What books to read next on Stoicism

Mock up of books by StoicsPeople sometimes ask what books on Stoicism to read next after they’ve read the “Big Three”: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

Of course, opinions are going to vary about this.  There are lots of things we could suggest reading.  Setting aside modern books on the subject, though, these are the first six I normally recommend…

Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions

You don’t need to read the whole book.  The long chapter on Zeno contains a summary of early Stoic teachings.   However, you may want to read the whole of books six (Cynicism) and seven (Stoicism).  This contains second or third hand information summarized from earlier texts in the 3rd century AD by a biographer who wasn’t himself a Stoic or even a philosopher.  Nevertheless it remains one of our most important sources for information on the teachings of the early Greek Stoic school.

The Lectures of Musonius Rufus

Musonius was the teacher of Epictetus and reputedly the most important philosopher of his lifetime.  He was the mentor of key members of the Stoic Opposition.  A collection of his lectures and several fragments still survive today, which are similar in some ways to the teachings of Epictetus.  If you like Epictetus, you should certainly read this, although it’s really an essential source for anyone interested in Stoicism.

Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates

Our other major source for information on Socrates, beside Plato.  Xenophon paints a simpler and more Stoic picture of Socrates’ philosophy.  It was reputedly hearing a reading of Book Two that inspired Zeno to become a philosopher and ultimately to found the Stoic School.  That part of the Memorabilia contains Socrates’ version of a famous oration by the Sophist Prodicus, called The Choice of Hercules, which was designed as an exhortation for young men to embrace philosophy as a way of life and places considerable emphasis on self-mastery.  Xenophon’s version of Socrates is more concerned with the virtue of self-discipline and it’s easy to see this as an important influence on Stoicism.

Plato’s Apology

We could cite all of the works of Plato as relevant but the dialogue that seems to have most influenced the Stoics is the Apology.  The concluding sentence of Epictetus’ Handbook, for example, paraphrases from it.  It provides a vivid example of Socrates’ commitment to philosophy and his courage facing execution but there’s also considerable discussion of his attitudes toward death and positive teachings about morality, which coincide very closely with later Stoic teachings.  Death is neither good nor evil and it’s important to overcome our fear of dying; wisdom and virtue are the highest goods and we should never value things like wealth more highly than them.  Stoic-sounding teachings can be found in many other Platonic dialogues – including the Euthydemus, Gorgias, Meno and Republic – but the Apology is the best place to start looking.

Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger

Cato is one of the less well-known Stoics because we don’t have any writings by him today but he was a great hero of the Roman Republic because he defied the tyrant Julius Caesar.  Our best account of him comes from Plutarch’s Lives, which is a biography but contains several interesting anecdotes about his character and values, although not much philosophy.  If you’re interested in Stoicism, though, you should know about Cato, and also about the Stoic Opposition, which followed later, under the principate.

Cicero’s De Finibus

Cicero was an Academic philosopher but he had studied philosophy at Athens and was exceptionally well-read on the subject and very familiar with the teachings of Stoicism.  He’s also quite sympathetic toward the Stoics, though not one himself, so his writings provide one of our most important sources for early and middle Stoicism.  Stoicism is mentioned, or is an influence, throughout many of his works, but the most important is undoubtedly De Finibus, which portrays Cato the Younger summarizing early Stoic ethical teachings, which Cicero compares critically with those of the Epicureans and Academics.  This is our most systematic account of Stoic ethics, so it’s extremely valuable in providing a context for the more conversational and fragmented version we obtain from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

Honourable Mentions

It should go without saying that this is the tip of the iceberg.  There are many other ancient texts of relevance to Stoicism.  Xenophon’s Symposium and Apology are also very important as are all of the Platonic dialogues and many other writings by non-Stoics such as Cicero and Plutarch.  There are many fragments from early Stoic texts available in several compilations.  There are also less well-known Stoic texts, which still survive today, like the Greek Theology of Cornutus and the Pharsalia of Lucan.  The poems of Horace also contain many Stoic influences.  The Roman histories are also extremely valuable, especially in relation to understanding the life of Marcus Aurelius.  My goal here isn’t to provide a survey of everything, though, just a quick introduction to the texts I normally advise people to read first, after finishing Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

