Blog / Reading list
25+ BOOKS THAT EXPLAIN LIFE
This is where the magic is! The rest of this website is merely condensing the wisdom pouring out of the books below. To determine what constitutes the ‘flourishing’ life-and thus how one can fundamentally change one’s character–I turned to the experts. Figuring out how to turn your life around on your own is like trying to treat alcoholism alone. It can be done, but the odds are against you and it will be a lot harder than necessary. So I have spent several years studying sages, scientists, doctors, philosophers, psychiatrists, poets, prophets, therapists, self-help gurus, engineers, and anyone else I could find who promised to have some answers. These books that opened up a door to understanding, blew my mind, or did both. Spanning 2000 years and several disciplines, the knowledge here has guided me and millions of others. I hope it does the same for you. The background of the review is color coded by subject. Click on a book to buy it online. Enjoy!
Discourses and Enchiridion, Epictetus
The most important source for understanding Stoicism, Epictetus was a former slave who focused on how one lives virtuously. Introduced and or refined most of the concepts we associate with the philosophy such as ‘The Dichotomy of Control’, desire/assent/action, externals, and much more. Read by and inspired Marcus Aurelius, and pretty much every notable philosopher since. If one could only have one book, this would be it.
Notable Ideas / Quotes:
The entire book should be reread over and over, It is one big highlight.
– It isn’t the events themselves that disturb people, but only their judgements about them.
-There are things up to us and things not up to us. Stay detached from things not up to you.
– When we are unhappy, never hold anyone except ourselves accountable.
– The true man is revealed in difficult times.
– It isn’t death, pain or exile that account for the way we act, only our opinion about death, pain and exile.
– Welcome present circumstances and accept the things whose time has arrived. Be happy when you find that doctrines you have learned and analyzed are being tested by real events.
– When someone is properly grounded in life, they shouldn’t have to look outside themselves for approval
Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl
One cannot go very far reading anything about Stoicism or virtue ethics without this book coming up. Frankl chose not to flee Germany in the 1940’s when he had the chance because he would not leave his parents behind, was sent to three concentration camps, had his entire family killed by the Nazis, and wrote an entire theory of psychology on scraps of paper he found while a prisoner. I discuss The Will to Meaning.
Notable Ideas / Quotes:
The very last freedom that someone can take from you is your freedom to choose.
– In between a stimulus and your response, there is a gap. In that gap is where your freedom to choose is. This space is where one determines, ‘hey is this in my control or not’, and then respond accordingly. Frankl was very influenced by Stoic ideas.
– He described suffering is a gas. It will spread evenly throughout the human mind. The size of the suffering is relative (thus small things can affect us greatly).
-No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might have done the same thing.
-It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future.
– Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it. [Frankl is citing Spinoza here]
– The immediate influence of behavior is always more effective than words.
– Man’s search for meaning is a primary motivation in his life, not a ‘secondary rationalization’
– “live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted as wrongly as you about to act now! [Note: Nietzsche was also a big influence]
Meditations, Marcus Aurelius
Written by the only philosopher king in history, as a personal diary written later in life to help him keep key mantras/ideas in mind. intended to be burned after his death. Thankfully it wasn’t. Another of the key Stoic texts, Marcus walked the walk, and showed how anyone from emperor on down can be virtuous. Focused on seeing things for what they really were and doing what needed to be done, dealing with adversity, and getting comfortable with death. Along with Epictetus and Seneca, his work composes the bulk of written Stoic doctrine.
Notable Ideas / Quotes:
– Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do.
– The tranquility that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do
– Ask at each present circumstance, what is there about this that is unendurable and unbearable. You will be embarrassed to answer.
– Soon you will have forgotten everything; Soon everything will have forgotten you.
– How much trouble he avoids by not looking to see what his neighbor does or thinks.
– The Best answer to anger is silence.
– The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.
– “Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions – not outside.”
– “Receive without pride, let go without attachment.”
– “That which is not good for the bee-hive cannot be good for the bees.”
The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt
Probably my favorite non philosophy book I have read on human nature. Introduces the concept of the ‘Elephant and the Rider’, which alone makes this a must have. The Elephant is our emotional aspect, our action, It has been under development since Homo sapiens emerged. The Rider is our conscious, our reason. Developed much later around the time language evolved. Thus it only has partial control of the Elephant, like an advisor.
Notable Ideas / Quotes:
– ‘Confabulation’ – Our running commentary of what we are doing, unfortunately its created by the part of the brain that doesn’t actually know why we are doing things. Backed up by experimental data.
-The part of the brain that is especially large in humans deals exclusively with emotions. For example, people who have damaged this area lose all emotional capability, and amazingly also lose their ability to make decisions or set goals.
– We have controlled processes (CP) and automatic processes (AP). Automatic processes are those we can do without active concentration, like highway driving. We can do lots of different AP’s at once. CP take effort, like figuring out the best route to take in traffic. These CP’s can only be done one at a time. CP require language and are relatively newer on the evolutionary scale then automatic processes when have been going on since the dawn of man. AP=Elephant, CP=rider
-Since the rider came long after the elephant, evolution could not rewire our entire brain, so the rider serves the elephant, and does not control it. Our emotions/AP/Elephant is in charge, and sometimes listens to the rational/CP/rider.
