The questions of the universe are seemingly never-ending and unanswerable. But luckily we have access to some of the greatest philosophical minds in history through their writing. This reading list of the best philosophy books of all time features works from the greats like Plato and Nietzsche as well as modern reads from inspiring thinkers like the Dalai Lama. Though nothing is absolute in philosophy, one thing is sure — these books will have you thinking long after the last page. Publishers’ descriptions included.
The Tried and True Classics
From Ancient Greek philosophers to 20th-century thought leaders, these best philosophy books of all time feature the must-read ancient and modern classics.
Beyond Good And Evil
by Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil is a critical response to metaphysical writings that try to define good and evil. Nietzsche advocates for an individualized way of thinking that focuses on the realities of life and that ignores traditional moral conventions, including religion, free will, and self-consciousness.
Divided into nine subjects areas, Beyond Good and Evil was written in a polemical style consisting of 296 short sections. Published shortly after Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil expands on and adds to the ideas of that previous work.
Being and Nothingness
by Jean-Paul Sartre
Revisit one of the most important pillars in modern philosophy with this new English translation — the first in more than 60 years — of Jean-Paul Sartre’s seminal treatise on existentialism.
In 1943, Jean-Paul Sartre published his masterpiece, Being and Nothingness, and laid the foundation of his legacy as one of the greatest 20th-century philosophers. A brilliant and radical account of the human condition, Being and Nothingness explores what gives our lives significance.
In a new, more accessible translation, this foundational text argues that we alone create our values and our existence is characterized by freedom and the inescapability of choice. Far from being an internal, passive container for our thoughts and experiences, the human consciousness is constantly projecting itself into the outside world and imbuing it with meaning.
Now with a new foreword by Harvard professor of philosophy Richard Moran, this clear-eyed translation guarantees that the groundbreaking ideas that Sartre introduced in this resonant work will continue to inspire for generations to come.
The Complete Essays of Michel de Montaigne
by Michel de Montaigne
With the goal of describing man with complete frankness and using himself as his most frequent example, Michel de Montaigne first published his Essays in 1580.
This collection of 107 chapters encompasses a wide variety of subjects, originally inspired by his study of Latin classics, and later by the lives of the leading figures of his time. Michel de Montaigne saw the most basic elements of man as variety and unpredictability, and this idea permeates the entire work, even as he explores a myriad of topics, including theology, philosophy, law, fame, memory, death, and his own daily schedule.
The longest essay, entitled ‘Apology for Raymond Sebond,’ contains his most famous quote: “What do I know?” This perhaps embodies the spirit of the entire volume, for it reflects both the inquisitory search for intellectual knowledge as well as the more personal anecdotal quality of a work that has had an enduring impact on both French and English literature for hundreds of years. This edition includes the complete collection of Montaigne’s Essays.
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
by Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Annius Verus was born in Rome, A. D. 121, and assumed the name of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, by which he is known to history, on his adoption by the Emperor T. Aurelius Antoninus. M. Aurelius was educated by the orator Fronto, but turned aside from rhetoric to the study of the Stoic philosophy, of which he was the last distinguished representative. The Meditations, which he wrote in Greek, are among the most noteworthy expressions of this system, and exhibit it favorably on its practical side. The Meditationspicture with faithfulness the mind and character of this noblest of the emperors. Simple in style and sincere in tone, they record, for posterity, the height reached by pagan aspiration in its effort to solve the problem of conduct; and the essential agreement of his practice, coupled with his teaching, proved that even in a palace life may be led well.
The Dialogues of Plato
Socrates’s ancient words are still true, and the ideas found in Plato’s Dialogues still form the foundation of a thinking person’s education. This superb collection contains excellent contemporary translations selected for their clarity and accessibility to today’s reader, as well as an incisive introduction by Erich Segal, which reveals Plato’s life and clarifies the philosophical issues examined in each dialogue. The first four dialogues recount the trial and execution of Socrates — the extraordinary tragedy that changed Plato’s life and forever altered the course of Western thought. Other dialogues create a rich tableau of intellectual life in Athens in the fourth century B. C., and examine such timeless — and timely — issues as the nature of virtue and love, knowledge and truth, and society and the individual. Resounding with the humor and astounding brilliance of Socrates, the immortal iconoclast, these great works remain powerful, probing, and essential.
