Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “It is hard enough to remember my opinions, without also remembering my reasons for them.” This sums up philosophy pretty well – it’s an unimaginably expansive topic that forces you to remember a lot of arguments for a lot of opinions, in a nutshell. For that reason, there are an incredible amount of philosophical texts that are considered “essential,” and a great many of them are quite a challenge to absorb – especially for beginners.
However, it’s a topic that interests many readers, as it should, but when you go to get your feet wet, you might find that you don’t know where to start. How can you find books that will get you thinking without sounding like jibber jabber if you’ve got zero philosophical background?
Maybe you’re entering an online liberal arts degree program and aiming to be prepared, or maybe you’re just an avid reader. For any purpose, we’ve curated this list of essential philosophy texts to help provide some guidance, though it’ll take a good deal of exploring if you want to figure out which authors you like.
The Essential Epicurus by Epicurus
There isn’t much Epicurean work that survives (and it’s best advised that you forget everything you know about that word), but the small amount that does is quite worth the read. He preaches the importance of freeing oneself of anxiety in order to just live – in his words, “It is better for you to be free of fear and lying on a bed of straw than to own a couch of gold and a lavish table yet have no peace of mind.” It’s both useful for daily life and a great jump-start into philosophical dialogue.
Five Dialogues by Plato
None of Socrates works are still around but, luckily, the works of his student, Plato, are. By reading Five Dialogues, you can delve into the most fundamental aspects of Platonic philosophy. In it, he wanders around Athens trying to answer some important questions: what is piety? what is lawfulness? Though the circular nature of each dialogue can be a bit frustrating, it’s a great way to prime yourself for what’s to come in terms of philosophical reading.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
This book is exactly what its title makes itself out to be: meditations, or, Aurelius giving himself advice on how to manage his power in a good and responsible way. The author spent each night practicing spiritual exercises that would allow him to remain humble, patient, generous, and resilient. It sounds as though it might be difficult to absorb – after all, it’s written by one of the most powerful men in the world – but it’s quite accessible.
The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell
This one’s slightly more modern but no less important. Written in the 1930’s, it’s not your typical modern self-help book, but post-dating a lot of the big philosophers, it has a lot of relevant information about personal choices, what causes unhappiness, and what makes a person happy. It’s a good glance into non-theistic philosophy and quite relevant to modern culture, which you might find to be refreshing.
Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
It’s been translated over and over again, and changes upon changes have been made, but the fact still stands that millions of readers use Tao Te Ching as their roadmap for navigating daily life. It is thought uncover the unspoken laws that govern the world we live in – the laws of nature, the principles of interaction. Therefore, it serves as a completely rational moral compass as well as a sort of balancing for the scales, no matter which translation you choose to read.