-The rider cannot order the elephant against its will, but it can coax/distract it into better choices.
The ideas above are only from Chapter 1!
On the Shortness of Life, Seneca
A short book (really an essay) that will change your life (it did mine!) Seneca breaks down life, death, and the real relationship they both have with time. Seneca addresses the common complaints of his day, which are the same ones we have today. Life passes too quickly, we don’t have time to do the things we want, etc. He points out the stupidity with which we treat time, and how much we value the very things we really will not care about on our death bed. It’s not that the book reveals some never before fact regarding death, but he puts it all together in such a common sense manner that one feels energized to throw the book down and stop wasting time.
Notable Ideas / Quotes:
-It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.
-In guarding their fortune men are often closefisted, yet, when it comes to the matter of wasting time, in the case of the one thing in which it is right to be miserly, they show themselves most extravagant.
-Describes an analogy of an old lawyer falling dead in court, arguing on behalf of some stranger in front of strangers, and how pointless work in and of itself is.
-“You live as if you were destined to live forever, no thought of your frailty ever enters your head, of how much time has already gone by you take no heed. You squander time as if you drew from a full and abundant supply, though all the while that day which you bestow on some person or thing is perhaps your last.”
-Leisure by itself is meaningless. And unfulfilling.
-“You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire.”
-“The part of life we really live is small. For all the rest of existence is not life, but merely time.” Most of the time we are just puttering around, chasing externals that we will soon forget about.
Letters from a Stoic, Seneca
The third of the ‘Big 3’ in stoic literature, and by far the most prodigious of the Stoics (counting surviving works). In over 125 letters and consolations, Seneca’s friendly writing style gives you another perspective on the same themes discussed by Epictetus and Marcus. Seneca lives a roller coaster of a life, from exile to Caesar’s advisor. From one of the wealthiest men in Rome to being sentenced to death. Seneca manages to cover almost every aspect of how to live, and die, a Stoic.
Notable Ideas / Quotes:
– Misfortune is virtue’s opportunity.
– Our lack of confidence is not the result of difficulty. The difficulty comes from our lack of confidence
– True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing
– Fear without remedy is what foolish men have
– Do you want to know why your running away won’t help? Because you bring yourself along.
-Don’t get into arguments with ignorant people. If they’ve never learned, they don’t want to learn.
– Nor can anyone live happily who only has himself in view.
– It is too late to equip the mind for the endurance of dangers after the dangers have come.
– Natural desires are finite, those born of false opinion haven place to stop
– We do not suddenly fall on death, but advance toward it by slight degrees. We die every day. It is not the last drop that empties the water clock, but all that has already flowed through it.
– No servitude is more disgraceful that that which is self-imposed.
– When pleasures have corrupted both mind and body, nothing seems to be tolerable. Not because the suffering is strong, but because the sufferer is weak.
– “It does not matter what you bear, but how you bear it.” Seneca
The Courage to be Disliked, Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga
This book adopts a Socratic method of dialogue between a wise old philosopher and a young man. By the end, I remembered how powerful a well written dialogue can be. More importantly, this book explains Adlerian psychology in a way that will make you question what you ‘know’. Like any great book, it made me keep going back and reading sections over and over. My copy is marked up, highlighted, corners folded, marginalia throughout. Still its amazing message slowly recedes and needs refreshing every year. This book is essentially an easily digested take on ‘positive psychology’.
Notable Ideas / Quotes:
– Adlerian psychology denies that there is a thing called trauma. The self is not determined by experiences, but by the meaning we give them.
– Anger is the means we sometimes use in an attempt to achieve something. It’s not an out of control physical event happening that we are merely observing.
– Unhappiness cannot be blamed on one’s past, but on one’s lack of courage to change.
– No matter what has occurred in one’s past, it does not have any bearing on how we act now. Unless we want to let if of course.
– Many times, our real goal is to not get hurt in relationships, which causes us to take all kinds of stupid actions to ‘protect’ ourselves, and ‘avoid’ pain.
– But problems are unavoidable, and one must live alone separated from the universe to truly have no problems.
– All problems are interpersonal relationship problems.
– “The pursuit of Superiority”- Condition of wanting to improve what one has.
– Feeling inferior is ok, it often leads to self improvement. “Inferiority complex” is bad because it is using one’s feeling of inferiority as an excuse.
-As soon as someone is convinced that ‘they are right’, they have stepped into a power struggle. Now you have to ‘win’ over the other, ‘wrong’, person.
– There are two goals for one’s behavior: To be self-reliant and to live in harmony with nature.
– All interpersonal relationship problems are caused by intruding on other’s tasks, or others intruding on your tasks.
– Freedom is being disliked by other people. Unless you are unconcerned by other’s judgments, you can never follow through on your own way of living.
– Accepting oneself on the level of being=Happiness.
– Accepting oneself on the level of acts= No Happiness.
The Power of Meaning, Emily Smith
Smith describes happiness as resting on four pillars: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. Updating Frankl’s ideas about the importance of meaning over achievement and how happiness is a byproduct, not the goal of life.
