As we’re entering the second half of this year, I wanted to take the time and reflect on the best books I’ve read so far. The range of genres is pretty great, but it mostly consists of philosophy and history as those are the subjects I am most interested in. Let’s start off with the first book.
What is Ancient Philosophy? by Pierre Hadot is one of the best philosophy books I’ve read this year. Last year, I started reading the dialogues of Plato since the Oxford World Classics editions are really cheap and for those starting out in philosophy it doesn’t hurt by starting with Plato because he does not require some knowledge of other philosophers. The book by Hadot goes deeper into what philosophy was in ancient times. Nowadays it seems that philosophy is seen as something abstract that only interests itself with theory and that it is pretty far away from the normal day to day. Hadot claims that in ancient Greece this wasn’t the case. Philosophy was a way of life.
For me this book gave me the words to communicate what I was looking for during my philosophical journey. Philosophy isn’t just theory (Theoria), it is also practice (Praxis). Or rather, theory put into practice. The cynics acted differently in their lives than did stoics and they acted differently than epicureans. And this is something we do all the time. You act towards your set of beliefs, towards your philosophy. A communist will act differently from a libertarian, at least if they are true to their beliefs.
Pierre Hadot brings ancient philosophy back to life. This book is also good for beginner philosophy readers as the language Hadot uses is not difficult at all and he clearly defines what he means in his writings.
The second book I can highly recommend is Freedom: An Unruly History by Annelien De Dijn. This book is both philosophy and history rolled in one. De Dijn looks at the history of the concept of freedom; or rather she analyzes two different conceptions of freedom. One can be defined as the liberal conception of freedom, where the government should not be allowed to interfere in your life except if that freedom would harm other people, according to Mill’s damage principle, which I explained in my post about paternalism. The second conception of freedom can be defined as the republican or Aristotelian conception of freedom. In this conception, we are only free if we can govern ourselves and limit ourselves with the laws we put in place. Here, politics is something valuable inherently in and of itself.
De Dijn shows how the concept of freedom shifted between these two conceptions almost continually since the modern age. In antiquity, the republican conception of freedom was the more dominant, but ever since the rise of liberalism the liberal conception has been mainstream. But in every time period, there was someone defending one certain conception of freedom while criticizing the other. De Dijn gives a meaningful history of these two terms.
In the history of writing about freedom, there are almost as many definitions of freedom as there are writers writing about freedom. Incorporating them all would take a lifetime of studying and a book so big, we wouldn’t be able to lift it. De Dijn makes a selection but handles this selection with the utmost care. This book is perfect for those who want to know what freedom actually is.
Troy by Stephen Fry is the third in Fry’s Greek mythology series and as the name already reveals, is all about the Trojan War. Unlike the other Greek mythology books of Stephen Fry, which I’ve all immensely enjoyed, this is more of a narrative story than the other ones. Mythos and Heroes were both a collection of short stories and myths, but Troy reads like the continuation of a book series as if the previous books were an introduction so you could understand this epic.
For people who are interested in Greek mythology but are rather reticent in reading Homer, might want to try Stephen Fry’s books on Greek mythology. Not only are they highly engaging, but Fry also brings in his unique special wit into the picture. The scenes are filled with sarcasm and irony typical of the British comedian. A great introduction for those who are interested in Greek mythology or want a perfect book to read to someone before going to bed.
Dostoyevsky is one of the greatest if not the greatest Russian writer to have ever lived. And his book The Brothers Karamazov is an all-time classic. This book is thicker than a fitness models Instagram and quite boring in the first half. Only when the murder has happened does the story really start to get going and you understand why you needed to read the first half. It’s like one of those movies you’re not really feeling for the majority of the time because you don’t understand what’s going on, but then when that one plot point hits, it just blows you away.
Many themes are taken apart in this book, but the main theme in my opinion is the relation between ethics and God. The protagonists of the book all have a different view on this dilemma and their interactions work so well because of it. Not only do they take different actions to the same situations, because of their different belief systems, they continually challenge each other’s perspectives. For example, Ivan asks his brother Aljosja how it is possible that a good God can exists when he allows the event of a young girl being raped by an old man and then killed horrendously, just for being at the wrong place in the wrong time. Something to ask your religious family members at your next family gathering. Or something to think about when you can’t sleep.
With this book, I would say, try to press on. I had a hard time reading this book, but after the first half I really couldn’t stop reading. It had me in its grip and that is a sign that you’ve found a book that’s worth rereading. The Brothers Karamazov will definitely visit my dreams more when I’ll close my eyes.
The last book I can recommend is a bit more specific. The Affirmation of Life by Bernard Reginster, is a book on Nietzsche quest to overcome nihilism which he does through the affirmation of life. Reginster breaks down Nietzsche philosophy to the most fundamental parts and I can highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand more about Nietzsche’s philosophy. The book can be filled with some specific jargon which will need some research to become clear, but for those interested in philosophy, this can be a great beginning into Nietzsche.
In some ways this book can even be classified as a self-help book. The idea behind Nietzsche’s (and Schopenhauer’s) philosophy is that we suffer in the world and that this had meaning since God existed. But now that God is dead, we need a new way of achieving meaning. I believe we all sometimes are in situations of suffering and reading the way Nietzsche’s tries to overcome this is beautiful. I was already a big fan of Nietzsche, but this book made me fall in more in love with him. The book explains some obscure concepts Nietzsche introduces (albeit purposefully obscure) in a clear way and really takes its time to guide the reader through his thinking. Reginster shows he understands Nietzsche maybe even better than he might have understood himself.
These were five of the best books I’ve read so far. There are more who should be making the list, but this was just a short overview of those books I believed were worth reading. Some of these won’t interest you and that’s okay. We all have different interests, but those people with some of the same interests as me might enjoy this small introduction into these amazing books. Now, go read the books you want to read, because there is nothing better than finishing a book you thought was amazing.