In this lecture we will explore the top five Stoic books to get you started on your journey as a Stoic. When it comes to any ancient philosophies or histories, learning from books, learning from those who have experienced these situations first hand, alongside this the knowledge of experts and modern stoics can also help us in our crash course to understanding Stoic philosophy. The stoics offer us many valuable strategies when dealing with adversities and hardships in our lives. These hardships remain relevant to this day.
The first on this list is Meditations by Marcus Aureilus. Meditations is a series of personal writings by Roman emperor Marcus Aureius recording his private notes to himself, he himself used the journal as a source of his own guidance and self improvement, therefore it's unlikely that Aureilus ever intended the writing to be published. In terms of structure, the book is divided in 12 parts each part corresponding to different periods in Aureilus’ life, many of the ideas reflect Marcus’ stoic perspective. “Let not future things disturb you, for you will come to them, if it shall be necessary, having with you the same reason which you now use for present things.” he argues. As a Roman emperor the comfort and stability of stoicism would’ve brought him balance in his immensely chaotic life. The central themes in this journal back this up, analysing judgements and developing a cosmic perspective. He advocates in finding your place in the universe and sees that everything is rooted from nature. The reception of the text evidences its profound impact, Aurelius has been praised for his capacity to "to write down what was in his heart just as it was, not obscured by any consciousness of the presence of listeners or any striving after effect." states Murray. The unique quality of this novel makes the effect so important, in fact, Bill Clinton stated it was his favourite book. Its advice and universal power makes it a priority in this Stoic crash course.
Secondly is Discourses by Epictetus. Discourses is constructed from a series of informative lectures written by Epictetus’s pupil Arrian around 108 AD. The philosophy of Epictetus is entirely practical, he writes on the importance of focusing your attention on your opinion, anxieties, passions and desires. Its influence can be seen through the fact his words have even been relayed by Marcus Aureilus himself. The ideas that Epictetus explored are, firstly, the division of philosophy into three parts, desire, choice, and assent. With this, he was also the first to explore control, explaining that we must distinguish what is and what isn’t in our power “It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.” Similar to Aurelius he explored the ideals of universal nature, alongside this, Epictetus also focuses on the exploration of moral authority and ethics. The impact of his teachings remain significant, which is why his significance must remain essential, especially in relation to learning about stoicism. Many translations have been made, making it more and more accessible to the day.
In terms of modern stoics there are two novels that stand out as important in understanding stoicism. Firstly is “A New Stoicism.” The book is written by Lawerence C. Beker discussed what Stoic ethics would be like in our modern landscape, how it would work today if stoicism had survived its systemic approach to ethics. The book was published in 1998, Becker himself is a fellow of Hollins University, and his impact has promoted many debates and influenced the emergence of modern stoicism. Lawrence C. Becker identified the current virtue theory with Greek Stoicism, virtue theory defined through normative ethical theories which treat the concept of moral virtue as central to ethics. To supplement this, ‘The Obstacle is the Way’ by Ryan Holiday can also be used to explore its impact upon stoicism. Holiday’s novel is based on traditional Hellenistic stoic philosophy, structuring itself into 3 disciples, split into sections which explore historical anecdotes. The book has been translated into 17 languages, in the world of sport, entrepreneurs, artists and anyone working to overcome the adversities and obstacles that life throws at us. Both Holiday and Becker prove the power of recognising ancient teachings in our modern landscape exploring its significance.
Letters from Stoic, written by Seneca, is also another prominent piece of work. Seneca was a renowned Roman philosopher and playwright, he published many prominent works on Stoicism. The writing is constructed from 124 letters written in the later part of Seneca’s life after working for emperor Nero. The letters tend to begin with a general view of daily life expanding to explain a principle or lesson that can be expanded from this general observation. The primary focus on ‘inner-life’ and the joy that is rooted from wisdom, he also emphasises the importance of virtue as the only ‘true good’. In terms of influence, Michel de Montaigne models his work ‘Essays’ on Seneca’s letters. Furthermore, the letters acted as a source to Justus Lipius who impacted the development of Neo Stoicism in the 19th century. One of the main teachings he lays the foundation to is accepting what you’ve got, “Philosophy calls for simple living, not for doing penance, and the simple way of life need not be a crude one.” noticing the significance of moderation. In addition to this, Seneca defines Stoic philosophy as a lifelong practise, something that we have to make time for, something we have to make sacrifices for, finding out what we need to improve in our lives and recognising rather than ignoring these things.
Finally, ‘A Man’s Search for Meaning’, the novel chronicles Frankl’s experience as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps. The book is a non-fiction piece of writing that deals with Viktor Frankl’s experiences, as a reader we never receive a linear narrative of his time in the camps, instead there’s a priority on explaining the daily struggles of camp life, exploring how these experiences can be used as evidence for his psychological theories. The core of Frankl’s philosophy is the idea of searching for meaning, he argues that without meaning you can’t survive anything. Frankl used suffering as a tool to make him a better person, instead of accepting he’s doomed, he embraced suffering. He argues that there’s three ways you can find meaning, one of them being suffering and the others being work and love.
Hopefully this acts as a springboard for learning more about the stoic mindset, exposing the potential in Stoic teachings, how it can positively impact your life. Frankl, Seneca, Epictetus, Aurelius, Holiday and Beck all offer a range of insightful ideals that surround themselves around Stoicism.