The best ancient philosophy books

6 authors have picked their favorite books about ancient philosophy and why they recommend each book.

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On the Nature of Things

By Lucretius, Martin F. Smith (translator), W.H.D. Rouse (translator)

Book cover of On the Nature of Things

Lucretius’ poem De rerum natura is the longest ancient work we have outlining Epicurean ideas. It’s also a masterpiece in its own right, covering everything from the origins of the cosmos, the rise and fall of civilizations, and the development of human culture to the nature of sensation and how to think about death. There are numerous translations out there; this one is a reliable translation into prose that has the original Latin verse on the facing page, along with helpful notes.

On the Nature of Things

By Lucretius, Martin F. Smith (translator), W.H.D. Rouse (translator)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked On the Nature of Things as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus) lived ca. 99 ca. 55 BCE, but the details of his career are unknown. He is the author of the great didactic poem in hexameters, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). In six books compounded of solid reasoning, brilliant imagination, and noble poetry, he expounds the scientific theories of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, with the aim of dispelling fear of the gods and fear of death and so enabling man to attain peace of mind and happiness.

In Book 1 he establishes the general principles of the atomic system, refutes the views of rival…


Who am I?

John Sellars is a Reader in Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the author of multiple books on ancient philosophy, including Hellenistic Philosophy. He is also a founding member of Modern Stoicism and The Aurelius Foundation, both non-profit companies devoted to bringing Stoicism to a wider audience and showing how it can benefit people today.


I wrote...

The Pocket Epicurean

By John Sellars,

Book cover of The Pocket Epicurean

What is my book about?

A short, smart guide to living the good life through an introduction to the teachings of Epicurus. As long as there has been human life, we've been in search of what it means to be happy. More than two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Epicurus came to his own answer: all we really want in life is pleasure. Though today we tend to associate the word "Epicurean" with indulgence in the form of food and wine, the philosophy that Epicurus established was about a life well lived even in the hardest of times. As John Sellars shows in this concise, approachable guide, the vision of an ideal life developed by Epicurus and his followers was a life much more concerned with mental pleasures and the avoidance of pain. Their goal, in short, was a life of tranquillity or contentment.

Plato

By Plato, John M. Cooper, G.M.A. Grube

Book cover of Plato: Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo

These dialogues introduce the ideas that gave birth to western philosophy and its contributions to civilization. Providing the foundations of rational thought and theoretical knowledge in multiple domains, Greek philosophers, especially Socrates and Plato, imbued the search for truth with the urgency of both a personal, and a communal, quest for meaning. Just as the advances of Greek mathematics required concepts that are precisely defined or rigorously governed by axioms, so, the dialogues teach, advances in our knowledge of the world, and of ourselves, require well-regulated concepts like truth, knowledge, justice, virtue, and happiness. In these dialogues, we see the birth of philosophy's two great projects--providing concepts needed to advance theoretical knowledge in every domain and charting the path to wisdom in leading a good and meaningful life.

Plato

By Plato, John M. Cooper, G.M.A. Grube

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Plato as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The second edition of Five Dialogues presents G. M. A. Grube's distinguished translations, as revised by John Cooper for Plato, Complete Works . A number of new or expanded footnotes are also included along with an updated bibliography.

Who am I?

A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, I was educated at Stanford and MIT. I taught for four years at Yale and 24 years at Princeton before moving to USC, where I am Chair of the Philosophy Department. I specialize in the Philosophy of Language, History of Philosophy, and the Philosophy of Law. I have published many articles, authored fifteen books, co-authored two, and co-edited two. I am fascinated by philosophy's enduring role in our individual and collective lives, impressed by its ability to periodically reinvent itself, and challenged to bring what it has to offer to more students and to the broader culture.


I wrote...

The World Philosophy Made: From Plato to the Digital Age

By Scott Soames,

Book cover of The World Philosophy Made: From Plato to the Digital Age

What is my book about?

Western Philosophy, as it has been done for more than two millennia, is the partner of all advancing disciplines. My book is about the contributions philosophy has made, and continues to make, to our civilization. Our natural science, mathematics and technology, our social science, political institutions, and economic life, our culture, religion, morality, and our understanding of ourselves have been shaped by philosophy.