Notable Ideas / Quotes:
–Wealthier countries report more happiness than poorer countries, but ALSO higher suicide rates. 40% of Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose.
-We feel more significant when we apply ourselves to worthwhile tasks, even if they are unpleasant. We need purpose – a long term goal to which we are always working. Living with a purpose requires self-reflection and self knowledge. This in turn allows us to know our core beliefs and values.
-People who see their jobs as helping others report more meaning in their life.
-We all have a ‘narrative identity’ – an internalized story about ourselves. How we are deep down, how we got that way, and what it all means.
-People who contribute to society tell ‘redemptive stories’ which makes their lives worth something (even if not worthwhile).
-‘Contamination stories’ are told by people who are self centered. Much less happy.
-we can change our stories, and often do. Mental illness is often a result of not being able to tell a good story about one’s life (that fits at all with undeniable facts).
-When one is in a transcendent state, their’self’ washes away and they feel connected to the larger community. The resulting happiness can be lost by slipping back into selfish, ego based, thinking.
-‘Survivor mission’-The need people feel to help others after suffering themselves.
-People who kept significant childhood trauma hidden had worse health as adults. Why? Because we need to make sense of things to grow, and that requires communicating, exploring the pain.
The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday
Holiday is a great resource for Stoic philosophy, having written several books that are must reads. He also has a great website, dailystoic.com, and publishes a yearly journal that I have used for the past two years. This book is great for those facing upheavals in their life (such as prison). But it is much more than that, it is about perspective, and mentally engaging in what is going on around us in a fundamentally different way. This book is also great introduction to various philosophers and thinkers, I love books that give me threads to pull on, beginnings of ideas that make me start going off to learn more.
Notable Ideas / Quotes:
– Ancient body processes such as ‘fight or flight’ do not serve us well in today’s world. We need to filter out emotionally laden perspectives.
– Our perceptions are the only thing that we are in complete control of. There is no good or bad without us. There is only perception. The event happens, and then we perceive it through our own lense.
– The perceiving eye (weak) vs. the observing eye (strong).
– After you have controlled your emotions and can see objectively, the key is to find the opportunity within the obstacle.
– When failure does come, ask ‘What went wrong here?’, ‘What am I missing’.
– “A-Z thinking”- focused on A, thinking about Z, forgetting B-Y.
– 2% of battle victories were a result of the attacker going straight at the enemy.
-Adversity can harden you, or it can loosen you up to be more flexible. To be physically loose and mentally tight is the best. Appearing to be unperturbed while seemingly effortlessly accomplishing one’s goal.
– Perception is to the mind, what action is to the body, and will is to the soul.
– Some things in life will cut you to the bone. In those moments of exposure, the world gets to see what your made of. Is it steel, or air, or just bullshit?
– All external events can be beneficial because we can turn them around and find a use even for the negative events. But to get these unexpected benefits, we have to accept the unexpected costs (even though we do not want them in the first place).
-Persistance is attempting to solve a problem over and over, hammering away at it until it breaks. Perserverance is larger. It is the long game, the multi-year ordeal that may not ever end. Persistance is action, Perserverance is will.
Romes Last Citizen, Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni
If you are intimidated by Stoicism and philosophy, this is the book to dip your toes in the water. Part historical account of ancient rome, part biography of Cato the younger, it introduces Stoic principles in action. It is often advised that one should have an ideal to look up to, a great person to emulate. With Cato, one could be assured of that. The man refused to allow his daughter to be married to Julius Caesar, probably causing the downfall of the Roman Republic, and tore his own intestines out to prevent himself from being used as a political pawn. But he also led by example in smaller things. When he was a military commander, he slept with his men on the ground in the cold, ate the same food they did, and declined special medical treatment that regular soldiers did not receive.
The origin of the filibuster is credited to Cato. Cato wore his virtue like a cloak, and his contemporaries knew his vote was never for sale. Even the average citizen knew of Cato’s reputation for scrupulous honesty. On several occasions, people took his word in contested matters simply because he was the one who said it. Cato, despite having wealth, dressed in poor clothing without care for what was fashionable. Famous for walking barefoot, and not wearing a hat or coat in winter, he literally lived the ascetic lifestyle. And it was not to show off his austerity. He often explained that he was hardening himself for difficult times. This would prove helpful years later when he was fighting Julius Caesar.
Rome’ Last Citizen covers Rome’s evolution during the critical years corresponding to Cato’s life. Important historical figures are placed into context and given a texture that most history books fail at. Pompey, Cicero, Crassus, Spartacus, and of course Julius Caesar. The reader is also treated to a basic understanding of Roman government, the hierarchy, the politics of elections, the office of consul, and more.
Ultimately, Cato held a spotlight on Rome itself. And it often came up short. Reading this book, I could not help but find myself comparing Rome to America, and Cato to various public figures.
Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert.
An often witty explanation of how our mind works, how we actually formulate happiness, and how we end up lying to ourselves most of the time. Lots of evidence, studies, and you will frequently be surprised at how your brain processes information. One of those book with lots of good information that makes sense. Read the extended notes on this book here. Written for non-scientists.
