Stop buying from bestseller lists.
If you look at humanity’s timeline —what are the chances that the truly great books have been written in the past 20 years? Approximately zero, right.
Still, many people buy the latest books instead of the greatest. Here’s what that leads to:
“A public that will leave unread writings of the noblest and rarest of minds (…), merely because these writings have been printed today and are still wet from the press.” — Schopenhauer
Common problems have been the same throughout all centuries: happiness, morality, power, justice, and love. That’s why the wisdom from great philosophers is still so applicable.
Here are eight books from great minds that you don’t find on current best-seller lists.
1. Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
Even though the title sounds complex, reading the Tao Te Ching is easy. The book helps us understand Taoism, which literally means ‘the way.’
When you read through the 160-page short book written in 4th century BC, you feel trust and self-compassion rushing through you. Here’s one of my favorite quotes:
“Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.”― Lao Tzu
2. Zhuangzi by Zhuangzi
If Tao Te Ching explains Taoism’s theoretical concepts, this book is its workbook. It shows us how to put Toaism into practice.
Zhuangzi gives us applicable guidance, like “A path is made by walking on it” or, “Happiness is the absence of the striving for happiness.” In sum, the book is a how-to guide for living a simple and natural but full and flourishing life.
It’s an ancient and even wiser version of Naval Ravikant and a great read for anyone who wants to bring more happiness and wisdom to their life.
3. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle
The main goal of Nicomachean Ethics is learning to achieve eudaimonia, a Greek term with deep meaning. Philosophers say there’s no accurate translation for eudaimonia. But if we had to find a word, it’s happiness.
To achieve this kind of happiness, a person must first reach a state of inner balance. And to achieve personal harmony, there are two things you should do:
- Investing in your education, reasoning, and thinking.
- Cultivating important character virtues.
In the book, Aristotle explains how to build a virtuous character. First, by learning the difference between virtuous and not virtuous actions. Second, by creating habits that allow you to form a good character.
That’s how Aristotle goes one step further than James Clear. Before he tells you how to form habits, Aristotle gives you a decision guide for future actions.
4. Five Dialogues of Plato
When I started studying philosophy last fall, reading Plato was one of the first reading assignments. Different characters debate topics like justice, death, and virtue. They mostly try to find a conclusion (even though they can’t always find one).
What I love about Plato is his philosophy in dialogue form. The dialogue makes reading interesting.
The asking protagonists are the reader’s voice. They ask questions you will have. And this book contains 5 of the most important Platonic dialogues.
“Are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?” — Plato
5. What is Enlightenment? by Immanuel Kant
Now, this isn’t really a book but an essay. But Kant is hard to read. And better to read a hard-digestible essay than not to read Kant’s work. It still contains the quintessence of his writings.
Kant popularized the idea that we should trust no authority except our own reason. He would sigh when looking at all the coaches, self-help books, and online courses that suggest how to live your life.
He’d say: Use your own reasoning and, by all means, dare to be wise.
So, this essay is excellent for anyone struggling with trusting their own beliefs. For writers who feel scared to form opinions. And for insecure overachievers.
Kant’s words are a great reminder of whom to trust making any decision in life — you.
6. Penseés by Blaise Pascal
The Penseés is a collection of philosophical fragments, notes, and essays. Pascal explores the contradictions of human nature from a psychological, social, theological, and metaphysical perspective.
While this collection is slightly pessimistic and tries to convince atheists of God’s existence, it’s still worth the read. You will realize the fundamental human problems were the same in 1670 as in 2021.
“Man’s condition: Inconstancy, boredom, anxiety. But take away their distractions and you will see them wither from boredom.” — Blaise Pascal
7. The Complete Essays by Michel de Montaigne
Just like Bill Gates, Michel was one of the wealthiest men of his time. And just like Bill, Michel appreciated ‘thinking time.’
Yet, Michel’s thinking time far exceeded Bill’s think week. He isolated himself for 9 entire years to find what it means to be human.
Frankly, his essay’s topics seem random. They cover wide arrays and range from friendships to the imagination, to laughing, and more.
Reading his essays is not too difficult. But the sum (1344 pages) is daunting. If you decide to get this book, here is a selection of his most-discussed essays. Yet, when you choose, remember to use your own reason (see 5).
- On Friendship
- To philosophize is to learn how to die
- Apology for Raymond Sebond
- On Experience
- On Solitude
8. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise by Betty Radice
What I dislike about most booklists is they don’t include female authors. Yet, I didn’t know that finding ancient female writing is a true research project.
Héloïse was a philosopher of love and friendship. Plus, she was important for the establishment of women in science. Her controversial thoughts about genre and marriage influenced the development of modern feminism.
Héloïse, a 12th-century woman raised in a convent, expressed her sexuality with such openness our generations can learn from.
“No one’s real worth is measured by his property or power: Fortune belongs to one category of things and virtue to another.” — Héloïse
Learning from the greatest thinkers who have ever existed doesn’t need to feel like a burden. On the contrary — it can be fun and worthwhile.
Your life, your reading list. Use your own mind and pick the ones that resonate with you. Then, screw the rest. When in doubt, remember Schopenhauer’s suggestion:
“Only read for a limited and definite time exclusively the works of great minds, those who surpass other men of all times and countries, and whom the voice of fame points to as such. These alone really educate and instruct.”
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