The best philosophy books for dealing with difficult emotions

Michael Cholbi Author Of Grief: A Philosophical Guide
By Michael Cholbi

Who am I?

As a philosopher, I’m not just interested in solving ‘academic’ problems that arise from philosophical inquiry. I also think philosophy should return to the role it often had in the ancient world, as a tool for helping us navigate the perennial challenges that being human presents us. Much of my own philosophical work has sought to help us figure out how to relate to arguably the biggest challenge we face: that we inevitably die. The books on this list are powerful examples of how philosophy can provide us with an emotional compass!

I wrote...

Grief: A Philosophical Guide

By Michael Cholbi,

Book cover of Grief: A Philosophical Guide

What is my book about?

In Grief, Michael Cholbi presents a groundbreaking philosophical exploration of this complex emotion, offering valuable new insights about what grief is, whom we grieve, and how grief can ultimately lead us to a richer self-understanding. Drawing on psychology, social science, and literature as well as philosophy, Cholbi explains that we grieve for the loss of those in whom our identities are invested, Their deaths not only deprive us of worthwhile experiences; they also disrupt our commitments and values. Yet grief is something we should embrace rather than avoid, an important part of a good and meaningful life. Although grief can be tumultuous and disorienting, it also reflects our distinctly human capacity to rationally adapt as the relationships we depend on evolve.

The books I picked & why

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On Anger (De Ira)

By Seneca, Aubrey Stewart (translator),

Book cover of On Anger (De Ira)

Why this book?

Anger is a seemingly recalcitrant emotion – hard to avoid and difficult to manage. De Ira is the Stoic philosopher Seneca’s attempt to show us otherwise. To Seneca, anger is a wicked emotion. Yet a life free both of the turmoil of anger and of the desire for vengeance that Seneca thought defined anger is possible, he argued. Not only does anger lead us to lash out at others, it corrodes us from the inside – in Seneca’s image, like vinegar stored in a clay pot. While I find Seneca’s conclusion that we should eliminate all anger hard to swallow, his description of the dangers of anger, both to ourselves and to others, never fails to impress.

The Anxious Mind: An Investigation Into the Varieties and Virtues of Anxiety

By Charlie Kurth,

Book cover of The Anxious Mind: An Investigation Into the Varieties and Virtues of Anxiety

Why this book?

I enjoy being surprised by philosophical work on emotions. Kurth’s The Anxious Mind is full of unexpected insights into anxiety, an emotion that seems to have little to recommend it. But Kurth manages to persuade readers that we should actually be glad for the presence of anxiety in our lives. He explains how anxiety can enhance our performance and contribute to moral progress both individually and collectively. 

Naked: The Dark Side of Shame and Moral Life

By Krista K. Thomason,

Book cover of Naked: The Dark Side of Shame and Moral Life

Why this book?

Like many emotions, shame seems like a double-edged sword. Shame seems to notify us that we haven’t lived up to our own ideals – that we’re not the people we thought or hoped we were. But shame has, as Thomason carefully delineates, a dark side: Shame can lead us to withdraw from the world in order not to be seen, and too often shame is a precursor to self-destructive behaviors. Naked ultimately argues that we need shame despite these drawbacks. Thomason’s book is also among the very best of recent books to use philosophical tools to investigate social media; her discussion of online shaming should not be missed.

A Grief Observed

By C.S. Lewis,

Book cover of A Grief Observed

Why this book?

A Grief Observed falls into a rare genre: a philosophical memoir on grief. Lewis, the well-known defender of Christianity and author of the children’s book series The Chronicles of Narnia, recounts the days after the death of his wife, Joy Davidman. Lewis seems to be drowning in an emotional tidal wave in the book’s opening pages, facing an array of emotions he did not expect to undergo in grief: sadness of course, but also fear, disorientation, and anomie. I find Lewis’ nuanced and vivid picture of grief more compelling than his theological tribulations, but the power of A Grief Observed is undeniable. (And it’s hard not to speculate on why Lewis did not publish this under his own name during his lifetime: Was the great C.S. Lewis embarrassed by his grief?)

Political Loneliness: Modern Liberal Subjects in Hiding

By Jennifer Gaffney,

Book cover of Political Loneliness: Modern Liberal Subjects in Hiding

Why this book?

We live in a very interconnected world, and yet loneliness is rampant. How can that be? Gaffney’s Political Loneliness helps us see that today’s loneliness is the byproduct of our specific political moment. Modern political life, she argues, alienates us from one other and fosters anonymity while also priming us to value belonging and inclusion. Gaffney’s purpose is less to offer us advice about how we can overcome this ‘political loneliness’ on an individual level. Rather, her uncomfortable message is that, with respect to loneliness at least, the personal is indeed the political, and she warns us that many will find totalitarianism an appealing antidote to the loneliness endemic to contemporary life.

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