The Stoic Socrates: Four Emotional Resilience Strategies

Socrates billboardThere’s a remarkable series of passages in Plato’s Republic, where Socrates is portrayed describing four reasons why wise men don’t allow themselves to indulge in excessive grief when faced with misfortune.  We can also view these as four cognitive (thinking) strategies for coping with adversity, and building emotional resilience.  These appear to foreshadow Stoic advice for coping with adversity or themes found in the Hellenistic “consolation” (consolatio) literature written by both Stoics and Platonists, most notably including Seneca and Plutarch.   (If you want to learn more about Socrates, incidentally, check out my free mini-course on his life and philosophy.)

This first comes up in Book 3 of the Republic, where Socrates argues that the heroes depicted in tragic poetry often provide people with negative role models, insofar as they’re made to give pitiful speeches lamenting their misfortune to excess (387d-e).  He says that a good man doesn’t regard death as a catastrophic thing for someone to suffer, even the death of one of his friends.  A wise man, therefore, will not grieve as terribly over the loss of his loved ones as tragic heroes did such as, say, Achilles.  The wise and good man is surely someone as self-sufficient as can be, Socrates says, and the least dependent on others of all men.  So to lose his son, brother, possessions, or any such thing, would seem less dreadful to the wise and good man than it would to other people.  Therefore, concludes Socrates, he will give way to lamentation less and bear misfortune more calmly and quietly than others.  He doesn’t, though, say that the wise man would not grieve or lament at all.

The idea that good (or wise) men somehow cope better than others with misfortune is finally picked back up again in Book 10 of the Republic (603e-604d).  Socrates now appears to claim, unsurprisingly, that training in philosophy can contribute to emotional resilience.  He begins by recalling his earlier assertion that a good man who has the misfortune to lose his son, or anything else dear to him, will bear the loss with greater equanimity than others would.  Although such a man cannot help feeling sorrow, he will moderate his sorrow.  There is, he says, a “principle of law and reason” in man that bids him resist being overwhelmed by the feeling of misfortune, although grief pulls him in the other direction.  (He then proceeds to use this observation in order to provide support for Plato’s tripartite division of the soul, which the Stoics rejected, and which was probably an alien notion to the real Socrates.)

Socrates claims that the intellect of the wise and good man is willing to follow the law of reason, which tells us it is best to be patient in the face of suffering.  He adds that reason (or presumably also philosophy) tells us that we should not give way to impatience for the following reasons:

  1. There is no way to be certain whether the events that befall us will turn out to be good or bad for us.  (Many of our greatest setbacks in life turn out to be for the best, and they’re often opportunities or blessings in disguise, but what matters most is whether we respond wisely or foolishly to events.)
  2. We gain nothing by taking misfortunes badly, grieving overmuch simply adds another layer to our problem.
  3. No human affairs are of great importance anyway, in the grand scheme of things, so they’re not worth taking seriously enough to get highly upset about them.
  4. Grief actually stands in the way and prevents us from exercising reason, the very thing that would help us most when faced with adversity.

Socrates elaborates upon the last point by saying that the thing most required when facing misfortune is that we take counsel with ourselves and deliberate rationally about the problem, “as we would the fall of the dice”.  We should plan the best response under the circumstances, or as psychologists today often say we should employ a rational problem-solving response.

We mustn’t, like children who have taken a fall, he says, keep hold of the part hurt and waste our time wailing.  Instead, we should train our minds to apply the psychological remedy as quickly as possible, healing what is sickly, fixing the problem, and banishing our cries of sorrow through the healing art.  That’s easily recognizable as a description of what we call today “emotional resilience”, or the ability to rebound after experiencing some misfortune.  That is how we should meet the attacks of fortune and not by indulging those irrational emotions, agrees Glaucon, his interlocutor.  On the other hand, those who indulge their unruly passions never tire of recalling troubles and lamenting over them, says Socrates, in an irrational, useless, and even cowardly manner.  That sounds like a description of what we would call “morbid rumination” in modern psychotherapy.