Notable Ideas / Quotes:
-We are REALLY bad at remembering past experiences correctly, mostly because we only record small snippets and fill in details later during recollection.
-Since our brains edit all experiences, and it has quirks about its editing, the brain misrepresents the past, which causes us to mis-imagine the future.
– Our Subjective states are “irreducible”, we can’t really point to anything specific to explain them, nothing we can compare them to.
– Emotional happiness is an experience and thus only explainable in relation to other experiences. [explains why the same thing can affect people differently]
– Happiness is used to indicate an experience, not the action that caused it.
– We are not able to set aside an experience and see the world as if that experience had never happened.
Because we imagine near and far futures with such different textures, we value them differently.
-Brains fill in holes in our memories and imaginations using material from the present.
-When we want to imagine a future event, we imagine it happening now, and then we try to ‘adjust’ for it happening in the future. We often do this poorly.
-The human brain is not as sensitive to the magnitude of things as it is to the change in things.
Atomic Habits, James Clear
Clear breaks down habits, and more importantly why some people are able to effect big changes in their habits and be much more successful than others. As the name hints at, it’s not about grandiose, ‘I’m going to change the world today’ thoughts, but small discrete actionable points that lead to exponential change. There are a few cliches in the book, such as ‘its not motivation that works, but habit’. However, its all part of his methodology, and the system works. This book is perfect for people who feel overwhelmed, beginning their journey= of self improvement, or just preparing for post-prison life.
Notable Ideas / Quotes:
– Breakthrough moments are often the result of many previous actions. Change can take years-before it happens all at once.
– Goals are what you want to achieve, Systems are the process to achieve goals. Focus on the later. Successful coaches have preached this for years. [e.g. Joe Walsh, Nick Saban, Bill Belicheck]
–Goal setting is fun, but seems correct only because of ‘survivorship bias’. We only know of the small number of people who succeeded at their goals, not the many people that saw themselves as the next Bill Gates’s and failed.
-Its hard to change your habits if you never change your underlying beliefs that led to your past behavior.
– Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you want to be.
– As habits are created, the level of brain activity decreases.
– Every craving is a desire to change your internal state, rewards satisfy cravings, rewards teach us what actions are worth remembering.
– The four laws of behavior change:
1. Make it obvious. 2. Make it attractive, 3. Make it easy. 4. Make it satisfying.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Mark Manson
Mark Manson is the modern day Epictetus. Direct, constantly making you see how we are complicating what should be simple, and actually providing real help. His premise is that we start out caring about every little stupid thing and the sooner we grow out of that frustrating life, the happier we will be. The book has nuance though, and Manson is not some Nihilist saying screw everything and do whatever you want. He wants us to care only about the things that deserve our caring. I use Manson’s colorful language in the notes.
Notable Ideas / Quotes:
– The key to a good life is giving a f*ck about less, but its hard because people giving a f*ck about lots of things is good for business. So companies create things for us to give lots of f*cks about.
– TV and social media teaches us that negative things/feelings are not OK. Since negative things and feelings are inevitable, people who buy into this are destined for unhappiness.
– One cannot be upset about something they do not care about. On the other hand every adversity is seen as an injustice [Stoic indifference!]
– Not giving a f*ck is not Indifference . Someone who cares about nothing is a psychopath.
-To not give a f*ck about adversity, one much give a f*ck about something bigger.
-Happiness (in the pleasurable sense) is not a solvable equation, we will be unhappy at times. Happiness comes from solving problems. The key is to improve one’s problems.
– Decision making based on emotional intuition pretty much always backfires.
If you want to change how you see your problems, you have to change what you value and/or how you measure failure/success.
-Good values are reality based, socially constructive, immediate, and controllable.
-Bad values, while fun and pleasurable, lie outside of your control [Stoicism 101]
-We don’t actually know what a positive or negative experience is. Some of the most difficult and stressful moments of our lives [such as prison] also end up being the most important and life improving moments.
-Fear of failure comes from having bad values.
-Our most radical changes in perspective often happen at the tail end of our worst moments. It’s only when we feel intense pain that we’re willing to look at our values and question why they seem to be failing us. We often need some existential crisis to take an objective look at how we’ve been deriving meaning in our life and then consider changing course.
Into the Heart of Life, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo.
Traveled to India by herself at age 20 from London, becoming one of the first westerners to rise to a Buddhist nun. Lived in a cave for 12 years meditating, and has some amazing insight. Great YouTube videos available as well.
Notable Ideas / Quotes:
-We always can offer a high and moral reason for everything we do. Usually not the real reason. Mindfulness is understanding our real and imagined reasons for actions.
-Being busy with worldly things is really a form of laziness, to escape the work we are avoiding in our minds. Our noisy outer world is a reflection of our noisy inner one.
-Our consumer society places happiness on the outside, on possession and achieving.
-We think of life as static, and always work to secure our possessions and relationships and keep them from changing. This is impossible of course, thus suffering.
-Dukkha- The basic dissatisfaction (physical, mental) that runs through our lives.
-We wrongfully think we will be happy if our wants are fulfilled. Of course, we never run out of wants. Our attachment to things and people isn’t genuine love, it’s self-love.
-We are basically very selfish. Whenever something happens, our first thoughts how does this affect me?
