What does it mean to live one’s best life? How should we relate to and treat one another? What does it mean to be alive now? Does it have a more significant meaning?
These questions have been on the minds of human beings since we came into existence. To inquire into the meaning of life is a core part of the human mind and sends the seeker of truth on a lifelong journey.
This is one reason a person should bother reading philosophy books in the first place. By reading philosophy books, we can stand on the shoulders of giants. We can gain deep insight into life’s fundamental questions with relative ease—thanks to the in-depth inquiry, contemplation, realizations, and perspectives of some of the world’s greatest minds.
Below, we have included a list of some of the greatest books on philosophy ever written, from Greek to ancient Chinese philosophy books, from thousands of years ago to the 20th century.
The Greatest Philosophy Books For Beginners
The following books are suited for philosophy beginners. There is much to be explored, contemplated, and realized through reading the great works of philosophy, but do not dive in headfirst. Without a basic understanding of philosophical concepts, it is easy to get lost and confused while reading them. Instead, ease your way in. The first two books on the list, Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World and Bertrand Russel’s The History of Western Philosophy, are great introductions because they offer overviews and summaries of important philosophical concepts.
1. Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World is an excellent beginner’s introduction to the world of philosophy. Through her characters ‘ interactions, Gaarder educates the reader on the history and meaning of various schools of thought.
Sophie Amundsen is a Norwegian teenager who receives two letters and a postcard from a mysterious unknown sender and is addressed to another name. Shortly after, she receives more mail, a package of papers with introductions to philosophy. Soon Sophie discovers the sender’s identity, an old philosopher by the name of Alberto Knox. Unbeknownst to Sophie’s mother, she and Alberto continue to interact, and the philosopher teaches Sophie about the history of Western philosophy.
Sophie’s World is a great first philosophy book for those who want to explore the subject. The readers learn along with Sophie, making reading the book an incredibly immersive experience.
“Superstitious.” What a strange word. If you believed in Christianity or Islam, it was called “faith”. But if you believed in astrology or Friday the thirteenth it was superstition! Who has the right to call other people’s beliefs superstition?”
2. The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russel
The History of Western Philosophy is a comprehensive look at the greatest western philosophers, from the Greeks to 20th-century giants. Russell’s work is renowned and, to this day, stands out as one of the most important and popular texts on western philosophy.
“Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales. It is not good either to forget the questions that philosophy asks, or to persuade ourselves that we have found indubitable answers to them. To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.”
Famous philosophy books
3. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius was a second-century Roman emperor and philosopher. His book Meditation is one of the most influential philosophical texts ever written.
Aurelius was a Stoic and explained the principles and applications of stoic philosophy in Meditations. According to Aurelius, Stoicism is the grounding of oneself in reality and developing a deeper understanding of oneself for the benefit of all.
The Stoics view emotions as valid but often irrational. They are phenomena that overwhelm the mind and distract us from our true purpose. The Stoics cultivate mental clarity and emotional resilience to overcome our emotions’ irrationality and gravitational pull.
In the Stoic approach to life, all good and bad emotions can be distracting and must be dealt with through strength, clarity, and resilience. According to Aurelius and the Stoics, good emotions like joy and love can be as distracting and destructive as bad emotions like sadness or anger. The wise man understands that emotional states are temporary, and to allow oneself to get lost in their throes is somewhat foolish.
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
4. Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
In Beyond Good and Evil, a renowned German philosopher critiques traditional moral conventions such as religion and the concept of free will. He explores the role and power of the individual and how the concepts of good and evil are mere constructs that help us cultivate a ‘fixed‘ view of the world. This striving for persistence, according to Nietzsche, blinds us to the fact that life is an ever-changing flow.
Published after another of his most popular works, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which also deals with a similar theme. Nietzsche encourages the individual reader to seek their truth and organize their thinking in a way that is grounded in one’s own experience of reality rather than the constructs and concepts fed to us by a larger society.
“It is the business of the very few to be independent; it is a privilege of the strong. And whoever attempts it, even with the best right, but without being obliged to do so, proves that he is probably not only strong, but also daring beyond measure.’
5. Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
The Tao Te Ching is a book on the teachings of Taoism, an ancient Chinese philosophy based on the teachings of Zen master Lao Tzu. It contains simple yet profound teachings about the nature of life and change. An ancient philosophy still relevant and applicable today, Taoism encourages us to let go of attachments and expectations and see life in a continuous flow, like a river.
Simplicity, patience, and compassion are the pillars of the Taoist approach, and the Tao Te Ching shows us how to apply those concepts to our own lives. When we cultivate these qualities within ourselves, we come closer to the essence of the universe. These qualities help us silence the mind and ultimately release attachments to live more fully in the here and now. Taoism is itself a religious view but is entirely applicable to secular life.
