This Stoic reading list for beginners is my take on what a good order is to read the ancient texts, combined with more modern Stoic works. The idea is to build a solid foundation of knowledge to be implemented into daily practice. Reflecting on my own journey, this reading list would give a beginning Stoic a great start.
Since I often get the question of what Stoic books to read, I’m sharing mine here. I’d like to read your views on this list in the comments. There is some personal preference involved and these could be placed in any order. But I’ll try to make my case clear on why this order makes sense to me. What I hope this Stoic reading list does, is help more people pick up Stoic material and start their journey. It has changed my life and I hope it will do the same for them.
The Meditations – Marcus Aurelius
That the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius are at the top of this Stoic Reading list shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s a wonderful journal of Marcus Aurelius’s thoughts and reflections. Even people not interested in Stoicism can enjoy this book and learn a lot from it. The wisdom on display in this book has transcended the ages. It is the perfect book to introduce the Stoic concepts to people, without labeling them as such. A reasoned reader can pick up on the points and agree with most of them. Paving the way for a deeper dive into Stoicism.
The Meditations are a collection of thoughts written by one of the five good Emperors of Rome. He’s one of the best-known ones. His book has helped world leaders up to the present day to overcome their struggles. World leaders such as Nelson Mandela, George Washington, and Bill Clinton. It was never meant for publication and that’s what makes this book so special. It’s an intimate encounter with one of the greatest people in our known history. We can also see that not much has changed. Marcus Aurelius speaks about how everything happens in cycles, and the evidence lies in us reading the book now. Because much of what he tells himself is still relevant to us.
An interesting video to watch either before or after finishing The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is this lecture by Michael Sugrue.
How to Think Like a Roman Emperor – Donald Robertson
Now is the time for some history, some background information on Marcus Aurelius, and a breakdown of Stoicism. Donald Robertson does a great job at combining these elements while connecting them to our modern-day society and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. First, it provides us with a good idea of what life would have been back then for Marcus Aurelius and how he would have grown up. It uses that to build the character of this great emperor and show us his struggles and how similar they are to ours. Understanding the background will make you appreciate the true beauty of the Meditations even more.
Furthermore, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor deserves this place on this reading list for beginners because it explains Stoicism in an easy-to-understand way. Providing practical tips on how to apply it to your life. Moreover, it shows its relevance to us as the book links the philosophy to our present-day lives. This book will help you get a better understanding of what Stoicism is. And a beginner will be able to recognize parts of their own lives where Stoicism can help them.
Using the example of Marcus Aurelius to do so, provides a great narrative and an excellent example. There is no way a reader can make up an excuse not to apply it. If the Emperor of the Roman Empire was able to live a virtuous life, with all the wealth and power in his hands, then surely we can control ourselves enough to live a good life.
The Discourses and the Handbook of Epictetus
Back to the ancients, we go from the emperor to a former slave. Epictetus was a slave to an underling of Emperor Hadrian. He was freed, but not before his owner crippled him, and Musonius Rufus became his Stoic teacher. From his rough start in life, he became one of the more famous Stoic teachers during the Roman Stoa. Although he and Marcus Aurelius lived during the same era, Epictetus died when Marcus Aurelius was in his teens, and they never met. Through a student of Epictetus, Quintus Junius Rusticus, who became Marcus Aurelius’s teacher, the emperor received the teaching of the slave. We can see Marcus thanking Rusticus in book one of the Meditations for this fact.
“And for introducing me to Epictetus’s lectures – and loaning me his own copy.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 1.7Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 1.7
During the reign of Emperor Domitian, who banished all philosophers from Rome, Epictetus went to Nicopolis in Greece. This is where he started to teach Stoicism and spent the rest of his life. He never wrote anything himself, but one of his students took meticulous notes and composed them into the Enchiridion, the handbook, and the discourses, we have now. Some of the books of the discourses went missing. We have four left.
