The Stoic Reading List

“The impediment to action advances action.What stands in the way becomes the way.”— Marcus Aurelius

“The impediment to action advances action.What stands in the way becomes the way.”
— Marcus Aurelius

You know the section after the last chapter that everyone ignores? Well that’s one of the first things I read. This is how I read a book. This is part of systematic skimming and allows me to get a feel for the author’s vocabulary, a sense of what the book is about, how arguments are structured, and references and sources. It’s also a good place to find new reading material.

I received a pre-release copy of Ryan Holiday’s new book, The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph, in the mail this week. The book comes out in a couple of weeks. In the back I came across something I wish I had found a few years ago when I first started reading philosophy, a stoic reading list.

The Big Three.

Stoicism is perhaps the only “philosophy” where the original, primary texts are actually cleaner and easier to read than anything academics have written afterward. Which is awesome because it means you can dive into the subject and go straight to the source.

1. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

I loved this book. I had read it before but it wasn’t the Hays translation, which made a world of difference for me.

There is one translation of Marcus Aurelius to read and that is Gregory Hays’s amazing edition for the Modern Library. Everything else falls sadly short. His version is completely devoid of any “thou’s” “arts” “shalls.” It’s beautiful and haunting. I’ve recommended this book to literally thousands of people at this point. Buy it. Change your life.

2. Letters of a Stoic by Seneca (see also: On the Shortness of Life).
This is one of the 5 books I recommend everyone read before their 30th birthday.

Seneca or Marcus are the best places to start if you’re looking to explore Stoicism. Seneca seems like he would have been a fun guy to know—which is unusual for a Stoic. I suggest starting with On the Shortness of Life (a collection of short essays) and then move to his book of letters (which are really more like essays than true correspondence).

3. Discourses by Epictetus.

Of the big three, Epictetus is the most preachy and least fun to read. But he will also from time to time express something so clearly and profoundly that it will shake you to your core.

But wait … there’s more.

Holiday points us to some other great authors too, who are in line with some stoic thinking.

To which we can add

Other Books that Holiday Recommends:

Some articles and online resources:

I’d also add Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault as a great place to start.

Over to you. Comments are open.
What’s on your stoic reading list? Any good resources not mentioned here?

Epictetus on How to Live and the Ability to Choose

Epictetus1

The Enchiridion (“The Manual”) is a short read on stoic advice for living. Epictetus’ practical precepts might change your life.

What’s in our control and what’s not

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, “You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.” And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.

What disturbs us

Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. … When therefore we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own principles. An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his own bad condition upon others.

How to be happy

Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.

Epictetus, like Holocaust-survivor Viktor Frankl, believed in the fundamental ability to choose how you respond.

Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.

What to do when someone provokes you

Remember, that not he who gives ill language or a blow insults, but the principle which represents these things as insulting. When, therefore, anyone provokes you, be assured that it is your own opinion which provokes you.

If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?

When you become familiar with something…

Like an ape, you mimic all you see, and one thing after another is sure to please you, but is out of favor as soon as it becomes familiar. For you have never entered upon anything considerately, nor after having viewed the whole matter on all sides, or made any scrutiny into it, but rashly, and with a cold inclination.

Silence is golden

Be for the most part silent, or speak merely what is necessary, and in few words.

When you hear of someone speaking ill of you

If anyone tells you that such a person speaks ill of you, don’t make excuses about what is said of you, but answer: “He does not know my other faults, else he would not have mentioned only these.”

On decision making:

Deliberate much before saying or doing anything, for you will not have the power of recalling what has been said or done.

On Speaking:

Attempt on every occasion to provide for nothing so much as that which is safe: for silence is safer than speaking. And omit speaking whatever is without sense and reason.

How to live free from sorrow:

If you wish to live a life free from sorrow, think of what is going to happen as if it had already happened.

Before deciding if someone is acting ill

… unless you perfectly understand the principle from which anyone acts, how should you know if he acts ill?

The Enchiridion is well worth a read.

The Art of Living

I wanted to share with you some wisdom from Sharon Lebell’s contemporary interpretation of Epictetus’ The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness.

Blame

Those who are dedicated to a life of wisdom understand that the impulse to blame something or someone is foolishness, that there is nothing to be gained in blaming, whether it be others or oneself.

Embrace what you get

Events happen as they do. People behave as they are. Embrace what you actually get. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance. … Remember to discriminate between events themselves and your interpretations of them.

Freedom

We are ultimately controlled by that which bestows what we seek or removes what we don’t want. If it’s freedom you seek, then wish nothing and shun nothing that depends on others, or you will always be a helpless slave. … Most people tend to delude themselves into thinking that freedom comes from doing what feels good or what fosters comfort and ease. The truth is that people who subordinate reason to their feelings of the moment are actually slaves of their desires and aversions.

Thinking

If someone were to casually give your body away to any old passerby, you would naturally be furious. Why then do you feel no shame in giving your precious mind over to any person who might wish to influence you.

Attention

When we blather about trivial things, we ourselves become trivial, for our attention gets taken up with trivialities. You become what you give attention to.

Information

The wise do not confuse information or data, however prodigious or cleverly deployed, with comprehensive knowledge or transcendent wisdom.

Conventional thinking

Popular perceptions, values, and ways of doing things are rarely the wisest. Many pervasive beliefs would not pass appropriate tests of rationality. Conventional thinking — its means and ends — is essentially uncreative and uninteresting. Its job is to preserve the status quo for overly self-defended individuals and institutions.

Discussions

Take care not to casually discuss matters that are of great importance to you with people who are not important to you. … Most people only know how to respond to an idea by pouncing on its shortfalls rather than identifying its potential merits. Practice self-containment so that your enthusiasm won’t be frittered away.

“Books are the training weights of the mind.”

From Sharon Lebell’s contemporary interpretation of Epictetus’ The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness

Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.

Still curious? Epictetus was born into slavery about 55 ce in the eastern outreaches of the Roman Empire. Once freed, he established an influential school of Stoic philosophy, stressing that human beings cannot control life, only their responses to it. By putting into practice the ninety-three witty, wise, and razor-sharp instructions that make up The Art of Living, readers learn to meet the challenges of everyday life successfully and to face life’s inevitable losses and disappointments with grace.*

Admiration at the expense of self-worth

This thought from Nassim Taleb:

The optimal solution to being independent and upright while remaining a social animal is: to seek first your own self-respect and, secondarily and conditionally, that of others, provided your external image does not conflict with your own self-respect. Most people get it backwards and seek the admiration of the collective and something called “a good reputation” at the expense of self-worth for, alas, the two are in frequent conflict under modernity.

brings to mind this quote by Epictetus:

Who are those people by whom you wish to be admired? Are they not these whom you are in the habit of saying that they are mad? What then? Do you wish to be admired by the mad?

The Discourses of Epictetus