Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor, said, “It’s time you realised that you have something in you more powerful and miraculous than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet.” He was referring to his philosophy of life – stoicism. Stoicism isn’t about being emotionless as it has been portrayed in cinema. Stoicism is more about learning how to control your response to setbacks. It’s about resilience instead of raging against “the man”. Stoicism is an ancient philosophy that resonates in modern times.
Ancient Primary Sources
The early ancient Greek philosophers who embraced stoicism provided some great texts that have withstood the test of time. Keeping a journal is one of the practices of stoicism. Marcus Aurelius’ journal, written for his own guidance and improvement, has survived since AD 180. Available through Project Gutenberg, Meditations by Emperor of Rome Marcus Aurelius, is considered a primary source. Although it has been translated multiple times for modern readers, the Gregory Hays version tends to be the most popular.
Seneca the Younger is largely considered one of the most important ancient Stoics. His Moral Letters to Lucilius give readers insight into Stoic philosophy as well as provide a valuable look at ancient Roman life. Seneca was Nero’s advisor for many years, but he was allegedly complicit in the assassination attempt of Nero, which forced Seneca to take his own life.
The Discourses of Epictetus were transcribed by his student, Arrian. Although not all the discourses were preserved, the four books that are considered to be valuable resources for Stoic scholars. One key tenet of Stoicism that is explored through the Discourses is that of what is in our power and those things that are not. Stoics learn to control what they can, thoughts, emotions, desires, choices and actions, while remembering that most everything else lies outside of their control.
Modern Stoic Texts and Resources
Stoicism didn’t die out with the fall of the Roman or Greek empires. George Washington was influenced by ancient Stoics. Toussaint Louverture studied Epictetus. Tom Hiddleston reads Seneca. Some believe that Stephen Hawking approached life with a philosophic attitude of Stoicism. There are many modern texts that explore Stoicism in today’s times, keeping the ancient attitudes while applying them to today’s problems.
How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life by Massimo Pigliucci
Pigliucci outlines his own journey to Stoicism in this text. He concludes his book with many practical exercises that help readers take their own path to learning Stoicism. It’s a well-written persuasive book that is foundational for modern Stoics.
The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living (2016) by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman
This text is a daily reading that you can use for years to come. It will remind you that Stoicism isn’t just a classroom exercise, but a philosophy that will give you a better life. It includes insights from modern celebrities and leaders who embrace Stoicism, as well as translations from the ancient Stoics to give you a well-rounded foundation of Stoicism.
Stoicism and the Art of Happiness by Donald Robertson
Stoics don’t eschew happiness and other emotions, but they do learn to control their responses to setbacks to keep their happiness for their own well-being. Robertson helps you learn to cope with whatever situation you’re in by changing your inner voice and learning to manage your emotions. He draws on his background as a psychotherapist to use Stoic techniques in a modern world.
Marcus Aurelius: A Life by Frank McLynn
Understanding the life of one of the greatest Stoics can help you embrace the philosophy. Pigliucci recommends this biography to fully appreciate Aurelius and his life. Some compare Meditations to the Sermon on the Mount, making Aurelius one of the ancient world’s most fascinating figures after Jesus Christ.
Everything Has Two Handles: The Stoic’s Guide to the Art of Living by Ronald Pies
This book explores the quote from Epictetus, “everything has two handles, one by which it can be easily carried, the other not at all.” It’s a guide to finding happiness by choosing to carry the load that is bearable, rather than living with bitterness and hurt.
Stoicism and Emotion by Margaret Graver
In this text, Graver shows the reader that Stoicism isn’t about suppressing emotions, but about perfecting the mind to manage your feelings. It’s a more modern take on Stoicism while it does rely on the ancient philosopher’s wisdom.
Explore Stoicism With Leading Stoic Scholars
Stoicism is thought to be a philosophy that brings calm in a chaotic world. It can help you stay focused when you’re confronted with distractions and setbacks. Want to learn more about Stoicism and how it can improve your life? Sign up for our course, How to Be a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for a Happier Life. It’s a four-week course that includes lectures and group discussions with a leading Stoic teacher.