Ever since the ancient days of Homer, human beings have been fascinated with themselves and the world around them. This fascination stemmed from the ability to see things as they were. Making steady observations, drawing conclusions, and then learning from mistakes have been the hallmark of humans. It is thanks to these methods that we have been able to build a glittering world. Broadly speaking, philosophy can comprise just about any type of knowledge. Physics, Math, Statistics, Politics. So, in that sense, we are all philosophers. In this article, we are going to see about the Best books on philosophy.
Reading Philosophy can be a slog
Reading philosophy requires a great deal of maturity and an erudite attitude towards knowledge. A good chunk of philosophy books are translations, and the ones that aren’t are highly complex with vast terminologies. Philosophy seeks to discover the deepest darkest secrets of humans, and human beings are complicated. Modern philosophers have got this down to a science, but even they can’t help but take shots in the dark. Another characteristic of being human is that we are always on the search for progress and self-actualization.
We never stop trying to get better. And that is why philosophers across the world have provided a moral platform for society. Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche have graced us with their observations and inferences and have kept the spirit of curiosity burning. But regardless of a person’s inquisitiveness, actually sitting down and reading these ideas can be a real slog. But like the rest of our species, the least we can do is try. Like the philosophers of the old world, attempting to observe and learn these ideas is a step in the right direction.
Most people do not take away the required satisfaction or knowledge from the sages of lore because they aren’t ready for the ideas. Reading philosophy requires maturity of sorts coupled with knowledge and historical context. Not everybody can invest the required time to learn all of these things, and hence it becomes difficult for people to appreciate the ideas stored in these great books. But as any great philosopher might advise, find your own path to enlightenment. Especially when moral peace becomes a question of survival in times like these, philosophy might have some of the answers. Here are some of the most popular, well-known, and well-regarded books written by philosophers throughout the ages.
Meditations- by Marcus Aurelius
If the name sounds familiar, congrats you’ve paid attention in class. How many times have we cursed our existence, blamed others, or even fate itself? How many times have we failed through sheer incompetence, laziness, or a lack of will or focus? As Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius probably lacked for few things in life. But he soon found out that the titles come with strings attached. Despite not being of a military disposition, Aurelius led the Empire through years of bloody wars. His secret, he penned down while on campaign.
The Meditations are the surviving portions of all his notes and guide one in performing one’s duty regardless of how distasteful it might seem. The philosophy of Stoicism did not begin with Marcus Aurelius, nor did it end with him. But today, Marcus Aurelius is recognized as the world’s foremost representative of philosophy. To put it simply, the philosophy advocates for strict adherence to one’s duty regardless of morality or sentiment. While this may seem harsh to some, one mustn’t discount the applicability of the same while taking hard decisions as a leader. The fact that Marcus Aurelius was the last of the five “Good Emperors” before the evident decline in the competence of Roman Emperors is a testament to the success of Stoicism. In a world plagued by distractions, Meditation may help a melancholic soul stay true to the fight.
The Republic- by Plato
It is only fitting for the western world’s first official university professor to have written the foremost commentaries on political theory. Plato would establish the Academy, said to be the western world’s first center of higher learning. The Republic constitutes a series of Socratic dialogues meant to perpetuate the ideals of a perfect state. Such a state Plato argues must be ruled by a worthy enough ruler, leading to the concept of the Philosopher King or Enlightened Monarch.
The idea of the Enlightened Monarch would survive till the enlightenment era and be the foundation of modern liberalism, leaving Plato feeling vindicated if alive today. The Republic explores ideas of justice, modern education, lifestyle, and most importantly, politics and forms of government. Plato is the embodiment of the archetypical philosopher, skeptical and critical about everything and everyone. Needless to say, he wasn’t the most popular man in town. Asking the tough questions, however, is something that he excelled at and is also something that we need to check the excesses of tyranny and societies today.
Leviathan- by Thomas Hobbes
Rare is the book that has the same amount of influence on world history and political thought as Leviathan. Thomas Hobbes saw the devastation of the English Civil War and came down squarely on the side of the king. Hobbes is considered by many to be the father of conservatism and the greatest opponent of anarchy. To Hobbes, a strong centralized monarchy keeps this anarchy, which he terms the state of nature, at bay. He is fiercely loyal to modern society as the only thing keeping away the darkness of ignorance.
How such a government would look like and act is what Leviathan is all about. It advocates for complete obedience to this monarch for the same reason. The role of authority figures and organizations is similarly outlined in the treatise and is a favorite of conservatives to this day. If you’re a Liberal, it would be interesting to understand the other side and appreciate the circumstances and some of the truths mentioned in Leviathan.