Confessions of Saint Augustine
by Augustine of Hippo
St. Augustine’s Confessions was written between AD 397-400. An autobiographical work, it was written in 13 parts, each a complete text intended to be read aloud. Written in his early 40s, it documents the development of Augustine’s thought from childhood into his adult life — a life he considered in retrospect to be both sinful and immoral. He was in his early 30s before he converted to Christianity, but was soon ordained as a priest and became a bishop not long after.
Confessions not only documented his conversion but sought to offer guidance to others taking the same path. Considered to be the first Western autobiography to be written, Augustine’s work (including the subsequent ‘City of God’) became a major influence on Christian writers for the next 1,000 years and remains a much-valued contribution to Christian thinking.
This edition uses the classic translation from Latin by E.B. Pusey (1838) with a partial modernization of the text to assist the modern reader.
Meditations On The First Philosophy
by Rene Descartes
In Meditations on First Philosophy, French philosopher René Descartes, now regarded as the father of Western philosophy, introduces the concept of the dichotomy — the separation of mind and body — by determining, “I think, therefore I am.”
Man’s Search For Meaning
by Viktor E Frankl
Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s memoir has riveted generations of readers with its descriptions of life in Nazi death camps and its lessons for spiritual survival. Between 1942 and 1945 Frankl labored in four different camps, including Auschwitz, while his parents, brother, and pregnant wife perished. Based on his own experience and the experiences of others he treated later in his practice, Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. Frankl’s theory — known as logotherapy, from the Greek word logos (“meaning”) — holds that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, as Freud maintained, but the discovery and pursuit of what we personally find meaningful.
At the time of Frankl’s death in 1997, Man’s Search for Meaning had sold more than 10 million copies in 24 languages. A 1991 reader survey for the Library of Congress that asked readers to name a “book that made a difference in your life” found Man’s Search for Meaning among the ten most influential books in America.
The Second Sex
by Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir’s essential masterwork is a powerful analysis of the Western notion of “woman,” and a revolutionary exploration of inequality and otherness. Unabridged in English for the first time, this long-awaited edition reinstates significant portions of the original French text that were cut in the first English translation. Vital and groundbreaking, Beauvoir’s pioneering and impressive text remains as pertinent today as when it was first published, and will continue to provoke and inspire generations of men and women to come.
A Treatise of Human Nature
by David Hume
One of the most significant works of Western philosophy, Hume’s Treatise was published in 1739-40, before he was 30 years old. A pinnacle of English empiricism, it is a comprehensive attempt to apply scientific methods of observation to a study of human nature, and a vigorous attack upon the principles of traditional metaphysical thought. With masterly eloquence, Hume denies the immortality of the soul and the reality of space; considers the manner in which we form concepts of identity, cause and effect; and speculates upon the nature of freedom, virtue, and emotion. Opposed both to metaphysics and to rationalism, Hume’s philosophy of informed scepticism sees man not as a religious creation, nor as a machine, but as a creature dominated by sentiment, passion, and appetite.
The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle
Nicomachean Ethics focuses on the importance of habitually behaving virtuously and developing a virtuous character. Aristotle emphasized the importance of context to ethical behavior, and the ability of the virtuous person to recognize the best course of action. Aristotle argued that happiness and well-being is the goal of life, and that a person’s pursuit of such, rightly conceived, will result in virtuous conduct.
Tao Te Ching
by Lao Tzu
No other English translation of this greatest of the Chinese classics can match Ursula Le Guin’s striking new version. Le Guin, best known for thought-provoking science fiction novels that have helped to transform the genre, has studied the Tao Te Ching for more than forty years. She has consulted the literal translations and worked with Chinese scholars to develop a version that lets the ancient text speak in a fresh way to modern people, while remaining faithful to the poetic beauty of the work. Avoiding scholarly interpretations and esoteric Taoist insights, she has revealed the Tao Te Ching ’s immediate relevance and power, as well as its depth and refreshing humor, in a way that shows better than ever before why it has been so much loved for more than 2,500 years. Included are Le Guin’s own personal commentary and notes on the text. This new version is sure to be welcomed by the many readers of the Tao Te Ching as well as those coming to the text for the first time.
Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic
As chief adviser to the emperor Nero, Lucius Annaeus Seneca was most influential in ancient Rome as a power behind the throne. His lasting fame derives from his writings on Stoic ideology, in which philosophy is a practical form of self-improvement rather than a matter of argument or wordplay. Seneca’s letters to a young friend advise action rather than reflection, addressing the issues that confront every generation: how to achieve a good life, how to avoid corruption and self-indulgence, and how to live without fear of death.