-We are all on a train that is certain to crash, how do we spend the journey (life)?
-“Everything would be fine it only . . .” but there is always an “if only”.
-Our memories concretize our sense of self.
-Lying is not limited to only untruths, but includes all unwholesome speech.
-We overestimate our ‘niceness’ because it is easy to be pleasant to our friends, to be loving to those who love us. The challenge is to love people who act horrible to us or others.
-Meditation allows us to see that our thoughts and feelings are not real.
-There are 3 aspects to pride: Thinking we are better, thinking we are equal, and thinking we are worse then others. All are expressions of the ego and thus destructive.
-We are always willing to take credit for compliments, but not for negative comments.
The True Believer, Eric Hoffer
Eric Hoffer’s life story is hard to believe. A self educated drifter in the 1930’s, he was stuck in a snowstorm one winter and checked out the ‘thickest book he could find’ in his own words. That book happened to be The Essays of Montaigne. This began an odyssey of philosophical study and brilliant writing that produced Hoffer’s seminal work, The True Believer. President Eisenhower recommended it, making Hoffer famous. Instead of going into academia, he continued his life as an itinerant worker, picking fruit, washing dishes, and spent the last few decades of his life as a dock worker in San Francisco. Oh, he also wrote 9 more books in his down time and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983. If you want to read an amazing work of philosophy written for anyone to understand, here it is.
Notable Ideas / Quotes:
-We tend to look outside ourselves as to why we are happy or unhappy. Thus people who are happy think the world is pretty good (and thus not interested in changing it too much). Unhappy people likewise blame the outside world and want to effect change (e.g. Nazis, Communists).
– “A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding”
– “A grievance is most poignant when almost reddressed”
– “It is not actual suffering, but the taste of better things that causes revolt.”
– People join mass movements to avoid personal responsibility.
– “We run fastest and furthest when we run from ourselves”. The more selfish a person, the more poignant his disappointments.
– We always look for allies when we hate.
– “People who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them.”
– “Our greatest pretenses are built up not to hide the evil and the ugly in us, but our emptiness.” The hardest thing to hide is something that is not there.
– “An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of forcing anything into an empty head.”
The Wisdom of Insecurity, Alan Watts
It’s hard to explain Alan Watts. Watts, who held both a master’s degree in theology and a doctorate of divinity, is best remembered as an interpreter of Zen Buddhism in particular, and of Indian and Chinese philosophy in general. He hosted a radio program in the 60’s and is credited with popularizing eastern philosophy in America. This book is one of my top five of all time. The renowned Deepak Chopra wrote the forward to the newest edition, and claims it shocked him with the truth. Written in 1951, it feels like Watts is talking about our modern high tech age. LA Times said that Watts had the rare gift of ‘writing beautifully the unwritable.
Notable Ideas / Quotes:
– “If happiness always depends on something expected in the future, we are chasing a will-o’-wisp that ever eludes our grasp.”
– Our age is one of frustration, anxiety, agitation, and addiction to ‘dope’. Somehow we must grab what we can while we can. This ‘dope’ we call our high standard of living, a violent and complex stimulation of the senses. TV’s were starting to take over American life at the writing of this book.
– “Because consciousness must involve both pleasure and pain, to strive for pleasure to the exclusion of pain is, in effect, to strive for the loss of consciousness.”
– The power of memories and expectations is such that for most human beings the past and the future are not as real, but more real than the present.
– “This kind of living in the fantasy of expectation rather than the reality of the present is the special trouble of those business men who live entirely to make money.”
– The ability to plan for the future is offset by the ‘ability’ to dread the pain and fear of the unknown. Consciousness seems to be nature’s ingenious mode of self torture.
– Ideas and words are more less fixed, whereas real things change.
– “To define means to fix, and when you get right down to it, real life isn’t fixed.”
– “The ingenious brain, however, looks at the past of the present experience called memory, and by studying it is able to make predictions. These predictions are so accurate that the future assume a high degree of reliability-so high that the present loses it value.”
Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari
Dr. Harari explains the evolution of man [Homo sapiens] from the beginning to today. Not in boring technical jargon but by explain why and how we developed the way we did. One of the best history books I have read, although it had so much scientific, sociological, and political components I am loathe to describe it as simply a history book.
– ‘The cognitive revolution’- When Sapiens were no longer just biological animals, but began to rapidly develop cognitive skills, leading to language, unique socialization.
– We still have biological traits hard wired from ancient times like the ‘gorging gene’ which causes us to eat a lot if a lot of food is available since our ancestors didn’t always know when they would eat again. This obviously works against us in modern society.
-Humans create ‘imagined orders’ to govern ourselves. It is subject to falling apart (unlike physical orders like gravity), so society began to inculcate these imagined orders into our heads so that we could live in larger and larger communities without anarchy.
-Hunter gatherers did not need money. But larger populations and specialization created a need for a way to exchange goods of different values. This led to trade, and most importantly, trade between different groups that may not believe/like/trust each other.
-Most of today’s cultures are based on imperial legacies. Since 200 BC, most humans have lived within empires.
Since all social orders are imagined and thus fragile, the larger the society the more fragile.
