What is Stoic Philosophy? Three Books to Get You Started

“A Stoic is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.”
— Nassim Taleb

Stoicism, or stoic philosophy, is the most powerful and practical philosophy. It is focused on living in a way that makes us more resilient, wise, happy, and fulfilled. If you want to live a rich life (metaphorically speaking) in the real-world, then stoicism is right for you.

Being such a powerful philosophy, it’s no wonder it has been used and heavily endorsed by some of history’s greatest leaders. Former Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, President George Washington, President Theodore Roosevelt, General James Mattis, and Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale, were all users and huge supporters of stoic philosophy.

For learning any new subject, your starting point is crucial. You’ll want to read things that give you the most valuable information quickly without too much heavy theory and confusion. Here are the 3 best books for getting started with stoic philosophy.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Meditations is the only book of its kind ever published. Marcus Aurelius (121 AD to 180 AD) was the emperor of ancient Rome during the height of the Roman empire. This book is his personal journal that he wrote in every morning before starting his day and every evening before bed. He put down all of his private thoughts about his own self-improvement. It was a reflection and advice to himself about how to be a better person.

This book is the most important one to start with because it is the most practical. It is literally like reading a journal of small quotes and life advice. All of the writing is relatable because it was written by Marcus for himself personally, rather than being a formal publication. It will give you the most comprehensive and practical overview of stoicism.

Amazing quotes from the book

“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love …”
“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”
“Our life is what our thoughts make it.”
“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.”

On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

On the Shortness of Life is the second-best book here because it is the most eye-opening and transformative. Much of Seneca’s writing is in the form of letters and essays. We find the most powerful one in this book where Seneca offers us critical advice about how to live a happy, successful, and full life.

Seneca puts things into clear perspective: most people waste their time on stress, worry, and other meaningless things. He emphasizes that time is the most valuable thing we have. We should not let other people or our own feelings take us away from really living life. Focusing on spending our time on things that give us meaning and happiness is the only way to lead a rich life.

Put simply, it’s a practical guide for getting the most out of your life.

Amazing quotes from the book

“You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire”
“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. … The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.”
“They lose the day in expectation of the night, and the night in fear of the dawn.”
“People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”
“Often a very old man has no other proof of his long life than his age.”
“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”
“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality”

Discourses and Selected Writings by Epictetus

The Discourses and Selected Writings by Epictetus is the last but not least recommendation here. Epictetus was a lecturer in Athens and as such his writing is very structured and comprehensive. While Marcus and Seneca’s writing was light and quick, the work of Epictetus will give you the full details of what it means to embody stoicism.

He taught that philosophy is a way of life and not just academic theory. He goes through each and every concept of stoicism and explains how one would apply it in real life. As an excellent teacher would, he demonstrates each concept through clear examples and stories, both imaginary and from his own life. His clear and practical delivery really helps to fill in the details and show how Stoicism can be applied to your own life.

Amazing quotes from the book

“If anyone tells you that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make excuses about what is said of you but answer, “He was ignorant of my other faults, else he would not have mentioned these alone.”
“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”
“Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.”
“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will. ”
“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems”
“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.”
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.”

For more on stoic philosophy

Productivity lessons from stoic philosophy

Practical stoic exercises to make your mind stronger

Meditations: 5 Stoic Lessons to boost your Mental Strength

4 Powerful Stoic Habits for Success and Happiness

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