Literature

The Best Works of Stoic Philosophy Everyone Should Read

Five classic works of Stoicism

Stoic philosophy has been around for several centuries now, but the principles of Stoicism are not as widely known as the word itself. We tend to use the words ‘stoic’ and ‘stoicism’ to refer to a sort of ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude to life – the sort of thing that Rudyard Kipling recommended in his classic poem, ‘If’. Below, we’ve picked five of the best ancient works on Stoicism and related philosophical ideas. Modern titles are, of course, available – but these might be considered the founding texts of the Stoic worldview.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations. One of the great things about this book is the circumstances in which Marcus Aurelius compiled it: he wrote it as a sort of journal, writing in it during the evenings when he had a moment to reflect, and with himself as the chief readership – the idea being to teach himself how to be a better person. It is a ‘self-help’ book in the most literal sense: Marcus Aurelius wrote it to help himself to become more accepting of others’ faults, and to find ways of overcoming his own.

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic. Along with Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic is the must-have volume for the student of Stoicism written during the days of imperial Rome. Seneca was Nero’s tutor and adviser, and his wisdom and talent for clear communication shine through in his ‘essays’ on Stoicism.

Epictetus, Discourses. Much as Plato wrote down the teachings of Socrates, Arrion, the pupil of Epictetus, kept a record of what his teacher, the freed slave and Stoic philosopher Epictetus (c. AD 55-135), said. This book is the result, which combines both Epictetus’ discussions (the Discourses) with the manual, or Enchiridion, which Arrian wrote down, summarising Epictetus’ ideas. Epictetus himself was influenced by earlier Stoic thought but also by Socrates and Plato, and he followed Socrates’ lead in his style of teaching. Epictetus’ own influence would be considerable, and Marcus Aurelius was among those who would take up his teachings. Recommended edition: Discourses and Selected Writings.

Plutarch, Essays. Plutarch is one of the patron saints of Interesting Literature, for his curiosity and his gossipy approach to writing biography. He was also, as well as the father of the notion of biography, a first-rate essayist, and this excellent collection includes some of his finest pieces, such as ‘On the Avoidance of Anger’ and ‘On Contentment’.

Epicurus, The Art of Happiness. Hang about. Surely Epicurus was an Epicurean rather than a Stoic? And they’re two separate philosophical systems? Yes – but they are more closely linked, and more compatible, than they might first appear. As we’ve revealed elsewhere, Epicureanism, the name of the philosophy inspired by the teachings of the philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC), is commonly understood to mean seeking out pleasure and then enjoying things to excess – whether it’s drinking too much, eating too much, or having too much sex. But Epicurus himself was, surprisingly, quite a frugal and restrained fellow. A bit of cheese now and then was, by all accounts, the most indulgent his tastes ever got. This Penguin edition of Epicurus’ teachings provides the perfect introduction to his ideas and how they can help us to live a good and fulfilling life – the more you study Epicurus’ philosophy, the more you realise how closely Epicureanism resembles Stoicism in key respects.

2 Comments

  1. Just reading Seneca now myself as it happens. It’s quite remarkable how often he quotes and praises Epicurus – despite the supposed difference in the philosophies – so I am very glad to read your section on Epicurus!

  2. Excellent summaries of these books. Thanks! I’ve been looking into Epicureanism and Stoicism for a while and find them to be more divergent than they are similar. Here is an excellent chart that illustrates the differences. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1z4w8x_H8miK2FuVaOo_Due82cOWOnZFrtnPSC0vlOi4/edit

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