Written in an intimate, conversational style, the letters reflect the traditional Stoic focus on living in accordance with nature and accepting the world on its own terms. The philosopher emphasizes the Roman values of courage, self-control, and rationality, yet he remains remarkably modern in his tolerant and cosmopolitan attitude. Rich in epigrammatic wit, Seneca’s interpretation of Stoicism constitutes a timeless and inspiring declaration of the dignity of the individual mind.
The Social Contract
by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” This statement exemplifies the main idea behind The Social Contract, in other words that man is essentially free if it weren’t for the oppression of political organizations such as government. Rousseau goes on to lay forth the principles that he deems most important for achieving political right amongst people. Contained within this volume are also two discourses by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In ‘A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality,’ Rousseau examines the causes of the inequalities that exist among men, concluding that it is the natural result of the formation of any civilization. In ‘A Discourse on Political Economy,’ Rousseau examines the nature of politics and their effect on people. These three works lay a solid foundation for the political philosophy of Rousseau and are a must read for any student of political science or philosophy.
The Critique of Pure Reason
by Immanuel Kant
Immanuel’s Kant’s groundbreaking work, considered to be among the most influential philosophical texts in the Western canon.
Familiar to philosophy students through the centuries, The Critique of Pure Reason is in many ways Kant’s magnum opus. First published in 1781, it seeks to define what can be known by reason alone without evidence from experience. Kant begins by defining a posteriori knowledge, which is gained through the senses, versus a priori knowledge, or self-evident truths understood without the benefit of experience. He then examines these two types of knowledge in the context of analytic and synthetic judgments, using the relationship between them to conclude that through reason alone, humans are capable of reaching deep universal truths. Kant then demonstrates how even as much of the world around us can never be truly known — the laws of the universe are in fact made possible by the human capacity for reason itself.
Sparking intense and lasting discussion, The Critique of Pure Reason remains essential reading for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the ideas that, since their initial publication, have gone on to shape much of Western philosophy.
by Niccolò Machiavelli
As a young Florentine envoy to the courts of France and the Italian principalities, Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) was able to observe firsthand the lives of people strongly united under one powerful ruler. His fascination with that political rarity and his intense desire to see the Medici family assume a similar role in Italy provided the foundation for his “primer for princes.” In this classic guide to acquiring and maintaining political power, Machiavelli used a rational approach to advise prospective rulers, developing logical arguments and alternatives for a number of potential problems, among them governing hereditary monarchies, dealing with colonies, and the treatment of conquered peoples. Refreshing in its directness, yet often disturbing in its cold practicality, The Prince sets down a frighteningly pragmatic formula for political fortune. Starkly relevant to the political upheavals of the 20th century, this calculating prescription for power remains today, nearly 500 years after it was written, a timely and startling lesson in the practice of autocratic rule that continues to be much read and studied by students, scholars, and general readers as well.
History of Western Philosophy
by Bertrand Russell
Hailed as “lucid and magisterial” by The Observer, this book is universally acclaimed as the outstanding one-volume work on the subject of Western philosophy.
Considered to be one of the most important philosophical works of all-time, A History of Western Philosophy is a dazzlingly unique exploration of the ideologies of significant philosophers throughout the ages — from Plato and Aristotle through to Spinoza, Kant, and the 20th century. Written by a man who changed the history of philosophy himself, this is an account that has never been rivaled since its first publication over 60 years ago.
Since its first publication in 1945, Lord Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy is still unparalleled in its comprehensiveness, its clarity, its erudition, its grace, and its wit. In 76 chapters he traces philosophy from the rise of Greek civilization to the emergence of logical analysis in the 20th century.
Modern Philosophy Books
Looking to branch out to some of the more modern best philosophy books of all time? Here are releases from recent years that are sure to get you thinking.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
by Robert M. Pirsig
Acclaimed as one of the most exciting books in the history of American letters, this modern epic became an instant bestseller upon publication in 1974, transforming a generation and continuing to inspire millions. This 25th Anniversary Quill Edition features a new introduction by the author; important typographical changes; and a Reader’s Guide that includes discussion topics, an interview with the author, and letters and documents detailing how this extraordinary book came to be. A narration of a summer motorcycle trip undertaken by a father and his son, the book becomes a personal and philosophical odyssey into fundamental questions of how to live. The narrator’s relationship with his son leads to a powerful self-reckoning; the craft of motorcycle maintenance leads to an austerely beautiful process for reconciling science, religion, and humanism. Resonant with the confusions of existence, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a touching and transcendent book of life.
