Whether we know it or not, we all love philosophy. Discussing abstract concepts, dealing with the most human internal struggles, and overcoming yet understanding the voices in our head—these are all things we enjoy, and they are all related to philosophy.
But many today tend to avoid philosophical discussion, simply because it comes off as too difficult or academic. We think of philosophy as being confined to the wide collegiate lecture halls, with an old man in a beard asking for five-thousand-word essays.
In a way, society has conditioned most of us to fear or ignore philosophy, because much of it feels like suffering.
But the study of philosophy isn’t as academic or complicated as one might think. The best philosophers of history weren’t the academic types at all; they lived life and set examples which were then written down. Sometimes, philosophy even comes in the form of love poems for her or love poems for him. Practical and applicable, the philosophy of our forefathers can be understood by anyone.
So here are the 9 best philosophy books that have shaped societies and cultures throughout history.
Philosophy books for beginners
Are you a newbie in the world of philosophy? Don’t worry, we’ve meticulously curated 3 philosophy books for beginners. These are the only ones you need to successfully usher yourself into the world of deep-thinking.
1. “The Republic” – Plato
What better way to start than reading this Socratic dialogue about “the notion of a perfect community and the ideal individual within it?”
Plato is writing for Socrates, his friend and teacher. This book will make you think. But more importantly, it will make you question.
It’s the book that kick-started Western Philosophy – theology, politics, social science, etc. Despite its flaws, it’s still worth a read for any beginner.
2. “The Art of War” – Sun Tzu
A book even older than Plato’s The Republic, but nevertheless relevant in today’s philosophical teachings.
It’s essentially a book on war and military strategy. However, don’t let the subject fool you. The teachings in Sun Tzu’s masterpiece can be applied to business, law, and even typical life and identity struggles.
3. “Candid” – Voltaire
If you’re weary about wading through tomes of philosophy books, try this story-based piece by French philosopher, Voltaire is the perfect alternative.
Candid centers on the classic subject of what is good and what is evil. With sharp wit and humor, Voltaire tells the story of a young man navigating the harsh realities of life.
Free Philosophy books
Here are 3 free philosophy books you can download online. After all, it’s supposed to be “free thinking.”
1. “The Origins of Totalitarianism” – Hannah Arendt
Grab a pen and paper, this book is intense. The Origins of Totalitarianism is a massive, dense read. But it’s worth it.
In 600 pages, Arendt walks you through the rise of antisemitism, the domination of the wealthy, and Totalitarianism in its two central figures – Nazism and Bolshevism.
But the gem of this book is its final chapter, a masterful analysis on ideology.
2. “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” – Mary Wollstonecraft
This book is fascinating on many levels.
First, it was written by a woman during a time when men ruled “the rights of man.”
Second, it was written by a woman in a manner so logical, so reasonable, and so commanding, that no argument on her philosophy was worth any merit.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s voice of fearlessness alone is worth reading this book for.
3. “What is Art?” – Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy wore many hats. He is most known for authoring War & Peace and Ana Karenina. However, he was also respected as a preacher, sage, and philosopher.
What is Art? is a culmination of his life-long essays and pieces on social justice, politics, and morality. Unlike other dense philosophy books on art and life, Tolstoy writes in a clear and efficient manner.
This is a book everyone will relate to on a deep level, without having to go around in circles.
Modern Philosophy Books
In philosophical context, “modern” means books written in the 17th to 19th century. But that would be an easy selection. There are well-written and more updated books from the last decades. Here are 2 modern philosophy books from the last 10 years that you shouldn’t miss.
1. “How to Live” – Sarah Bakewell
This book about Michel de Montaigne’s writings shouldn’t be as entertaining and funny as it is. But Sarah Bakewell writes it with such relatability to today’s life.
If you want to explore psychology and its transformative powers to our personal lives, this book is for you. You can’t go wrong with chapters like, “How To Live,” “Guard Your Humanity,” and “Don’t Worry About Death.”
2. “Essays and Reviews” – Bernard Williams
Bernard Williams is one of the most respected philosophers of our times. Essays and Reviews show just why. Williams is a genius in translating complex philosophical thoughts that attracts a wide audience.
Essays and Reviews is a collection of his most distinguished work – essays and reviews that range from philosophy to science. It’s definitely a book you shouldn’t miss.
Essential Philosophy books to read
1) “Fragments” – Heraclitus
If Fragments by Heraclitus were published today, some might think of it less of a book on philosophy and more of a book of short poems. Indeed, Heraclitus’ text is much more poetic than the others on this list, but that doesn’t mean it is any less philosophical than its peers.
Heraclitus shares his understandings and musings of the world in short and concise sentences. Some can be understood immediately, and others may be more abstract, with different interpretations for every reader.
Here is one example: “Applicants for wisdom / do what I have done: / inquire within.”
2) “Letters from a Stoic” – Seneca
Appreciation of pain and hardship, believing that the ideal way to live life is to tolerate the difficulties we must go through to best practice our virtue, or the highest good.
In his book, Letters from a Stoic, we read the letters Seneca wrote to his friends, powerful figures of Ancient Rome. His letters teach us about the practical teachings of stoicism—how only that which influences your life is important.