We might compare these reasons or cognitive strategies to four exercises found in Stoic literature:

  1. Remembering that external things, beyond our direct control, are neither good nor bad in themselves, but rather indifferent with regard to the goal of life.
  2. Contemplating the consequences of responding rationally versus passionately, which I call Stoic “functional analysis”.
  3. Grasping events from a broader and more comprehensive perspective, such as the “View from Above”.
  4. Asking ourselves what “What virtue has nature given me to deal with this?”, bearing in mind that the virtues of courage and moderation, which we praise in others, are designed to limit the emotion of fear and unruly desires, in accord with reason.

The foundation of this argument in Plato’s Republic, though, is undoubtedly the first of these, which amounts to the argument that external things are neither good nor bad in themselves, but should be viewed as indifferent.  What matters is whether we make use of them wisely or foolishly.  That basic notion crops up several times throughout the Socratic literature and becomes central to Stoic therapy of the passions.

Three Strategies of the Stoic Socrates

When confronted by the troubling behaviour of others, there were three main strategies or ideas that Socrates employed, which were later assimilated into Stoic philosophy.  (If you want to learn more, incidentally, check out my free mini-course on Socrates.)

1. Other people’s behaviour is indifferent

Socrates liked to remind himself and others that external events, including the actions of others, are neither good nor bad in themselves, but only insofar as we respond to them wisely or foolishly.   Events that are neither good nor bad are indifferent.  For example, he explains to his eldest son Lamprocles that the notorious tongue-lashings they receive from Socrates’ wife Xanthippe are no worse than those delivered by actors on the stage.  But one actor is not upset when another yells abuse at him.  So the behaviour in itself is indifferent, it’s our interpretation of it that upsets us, and we should remind ourselves of that.

2. Nobody does evil willingly

Socrates famously argued that no man does evil knowingly, which means he cannot do it willingly.  Everyone believes what he is doing to be right, he says, in other words he does what he does for the sake of achieving what he considers to be good for himself.  Socrates therefore argued that when people act viciously or unjustly it’s because they’re making an error of judgement about the course of action that will lead to their own good.  Realizing this we should pity the unjust, if anything, rather than feeling anger toward them.  They’re making the same sort of mistakes that children often make before they’ve learned to see beyond the misleading initial impressions we have of certain things.

3. Other people provide us with an opportunity to exercise our own virtue

Once we realize that other people’s actions are neither good nor bad and that injustice is due to ignorance, it becomes apparent that what matters most is whether our own response is good or bad.  Challenging situations, where our initial impressions are potentially upsetting, give us an opportunity to exercise wisdom and virtue, and doing so repeatedly strengthens our own character.  Socrates was often asked by his friends why he put up with Xanthippe scolding him, throwing cold water over him, and even ripping the shirt from his back in the street.  Socrates said that the best trainers choose to work with spirited horses knowing that by doing so they improve their own skills and become more confident dealing with whatever type of horses they may encounter in the future.  (Xanthippe’s name means yellow or golden horse in Greek.)

In the same way, Socrates said that putting up with Xanthippe was good training to strengthen his own character.  He knew that she was a good wife and mother, fundamentally, it was just that her quick temper sometimes created a negative appearance but he considered that misleading and saw beyond it.  Socrates liked to say that as small children we at first fear others wearing scary masks (think Halloween costumes).  When we realize that underneath the mask, it’s just other children having fun, the fear is eliminated.  He said we should view other events in the same way as adults, treating our initial impressions like bugbear masks.  The wise man pauses to remove the mask, examining what’s really behind it rationally, and thus his fears are often eliminated by greater knowledge and understanding of the truth.

Help Support the Modern Stoicism Non-Profit Organization

Hi everyone,

Today we set up a new Patreon page for Modern Stoicism Ltd., the non-profit organization that puts  on Stoic Week and the annual Stoicon conference.  Modern Stoicism is an international philanthropic organization run by a multi-disciplinary team of volunteers.