“Trying to understand is like straining through muddy water. Have the patience to wait! Be still and allow the mud to settle.”
20th-century philosophy books
6. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance follows a middle-aged man and his young son on a motorcycle trip from Minnesota to California. The book is a fictionalized autobiography by author Robert Pirsig, who made the trip with his son in 1968.
Pirsig’s fictional account of their journey is thought-provoking. Throughout the book, the author raises important questions about how one should best live their life. He explores the concepts of mindful engagement with whatever one finds themselves doing and how such a way of life is more fulfilling than opting for convenience or disregarding life’s small details.
“The study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself. Working on a motorcycle, working well, caring, is to become part of a process, to achieve an inner peace of mind. The motorcycle is primarily a mental phenomenon.”
7. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. During his years in several different camps, including Auschwitz, Frankl chronicled his experiences. How could one find meaning in the most hellish of hells? Where could one find a sense of purpose and belonging when the world around them wants them gone?
Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is one of the most important modern philosophy books. Through the hardship of the holocaust and the unimaginable trauma experienced by those who suffered it, including himself, Frankl explores how there may very well be no other meaning to life than the meaning which we provide for ourselves. He suggests that to create one’s own purpose is an act of creation to which we are entitled and that without a sense of meaning, one is bound to lose their reason for being.
In Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl introduces the term logotherapy. Logotherapy, according to Frankl, is the therapeutic use of the search and discovery of meaning in one’s own life.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
8. Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre was a French existential philosopher and playwright. In Being and Nothingness, he skillfully explores the concepts of perception, consciousness, self-deception, and free will.
He explores what it means to be a conscious being and how we relate to the world and others. One of the main themes Sartre explores is the notion of freedom. According to Sartre, humans are born inherently free, and any possible direction one’s life takes is not an abnormality but an expression of human potential.
The problem for humankind is that the same freedom that lets us direct our lives in any way we choose is also a source of great anxiety. If there is no set purpose, no creator to impose its will on man, then what is the point of existence in the first place?
“It is therefore senseless to think of complaining since nothing foreign has decided what we feel, what we live, or what we are.”
Advanced philosophy books
The following books are most appropriate for the seasoned philosophy book reader. They are dense and can be complex, so it is best to have a working understanding of philosophy and the concepts explored within each of these books before immersing yourself in them.
9. Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes
The famous phrase ‘I think, therefore I am‘ or ‘Cogito, ergo sum‘ comes from French philosopher Rene Descartes in his book Meditations on First Philosophy, first published in 1641.
In this renowned book, which for many makes Descartes ‘the father of modern philosophy‘, he explores six important concepts around human life and the nature of existence. In the first meditation, he explores the nature of doubt, coming to disregard thoughts and ideas that cannot be known as ultimate truth and instead encourages us to seek what we know for sure.
In the following five mediations, Descartes gracefully explores human nature, God’s existence, truth and falsehood, the essence of substance (or ‘material things’), and the dichotomy of the mind and body.
“Some years ago I was struck by the large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently based on them. I realized that it was necessary, once in the course of my life, to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations if I wanted to establish anything at all in the sciences that was stable and likely to last.”
10. Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant
In his seminal work Critique of Pure Reason, 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant explores history’s biggest opposing schools of thought—rational, logical thought, also known as ‘a priori‘ knowledge (knowledge gained independently of direct experience) versus real, experiential knowledge, also known as ‘a posteriori‘ knowledge (knowledge and understanding gained through direct experience.
Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is not a beginner’s philosophy book. It is a complicated read and may take some time, but do not let that deter you. A wealth of summaries take on this important work, so it is wise to read book reviews, commentaries, or analyses before reading the book itself.
“The light dove, in free flight cutting through the air the resistance of which it feels, could get the idea that it could do even better in airless space. Likewise, Plato abandoned the world of the senses because it posed so many hindrances for the understanding, and dared to go beyond it on the wings of the ideas, in the empty space of pure understanding.”
Whether you are a newcomer to the world of philosophy or looking for inspiration for your next book to read, the books we have included in this article will not let you down.
From Marcus Aurelius to Jean-Paul Sartre, Immanuel Kant to Viktor Frankl, and the ancient wisdom of Lao Tzu to the reasonings of Rene Descartes, you are sure to find as many new questions as answers in your quest for greater truth.
These great philosophers have paved the way for a greater and deeper understanding of what it all means so that you can read their works, think for yourself, and maybe even start to work on your investigations.