The other day a friend of mine asked “what are the best philosophy books for beginners?”
Hmm, that’s a great question! I’ve been quizzed on this more than a handful of times, so I figured it would be wise to make a post of it.
When you think of philosophy…
…there are a few images that probably come to mind.
For one, you may envision that statue of a man sitting down with his chin on his fist, contemplating life.
Is he waiting for the bus? Is he dropping a deuce? Has he lost his iPhone, and—unable to check Instagram—resorted to metaphysical contemplations?
The statue, by the way, is called “The Thinker,” by French artist Auguste Rodin.
Perhaps you think about a bunch of balding, white-bearded men in togas, engaged in some lively discussion about what toppings to order on the pizza. One man, emphatically insisting on anchovies, points his finger into the air.
Or perhaps they are debating the meaning of life…who knows?
Here are the 11 Best Philosophy Books for Beginners
#1: The Republic
This book is one of the sacred bedrocks of philosophical inquiry. Written by Plato, a student of Socrates in 380 BC, the book is written in dialogue form…Socratic dialogue, to be precise—a method of teaching whereby student and teacher engage in discussion to find the truth.
The book focuses on the nature and meaning of justice and government (hence the title), but they also meander through some other topics as well, such as education, poetry, and the soul. This book has left behind a lasting influence on politics and governance over the past two centuries, and will help you see current events (and history) in a new light.
#2: The Art of War
Philosopher: Sun Tzu
This book was written around a century or two before The Republic, and is an ancient Chinese treatise on military strategy. Composed of 13 parts (how lucky) it is said to be the work of—you guessed it—Sun Tzu.
Don’t assume the words within only relate to high-flying kicks through the bamboo…the words of “Master Sun” have also influenced business tactics and legal strategy the world over. You may not be attacking a fortress, but presumably you have challenges in life to tackle, and this book can help you bring them down.
#3: The City of God
Philosopher: Augustine of Hippo
This book, written after the sack of Rome, was a cornerstone of Medieval reality and a lasting influence in theology and philosophy. Why do righteous people suffer? Why does evil exist? How does Divine omnipotence jive with man’s free will? Is man inherently good or evil? If any of these questions have ever bothered you, you’re not alone.
Augustine wrote the book in response to the widely circulating rumor that Christianity brought about the fall of Rome. Were the Romans being punished for abandoning the old pagan ways? In defense of monotheism, Augustine assuages pagan anxieties and makes a case for switching the game up in terms of religion.
#4: Selected Writings of Aquinas (Penguin Classics Edition)
Philosopher: Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas is one of the most famous theologians (a philosopher of religion) in Western thought. He did not discard the old way of thinking by ancient pagans like the Greeks, but rather brought their ideologies into his own synthetic blend.
What is the relationship between faith and reason? If you’ve ever had this debate with friends or family, perhaps you can find more food for thought with this curation of writings from Thomas Aquinas. It sure beats wading through a sea of ornate ink letters trapped between leatherbound shores.
#5: The Guide for the Perplexed
Maimonides wore many hats (or turbans in his time). He was personal doctor to the Sultan of Egypt, a leading Rabbi of his day, and a philosopher to boot.
The Guide for the Perplexed seeks to help the (drumroll pleased) perplexed reader navigate through the choppy waters where the rivers of religion and philosophy meet, along with the issue of theodicy (in a nutshell, why do bad things happen to good people).
Combining the thinking of Aristotle with ancient Hebrew wisdom, Maimonides crafted a book that was a lasting influence among philosophers and theologians of every creed.
#6: The Prince
Listening to some of hip-hop legend Tupac’s lyrics, you might think that Machiavelli was born, bred, and bloomed in the ghettos of East LA…but you would be wrong. Machiavelli was an Italian diplomat and political theorist during the Renaissance.
The Prince is a short book, but it will give you a lot of tips about stepping on other people’s heads to get to the top, and using shady techniques to stay there. Though the tactics are not necessarily for those who dance on rainbows and distribute sunshine, it is a seminal work of power and political theory, with some useful tips about dealing with enemies.
For those who don’t like to wade through the heady material of philosophical dialogue, Candide offers a story-based solution. Written by the French thinker Voltaire, it’s one of the seminal contributions of the Enlightenment…which was a time period of increased celebration around reason and logic, as opposed to tradition and dogmatism.