I was one of the original members who joined the project in 2012, when it was started by Christopher Gill, professor emeritus of Ancient Thought at Exeter University in England.  Since then our organization has grown exponentially.  Some of the best-known authors in the field of Stoicism have been involved in our team or have spoken at our conferences.  Stoic Week, our original online course, has grown from 700 participants in its first year to 7,000 last year!  I was asked to organize the Stoicon conference last year in Toronto, which attracted 400 attendees from around the world.

Become a Patron!

Here are just some of the Modern Stoicism organization’s activities:

  • The annual Stoic Week online course, in which 7,000 people participated last year.
  • The Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) research project, testing the effectiveness of training in core Stoic psychological strategies, in which thousands of people have participated around the world.
  • The Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS) research project, which gathers and analyzes data on Stoic questionnaires in order to make comparisons with established psychological measures.
  • The Stoicism Today blog, edited by Greg Sadler, which contains over 500 articles on Stoicism from people all over the world, applying Stoic principles in different walks of life.
  • The annual Stoicon conference on Stoicism in modern life, which took place in Toronto last year, attended by four hundred people from around the world, and is an opportunity for people engaged in Stoicism as a way of life to hear from leading academics in the field.
  • The annual Stoicon-x mini-conferences, which take place around the world each year, giving newer speakers an opportunity to discuss Stoicism with a wider audience.
  • Publishing books containing articles from our contributors as well as detailed online reports explaining our research findings.

It may surprise you to know that Modern Stoicism does not receive any ongoing funding.  As the organization has grown, and reached more people, its expenses have also grown.  We’ve managed to raise money in the past by charging for conference tickets or accepting sponsorship from individuals via PayPal.  However, it would certainly help us to continue our work  if we could raise a little bit more money, on a consistent basis.

You can now help by visiting our new Patreon page and becoming a patron or sponsor of the organization.

As always, thanks for your support,

Donald Robertson Signature

PS. Here’s a video of our original workshop at Exeter University, back in 2012.

Teach Yourself Stoicism (Second Edition)

Teach Yourself Stoicism (Revised)I wrote a book for Hodder’s popular Teach Yourself series about five years ago called Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013).  (I tend just to call it Teach Yourself Stoicism for short.)  It was a real challenge to write because I was quite constrained by the series format, which is carefully designed to help readers learn by drawing their attention to key points and providing regular summaries, etc.  I wasn’t sure how people would respond to this way of presenting Stoicism as a form of self-help, drawing on modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) but also placing a lot of emphasis on a thorough understanding of the range of ancient Greek and Latin sources available.

Teach Yourself Stoicism (Revised) on Amazon

Well, it seemed to work!  My editor at Hodder contacted me a while back asking me to create a second revised edition of the book.  I’ve been keeping notes on feedback from readers over the years so I went through the entire text making pretty extensive revisions, improving the readability, adding details, and finally including the “lost chapter” on Stoicism and death.  The scheduled publication date for the second edition is around August 2018.  You can now pre-order a copy but be careful to distinguish it from the first edition.  The new revised edition has the ISBN numbers below:

  • ISBN-10: 1473674786
  • ISBN-13: 978-1473674783

Here are some links:

  1. Amazon US
  2. Amazon UK
  3. Hodder & Stoughton (Publisher)
  4. Barnes & Noble
  5. Book Depository
  6. Google Books
  7. GoodReads

It will appear in the inventories of other online bookstores over time so you should be able to find it by searching for the ISBN.  I’ll add more links, though, as they appear.

As always, thanks for your support,

Donald Robertson Signature

 

Stoic Meditations Calendar for 2019

Amber Lotus CalendarI was recently invited by the good folks at Amber Lotus to help them design a new calendar with Stoic quotations.  I’m very pleased with how it’s turned out.  So here are some images, links, and specs…

Update: The Stoic Meditations calendar is now also listed on Amazon.

“What is genuine happiness? How can it be discovered and lived? These are questions the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece sought to answer. Their powerful insights have proven to be just as relevant today as they were 2,000 years ago. Donald Robertson provides contemporary translations from the masters of Stoicism, whose words can teach us the art of living and be a beacon of inspiration for positive change.”