The Social Contract- by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Most revolutions emerge from a strong philosophical or ideological base. It is mostly because, as a former statesman would put it, “No power on Earth can stop an idea whose time has come.” Amongst the revolutions that shaped modern society, the French Revolution deserves its place as the foremost. Likewise, the foundations of the french revolution were among the most groundbreaking for the time. One of these foundational texts is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s treatise railing against a king’s divine right to rule.
The Divine Right is a theory bestowing powers on dynastical monarchs as divinely ordained. Accordingly, Monarchs act as God’s vice-regent on Earth and can hence command the obedience of all men. Rousseau’s criticism strikes at the very heart of this theory and helped topple the Ancient Regime in France. The Social Contract was one of the first books to advocate for political sovereignty and freedom from slavery and tyranny. It also gives us a unique insight into the real source of political power and how that power may be harnessed while forming the nation-state. All in all, fans of political theory and people curious about revolutions and power might find Rousseau’s work immensely stimulating.
The Prince- by Nicolo Machiavelli
The Prince is perhaps the shortest of the books mentioned here and also the quickest read. However, pairing the examples provided by the former statesman Machiavelli with modern political events can convince one of its importance. The Prince counsels rulers on how to govern without losing their power to both internal and external factors and opponents. The treatise gives very specific and customized advice to different types of rulers of different types of states.
It advises leaders on how to win favor with the populace and manage their states effectively. In his short book, Machiavelli discusses all aspects of governance, from internal tax policy to alliances, trade, warfare, and the composition of armies. Written as a kind of a cheat sheet on the wily ways of kings and politicians for the common folk, it is highly regarded by diplomats, policymakers, world leaders, and politicians alike. “The Prince” is a must for fans of Realpolitik and is a unique insight into the methods used by successful rulers throughout history.
On Liberty- by John Stuart Mill
Individualism is a fairly modern concept with roots tracing back to the enlightenment. One of the most prominent proponents of individual liberty was John Stuart Mill, whose essay on liberty laid many of the foundations of modern liberalism and government. Ideas, rights, and freedoms that we take for granted today, such as the freedom of thought and expression, religious toleration, and the freedom to form organizations and pursue leisure activities, are put forth by Mill. The liberal skepticism toward government interference in life and the economy is also voiced in the essay.
Through this composition, Mill seeks to increase human happiness by limiting government encroachment on our individual rights and liberties via a concept called utilitarianism. An interesting fact about the essay is that Mill attributes many of the ideas stated in the book to his dead wife Harriet, who was also a philosopher and women’s rights advocate in her own right and influenced some of Mill’s ideas about the same. Another interesting datum about the book is that a copy of On Liberty is passed down as a symbol of office to every new president of the Liberal Democratic Party in the United Kingdom.
Common Sense- by Thomas Paine
Students of history will remember this one, especially since the 47-page pamphlet became the ideological foundation of the American Revolution. Despite being more “American” than philosophical, the ideas espoused by the leaflet can be applied to any country and situation. “Common Sense” provided the then colonists with the grounds for secession from the British Empire and also laid bare the “idea” of America.
Paine also theorized how the new state would look and how it would function from the idea of the elected assembly or Congress to bureaucracy and the American Constitution. Interesting to note is that some of Paine’s ideas were considered too radical for his time, even by certain Founding Fathers. His work is a unique insight into the political and moral ideas of the time, and the book was immensely popular during his lifetime and continued to be popular in the aftermath of the revolution.
Candide- by Voltaire
You gotta give it to Voltaire to bring you, optimists, back to reality. His satirical and somewhat chaotic allegory against optimism is considered to be a classic. The story is nothing if not interesting, albeit in a queer sort of way. The story takes the protagonist and his friends on a weird adventure through a world that is rife with hardships. Not fantastical hardships, but real-life, physical hardships. Voltaire is just the kind of person who’d tell you to wake up and smell the coffee.
He rallies against the feel-good optimism of the enlightenment and instead emphasizes the inequalities that plague the real world that we barely notice inside our high walls. Along the way, we get an exceptional insight into the world of the 18th century with real historical figures and events. Candide is quite dramatic and has the makings of a good play or even a movie. Unlike other, often dry, chunky, and indigestible philosophy books, read Candide for both its ideas and plots, it’s sure to be a page-turner.
The Myth of Sisyphus- by Albert Camus
Is there a philosophy as strange and thought-provoking as the one put forth by Camus? The concept itself is called “absurdism” in which man is often perplexed by the search for meaning in life. Camus was influenced by a number of philosophies such as nihilism and existentialism and makes references to both pagan myths and Christian theology. Especially prominent is the myth of Sisyphus, who is cursed by the gods to carry a heavy boulder to the peak of a mountain for eternity. Camus alludes to the perils of human life and the peace that all humans must make with their struggles.