3) “The Essential Epicurus” – Epicurus
Epicurus was a famed philosopher and teacher of Ancient Greece, who is best known for founding the Epicureanism school of philosophy. His philosophy revolves around simplicity—cutting down on the trivialities and nuances that pester our lives and trimming it down to friendship, pleasure, and happiness.
Epicurus’ The Essential Epicurus are the writings that have survived since his time, which teach us about the importance of avoiding unnecessary anxiety, pain, and fear.
4) “Nature and Selected Essays” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s selected essays have a great way of spurning a reader into motion. So much of philosophy begs us to sit down and think, but Emerson encourages us to act and make choices.
Emerson’s essays push the reader to reach their potential and make the best choices. Unlike the classic peers of his time, Emerson’s essays have that American drive to succeed and persevere.
5) “Man’s Search for Meaning” – Viktor Frankl
Viktor Frankl was an esteemed psychologist of the 20th century, and his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, influenced thousands of thinkers and scientists of his time. He made us ask the question, “What is the meaning of life?”, which may be one of the greatest struggles of the modern man today.
So what is Frankl’s answer? That it isn’t our question to ask in the first place. It is life itself which asks us the question—what is my meaning?—and it is our responsibility to determine that meaning with what we do.
6) “The Moral Sayings” – Publius Syrus
Publius Syrus isn’t one you might expect to have writings that have survived thousands of years; as a slave from Syria a hundred years BC, he might have been expected to disappear into history like countless others.
But Publius Syrus rose to fame with his teachings, which consist of simple yet true musings on wisdom and the way to live a better life. Some of his moral sayings include:
- “Divide the fire and you will sooner put it out.”
- “Want a great empire? Rule over yourself.”
- “Always shun that which makes you angry.”
7) “Meditations” – Marcus Aurelius
If you have any interest in philosophy then you have probably already heard of Meditations, which is unique in so many ways. Meditations is the diary and journal of Marcus Aurelius, who served as the Roman emperor during the 2nd century.
Every night for most of his rule, Marcus spent time to practice his own spiritual and mental exercises, personalized rituals which he believed helped him in becoming the ideal self.
These exercises taught him empathy, patience, generosity, strength, humility, and so much more. Meditations covers his thoughts, exercises, and musings on becoming the perfect version of yourself.
8) “Essays and Aphorisms” – Arthur Schopenhauer
Arthur Schopenhauer was a German philosopher of the 19th century who helped establish the idea with his peers that the universe is not a rational place. In the book Essays and Aphorisms, Schopenahuer’s writings help us in understanding the human “will”, or the internal power and drive that pushes us.
He discusses the difference between hope and action, and is primarily concerned with solving problems rather than ruminating over them.
(Interested in learning more about Schopenhauer’s thoughts? Check out these Arthur Schopenhauer quotes.)
9) “Essays” – Montaigne
Like Heraclitus, Montaigne was concerned with one thing: “Inquiring within.” He believed that the answer to all of our most difficult questions can be found within the self, and so he dedicated his life to understanding his own self, as well as the selves of others.
He would ask himself and those around him unique questions that would make them reveal their most inner thoughts. In his essays, these are the encounters that he shares.
10) “A History of Western Philosophy” – Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell stands tall as one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. His 1945 book A History of Western Philosophy surveyed Western philosophy from the pre-Socratic philosophers to the early 20th century.
The book was a worldwide bestseller and was cited as the key book that won Russell the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950. While many reviewers at the time criticized the book, it was praised by the physicist Albert Einstein at the time.
11) “Meno” – Plato
Plato pretty much invented the discipline of philosophy with his classic texts, and Meno is one of them. Considering it was written over 2,000 years ago, it’s surprisingly accessible.
The guiding focus of the book is whether virtue can be taught. Beginning with this focus, it takes you on a journey exploring some of the most basic questions about human beings and their place in the world.
It’s as relevant today as it was when it was written.
12) “The Treatise of Zera Yacob” – Zera Yacob
The Treatise of Zera Yacob was written in the 17th century by an Ethiopian philosopher. It brings together a wide range of ideas, with the reader encouraged to relate them to some of the core philosophical problems raised by philosophers throughout history.
13) “Symposium” – Plato
Symposium is another of Plato’s classic philosophical texts. It contains a number of classic dialogues between a group of notable people attending a banquet. They address subjects such as courage, valor, committing great deeds and eliminating the fear of death.
14) “Sophie’s World” – Jostein Gaarder
This novel by Jostein Gaarder has sold over 20 million copies. It’s a novel that follows 14-year old Norwegian girl Sophie Admunsen through a mystery exploring a number of perplexing questions. It’s a fantastic introduction to exploring some of Western philosophy’s most fascinating questions asked throughout the course of history.
15) “Critique of Pure Reason” – Emmanuel Kant
This book was key to bringing together two of history’s opposing schools of thought: rational thought and experiential knowledge.
Kant explored human reason, showing some of the illusions it can be subject to.
It’s a highly relevant philosophical text as many explore the nature of reality today.
Do you want to start reading more? I recommend joining the Big Idea Club with the curators Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Cain, Adam Grant and Daniel Pink. They select two new books every month for you to read with exclusive discounts on the books. And you get to discuss the books with them and a membership community. There’s loads more benefits and they also donate profits to a number of charities. Check them out here.
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