The best books on Stoicism, from a psychiatrist and philosopher

The Books I Picked & Why

Moral Letters to Lucilius

By Seneca

Book cover of Moral Letters to Lucilius

Why this book?

Seneca lived through the reigns of all five Julio-Claudian emperors. His writings represent the most important body of primary material for ancient Stoicism. He wrote the Letters to Lucilius in his final years, intending them as his immortal legacy, prior to committing suicide on the order of Nero. The letters are an excellent entry point to Seneca, Stoicism, and philosophy in general. They collectively amount to a course in moral development and become longer and more technical as Lucilius appears to be making philosophical progress. Michel de Montaigne, the “French Seneca”, modelled his Essays upon the Letters, writing in one of them, “I have not devoted myself to any serious work except perhaps Plutarch and Seneca: but upon them, I draw as do the Danaids...”


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Discourses and Selected Writings

By Epictetus

Book cover of Discourses and Selected Writings

Why this book?

Epictetus was a slave who won his freedom and started his own successful school of philosophy before retiring into obscurity. Among his many students was the historian Arrian, who wrote up his spoken lectures “word for word” as the Discourses. The Discourses are down to earth, succinct, and forthright, as, for example, when Epictetus says, “And who exactly are these people that you want to be admired by? Aren’t they the same people you are in the habit of calling crazy? And is this your life ambition then—to win the approval of lunatics?” The Discourses were much loved by Marcus Aurelius, a case of a slave inspiring an emperor!


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Lectures and Fragments

By Musonius Rufus

Book cover of Lectures and Fragments

Why this book?

Musonius was a celebrated teacher who was thrice banished from Rome. He would often turn would-be students away, explaining to a young Epictetus that “the more one pushes the intelligent person away from the life he was born for, the more he inclines towards it.” His school, he often said, was not some concert hall, where people come to be entertained, but a hospital, where they come, in trepidation, to be treated. Thus, he measured the success of his lectures not by the applause that they received, but by the shock and awe to which they gave rise. The twenty-one lectures preserved in Stobaeus were recorded by one of his students. They are full of practical, everyday advice aimed at instilling virtue, and include a lecture on household furnishings and even one on hair.


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The Meditations: An Emperor's Guide to Mastery

By Marcus Aurelius, Sam Torode, George Long

Book cover of The Meditations: An Emperor's Guide to Mastery

Why this book?

In the last years of his life, Marcus Aurelius kept a journal, now called the Meditations, which has miraculously come down to us, and through which we might enter the mind of that rarest of things: a philosopher-king. The twelve books that make up the Meditations consist in a variety of disparate reflections that seem to have been written for the author’s own benefit: for strength, for guidance, and for self-improvement—for example, “To speak to the Senate—or anyone—in the right tone, without being overbearing. To choose the right words.” This touching intimacy, and the epigrammatic character of many of his reflections—for example, “Don’t argue what a good man should be. Just be one.”—has ensured the appeal and perennial popularity of the work.


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On Duties

By Cicero

Book cover of On Duties

Why this book?

Was Cicero even a Stoic? The answer, as with all things Cicero, is complicated. But Stoic or not, Cicero is one of our most important sources on ancient Stoicism. His last work, On Duties, on our “duties” (or responsibilities) to one another as human beings, is heavily indebted to the Stoic Panaetius. In it, he argues, among others, that, owing to our common human dignity, there ought to be strict rules for entering and conducting war—an idea which today is enshrined in international law. Following the invention of the printing press, On Duties was the third ever book to be printed. John Locke owned nine editions, and Voltaire praised it to the sky, saying, “no one will ever write anything more wise.”


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