  • 12″ x 12″ wall calendar (12″ x 24″ open).
  • Showcases 12 dynamic nature landscapes by acclaimed photographer Colin Monteath.
  • Features contemporary translations from masters such as Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus.
  • The perfect art gift for anyone interested in philosophy and ancient wisdom.
  • Frameable artbook-quality printing.
  • Printed on paper sourced from a combination of sustainably managed forests and recycled materials.
  • This calendar features US and Canadian legal holidays, phases of the moon, and important observances of the world’s major religions.

Amber Lotus Calendar Detail

New Book: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

How to Think Like a Roman EmperorI’m pleased to announce that my new book about Stoicism is now listed for pre-order from online bookstores.

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (2019) is available for pre-order in Kindle, hardback, and audio CD formats.  It is scheduled to be published on January 29th 2019, by St. Martin’s Press / Macmillan Publishing.

I’ve already written a general introduction to Stoicism for personal improvement: Teach Yourself Stoicism (2013).  There are many other good books around on Stoicism so I wanted to write something completely different.

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor uses anecdotes about the life of Marcus Aurelius, drawn from Roman histories, to teach lessons about his use of Stoic philosophical precepts and psychological techniques in daily life.  Each chapter focuses on a different period in Marcus’ life and a different personal development topic, relevant to modern readers.  These include dealing with desire, anger, anxiety, pain, illness, sadness, loss, and coming to terms with our own mortality.  I’ve drawn heavily on my own experience as a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist to explain Stoic psychological exercises in a way that’s workable for readers today who want to use Stoicism to make practical changes in their own lives.

If you want to learn more, you might be interested in listening to my recent interview about Marcus Aurelius’ life and philosophy for Scott Hebert’s Stoic Mettle podcast.

I hope you enjoy reading my new book!  Please let me know if you have any questions about it in the comments below.  As always, thanks for your support!

Regards,

Donald Robertson Signature

PS.  You can become a patron and sponsor my work on Stoicism and psychotherapy via my new Patreon page.

PPS. Links to the book listing on the websites of Macmillan Publishing, AmazonGoodReads, Chapters, WorldCat, Google Books, Kobo, Barnes and Noble.  You can also search for the book using the ISBN numbers below:

  • ISBN-10: 1250196620
  • ISBN-13: 978-1250196620

🎁 Happy birthday, Marcus Aurelius!

Marcus Aurelius was born 26th April, 121 AD.

So to celebrate his birthday, here are some links to free downloads related to Marcus Aurelius from my e-learning site:

Marcus Young and OldAnd I have a special announcement: my new book about his life and philosophy, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, has just been listed on Amazon.  Although it’s not available until January 2019, you can pre-order a copy now:

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor (2019) on Amazon

We’re also offering 10% off the price of our four-week course on the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, to anyone enrolling within the next five days, who uses the coupon code: MARCUS2018.This offer is limited to the first 50 people using the coupon code, so don’t miss out!

FREE STUFF

1. Marcus Aurelius in the Roman Histories

I created this unique e-book containing excerpts about the life of Marcus Aurelius from three Roman histories: Cassius Dio, Herodian, and the Historia Augusta. If you want to find out more about Marcus Aurelius the man, you should definitely read this. Go straight to the ancient sources!

2. The Eulogium on Marcus Aurelius

My favourite book on the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. Portrays his Stoic teacher, Apollonius of Chalcedon, delivering a eulogy over his body on its return to Rome. You could read this in an afternoon and you’ll probably remember some of the passages for the rest of your life.

3. Marcus Aurelius HD Wallpapers

Our graphic designer, Rocio de Torres, created these HD desktop wallpapers with images of Marcus Aurelius and popular quotes from The Meditations so that you can use them on your computer to remind yourself of his Stoic wisdom.

4. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Another e-book, this time the classic George Long translation of The Meditations, carefully adapted for EPUB, Kindle (MOBI) and PDF file formats so that you can download it free of charge and read on your device.

Hope you enjoy! And please feel free to share with your friends online.

As always, thanks for your support!

PS: My new Patreon page also has some exclusive content for anyone who wants to become a patron and support the work I do on philosophy and psychotherapy.

PPS: There are loads of articles on my WordPress blog about Marcus Aurelius, all grouped together by category.

Marcus Aurelius Chronology