-Religion can impose imagined social orders. Religion can be defined as a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order.
-Religions have evolved as society has. Ancient ones forged contracts between humans who promised devotion and gods who promised mastery over plants and animals.
-Harari conducts a great survey and comparison of all the various stages of religion from animist, monotheism, polytheism, and Christianity.]
-The last 500 years has witnessed a phenomenal growth in human power. Why? Unlike our ancestors, modern science is willing to admit ignorance, use empirical investigations, and focuses on practical applications.
-Science, industry, and military technology intertwined only with the advent of the capitalist system and the industrial revolution.
-International violence has dropped to an all time low due to the rise of the modern state and atomic weapons.
-Delves into how our modern technology creates ‘virtual societies’ and how that is changing our existence, mostly for the worse.
The Expedition of Cyrus (‘The Anabasis’), Xenophon
The epic tale told by Xenophon of the retreat of 10,000 greek soldiers from deep in Persian territory after they were stranded there. This is one of the most famous historical works in history, but contains layers of meaning as would be expected from a philosopher and disciple of Socrates. Concepts such as the heroic struggle against impossible odds, the will to persevere, leadership in times of crisis, how Greek free men viewed their rights (voting for their generals for example), culminates in the famous scene where the Greeks finally make it to the sea (and thus Greece). A quick read if one doesn’t try to memorize names and places. That is not the point anyway. Side note, besides being considered one of the greastest military commanders in ancient history, as a student of Socrates, Xenophon also wrote the sublime Memorabilia, an amazing collection of writing about his famous teacher (with less bias and personal motives than Plato’s writings IMHO).
At the beginning of the story, Xenophon was a minor person in the expedition of Greek mercenaries put together by Cyrus, a Persian who wanted to take the crown away from his brother Artaxerxes around 400 BC. During the battle, Cyrus is killed, leaving the Greeks alone deep in enemy territory. Shortly thereafter, the Greek generals are tricked into a parley where they are all killed by the Persians. Leaderless, the Greeks have to decide between essentially giving up and handing themselves over to the Persians or trying to fight their way across strange land, through bitter cold mountain passes in winter, and with enemy armies harassing them from behind the entire way. This is where Xenophon is elected at age 30 to become one of the generals. Using new tactics such as flanking, attack in depth, and feints, he chronicles the various battles and decision points in the journey. Ultimately they succeed through self sacrifice, teamwork, loyalty, and perseverance.
The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton
De Botton is a witty Brit that is focused on living the happy life by examining practical philosophy. A philosopher himself, he has an amazing website called the School of Life, has made countless fun and accessible youtube videos explains almost every subject of philosophy, and writes books on various past philosophers. His best work is Consolations, in which he discusses 6 topics through the reasoning of a different philosopher.
Notable Ideas / Quotes:
1. Socrates on Unpopularity – What should worry us is not the number of people who oppose us but how good their reasons is for doing so.
2. Epicurus on Not having Enough Money – Medicine confers no benefit if it doesn’t drive away illness, so philosophy is useless if it does not drive away suffering of the mind.
True friends do not evaluate us according to worldly criteria, it is the core self they are interested in. Eating without a friend is the life of a wolf [not a compliment]
-It is in the interest of commercial interests to skew our hierarchy of needs.
3. Seneca on Frustration – At the heart of every frustration lies a collision of a wish with an unyielding reality. We aren’t overwhelmed by anger when we are denied an object we desire, only when we believe we are entitled to it.
-The wise learn to identify what is necessary and follow it at once, rather than protest.
4. Montaigne on Inadequacy – Authors of humanities are responsible for happiness and health, not quasi-scientific accuracy.
5. Schopenhauer on a broken heart – Love is the manifestation of the will to life’s discovery of an ideal co-parent. Usually the most suitable co-parent is not the most suitable love.
6. Nietzsche on difficulties – To those humans of any concern to me I wish suffering, resolution, sickness … fulfillment comes not by avoiding pain, but by recognizing its natural role in our life, as a step to reaching anything good.
Happy, Derren Brown
Funny and filled with dry British wit, you almost don’t realize that Brown is literally teaching you how to be happy. The anti-self help book, Brown debunks positive thinking, self-belief and setting goals as being disastrous. This is a modern take on Stoic and Epicurean thought wrapped up with funny examples and modern research. I would skip the first two chapters as they are mostly background on the author. Start with the Awesome third chapter.
Notable Ideas / Quotes:
– Our desires would be reduced drastically if we didn’t need to impress anyone.
– The things we desire actually do little more than fuel additional desires, and teach us to be greedy.
-Wealth is like sea water, the more we consume, the thirstier we become. Its not how much actual things and wealth we have, it’s how much we have in relation to how much we think we can attain [or deserve].
– Epicurus’s three categories of needs: Natural and necessary (eg. food), Natural but unnecessary (eg. sex), Neither natural nor necessary (eg. toys, externals).
– We don’t make decision based on our experiences, but rather on our stories about our experiences. Our stories are biased, designed to make us feel better, and a lot is left out.
-Most complete solutions (like religion) provides a framework that removes the need to to ask existential questions that deep thinking provides. Lets us relinquish responsibility.
