The best books on Stoicism through the eyes of a philosophy professor

Brian E. Johnson Author Of The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life
By Brian E. Johnson

The Books I Picked & Why

Discourses, Fragments, Handbook

By Christopher Gill, Robin Hard

Book cover of Discourses, Fragments, Handbook

Why this book?

Author Elif Batuman wrote of the Stoic Epictetus, he “won me over with his tone, which was that of an enraged athletics coach.” He is feisty, demanding, sarcastic, but he can be surprisingly poignant and occasionally empathetic to his audience. Epictetus himself wrote nothing; what survives was written down by a student. We therefore witness Epictetus live as he works with his own student or even when he talks with magistrates who would came to consult with him at the end of the day. Epictetus had been a slave early in life so it packs quite a wallop when he tells freeborn Romans that they have the worst kind of slavery: enslavement to external goods at the cost of their inner freedom.

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By Marcus Aurelius, Martin Hammond

Book cover of Meditations

Why this book?

While riding on the New York subway one day, the young woman sitting next to me was reading from the so-called “Little Black Book” (a collection of daily thoughts often read by members of Alcoholics Anonymous). After closing the book, she pulled out this very edition of Marcus Aurelius and I could not help but comment to her that she had made a great choice. Not only does the theme of the “Serenity Prayer” go back to Stoics, but Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (literally titled “To Himself”) show the thoughtful and meditative side of Stoicism. In addition, Marcus Aurelius seems to be practicing what we now call spiritual exercises. Last, what is especially striking is that the Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote many of these entries while he was stuck on military campaigns; thus, we see up close a man utilizing Stoicism to grapple with the messiness of life.

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A Field Guide to a Happy Life: 53 Brief Lessons for Living

By Massimo Pigliucci

Book cover of A Field Guide to a Happy Life: 53 Brief Lessons for Living

Why this book?

Massimo Pigliucci is a professor of philosophy with a strong background in the sciences (holding advanced degrees in genetics and evolutionary biology — in addition to his Ph.D. in philosophy). He is also a living Stoic who is determined to bring Stoicism into the 21st century. That background situates him perfectly to update Epictetus’ Handbook (a.k.a. the Enchiridion) for a modern audience. As I wrote in my blurb for the book, “The result is a work more timely than ever for it warns us of the dangers of superstition while it reminds us that reason and virtue are essential to happiness. Pigliucci speaks directly to us as readers and justifies his updates along the way. He thereby invites us to treat Epictetus and this very book as a reasonable guide rather than as an oracle from on high."

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Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life

By A.A. Long

Book cover of Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life

Why this book?

A. A. Long is one of the foremost researchers on Stoicism and his contributions span many decades. This book is intended for those wishing to take a deeper dive into the thought of Epictetus; but do not let that frighten you away. As he explains in his introduction, “I do not presume any prior knowledge of Epictetus or Stoic philosophy…” And yet, Long manages to thread the needle by writing a book that profits scholars working in Stoic philosophy but also that is highly accessible to those with no prior training. In addition, Long deftly connects Epictetus’ philosophy to an anchor familiar to us all: Socrates. Socrates was famous not just for his integrity but also for his pronouncement that the unexamined life is not worth living. Long shows how, in Epictetus, practicing Stoicism means emulating the integrity of Socrates and examining one’s own beliefs about life.

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Mouse Book Club

By Mouse Book Club

Book cover of Mouse Book Club

Why this book?

Mouse books is an indie publisher in Chicago that prints limited-edition pocket-sized books mostly of the classics. Their mission is to get us reading a tiny book rather than surfing our phone when we are on the go. They operate on a subscription model with three books per quarter; and they host podcasts with experts on each book. In the latter half of 2020, they printed Epictetus’ Handbook (a.k.a. the Enchiridion) and hosted a conversation with me and Massimo Pigliucci. Although they publish plenty of material which is not on Stoicism, I consider them Stoic-related for the following reason: the Stoics themselves were often extremely well-educated and made reference to literary authors. Even the ex-slave Epictetus quotes Homer with ease or parodies a line from Euripides. So, if you’re going to be a Stoic, you will need to hit the books — and Mouse Books fits that nicely.

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