One of the most frequently asked questions on my Facebook group for Stoicism, and elsewhere, is “Where is the best place to begin if I want to learn about Stoicism?” People often want recommendations for reading, in particular. So I’ve written this post to summarize the advice I normally give. The answer is actually quite simple.
At the risk of stating the obvious, you can do a lot worse than start by looking at the excellent Wikipedia article on Stoicism. The Stoicism Subreddit (see below) also has a superb FAQ page on Stoicism. Read my blog article A Simpified Modern Approach to Stoicism, if you want an outline of a simple daily practice.
I’ve also created a free online course called Crash Course in Stoicism, which takes less than ten minutes to complete and provides a lightning guide to Stoicism.
At a rough estimate, less than 1% of the many ancient writings on Stoicism actually survive today. We have no complete texts by the Greek founders of Stoicism, only fragments. Most of our knowledge of it comes from three Roman Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. They lived in the first and second centuries AD, three hundreds years after Zeno of Citium had founded the Stoic school. By their time, the Athenian school of Stoicism no longer existed, and the Stoic school had no formal head (“scholarch”) to guide it. Nevertheless, we learn a great deal about Stoicism from their writings. We also learn a great deal about Stoicism from many comments made by non-Stoics, most notably the Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero, who was a Platonist himself but nevertheless very sympathetic toward Stoic ideas. We do also have about a book’s worth of fragmentary sayings and passages attributed to the early Greek Stoics, although these tend to be of slightly more interest to academics than to newcomers.
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The first text on Stoicism that most people read is The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. It’s very small book, written in a beautiful aphoristic style. There are many translations available, and it’s easy to obtain older (out of copyright) editions free online. The only real limitation of this book is that it’s not a systematic account of Stoic philosophy. Having read it, people often still lack a basic understanding of the basic doctrines of Stoicism, at least in an explicit form. Nevertheless, it’s where I recommend beginning. The translation I recommend for modern readers is by Gregory Hayes.
The Handbook of Epictetus
The second book that I would recommend reading is the famous Handbook or Encheiridion of Stoic Philosophy, written by Arrian, a student of Epictetus, based on his teacher’s lectures. Marcus was greatly influenced by Epictetus, and probably thought of himself as a follower of this particular sect of Stoicism. The Handbook is very short and also written aphoristically, although in more confrontational style than The Meditations.
The Discourses of Epictetus
If you like Epictetus then it would be natural to follow reading his Handbook by reading the Discourses on which they’re based, also noted down by his student Arrian. (There are also a few fragmentary sayings of Epictetus worth reading.) If not, skip to the writings of Seneca below.
There were originally eight volumes of the Discourses but only four have survived to the present day. Marcus Aurelius appears to say that he was given a copy by his Stoic friend and mentor Junius Rusticus so it’s possible he had read all eight volumes. (It may even be that some passages from The Meditations are actually quotes or paraphrases from the lost Discourses of Epictetus as Marcus cites the known volumes several times.)
The Lectures and Sayings of Musonius Rufus
If you enjoyed the Handbook and Discourses then you should read the less well-known Lectures and Sayings of Epictetus’ own teacher, Gaius Musonius Rufus. Musonius’ surviving writings are relatively few and short. They’re written in a strikingly similar style to Epictetus’ Discourses.
The Letters of Seneca to Lucilius
This is where many people begin, so if you’re not drawn to Marcus or Epictetus, you might choose to start with Seneca. Seneca wrote in Latin whereas Marcus and Epictetus, though Roman, wrote in Greek. Marcus and Epictetus never mention Seneca, although he lived before them. His style of Stoicism is slightly different, and perhaps owes more to the “Middle Stoa” of Posidonius. His Letters to Lucilius go by different names but you’ll usually find them referred to as the main collection of moral letters (or epistles) by Seneca. These constitute a series of very well-written letters or essays addressed to a novice Stoic and they’re often read from start to finish, although they cover different themes.
The Essays and Dialogues of Seneca
If you liked Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius then we have many more surviving writings by him concerning Stoicism, which you should read. Either get a copy of his complete writings or look for abridged collections of his various essays (often other, longer letters) and dialogues.
The Writings of Cicero
Cicero was a Platonist, not a Stoic. However, his writings provide one of our major surviving sources for information on Stoicism. He also wrote in Latin. He lived before the Stoics mentioned above and was very well-read in Stoic philosophy, which he travelled to Athens to study. Cicero’s form of Platonism was quite eclectic and he was happy to engage with Stoic ideas and integrate them. He has many writings which provide important accounts of Stoicism. Most notably, though, his De Finibus (“On Moral Ends”) consists of a series of dialogues in which philosophers representing Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Platonism take turns criticising each other’s philosophy and describing their own. The account of Stoicism in this book was put into the mouth of Seneca’s friend and rival the great Roman Stoic hero Cato of Utica, who had recently died opposing Julius Caesar. It draws upon early Greek Stoic thought and provides an much more systematic account of Stoic Ethics than you find in Marcus Aurelius or Seneca.
Other Stoic Writings
There are many other lesser known Stoic writings and other non-Stoic ancient sources that are of importance to the study of Stoicism. I can’t provide a full list here but I would particularly recommend the Philosophical Regimen of the Earl of Shaftesbury, if you liked Marcus Aurelius. Shaftesbury was an English philosopher and scholar of ancient Greek and wrote his own Stoic journal in the style of The Meditations. It can also be read as an insightful commentary on Marcus and Epictetus by a man who was trying to adopt a similar Stoic way of life, albeit in the early modern era. Likewise, special mention should go to US Navy Vice Admiral James Stockdale’s Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot. Stockdale was taken prisoner in the Vietnam War and used his knowledge of Epictetus’ Stoicism to cope with the ordeal.
There are many superb modern books on Stoicism. I can’t cite them all here, but I’ll mention in particular William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life, which is perhaps the bestselling popular book on Stoicism. Irvine’s book is seen by some readers (myself included) as occasionally portraying Stoicism in a way that more resembles its rival school, Epicureanism. Nevertheless, it’s undoubtedly one of the best introductions to the subject.
I should mention my own book Teach Yourself Stoicism, which was written as a self-help guide based on Stoicism. I’m also the author of The Philosophy of CBT, a book about the history of science and philosophy that tries to provide a detailed analysis of the relationship between Stoic psychological practices and modern cognitive therapy. (My book, Build your Resilience, is also a self-help text, which combines elements of Stoicism with third-wave cognitive-behavioural therapy.)
If you want even more, take a look at this list of suggestions maintained by different members of Goodreads: Popular Books on Stoicism.
There are many excellent online discussion forums for Stoicism. Here are just a few suggestions:
- Facebook Stoicism (Stoic Philosophy) Group
- Stoicism Subreddit
- International Stoic Forum on Yahoogroups
Every Autumn since 2012, the Stoicism Today team has organised a free, international, online event called Stoic Week. Stoicism Today is a multi-disciplinary (non-profit) team of classicists, philosophers, psychologists, and therapists, with a special interest in Stoicism. Several of the team are authors of books on Stoicism and related subjects.
You can find more out about Stoicism Today on our blog, currently hosted by Exeter University. You can find out more about Stoic Week on the official website. Stoic Week challenges you to “live like a Stoic” for seven days, by following a structured daily routine consisting of readings, recordings, and psychological exercises. In 2015, we had over 3,000 participants from all over the world. It’s a great way to begin learning about applying Stoicism to modern living.