Epictetus tells it the way it is
Epictetus is a straight talker and he tells you how it is and works. That’s why he comes right after Marcus Aurelius on this Stoic Reading list. He could have been first, especially his handbook, were it not that the Meditations are more popular and will ease the beginner better into Stoicism. But Epictetus is a must-read for anyone who wishes to learn about Stoicism and apply it. In the discourses, we can read about conversations he had with people who asked him questions about how to act in certain circumstances. These give us a good idea of how we should approach life. The handbook contains easy-to-remember lessons that we can keep with us during times when we need more guidance.
How to be a Stoic – Massimo Pigliucci
What kind of advice would Epictetus give us about our modern-day problems? Massimo Pigliucci has an interesting conversation with Epictetus to help us deal with our lives in the present day. That’s why I place this book here on the Stoic reading list because it will help us better understand the ideas of Epictetus. Besides that, it connects them to problems we can face in our lives. The most important thing to remember about Stoicism is that it should be applied to our lives. We can read all these books, but if we don’t do anything with them then it is useless.
How to be a Stoic is that link between the teachings of Epictetus and us applying them to our daily lives. It touches on all the different aspects of Stoicism. It gives us exercises, practical tips, and ways to practice mindfulness. The expertise on display by Massimo Pigliucci is clear and it shows that he has adopted this philosophy to his own life. A beginning Stoic can use these examples and take the lessons from Epictetus to improve their life immediately.
Letters from a Stoic – Seneca
From the Stoics we know, Seneca has left us with most of the texts out of all of them. In letters from a Stoic, we can read the correspondence he had with a friend of his, Lucilius Junior, a native of Pompeii. Our beginning Stoic could also pick up any of the other texts by Seneca, which we can find in the Dialogues and Essays, for example. The reason why we find this one on the Stoic Reading list is that it will give us a better and more diverse insight into the mind of Seneca. The letters are written to explain his ideas and philosophy to a dear friend. And most of these letters are responses to a question or something that Lucilius has experienced. That makes it easier for us to take the place of Lucilius and let Seneca speak to us directly.
While Marcus Aurelius is writing to himself in different styles, sometimes direct and others more poetic. And Epictetus tells us how life is to be lived in a more direct approach. We can see that Seneca explores all corners of the language. He doesn’t take satisfaction in only writing an answer, he wants to make it beautiful. Using elaborate examples and sentences we can now see all over the internet. He recognized the power of the pen and how the reader’s attention is captured by beauty. This is what has made his texts so popular throughout the ages. Our Stoic in progress will notice this and it will show the wonder in its philosophy.
A Guide to the Good Life – William B. Irvine
To wrap up this Stoic reading list for beginners, we leave with an excellent guide to living a good life. William Irvine gives us all the tools and practices to use the information we’ve gathered in the books on the list and live in accordance with nature. Now that we are on this part of our journey, it is time to reflect. How well have we been living and this book will hold the mirror right in front of us. It shows us many of the wrong impressions people have about Stoicism, but Irvine is also not afraid to keep an open and critical mind to the philosophy itself. Wondering if he might look back at this journey and question his beliefs and actions.
But he shares with us his personal experiences and shows us different techniques. Together with moments when Stoicism can help us remain in control and calm. It’s a great addition to the other modern books on Stoicism as it gives us a different angle and take on how it can improve our lives. The only reason why this book is on this position in the list is that the others had a more direct link to the authors of the ancient texts. But this could be as good as any of them to start your journey with.
The Stoic Reading List
There are other books on Stoicism out there and we should not forget the texts available to us by Musonius Rufus, who was the teacher of Epictetus. We can find those in a book called, That One Should Disdain Hardships. Looking at the philosophy section in a bookstore, we can tell that Stoicism is making a resurgence. More people are looking for a guide or some clear ideas on what a good life is. And Stoicism provides a pragmatic and practical approach that appeals to people. There will of course be other books that might need to be on this list, and I’d love to hear from you about what you would have liked to have seen here.
This list is my personal opinion, as I have read these books and think that this is a great order in which to do so. I didn’t do it this way myself, but looking back on it, this would have made sense. I wish the new Stoic student a wonderful journey. And I will leave you with a reminder by Epictetus to keep in mind as you start reading.
“Philosophers exhort us not to be contented with mere learning, but to add practice also, and then training.” Epictetus, the Discourses, book two, chapter 9.13Epictetus, the Discourses, book two, chapter 9.13