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

Who am I?

I am an associate professor of philosophy at Fordham University. I earned my Ph.D. at the University of Chicago (the same institution where the fictional Indiana Jones is said to have earned his doctorate!). I specialize in Greek and Roman ethics with a particular emphasis on Stoicism.


I wrote...

Book cover of The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life

What is my book about?

The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life offers an original interpretation of Epictetus's ethics and how he bases his ethics on an appeal to our roles in life. Epictetus believes that every individual is the bearer of many roles from sibling to citizen and that individuals are morally good if they fulfill the obligations associated with these roles. To understand Epictetus's account of roles, scholars have often mistakenly looked backwards to Cicero's earlier and more schematic account of roles. However, for Cicero, roles are merely a tool in the service of the virtue of decorum where decorum is one of the four canonical virtues--prudence, justice, greatness of spirit, and decorum.

The analysis found in The Role Ethics of Epictetus will be of great value both to students and scholars of ancient philosophy, ethics and moral philosophy, history, classics, and theology, and to the educated reader who admires Epictetus.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Discourses, Fragments, Handbook

Brian E. Johnson Why did I love 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.

By Christopher Gill, Robin Hard (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Discourses, Fragments, Handbook as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'About things that are within our power and those that are not.'

Epictetus's Discourses have been the most widely read and influential of all writings of Stoic philosophy, from antiquity onwards. They set out the core ethical principles of Stoicism in a form designed to help people put them into practice and to use them as a basis for leading a good human life. Epictetus was a teacher, and a freed slave, whose discourses have a vivid informality, animated by anecdotes and dialogue. Forceful, direct, and challenging, their central message is that the
basis of happiness is up to us,…


Book cover of Meditations

Brian E. Johnson Why did I love 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.

By Marcus Aurelius, Martin Hammond (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Meditations as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Their icy blasts are refreshing and restorative. They tell you the worst. And having heard the worst, you feel less bad' Blake Morrison

Written in Greek by the only Roman emperor who was also a philosopher, without any intention of publication, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius offer a remarkable series of challenging spiritual reflections and exercises developed as the emperor struggled to understand himself and make sense of the universe. While the Meditations were composed to provide personal consolation and encouragement, Marcus Aurelius also created one of the greatest of all works of philosophy: a timeless collection that has been…


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

Brian E. Johnson Why did I love 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."

By Massimo Pigliucci,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A Field Guide to a Happy Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Bursting with practical wisdom and engaging stories ... a Stoicism 2.0 for twenty-first century happiness' Skye Cleary

'A bold, contemporary updating of Stoicism for the present day' John Sellars, author of Lessons in Stoicism

Learn how to survive life's hardships and enjoy its pleasures with the modern stoic mindset.

In this enlightening book, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci offers a thoughtful and modern reinterpretation of Epictetus's 53 lessons for living a good life. Drawing on the ancient wisdom of the Stoics, this is a comforting guide that will help you reclaim the power of your emotional response and let go of the…


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

Brian E. Johnson Why did I love 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.

By A.A. Long,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Epictetus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The philosophy of Epictetus, a freed slave in the Roman Empire, has been profoundly influential on Western thought: it offers not only stimulating ideas but practical guidance in living one's life. A. A. Long, a leading scholar of later ancient philosophy, gives the definitive presentation of the thought of Epictetus for a broad readership. Long's fresh and vivid translations of a selection of the best of Epictetus' discourses show that his ideas are as valuable and
striking today as they were amost two thousand years ago. The translations are organized thematically within the framework of an authoritative introduction and commentary,…


You might also like...

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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