He also dissects works from well-known authors like Dostoyevsky and Kafka, who allude to the above philosophies of nihilism and existentialism. Camus believes that human beings ought to become one with their fate of endless labors against the inevitable and that suicide is mostly pointless and will leave this search for meaning incomplete. For people incessantly worrying about the present and future, this book may provide some kind of a stimulating answer.
Thus spoke Zarathustra- by Friedrich Nietzsche
Is there a man so well-read and knowledgeable, whose ideas have been so influential till the point of being misinterpreted, as Friedrich Nietzsche? His name is difficult enough to spell and pronounce, and so too is his philosophy difficult to decipher and comprehend. Many of Nietzsche’s prominent theories and ideas came directly from this book. The Übermensch, nihilism, and the dark, deep, vastness of our own brains, are all expounded with a highly scientific approach to philosophy. The book is also credited with popularizing the phrase “God is Dead ” in a reference to the logical rationality and sometimes nihilistic worldview of enlightenment era philosophy.
The philosopher is often wrongly accused of providing the philosophical base for Nazism with its theories of a master race, although, if alive, he would’ve subscribed to none of Hitler’s programs. The text itself is considered to be almost poetic and dramatic in style, which probably made it compelling enough to influence a young Adolf Hitler. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is perhaps one of the most stimulating and thought-provoking philosophy texts of all time and makes one really want to question some of the core values and facets of human life.
Civil Disobedience- by David Henry Thoreau
If you haven’t heard the name, don’t worry, you’ll sure to have heard the names of some of his disciples- Gandhi, Tolstoy, Martin Luther King Jr, JFK, Proust, Hemmingway. To me, Thoreau is a purist, he recognized the hypocrisy of the liberal democracies of his time, especially pertaining to slavery and injustice, and sought a way to resist this through boycotts and petitions. Civil Disobedience attempts to open our minds to the horrid truths prevalent even within a democracy and tries to correct the worst excesses of tyrannical governments.
Many of the ideas stated here would form the basis of modern civil rights, freedoms, and duties, and the text itself would be an important advocate for the abolishment of slavery. It begins with the very classical liberal phrase “That government is best which governs least” and keeps reinforcing this philosophy by going on to assert that the then US government had abandoned its original purpose to bring about liberty by its support for slavery as an institution. The origin of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s can be traced in part to Thoreau’s philosophy as stated in Civil Disobedience.
Apology- by Plato
It is well known to philosophy students that Plato often used his teacher Socrates as his mouthpiece. The resulting literary form would be termed as Socratic dialogue. Philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates would often be critical of the state of society and the politics of their age. Considering this, they couldn’t help but tread on some powerful shoes, after all, who likes being told what to do? And so, like modern comedians in certain countries, they too were ridiculed, censored, and sometimes plain harassed. Blasphemy laws are not a modern invention, it seems.
When Socrates was accused of propagating anti-religious blasphemy, they put him in prison. The Apology is Plato’s version of Socrates’ philosophy dressed up as his defense in the trial. Plato examines the truths behind the law, organized religion, and societal customs and traditions. It is through the Apology that we get a glimpse into Athenian life without its utopian sugar-coat. It also explores topics such as death, virtue, and authority figures, which were, then as now, discussed only at the peril of the debaters. What’s interesting to see is how little society and politics have changed from then to now.
Utopia- by Thomas More
Utopia is a book that has perplexed readers for a time unknown. At first glance, it’s a book about the intricate workings of a perfect world and society. However, the author meant it as a satire on modern Europe. The paradox begins with whether one thinks that More himself meant his paradise to be practical. Was Utopia just a critical satire on the state of Europe? Or was it an actual representation of More’s ideal world? Regardless of which side you’re on, Utopia makes some interesting points, and some of its ideas would be replicated by future world-builders and philosophers.
These ideas of religious toleration, equality before the law, a welfare state, and communal ownership were highly novel and considered way too radical for the 16th century in which this book was written, and it is difficult not to see their influence on some modern thinkers and policy-makers. Whatever the fallacies of the prose or concerns about practicality, Utopia has provided humanity with a dream to live up to and we are all the better for it.
Man’s Search for Life- by Viktor Frankl
Viktor Frankl’s beautiful book on how he kept his will to live even in a Nazi concentration camp is an American favorite with over 10 million copies sold. The Holocaust survivor marries philosophy and attitude with psychology to help identify the meaning of life even through adverse suffering. While a controversial statement, the book refrains from painting individuals and Nazi collaborators as good or bad while portraying the real state of Nazi concentration camps. The book also focuses on the mental health of the prisoners, who, even after being freed, find it difficult to escape the mental anguish and depersonalization experienced in the camps. They become different people after this experience and become disenchanted with the world.
