Two years ago, I ventured into the realm of philosophy by picking up Plato’s Euthyphro and Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It was a terrible idea, not because I started reading them at around the same time. It was because I did not have any idea about the history of philosophy. It is important to know precisely that because Socrates himself was influenced by thinkers who came before him and Nietzsche even more so.
Therefore, this time I decided to start with a book that covered the basic ideas of all philosophers, living or dead, which brings me to my first recommendation:
- A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell – I think humanity owes Russell a great deal. He has written a readable history of philosophy. I am not saying it is an easy read, but it is much better than Shand’s Philosophy and Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy and Tanner’s Nietzsche: A Very Short Introduction. Russell’s book is divided into three parts – Ancient Philosophy, Catholic Philosophy and Modern Philosophy. It provides an excellent overview. However, Russell is critical of Schopenhauer’s and Nietzsche’s ideas in this book, and he presents them in a simplistic manner, which I didn’t like. Hence, the next recommendation.
- Studies in Pessimism by Arthur Schopenhauer – The translation by T. Bailey Saunders is very good. At 79 pages, it is a short book. Schopenhauer challenges Leibniz’s idea that this world is the “best of all possible worlds”. He claims that life is a mistake and non-existence is preferable. If you are feeling disenchanted with life, give it a read. However, I did not like the second part of the book, which is misogyny at its best. Here’s an excerpt: “That woman is by nature meant to obey may be seen by the fact that every woman who is placed in the unnatural position of complete independence, immediately attaches herself to some man, by whom she allows herself to be guided and ruled. It is because she needs a lord and master. If she is young, it will be a lover; if she is old, a priest.”
- The Dhammapada by Gautama Buddha – I read John Richard’s translation, which was succinct (36 pages) and written in a clear prose. This book summarises Buddha’s teachings. The basic principles are control your mind (since the mind tends to wander), control your emotions and desires, and think of this world as an illusion (Maya), in order to achieve Nirvana.
Additionally, if you like books of fiction which have a healthy dose of pessimistic philosophy in it, I suggest the following:
The Misanthrope by Moliere – It’s a play. The protagonist is a Frenchman who hates hypocrisy and hates most members of humanity because they are humbugs.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller – The protagonist is a bombardier who makes frequent, unsuccessful attempts to get out of the war alive.
Candide by Voltaire – A satire with a lot of situational irony, Candide is the story of a man who tries to wed a Baron’s daughter and suffers a great deal in the process.