt.
Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu
Stoicism and Daoism are, of course, not identical philosophies. However, there are a lot of similar concepts to be found in the Tao Te Ching, for example, the notion that fear stems from the ego.
Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle
One concept that the Stoics touch upon repeatedly is the importance of being present in the moment rather than wallowing in the past or stressing about the future.
For example, Seneca wrote in one of his letters that:
“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing.” – Seneca the Younger
This bestselling book has been translated into 33 languages and draws from a variety of spiritual traditions. If you’re looking for a guide to help you stay present and in the moment, you mind find this to be a useful resource.
The Bhagavad Gita
If you’re interested in the ways that Stoic ideas can be found in spiritual traditions around the world, you might enjoy reading the most famous Hindu text, The Bhagavad Gita. There are a number of overlapping concepts here, including the importance of duty, a focus on process over results, and controlling our emotions.
This text is a collection of Socratic dialogues from one of the students of Socrates, Xenophon. It is said that Zeno of Citium was inspired to change his life and begin the Stoic school after reading Memorabilia. If you’re interested in learning where it all began, this is a good place to look.
Are You Looking For More Stoic Resources?
One of the great things about exploring the philosophy of Stoicism is that it is a life-long pursuit. Not all the ancient Stoics agreed on absolutely every point, and the modern proponents of Stoicism certainly don’t either. Rather than clinging to one writer as the be-all-and-end-all voice on Stoic philosophy, consider triangulating your perspective by taking in a bunch of different perspectives over time.
Who knows, maybe you’ll end up contributing to the ever-evolving canon of Stoic works!
If you’re looking for more information about Stoicism, you’ve come to the right place. Be sure to check out our library of Stoic resources to help guide you as you strive to live your best possible life. Whether you’re looking for quotes, bios, history, or overviews of important Stoic concepts, you can find it all at StoicQuotes.com.
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