How to start reading Philosophy?
Philosophy; the beginning to one’s first soulful resurrection. We have all heard of it and yet, many of us lack the knowledge on where to start. “You may wonder,” Who are these pasty westerners to tell me what is wrong with my life? Why is this old Chinese general telling me about war? I can’t understand any of the old english they are using; why are they so pretentious? Fret not, this article may answer some of your questions.
Philosophy at first sight can be extremely intimidating but, have no fear! This article is a beginner’s guide to opening your mind up to the most impressive field of study that humanity has ever concocted. So, let me enlighten you to (hopefully, not the only) three philosophy books you should invest in. (Or borrow if you are sustainable or short in funds!)
- Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations
Meditations is one of the greatest pieces of literary works ever created. The book was written by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–180 AD). One of the hallmark works of Stoicism, Meditations wasin fact Marcus Aurelius’s personal diary! The book describes the complications of Stoicism and numerous pieces of advice that he used to give himself. They may seem pretentious at first but they were really just advice to himself.
Stoicism focuses on the concept that emotions often causes us to do things ‘bad’ in nature, and is the belief that people should maintain a prohairesis (our will) in accordance to nature so as to hone virtues of character and avoid unnecessary spillage of emotion.
Personal Opinion: The reason why I would recommend this to a new reader is because the grammar used in the latest translations are relatively simplistic yet, they spoke great volumes to the intricate nature of stoicism. The fact that this book was his diary humanises the Godly character of a Roman emperor, often times in the book you can hear his doubt or the constraints that come with a stoical belief and I find that extremely humbling that if a Roman emperor could feel this way about something, then who am I to feel like I could do better than him?
I have a strong belief that many emotional problems the majority of people have can be solved to a certain extent by reading into Stoicism. It teaches control, wisdom, courage and moderation of all things. People may interpret it for the ignorance of feelings but I find it more towards the acceptance of feelings.
With Meditations riddled in quotes, it would be too easy to quote a cheesy one liner that is salted with a touch of irony and self reflection but here is one that I felt made him more down to earth.
At dawn of day, when you dislike being called, have this thought ready: ‘I am called to man’s labour; why then do I make a difficulty if I am going out to do what I was born to do and what I was brought into the world for? Is it for this that I am fashioned, to lie in bedclothes and keep myself warm?’ ‘But this is more pleasant.’ ‘Were you born then to please yourself; in fact for feeling, not for action? Can’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees each doing his own work, helping for their part to adjust a world? And then you refuse to do a man’s office and don’t make haste to do what is according to your own nature.’
He talks about the struggles of getting out of bed in the morning, one I am certain many of us (myself included) deal with and tries to look at it with stoical application. This excerpt is just a small text into what the rest of the book holds for the reader. The personal diary of a Roman Emperor at your bedside? Definitely not something one would expect to see in a room tour vlog.
2. Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince
If you have read 48 Laws of Power, you will realise The Prince is the Grandfather to all critical cut-throat self help books. The book is a piece of political philosophy that served as a guide to Princes of that era. It taught the realistic wisdom of how to keep a kingdom, invade a kingdom and to treat enemies. Throughout this book, that one audio that goes,“this man don’t miss” just kept ringing through my head.
The book centres around the dogma that for a Prince to achieve glory, he must be able to justify the usage of immoral practices to achieve those goals. He accepts the fact that humans will do a lot to get out of an undesirable situation in hopes to acquire more and once we accept that we cannot always be virtuous, only then will we be able to advance.
Personal Opinion: The Prince was originally dedicated to Lorenzo Medici from the rich and powerful Florentine Medici family. The book gave accounts and examples for each rule/saying so it helps the readers understand it a lot better seeing its application and how it was used.
The book is extremely powerful and a testament to that was the Catholic church banning it in 1559, banned for its presumably anti-christian ethics and labelled as a book for tyrants. The contents are extremely cutthroat and covers a wide range of topics where parallels can be drawn even if you do not own a Kingdom. It draws largely on the emphasis of one needing to be cruel and not kind as kindness is exploited, withdrawing compassion and the humanitarian aspect to things.
The reason why I think this book is excellent for beginners is because of the sheer impact it can have on your own life. If you change the wordings for some of the words in the text, you can apply the same message to your own modern interpretation of it; ‘kingdom’ could be substituted for ‘class’ and etc.
If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.
Here are one of the quotes I enjoyed that can give you a glimpse at the general theme of this powerful book.
3. Plato’s The Dying Days of Socrates
The Last Days of Socrates is part of Plato’s dialogues. It consists of the books Euthypro, Apology, Critho, and Phaedo. The dialogue records the discussions held by Socrates and people around him, it includes dialogues prior to, during, and after Socrates’ trial in which he was sentenced to death for the corruption of Athenian youth.
Greek philosophy is one of the foundational pillars of philosophy and much of modern philosophy takes inspiration from The Last Days of Socrates. The book centers around many themes, one being the questioning of what makes holy, holy? In the book Euthypro, Euthypro prosecutes his own father for the murder of a slave and claims great religious morality for that reason, Socrates praises him but attempts to find out what granted Euthypro the confidence of knowing what is holy in hopes it could help himself out for his impeding trial.
Eventually it led to the presentation of the famed Euthypro’s Dilemna;
Is the pious loved by the Gods because it is pious or is it pious because they are loved by the Gods.
Simply put, are things good and just because the Gods will them to be or are they good and just because they are good and just. Rather than seeing it as a threat to theological work, I see it as: are Good and Just loved by us because they are Good and Just or is it Good and Just because it is loved by us? This is a slightly modern rephrasing of the question that brings to attention where exactly do the sources of our moral compasses source and should source from.
Personal Opinion: In this book, you will see the usage of Socratic Dialogue, a method of understanding and finding contradictions in an opponent’s argument. I think that alone is sufficient motivation to read it but there’s more! The dialogue talks about the morality of men and where the very roots of it are held, it dwells further into the circumstances of Socrates death and how he stood by his principles.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book as it displayed one of the greatest outpours of wisdom assuming that whatever written was indeed what was said. The book gave me inspiration to reflect on my personal morals and question the very sources of them.
I would highly recommend it as it is a short and relatively interesting sequence of books that can be split up so you won’t feel intimidated by the number of pages. There is much that can be learnt from the self examination of individual morals. One of my favourite quotes by Socrates was in this book, it goes:
If on the other hand I say that it actually is the greatest good for a human being to get into discussion, every day, about goodness and the other somethings you hear me talking and examining myself and others about, and that for a human being a life without examination is actually not worth living.
Socrates,The Apology, 37e-38a
This book just has so much critical dialogue to what life truly is that in my opinion, it undeniably goes to my personal book hall of fame.
I would like to emphasise that my views do not represent any cooperation or entity. These are no means of an attack on anyone’s right of speech, views, or religion but rather to explore and share my train of thought. I ask not for everything to be taken in strict correctness but rather for you to read or look for other sources to formulate an individual opinion to appropriately discuss and learn.