While I’m endlessly fascinated with the fictional worlds we create for the screen, my reading time is almost always non-fiction. Non-fiction tends to give me the feeling that the world I live in is suddenly a bit more three-dimensional, as I try to test ideas I’ve read about in my daily life. About five years ago I fell in love with a slew of Stoic authors both old and new, and it has had a profound impact on how I see the world around me. It’s worth pointing out that Stoicism is not a religion, but merely a set of durable ideas. Some of the new Cabin Fever Orchestra song titles are notes to myself about Stoic thoughts I want to remember. I’ve loved these books so much that I re-read or re-listen to several of them every year, running through each logical conclusion again and again like a musician practicing scales. Thanks so much to Last Day Deaf for inviting me to share some of my favorite reads.
“Ego is the Enemy” by Ryan Holiday
This is at the top of the list for me because it’s a really accessible introduction to some of the broad strokes of Stoicism. This book is filled with anecdotes circling around the idea that our own egos ultimately have the tendency to undermine our aspirations, shorten our successes and lengthen our failures in life. Ryan Holiday notes that most of us maintain an unhealthy belief in our own importance which compounds many of our biggest problems while limiting our potential growth. He also depicts many of the common traps that our own egos set for us and outlines some important distinctions between ego and confidence that I’ve found useful as self-employed artist.
“Enchiridion and Discourses” by Epictetus
The Enchiridion translates to “The Manual” or “Handbook”. It’s another great place to start, and what you are reading are Epictetus’ actual translated lectures taken down by one of his own students around 110 AD. This stuff feels like time-travel for me, without any of the risks of time-travel, especially if you listen to this one as an audiobook. Ukemi released a version of it, acted by Hayward B. Morse that really captures the personality of Epictetus’ writing perfectly. Epictetus spent his youth as a slave, earned his freedom, became legendary teacher at a Stoic school and was later banished by the state for his ideas. Needless to say, he’s an interesting guy and his writing has been read an re-read by every generation between his and ours because the advice is timeless.
“The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking” by Oliver Burkeman
This book was not only insightful, but it had me laughing out loud regularly. Burkeman points out common flaws in the logic that the self-help industry has pushed for years, reducing life’s complexities into “positivity” and “negativity”, and suggests that our efforts to eliminate negativity from our lives has the tendency to backfire, leaving us less happy, more anxious and insecure. He argues that we should try to embrace many of the things we tend to try hardest to avoid and his narrative throughout the book is logical, insightful and hilariously put.
“Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor and a Stoic philosopher, and this gem of a book is widely thought to be his own diary, written for his own self-improvement. It was almost certainly not meant to be published. There’s something so wonderful about the most powerful man of the time, a person who was literally worshipped as a god in their own lifetime, spending his off-hours writing humble notes to himself. Marcus was raised on the arguments of Epictetus and he is often seen as someone who largely lived up to his own rhetoric, making this a beautiful read and an interesting piece of history.
“On the Shortness of Life” by Seneca
This is a powerful essay that I’ve returned to again and again, partly because Seneca is a likable guy with a conversational writing style, but also because he’s an exceptionally clear thinker on the most important topics. He reliably forms sentences that sound like quotes worth writing down. Even if he weren’t known for his stoic writing, he’d be famous for a few other reasons. He advised emperors, when one of his debts was recalled it started a war, he was a famous play-write and eventually he was ordered to kill himself by one of the emperors he advised. This is also the actual writing of Seneca, translated into English, and if you decide to do the audiobook, there is a version in which James Cameron Stewart makes an incredible Seneca. These arguments have helped countless people live more meaningfully, myself included.
“A Guide to the Good Life” by William B Irvine
It’s a pretty universal worry that we’ll arrive at the end of our lives with the sense that we’ve wasted our time on Earth. Irvine has an easily digestible writing style that adds new, modern clarity to older Stoic arguments, offering practical tips on how to live with purpose and avoid that fate. It also has the effect of forcing the reader to reflect on their own life, while looking through Irvine’s helpful lens.
“The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday
This book explores the Stoic notion that we’re largely defined by how we deal with the obstacles of our lives, and that flexible thinking about these obstacles can help us see the opportunities they often contain. This book really changed my emotional reaction to my own best-laid-plans getting thrown aside by unforeseen circumstances. It also made me more readily face the problems of life with a certain sense of faith, even gratitude, for the fact that the problems of life are steadily making us all more resilient.
“On Anger” by Seneca
Want well-reasoned arguments for why anger isn’t ever in your own best interest? This is one of the books I do every year because the advice is so timeless. It has a lot to say about how anger can lead the rational mind to mis-perceive and misunderstand reality, and it offers practical reasoning on how to deal with anger when it arises. In an age filled with outrage, this is one is gold.
“The Practicing Stoic” by Ward Farnsworth
This book is dense, but the view from the top is very much worth the climb. The author is also the dean of the University of Texas’ School of Law and the language throughout the book has the kind of precision you can expect from someone who professionally builds perfect linguistic arguments. I’ve done this read at least four times now and I’m sure I’ll do it again soon because I never fail to glean something new from it.
“Letters From a Stoic” by Seneca
This is a read that can really humanize the past. It’s comprised of a series of letters that Seneca wrote toward the end of his life. These letters really bring the world of the past to life, while circling around useful truths that evidently haven’t changed since antiquity. This work has been indispensable for improving my own mental clarity on a wide range of topics. James Cameron Stewart’s acting in the audiobook performance shines here too.
“How to Think Like a Roman Emperor” by Donald Robertson
This book was written by a cognitive behavioral therapist who is interested in the overlap between modern cognitive behavioral therapy and the arguments of the Stoics. The Stoics have often been thought of as early psychologists. This book covers many of the places where Stoicism really squares with research in the field of cognitive behavioral therapy and also provides a lot of interesting historical context to life of Marcus Aurelius, including a beautiful dramatization of Marcus’ final moments.