Philosophy never advances against a background or rank ignorance. It flourishes when enough is known about some domain to make great progress conceivable, despite being temporarily stymied because new methods are needed. Philosophers help by giving us new concepts, reinterpreting old truths, and reconceptualizing questions to expand their solution spaces.  Sometimes they do this when sciences are born, sometimes they do it as sciences mature.  As human knowledge advances there is more, not less, for philosophy to do. Our knowledge of the universe and ourselves grows like an expanding sphere of light emanating from a single point. As light travels in all directions away from its source, the volume of the sphere, representing our secure knowledge, grows exponentially.  But so does the surface area of the sphere, representing the border, where knowledge blurs into doubt bringing back methodological uncertainty. Philosophy monitors the border, ready to help plot our next move.

Book cover of The Complete Works of Plato, Volume I

After 2,400 years, Plato finally won the battle against Socrates, Aristotle, Avicenna, Rousseau, Locke, Freud, French and Neo-Liberalism, and most parents of two-year-olds. According to 21st-century neuroscientists, as Plato provided in the Allegory of the Cave, the prescient idea is that we are not born as blank slates, but rather have the basic knowledge of beauty, good and evil baked into our prenatal brain (genetically preformed circuits!)

The Complete Works of Plato, Volume I

By Plato,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Complete Works of Plato, Volume I as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Collected here in two volumes are the complete works of Plato, in the classic translation by Benjamin Jowett. One of the most influential thinkers of Ancient Greece or any other era, Plato formed the basis of Western philosophy. Mostly written in the form of dialogues with his teacher Socrates as the protagonist, his works address themes as varied as metaphysics, psychology, pedagogy, politics, and ethics. Despite the weighty subject matter, Plato's writing remains accessible to the general reader, and infused with wit and humor. Why is Plato worth reading today? His dialogues are vitally concerned with how we should live.…

Who am I?

Philosophy is defined as “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.” Put another way, it is not so much the study of things and phenomena, but the derivative question below the veneer of what things are. I am interested in everything, how everything works, but also why it, and all of nature, including the mind and eyelashes, exist in the first place. I can remember back to childhood always thinking like this. This involves grasping for knowledge of both the details and global contexts of everything, whether it’s biology, chemistry, religion, neuroscience, horticulture, violence, goodness, hockey, or even what Plato was trying to say.


I wrote...

Book cover of The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey Into the Dark Side of the Brain

What is my book about?

For his first fifty-eight years, James Fallon was by all appearances a normal guy. A successful neuroscientist and professor, he'd been raised in a loving family, married his high school sweetheart, and had three kids and lots of friends. Then he learned a shocking truth that would not only disrupt his personal and professional life, but would lead him to question the very nature of his own identity.

While researching serial killers, he uncovered a pattern in their brain scans that helped explain their cold and violent behavior. Astonishingly, his own scan matched that pattern. And a few months later he learned that he was descended from a long line of murderers. Fallon set out to reconcile the truth about his own brain with everything he knew as a scientist about the mind, behavior, and personality.

The Nature of Things

By Lucretius, Coralie Bickford-Smith (illustrator), A.E. Stallings (translator)

Book cover of The Nature of Things

It’s the oldest book I know of that tries to explain the mutable material world in strictly material terms. Appropriately, or maybe paradoxically, Lucretius puts his treatise into the form of poetry, following strict rules of prosody, as if the conventions of verse could create order out of chaos. Two thousand years later, the master poet A.E. Stallings translates it into formal English poetry. Nothing remains fixed, especially not language, and yet we never quit trying.

The Nature of Things

By Lucretius, Coralie Bickford-Smith (illustrator), A.E. Stallings (translator)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Nature of Things as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of a major new Classics series - books that have changed the history of thought, in sumptuous, clothbound hardbacks.

Lucretius' poem On the Nature of Things combines a scientific and philosophical treatise with some of the greatest poetry ever written. With intense moral fervour he demonstrates to humanity that in death there is nothing to fear since the soul is mortal, and the world and everything in it is governed by the mechanical laws of nature and not by gods; and that by believing this men can live in peace of mind and happiness. He bases this on the…


Who am I?

I grew up in an area that had been forest, then became farms, then became a suburb. The world around me was a palimpsest, the old stories always vaguely discernable beneath the new ones, and always in some way part of the new ones. Until recently there was always a working farm in my life as well, two in Oregon and one in North Central Washington, where I saw the daily labor of trying to make the earth say “wheat” or “cattle” instead of “dust” or “sagebrush.” My poems try to preserve that experience.


I wrote...

Terminal Park: Poems

By Richard Wakefield,

Book cover of Terminal Park: Poems

What is my book about?