The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom
by Don Miguel Ruiz and Janet Mills
In The Four Agreements, don Miguel Ruiz reveals the source of self-limiting beliefs that rob us of joy and create needless suffering. Based on ancient Toltec wisdom, The Four Agreements offer a powerful code of conduct that can rapidly transform our lives to a new experience of freedom, true happiness, and love.
The Book of Joy
by Dalai Lama XIV, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Carlton Abrams
Nobel Peace Prize Laureates His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have survived more than 50 years of exile and the soul-crushing violence of oppression. Despite their hardships — or, as they would say, because of them — they are two of the most joyful people on the planet.
In April 2015, Archbishop Tutu traveled to the Dalai Lama’s home in Dharamsala, India, to celebrate His Holiness’s 80th birthday and to create what they hoped would be a gift for others. They looked back on their long lives to answer a single burning question: How do we find joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering?
They traded intimate stories, teased each other continually, and shared their spiritual practices. By the end of a week filled with laughter and punctuated with tears, these two global heroes had stared into the abyss and despair of our time and revealed how to live a life brimming with joy.
This book offers us a rare opportunity to experience their astonishing and unprecendented week together, from the first embrace to the final good-bye.
We get to listen as they explore the ‘Nature of True Joy’ and confront each of the ‘Obstacles of Joy’ — from fear, stress, and anger to grief, illness, and death. They then offer us the ‘Eight Pillars of Joy,’ which provide the foundation for lasting happiness. Throughout, they include stories, wisdom, and science. Finally, they share their daily ‘Joy Practices’ that anchor their own emotional and spiritual lives.
The Archbishop has never claimed sainthood, and the Dalai Lama considers himself a simple monk. In this unique collaboration, they offer us the reflection of real lives filled with pain and turmoil in the midst of which they have been able to discover a level of peace, of courage, and of joy to which we can all aspire in our own lives.
The 48 Laws of Power
by Robert Greene
Amoral, cunning, ruthless, and instructive, this multi-million-copy New York Times bestseller is the definitive manual for anyone interested in gaining, observing, or defending against ultimate control — from the author of The Laws of Human Nature.
In the book that People magazine proclaimed “beguiling” and “fascinating,” Robert Greene and Joost Elffers have distilled 3,000 years of the history of power into 48 essential laws by drawing from the philosophies of Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, and Carl Von Clausewitz and also from the lives of figures ranging from Henry Kissinger to P.T. Barnum.
Some laws teach the need for prudence (‘Law 1: Never Outshine the Master’), others teach the value of confidence (‘Law 28: Enter Action with Boldness’), and many recommend absolute self-preservation (‘Law 15: Crush Your Enemy Totally’). Every law, though, has one thing in common: an interest in total domination. In a bold and arresting two-color package, The 48 Laws of Power is ideal whether your aim is conquest, self-defense, or simply to understand the rules of the game.
by Christine Gross-Loh and Michael Puett
For the first time, an award-winning Harvard professor shares his wildly popular course on classical Chinese philosophy, showing you how ancient ideas — like the fallacy of the authentic self — can guide you on the path to a good life today.
Why is a course on ancient Chinese philosophers one of the most popular at Harvard? Because it challenges all our modern assumptions about what it takes to flourish.
Astonishing teachings emerged 2,000 years ago through the work of a succession of Chinese scholars exploring how humans can improve themselves and their society. And what are these counter-intuitive ideas? Transformation comes not from looking within for a true self, but from creating conditions that produce new possibilities. Good relationships come not from being sincere and authentic, but from the rituals we perform within them. A good life emerges not from planning it out, but through training ourselves to respond well to small moments. Influence comes not from wielding power but from holding back. Excellence comes from what we choose to do, not our natural abilities.
In other words, The Path “opens the mind” (Huffington Post) and upends everything we are told about how to lead a good life. Its most radical idea is that there is no path to follow in the first place — just a journey we create anew at every moment by seeing and doing things differently.
How to Live
by Sarah Bakewell
How to get along with people, how to deal with violence, how to adjust to losing someone you love — such questions arise in most people’s lives. They are all versions of a bigger question: how do you live? How do you do the good or honorable thing, while flourishing and feeling happy?
