The best books on what makes a life meaningful

Todd May Author Of A Significant Life: Human Meaning in a Silent Universe
By Todd May

Who am I?

Todd May has been teaching philosophy for over thirty years. He is the author of sixteen books of philosophy, many of which have been praised for their clarity and relevance to people reflecting on their lives. He was also a philosophical advisor to the hit television sit-com The Good Place.

I wrote...

A Significant Life: Human Meaning in a Silent Universe

By Todd May,

Book cover of A Significant Life: Human Meaning in a Silent Universe

What is my book about?

What makes for a good life, or a beautiful one, or, perhaps most important, a meaningful one? Throughout history, most of us have looked to our faith, our relationships, or our deeds for the answer. But in A Significant Life, philosopher Todd May offers an exhilarating new way of thinking about these questions, one deeply attuned to life as it actually is: a work in progress, a journey—and often a narrative. Offering moving accounts of his own life and memories alongside rich engagements with philosophers from Aristotle to Wittgenstein and Bernard Williams, he shows us where to find the significance of our lives: in the way we live them.

The books I picked & why

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Nicomachean Ethics

By Aristotle, David Mills Daniel,

Book cover of Nicomachean Ethics

Why this book?

This may not be the best place to start, but sooner or later you’ll want to land here. Aristotle’s view of a good life, one that involves developing virtuous ways of being, is surprisingly contemporary. And unlike a lot of contemporary philosophy, he has deep reflections on the role of friendship in creating a worthwhile life.

Beyond Good And Evil

By Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche,

Book cover of Beyond Good And Evil

Why this book?

Nietzsche’s recommendation that we leave morality behind and seek to create ourselves by overcoming who we currently are is not for everyone. A friend of mine once described Nietzsche’s entire philosophy as kicking you in the head and saying, “Wake up!” He’s always engaging even when he’s maddening.

Meaning in Life and Why It Matters

By Susan Wolf,

Book cover of Meaning in Life and Why It Matters

Why this book?

This is the most influential book on my own thinking about meaningfulness in life. Wolf's idea that a meaningful life is distinct from both a happy life and a moral one—although there can be overlapping with these—is both simple and profound. And, unlike many contemporary philosophers, her writing is clear and accessible.

Existentialism Is a Humanism

By Jean-Paul Sartre, Carol Macomber,

Book cover of Existentialism Is a Humanism

Why this book?

Okay, so it’s a lecture, really, rather than a book. But it’s the classic statement of existentialism. The idea that life doesn’t have any meaning other than what we create for it, that we’re alone in the universe without a God to guide us, that we are nothing more than the projects we commit ourselves to—it’s all here.

Memoirs of Hadrian

By Marguerite Yourcenar, Grace Frick,

Book cover of Memoirs of Hadrian

Why this book?

This one’s a novel, a book that took Yourcenar thirty years to write. It doesn’t offer answers, but by having the main figure (the emperor Hadrian) reflect back on his life in the moments before his death, the novel brings before us the beauty and tragedy that is life itself.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in existential philosophy, Emperor Hadrian, and Nietzsche?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about existential philosophy, Emperor Hadrian, and Nietzsche.

Existential Philosophy Explore 8 books about existential philosophy
Emperor Hadrian Explore 13 books about Emperor Hadrian
Nietzsche Explore 14 books about Nietzsche

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Long Ships, The Love-Artist, and Educated if you like this list.