Candide will help the reader grapple with the question of what is good, and what is evil. The tale follows a young man who is pulled from his own bubble and thrown into the realities of the world around him. Voltaire uses humor and wit to ridicule the establishment of church and state, like a 18th-century version of the Simpsons or Family Guy.
Philosopher: Henry David Thoreau
The American transcendentalists were a granola-loving group who ditched the city and headed out into the woods to live the simple life (not the one with Paris Hilton). While they were there, they reflected on truth, beauty, nature, and the meaning of life.
Thoreau took the call of the wild quite seriously and moved out into a log cabin. Walden is the story of his woodland journey, without some creepy dude playing the banjo. Instead, Thoreau looks uses the four seasons as a metaphor for human development, while crafting a real bible of self-reliance and simple living.
#9: A History of Western Philosophy
Philosopher: Bertrand Russell
Our range of recommendations has spanned the timeline from ancient Greece and China to Medieval Europe to the backwoods of the United States…but as you can guess, there is still more we didn’t cover. If you want to get a brief survey of everything going on, and further zone in on what intrigues you, check out this book.
This comprehensive survey of philosophy, has been a popular starting point for aspiring free-thinkers since 1945. Thought the book may not cover philosophy since then, it will extensively inform you about everything that happened in the world of thinking before 1945.
#10: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Philosopher: Robert M. Pirsig
This recent is a best-seller that’s taken the world by storm. It’s about a father-son road trip, but along the way, they talk about science, philosophy, the nature of knowledge, and the intersection of emotions and ethics.
If you want a story-based “lighter” dose of philosophy, and Candide is still a little too old-school for you, here’s something that wasn’t written by a dude in a powdered wig. Interestingly, the format of the philosophical discussion is similar to Plato’s Republic: discovery through conversation.
#11: Native American Wisdom
Philosopher: Kent Nerburn
Our survey of philosophical books would not be complete without including an indigenous voice. While everyone thinks about powdered wigs and togas when it comes to the meaning of life, how many of us think about the treasure trove of wisdom offered by native peoples?
This curation of Native American ideas and beliefs will have you thinking about your relationship to the land, your own spirit, and sublime concerns beyond space and time. If you’re not looking to sweat out the demons in a dark, steamy, underground room (we’re talking about a sweat lodge here) get a taste of Native American philosophy and practice with this great book…and pass the peace pipe, please.
So what is Philosophy?
Philosophy is essentially the study of life’s biggest questions:
- What are we doing here?
- What is our purpose?
- What is good?
- What is evil?
And so on…you can really get in depth with the subject, reading book after book and traveling down multiple wormholes to new planets of inquiry…boldly going where no man has gone before. Or have they?
Philosophy covers so many topics and exists in different forms all over the world. While most everyone has heard of ancient Greek celebrities like Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates, there are also the French philosophers like Voltaire, Descartes, and Sartre. There are Asian philosophers like Sun Tzu and Confucius.
And then there is the homeless dude standing outside of McDonald’s, who probably has some philosophy to offer you on your way out.
There’s no wrong place to start reading Philosophy
What I said above was secretly a tautology: You’ll never go wrong with these because there is no wrong way to go.
Reading philosophical texts isn’t a test!
Put all those worries aside. It’s not a test (unless you’re in class, I suppose!), and unless you can never change your mind once made up, your understanding of the texts will evolve as you read and reread them.
For most philosophical works, rereading is a prerequisite.
Expand your horizons
Reading the philosopher who interests you in their original language can open new meaning and uncover crucial but often hidden subtleties. It is by no means a requirement that you know ancient Greek to read Plato, of course, or even to understand him, but the texts have a different texture in other languages, so I do recommend it for the experience alone.
Examine your interests
When deciding on a work to read, consider these:
What kind of questions pique your interest, what kind of discussions address you personally? Depending on how you answer, you may want to start somewhere different.
Are you interested in the nature of knowledge and justification? Maybe it would be helpful to begin with modern discussions on knowledge as justified, true belief and their challenges.
Or perhaps you’re more concerned with ethics and how to live a good life? Maybe you would be better served than reading Nietzsche’s “Genealogy of Morals” than anything on this list.
Philosophy is everywhere
You may be wondering what the point of all this inquiry and discussion is. True, it all seems ungrounded and cerebral, until you consider how philosophy has shaped world events like the American and French Revolutions, and the World Wars.
As broad as it is in terms of historical and geographical scope, one can be at a loss for where to begin. Never fear as this list of best philosophy books for beginners has at least one book that will get your thoughtful juices flowing.