“What is Philosophy throughout but a continual battle against Custom; an ever-renewed effort to transcend the sphere of blind Custom, and so become Transcendental?” (Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, p.196)
As you can see from this quote from Thomas Carlyle, philosophy is more than merely trying to answer unanswerable questions. It is also about seriously questioning every aspect of life and finding solutions to all kinds of problems which we as individuals, but also as humanity are facing. As a result, it might be worthwhile for everyone to become a philosopher, at least to some degree. Hopefully, this list of the top 10 best philosophy books for beginners will help you on your way.
I have created this list of the top 10 best philosophy books for beginners because it might be difficult to find a right place to start. If you pick the wrong book you might give up your philosophical adventure prematurely. Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, or Gilles Deleuze’s Anti-Oedipus, for example, are not the best books to begin with. Below you can find the best books to start your philosophical journey.
#1: The History of Western Philosophy – Bertrand Russel
The contents of this incredible book exist of exactly that which the title suggests, a history of Western philosophy. The ideas of some of the most influential philosophers that have ever lived are presented in a chronological order, making it relatively easy to see how one idea led to another, and how philosophy developed throughout the Western world. The reader will be introduced to ideas varying from those of Socrates to Arthur Schopenhauer and Immanuel Kant.
The ideas of these philosophers are presented clearly and in a concise manner. Besides learning about the history of Western philosophy, the reader will also be able to identify which ideas resonate with him or her, and thereby provide the reader with the opportunity to delve deeper into the thoughts and ideas of a specific philosopher of philosophy.
#2: The Path – Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh
Besides Western philosophy, there exists another equally important branch of philosophy which we should not ignore: Eastern philosophy. Similar to Western philosophy, when learning more about Eastern philosophy, it might be a good idea to begin with a book that presents several different philosophers and their ideas all at once. The Path, written by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh is a book that does exactly that.
The Path is successful in making ideas that are sometimes a bit less accessible to those living in Western countries, more accessible. It presents the ideas of philosophers such as Confucius and Laozi clearly and explains how these ideas can be applied in our daily lives. Moreover, by reading both, The History of Western Philosophy and the Path, the reader can explore the differences, as well as the similarities, between both, Western philosophy, and Eastern philosophy.
#3: Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
George Orwell’s 1984 might not exactly be a book about philosophy. However, it does compel its readers to philosophize about the contents of the book, and how these might relate to our own society. 1984 presents a direction towards which societies should not be heading, and it introduces its reader to some unique ideas which are still more than relevant today.
1984 presents a dystopian society in which every citizen must obey the rules of the Party and in which every citizen is constantly monitored by the eye of Big Brother, who appears to be present everywhere. In a sense 1984 can be seen as a warning against totalitarian regimes, and how these regimes slowly accumulate more power. The reader will be encouraged to philosophize about the consequences but also the causes of such a society.
#4: Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
Similar to 1984, Brave New World, written by Aldous Huxley, is also not a traditional philosophy book. Instead, it is a unique novel which, like 1984, encourages its readers to philosophize about its contents.
Brave New World presents a Dystopia that is vastly different from the one presented in 1984, however, it remains the question which one is worse. Brave New World presents a dystopia in which technological advancements have made it possible for humanity to be free from all hardships, and in which citizens are constantly happy because of the consumption of a drug called Soma.
In the dystopia presented in 1984, citizens are kept under control through totalitarian forces, in Brave New World, citizens are kept under control through a continual presence of pleasure, combined with an addiction to this pleasure. These ideas might perhaps be even more relevant today than those presented in 1984.
#5: Meditations – Marcus Aurelius
Meditations is a unique book in several ways. It was never intended to be published by its author but was meant as his private journal. The book’s author, Marcus Aurelius, happened to be a Roman Emperor as well.
I believe that this book should be incorporated on this list of the best philosophy books for beginners because it is relatively easy to read, and its contents are easy to comprehend as well. At the same time, the book will teach its reader a lot about stoic philosophy, which is interesting because stoic philosophy had an important influence on the development of Western philosophy, of which you can read more in the first book on this list, The History of Western Philosophy, written by Bertrand Russel.
#6: The Death of Ivan Ilyich – Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy is most famous for his lengthy but impressive novels such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Tolstoy, however, also wrote some shorter novels, the Death of Ivan Ilych is an example of such a shorter novel. Leo Tolstoy’s unique philosophy is present throughout most of his books, but it plays a particular important role in his book the Death of Ivan Ilych.
The book depicts the story of a man who is dying and philosophizes about the meaning of his life. He comes to the horrendous conclusion that all he was doing in his life was wrong:
“It occurred to him that the slight stirrings of doubt he had experienced about what was considered good by those in the highest positions, slight stirrings that he had immediately repudiated – that these misgivings might have been true and everything else might have been wrong. His career, the ordering of his life, his family, the things that preoccupied people in society and at work – all of this might have been wrong.” (p.86)
#7: Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl
In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl shared the horrible experiences that he underwent during his imprisonment in various concentration camps. At the same time, he shared his philosophical ideas, which he believed helped him make it through this horrible situation.
Man’s Search for Meaning, despite its subject, is relatively easy to read and understand. Its philosophical contents are equally easy to grasp, and I believe that Viktor Frankl’s philosophy well gain in importance in the coming years.
#8: The Republic – Plato
Although The Republic was written by Plato over 2000 years ago, its philosophical ideas are not overly complicated and explained clearly. Some of Plato’s most important ideas, which would also have an important impact on the philosophers of the future, are presented throughout The Republic.
One such idea is Plato’s allegory of the cave, which explains why it can be difficult for individuals to see the truth, and why it can be complicated for societies to change for the better. You can find an in-depth analysis on Plato’s allegory of the cave here: Are we Living in a Cave? An Analysis of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.
#9: The Myth of Sisyphus – Albert Camus
Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus is slightly more complicated than the other books on this list. It is, however, an extremely interesting book and because of its smaller size it is, despite its more complicated content, not that big of a challenge to read. Albert Camus was one of the most important pioneers of absurdist philosophy. The Myth of Sisyphus can be considered one of the most influential books in this philosophical school.
Absurdism is a rather scary philosophy. Its proponents argue that life does not have any inherent meaning, and that any attempts at finding meaning are doomed to fail in the end. This can, however, still be interpreted in a positive way, you can find more information on the Myth of Sisyphus in one of my previous posts: Analysis of the Myth of Sisyphus.
#10: Thus Spoke Zarathustra – Friedrich Nietzsche
Thus Spoke Zarathustra is by far the most complicated book on this list of the best philosophy books for beginners. It is, however, also my most favourite philosophy book. At the same time, it is also one of the comparatively easier books of Friedrich Nietzsche, because, unlike his other books, Nietzsche’s ideas are presented in the form of a story. As a result I believe that Thus Spoke Zarathustra should still be on this list of the top 10 philosophy books for beginners.
Friedrich Nietzsche was a unique philosopher, who was willing to question everything. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a book full of these questions. I have written about several of these questions on this blog, you can find them here: The Importance of Chaos & The Tarantulas.