15 Life-Changing Philosophy Books All Of Us Should Read
Whether we know it or not, we all secretly love philosophy. Discussing abstract concepts, analyzing the most human internal struggles, and overcoming while understanding the voices in our head—all these are things we benefit from, and they’re all related to philosophy.
However, many today tend to avoid philosophical discussion, merely because it comes off as too challenging or academic. We think philosophy is confined to the wide collegiate lecture halls, where an old man in a beard is asking for five-thousand-word essays. Society has somehow conditioned most of us to ignore or even fear philosophy because much of it seems like suffering.
Nevertheless, the study of philosophy is not as academic or complicated as one might believe. The best philosophers of history were not the academic types at all; instead, they lived life and set examples which they wrote down afterwards. Practical and applicable as it is, anyone could understand the philosophy of our forefathers.
So here are the 15 best philosophy books which have shaped societies and cultures throughout human history.
In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle’s primary question is: what’s the best thing for a human being? The answer he gives is happiness, not as something we feel, but as a specially good kind of life instead. Happiness is made up of several activities in which humans use their best capacities, both the ones that contribute to their flourishing as members of a community and the ones that allow them to engage in god-like contemplation.
One of the most significant works on philosophy and political theory ever produced, The Republic has formed western thought for thousands of years, and it’s still as relevant today as when Plato first wrote it in during the time of Ancient Greece. It is widely regarded as the foundation of Western philosophy. Fashioned in the form of communication between Greek philosopher Socrates and three different interlocutors, The Republic is a search for the notion of an ideal community and the perfect individual within it.
Enchiridion or “manual” has played a critical role in the rise of modern philosophy. As soon as it was translated into the vernacular languages, it immediately became a bestseller among independent intellectuals, anti-Christian thinkers, and philosophers of a subjective cast. It has also been studied and widely quoted by Scottish philosophers such as Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, and Adam Ferguson.
The Stranger is one of the seminal texts of existentialism and 20th-century literature in general, at least in the context of French and French-Algerian history and culture. Through the story of a typical man unwittingly drawn into a senseless murder on an Algerian beach, Camus has explored what the nakedness of human faced with the absurd.
In A Discourse on Inequality Rousseau set out to demonstrate how the growth of civilization corrupts human’s natural happiness and freedom by leading to artificial inequalities of wealth, power, as well as social privilege. Arguing that primitive man was equal to his fellows, Rousseau supports that as societies became more sophisticated, the strongest, as well as the most intelligent members of the community, gained an unnatural advantage over their weaker brethren. Rousseau’s political and social arguments in the Discourse were a greatly influential denunciation of the social conditions of his time and among the most revolutionary documents of the 18th century.
Candide was living a simple, sheltered life in “the best of all possible worlds.” However, when Candide fell in love with the wrong woman, his uncle’s young daughter, he was exiled from the baron’s castle and suffered great tragedy and catastrophe, which left him disillusioned and questioning the universe’s goodness. Penned in only three days—and secretly published—Voltaire’s legendary satire deftly skewers religious, romantic, and political naïveté with an acerbic and ribald wit that delights to this day.
A classic of world literature, Faust is a philosophical and poetic drama full of satire, irony, humor, and tragedy. Dr. Faust was a brilliant scholar, who made a contract with the devil, Mephistopheles. The devil would do all Faust asked and seek to grant him such a glorious moment that he would wish it could last for ever.
If Fragments by Heraclitus were published today, some might think of it less of a philosophical book and more of a book of short poems. Heraclitus’ text is indeed much more poetic than the others on the list, but that does not mean it’s any less philosophical than its peers. The philosopher shares his understandings of the world in short and concise sentences. While some can be easily understood, some others might be more abstract, with various interpretations for every reader.
In Seneca’s book, Letters from a Stoic, we read the letters he wrote to his friends, powerful figures of Ancient Rome. These letters teach us about the practical teachings of stoicism: how only this which influences your life is important. Appreciation of pain and hardship, thinking that the ideal way to live our life is to tolerate the difficulties we go through to practice our virtue are some significant lessons of the book.
Epicurus was a famous philosopher and teacher of Ancient Greece, best known for having founded the Epicureanism school of philosophy. His thought revolves around simplicity—cutting down on the trivialities and nuances which pester our lives and trimming it down to friendship, joy, and happiness.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s selected essays have an amazing way of spurning a reader into motion. So much of philosophy leads us to sit down and think, but Emerson instead encourages us to act and make choices. His essays push the reader to reach his/her potential and make the best choices. Also, unlike the classic peers of his time, Emerson’s essays have the American drive to succeed and persevere.
Viktor Frankl was an honored psychologist of the 20th century. His book, Man’s Search for Meaning, influenced numerous thinkers and scientists of his time. It triggered the question, “What’s the meaning of life?”, which might be one of the biggest struggles facing modern human today. So what is the answer? That it is not our question to ask in the first place. It’s life itself which asks the problem, and it’s our responsibility to determine that meaning in what we do.
Montaigne, like Heraclitus, was concerned with one simple thing: “Inquiring within.” He believed the answer to all of our most challenging questions could be discovered within the self, and, therefore, he dedicated his life to understanding himself, as well as the selves of others. He’d ask himself and people around him extraordinary questions which would make them reveal their inner thoughts. These are the encounters that he shares in his essays.
If you’re interested in philosophy, then you’ve probably already heard of Meditations. Meditation is the unique diary and journal of Marcus Aurelius, that served as the Roman emperor during the second century. Every night for the most of his rule, Marcus spent the time to practice his spiritual and mental exercises, personalized rituals which, as he believed, helped him become the ideal self.
Schopenhauer was a German philosopher of the nineteenth century who along with his peers established the idea that the universe isn’t a rational place. His writings in the book Essays and Aphorisms help us in understanding the human “will” and the internal power and drive which pushes us. Schopenhauer also discusses the difference between hope and action. He is primarily concerned with solving problems instead of ruminating over them.