This question obsessed Renaissance writers, none more than Michel Eyquem de Monatigne, perhaps the first truly modern individual. A nobleman, public official, and wine-grower, he wrote free-roaming explorations of his thought and experience, unlike anything written before. He called them “essays,” meaning “attempts” or “tries.” Into them, he put whatever was in his head: his tastes in wine and food, his childhood memories, the way his dog’s ears twitched when it was dreaming, as well as the appalling events of the religious civil wars raging around him. The Essays was an instant bestseller and, over 400 years later, Montaigne’s honesty and charm still draw people to him. Readers come in search of companionship, wisdom, and entertainment — and in search of themselves.
This book, a spirited and singular biography, relates the story of his life by way of the questions he posed and the answers he explored. It traces his bizarre upbringing, youthful career and sexual adventures, his travels, and his friendships with the scholar and poet Étienne de La Boétie and with his adopted “daughter,” Marie de Gournay. And we also meet his readers — who for centuries have found in Montaigne an inexhaustible source of answers to the haunting question, “How to live?”
The Wisdom of Insecurity
by Alan W. Watts
We live in an age of unprecedented anxiety. Spending all our time trying to anticipate and plan for the future and to lamenting the past, we forget to embrace the here and now. We are so concerned with tomorrow that we forget to enjoy today. Drawing from Eastern philosophy and religion, Alan Watts shows that it is only by acknowledging what we do not — and cannot — know that we can learn anything truly worth knowing. In The Wisdom of Insecurity, he shows us how, in order to lead a fulfilling life, we must embrace the present — and live fully in the now.
Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity
by Richard Rorty
In this 1989 book Rorty argues that thinkers such as Nietzsche, Freud, and Wittgenstein have enabled societies to see themselves as historical contingencies, rather than as expressions of underlying, ahistorical human nature or as realizations of suprahistorical goals. This ironic perspective on the human condition is valuable on a private level, although it cannot advance the social or political goals of liberalism. In fact Rorty believes that it is literature not philosophy that can do this, by promoting a genuine sense of human solidarity. A truly liberal culture, acutely aware of its own historical contingency, would fuse the private, individual freedom of the ironic, philosophical perspective with the public project of human solidarity as it is engendered through the insights and sensibilities of great writers. The book has a characteristically wide range of reference from philosophy through social theory to literary criticism. It confirms Rorty’s status as a uniquely subtle theorist, whose writing will prove absorbing to academic and nonacademic readers alike.
by Jostein Gaarder
One day Sophie comes home from school to find two questions in her mail: “Who are you?” and “Where does the world come from?” Before she knows it she is enrolled in a correspondence course with a mysterious philosopher. Thus begins Jostein Gaarder’s unique novel, which is not only a mystery, but also a complete and entertaining history of philosophy.
Philosophy as a Way of Life
by Pierre Hadot
This book presents a history of spiritual exercises from Socrates to early Christianity, an account of their decline in modern philosophy, and a discussion of the different conceptions of philosophy that have accompanied the trajectory and fate of the theory and practice of spiritual exercises. Hadot’s book demonstrates the extent to which philosophy has been, and still is, above all else a way of seeing and of being in the world.
by Edith Hall
From renowned classicist Edith Hall, Aristotle’s Way is an examination of one of history’s greatest philosophers, showing us how to lead happy, fulfilled, and meaningful lives.
Aristotle was the first philosopher to inquire into subjective happiness, and he understood its essence better and more clearly than anyone since. According to Aristotle, happiness is not about well-being, but instead a lasting state of contentment, which should be the ultimate goal of human life. We become happy through finding a purpose, realizing our potential, and modifying our behavior to become the best version of ourselves. With these objectives in mind, Aristotle developed a humane program for becoming a happy person, which has stood the test of time, comprising much of what today we associate with the good life: meaning, creativity, and positivity. Most importantly, Aristotle understood happiness as available to the vast majority us, but only, crucially, if we decide to apply ourselves to its creation — and he led by example. As Hall writes, “If you believe that the goal of human life is to maximize happiness, then you are a budding Aristotelian.”
In expert yet vibrant modern language, Hall lays out the crux of Aristotle’s thinking, mixing affecting autobiographical anecdotes with a deep wealth of classical learning. For Hall, whose own life has been greatly improved by her understanding of Aristotle, this is an intensely personal subject. She distills his ancient wisdom into ten practical and universal lessons to help us confront life’s difficult and crucial moments, summarizing a lifetime of the most rarefied and brilliant scholarship.