-Conducts an overview of, and compares, Epicureanism, Stoicism, Christianity, the enlightenment, the Romantic movement, Marxism, Nietzsche, and Freud. [Very useful]
-Argues that today’s crisis is that we don’t know how to honor our deep needs [as we used to through religion] and we mistake recreation for happiness.
-Its very hard to appreciate that our lowest plateaus have also most likely led to turning points in our past; often we need to hit rock bottom before we realize we have to make a change.
Collected Maxims, La Rochefoucauld
A 17th century French social critic, La Rochefoucauld is less known today, but every bit as insightful as more famous contemporaries. What makes him a pleasure to read is he writes in short pithy maxims, many of which stop you and make you reflect. During his time, educated and wealthy aristocrats would meet for lively discussions where unadorned and quick retorts were admired, not long winded speeches. La Rochefoucauld’s witticism’s were designed to be used in verbal sparing or to make a conversational point. There are well over 1000 maxims in this edition, plus additional writings of his.
– Our virtues are most frequently but vices in disguise.
– We all have strength enough to endure the misfortunes of others.
– Self-love is the greatest of all flatterers.
– We promise according to our hopes; we fulfill according to our fears.
– Those who apply themselves too much to little things often become incapable of great ones.
– The happiness and misery of men depend no less on temper than fortune.
– If we judge love by the majority of its results, it resembles hatred more than friendship.
– Nothing prevents us being natural so much as the desire to appear so.
– What makes the vanity of others insufferable to us is that it wounds our own.
– True love is like the appearance of ghosts: everyone talks about it but few have seen it.
– Everyone complains about his memory, and no one complains about his judgment.
– Absence extinguishes the minor passions and increases the great ones, as the wind blows out a candle and fans a fire.
– It is easier to be wise for others than for oneself.
– We always like those who admire us; we do not always like those whom we admire
– Hypocrisy is an homage that vice pays to virtue..
The Laws of Human Nature, Robert Greene
Mr. Greene’s opus. From the same person who wrote the 48 Law of Power, this is an amazing (and in depth) look at our relationships with other people. Greene picks apart the many different pathologies of those around us and why people act the way they do (hint: selfishness). Most importantly, he discussed how we should handle the various threats that come our way. What sets this book apart is that it demands that the reader be honest with himself, see his own bad tendencies that are described therein, and think about how to fix them. Not by saying, ‘stop doing that’, but by channeling unhealthy and unsocial activity into more constructive behavior. A LOT here!
Notable Ideas from the Introduction:
– We have to deal with people who make our life unpleasant. They are masters at playing on our emotions. They seem confident, and we fall under their spell. But their confidence is just irrational. Some are excited to bring us down. We are caught off guard, we feel helpless.
– We look for easy answers. That person is evil, something came over me, etc. We humans live on the surface, with simple and convenient stories. We must look deep inside and see the inner person, to better judge, reduce the risk of being misled, to anticipate nasty actions, and see through their cover stories.
– We think of our behavior as rarely controlled/self willed. But we are subject to forces deep within that causes us to behave certain ways.
– In the moment we feel anger, we are not rational, but just surfing on emotions.
We can accept the laws of human nature, or suffer by fighting them.
– We normally exclude ourselves when doing this analysis. We must look at ourselves. Self delusion is a dangerous enemy.
– Humility increases as you accept both good and bad, dropping the falsified self image.
human nature shows that people are naturally stubborn. You must lower their resistance, not stir up their insecurities.
Get rid of defensiveness. The best way to move people is in setting the right tone with your attitude.
-We must properly diagnose what is going on. Its easy to misread people. You must mistrust initial judgment. When people overtly display a certain trait, they are often concealing an opposite trait. You can see the signs leaking out in the shadow selves. What appears ‘out of character’, that is usually more reflective of their real character.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X
This book is included more for the inspirational value and to show what is possible in prison. Especially since Malcolm X had a lot more going against him then a white collar criminal facing prison. Lacking any real education, barely literate, knowing nothing other than a life of crime, he was determined to turn his life around. Malcolm X made a life altering choice while in prison, and turned it around. If you want to focus on his time up to and including prison, start at Chapter 9.
Father killed when he was 6, mother put in an asylum when he was 13. His youth was spent in foster homes, living off the street, and hustling to get by. Malcolm X had all the markings of a criminal destined to live in and out of prisons and be a detriment to society. He copied down the entire dictionary at the prison by hand, and read all day and night. He elevated himself above the ugliness of the environment of a high security prison in the 1940’s.
Joined the Nation of Islam (NOI), which led him to a much healthier lifestyle. The NOI is a controversial organization that promotes some non-virtuous ideals, but that is not the point of the story I focused on. Examining the difficulties Malcolm X went through, on all sides, reveals a determined spirit of someone who could have resorted to violence at many points in his life. Whether it was while being arrested when he did not pull out his gun, or his advocating of non-violence as a minister, he ultimately was a better person for it. Unfortunately, he was part of the quasi-religious NOI, and was eventually assassinated by them. Ultimately, this is a story about a man who tried to do the best he could under the circumstances, in a time most of us could not even imagine.