The Gay Science-by Friedrich Nietzsche
Originally published in German in 1882, Nietzsche considered the book to be the closest to his heart. The important concept of eternal recurrence- that the universe will continue to relapse again and again for all eternity is one of the central themes of Nietzsche’s philosophy in the Gay Science. The philosopher takes us through a deep-dive through history and advocates for the separation of religion from human life and society via the constant quest for knowledge. While “Thus spoke Zarathustra” popularized the famous “God is dead” quote, it is here that Nietzsche first introduced it. He rails against organized religion, and the text is better written than most, with poems and dramatic quotes luring the reader towards Nietzsche’s nihilism. Like some of his contemporaries, Nietzsche bats for an acceptance of one’s fate and individualistic free-thinking in the pursuit of “Joyful Wisdom”.
What is to be done? – by Nikolai Chernyshevsky
Just like how Common Sense was one of the foundational texts of the American Revolution and how The Social Contract played an equivalent role in the French Revolution, scholars and revolutionaries point to “What is to be done?” as one of the pillars of the Russian Revolution. Unlike both of them though, “What is to be done?” is a proper novel, with characters and plots which might provide the reader with some emotional connection to these ideas of asceticism and abdication from the material pleasures of life. Although touted as a utopian philosopher, Chernyshevsky’s work is vital to understanding the underpinnings of the Russian Revolution and perhaps what a lot of people believed should’ve been the original goal of the same.
The Philosophy of Hinduism- by DR B.R Ambedkar
On the surface, the “Philosophy of Hinduism” seems like a critique of the Hindu Religion. But Dr. B.R Ambedkar was one of the brightest minds of his generation, and he takes us through a point-by-point dissection of the matter. Despite being underprivileged all his life, Ambedkar would go on to be the architect of the Constitution of India.
The ideas espoused in The Philosophy of Hinduism would shape public debate and the views of the oppressed classes in India post-independence. Ambedkar finds parallels with Nietzsche’s philosophy of the Übermensch and the master-race in Hindu society and religion and especially criticizes the caste system for its exclusion of the lower castes. The main idea of any type of criticism is the eventual development of the entity, Ambedkar’s book seeks to perfect the vast knowledge prevalent in Hindu philosophy and make it accessible to all.
How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life-by Massimo Pigliucci
The philosophy of Stoicism really reached its peak during classical antiquity finding takers in the philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius. Stoicism’s stark adherence to duty and a blunt disregard for emotions made it a little unpopular with most people, though. But the pragmatic concept is not without its merits. The days of Roman Emperors are long gone, but that doesn’t mean the end of making tough decisions and procrastinating over them. Since life is full of decisions, this book helps us make the best ones in a rational and sensible manner. Prominently featured is the role played by meditation, mindfulness, and visualization. The author’s easy-flowing 21st-century language is easier to digest and sets the book apart from some of its stoic counterparts from the 2nd century.
Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment- by Robert Wright
This is another modern book that has enjoyed great commercial success and popularity. Robert Wright makes the case for a more peaceful and less stressful world using meditation and Buddhist principles. Wright backs this case using evolutionary psychology and neuroscience but in a highly accessible narrative. The fact that he does this without referring to the Buddhist religion too much is all the more applaudable. When viewed in isolation from its religion, all philosophy is useful and helpful in its own way, and no one should be deprived of this knowledge-based on faith. “Why Buddhism is true” echoes this narrative.
Zen and the Art of Consciousness- by Susan Blackmore.
Another philosophy book that goes beyond the boundaries of religion is the book on Zen Buddhist practices. Blackmore asks the reader 10 questions and tries to answer them based on her experiences in meditation. These questions really make readers ponder over their existence and free will and are aimed at making them conscious of themselves. This consciousness helps declutter the path for ordinary people who feel revitalized and completely awake after this exercise.
Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion-by Sam Harris
The best-selling book by Sam Harris marries modern science with an ancient tradition, isolating religion or God from philosophy, happiness, spirituality, and morality. The author advocates the propagation and adherence to ancient philosophies and knowledge regardless of religion. He takes the reader on a spiritual journey through his own mind to help unlock our inner thoughts. He finds solace in the ideas of Rumi, Lao Tze, Buddha, and other cultural and spiritual trailblazers and advises Americans to hear what they have to say regardless of the secular inclination of this world. In today’s world where people often practice religion for religion’s sake, “Waking Up” guides people towards inner peace and spirituality, not by blind obedience to the ancients but by respecting them wherever possible and paving the way for new morals wherever not.
The Buddha sat beneath a tree for years before the universe unlocked its secrets. Jesus had to come back from the dead for that, and Arjuna was torn between family and duty before Krishna revealed his true self. The heroes and kings of lore are long gone, but what we have are their words. They are still relevant, they are still important, and they can still light the path. Like them, our road to happiness is a long winding path. With the right climbing tools, we too can conquer the summit.