I Am Dynamite!: A life of Nietzsche, Sue Prideaux
Nietzsche is like a difficult mountain that is one’s dream to climb. One sees the difficulty, feels how hard it is to grasp, keeps working at it, and eventually understands that it is the journey that is the enjoyment. And the smart climber knows that they cannot just jump in and attack. Practicing with easier mountains (philosophers), preparing by reading critiques, and going slow are the keys. No one really claims to fully understand Nietzsche. Which is remarkable considering his influence on society and all the great thinkers that came after him. His writing style is difficult at times, made worse by his double entendres, allegorical meanings, and frequent contradictions. Jumping into one of Nietzsche’s books before studying key ideas of his guarantees the reader will miss the trees from the forest. And be really confused. The title of the book itself comes from Nietzsche, who himself realized the transformative power of his thoughts and claimed, “I am Dynamite!”.
Prideax’s book does a great job of introducing the first time reader to Nietzsche. A biography, it also distills key Nietzschian ideas such as the will to power, slave and master morality (not what it sounds like), the übermensch, as well as his take on traditional concepts of love, happiness, and the good life. This is a gateway book. If the sections on his early life and time with Wagner gets dry, skip ahead. The most consequential ideas were developed (or at least fleshed out) in his later writing.
Neizsche had a mental breakdown in 1889, living in the care of his family until his death in 1900. He literally wrote seven books in the two years before his breakdown and was working on his magnum opus that was to combine all his theories. Nietzsche remains a controversial figure partly due to the Nazis later twisting his ideas to fit their political ideology. This is ironic given the well documented disgust Nietzsche felt towards anti-semitism and his loathing of his sister who was a leading anti-semite and white nationalist at the time.
The Inner Citadel, Pierre Hadot
This is the best philosophy book related to Stoicism/virtue ethics written in the past 50 years in my humble opinion. Hadot is a philosopher in his own right, and is generally credited with the resurgence of Stoicism that has occurred in the last generation. Sort of The Godfather of the modern stoic movement, everyone who writes or studies philosophy deep dives this book. One of the three books I took to prison camp.
The Inner Citadel is a detailed investigation of Marcus Aerilius’s Meditations. However, Hadot first describes the environment that led up to Marcus’s time with a survey of early Stoics and explaining in detail, the contribution of Epictetus. Marcus was given a copy of Epictetus lecture notes (later called ‘The Discourses‘ and discussed above) and thus was heavily influenced by the unique additions made by Epictetus. Hadot fleshes out the deeper meaning behind underlying Stoic concepts and weaves together a complete system of living Stoically by using the Meditations as a guide.
This is NOT an entry level book. Do not start your Stoic journey here, its like starting one’s examination of philosophy with Nietzsche.
Notable Ideas / Quotes:
– The hegemonikon (guiding principle) alone is the free part of man. It alone can give or refuse its assent. “This border which objects cannot cross, this inviolable stronghold of freedom, is the limit of what I shall refer to as the inner citadel”
– He who desires does not act, but is in a certain disposition of waiting.
– In depth analysis fo the three domains of study laid out buy Epictetus: Desires, impulses, and judgments.
– “These two things must be cut away: fear of the future, and the memory of past sufferings. The latter no longer concern me, and the future does not concern me yet.”
– “As we can see, this delimitation of the self is, in the last analysis, the fundamental exercise of Stoicism. the discovery of the power we possess to judge freely, to give things whatever value we wish to give them.”
– “When we can no longer act as we wish, we must not allow ourselves to be troubled by vain desires to do the impossible.”
The Practicing Stoic, Ward Farnsworth
This is the beginner’s guide to Stoic ideas, and Farnsworth has helpfully included hundreds of quotes from the Stoic pantheon (and a few others) to support each chapter. There are 12 chapters, each focused on a different category of teachings: Judgment, Externals, Perspective, Death, Desire, Wealth and Pleasure, What Others Think, Valuation, Emotion, Adversity, Virtue, and Learning. Also has a nice preface discussing the major thinkers and laying out the flow of the book.
Notable Ideas / Quotes:
— “Events come to us through lenses of judgment that are so familiar we forget we have them on.”
— “We constantly overlook the present moment because we are preoccupied with future states that will in turn be overlooked when they arrive.”
— “Different people react differently to the same thing. What some people fear, others don’t; what some are willing to die for, to others is nothing.”
— Treating thoughts and judgments as matters of choice is central to the practice of Stoicism.
— “What we are used to seeing others do, and what we are used to doing or feeling ourselves, can make anything seem normal or strange, inevitable or a matter of choice.”
— “The assignments of value or meaning that we attach to things are usually half-conscious, borrowed from convention, and false or unhelpful.”
— “We tend to talk about our desires in ways that are constantly misleading.The Stoic notion that ‘everything is opinion’ becomes, for them, a warrant to examine our usual thinking more closely.”
— “There is no difference, so far as contentment is concerned, between having something and not caring whether you have it. The second route often is easier.”
— “The Stoic regards conformity to social expectations as the source of much of our behavior and much of our imbecility.”
— “We overrate money and undervalue time, just as we overrate material goods and the approval of others while undervaluing the gains we get by foregoing them.”