Richard Wakefield's third collection of poetry, Terminal Park, bears truthful and often wryly humorous witness to a wide range of human experiences. His portraits of life in rural Washington State are particularly compelling, in a way that evokes the best of Frost without sacrificing Wakefield's own distinctive voice. A showcase of given and nonce forms, Terminal Park is the work of a master craftsman, delivered with wit, empathy, and grace.

The Shape of Ancient Thought

By Thomas C. Mcevilley,

Book cover of The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies

This is the best book in English that illuminates the intensive interpenetration of Eastern and Western thought that took place in the ancient world, when half-naked yogis wandered the streets of Alexandria, Egypt, and Greek philosophers traveled to the Hindu Kush to study Buddhism. This brilliant book helped me make sense of the Eastern and Western parts of myself, reflections of my former incarnations in Greece, Tibet, and Japan, and helped me to understand that we are all of one mind.  

The Shape of Ancient Thought

By Thomas C. Mcevilley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Shape of Ancient Thought as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This revolutionary study by the renowned classical philologist reveals the interplay of Greek and Indian thought at the roots of Western culture.

Thomas C. McEvilley’s magisterial work demonstrates that Eastern and Western civilizations have not always had separate, autonomous metaphysical schemes, but have mutually influenced each other over a long period of time. Examining ancient trade routes, imperialist movements, and migration currents, he shows how some of today’s key philosophical ideas circulated freely in the triangle between Greece, India, and Persia, leading to an intense metaphysical interchange between Greek and Indian cultures.

While scholars have sensed a philosophical kinship between…

Who am I?

I’m an American Jewish girl who was born knowing that I had been Japanese in my previous lifetime. After graduating with a degree in Japanese studies from Princeton University, I moved to Japan at 21 and became a well-known translator. One day the Geisha Mineko Iwasaki, the inspiration behind Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, asked me to co-author the story of her life. Published in 2002, Geisha, a Life became a bestseller. Writing Geisha awakened memories of my past life as a courtesan in fourteenth-century Kyoto. I began a deep study of reincarnation, which has led me to study the intersection of Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. Please look out for my forthcoming book, Reincarnation Karma.


I wrote...

Geisha: A Life

By Mineko Iwasaki, Rande Brown,

Book cover of Geisha: A Life

What is my book about?

"Many say I was the best geisha of my generation," writes Mineko Iwasaki. "And yet, it was a life that I found too constricting to continue. And one that I ultimately had to leave." Trained to become a geisha from the age of five, Iwasaki would live among the other women trained in the “art of perfection” in Kyoto's Gion Kobu district. She was loved by kings, princes, military heroes, and wealthy statesmen alike. But even though she became one of the most prized geishas in Japan's history, Iwasaki wanted more: her own life. And by the time she retired at age twenty-nine, Iwasaki was finally on her way toward a new beginning.

Geisha, a Life is her story—at times heartbreaking, always awe-inspiring, and totally true.

The Symposium

By Plato, Christopher Gill (editor),

Book cover of The Symposium

The participants at a drinking party disclose their ideas about love: a doctor is a bit pompous, Aristophanes tells a wacky pseudo-myth, Socrates unveils ‘the truth about love,’ which has supposedly been revealed to him by a priestess. "Plato was mad," an eminent scholar told me once. "But he was a genius." "Maybe, but a mad genius." Well, the Platonic theory of love does seem miles from our own experience, but there are extraordinary insights along the way—into the creative impulse, sexuality, and human psychology. It may have influenced Freud. It is also a literary treat, with details that you would expect more in a novel than a work of philosophy. And after Socrates seems to have wrapped things up, Alcibiades crashes in tipsy …

The Symposium

By Plato, Christopher Gill (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Symposium as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Perhaps the most entertaining work of philosophy ever written ... the first really systematic and serious attempt to say what love is' John Armstrong, Guardian

In the course of a lively drinking party, a group of Athenian intellectuals exchange views on eros, or desire. From their conversation emerges a series of subtle reflections on gender roles, sex in society and the sublimation of basic human instincts. The discussion culminates in a radical challenge to conventional views by Plato's mentor, Socrates, who advocates transcendence through spiritual love. The Symposium is a deft interweaving of different viewpoints and ideas about the nature…


Who am I?

I spent my career teaching Classics, mostly at Oxford University, where I was a fellow of Lady Margaret Hall and Professor of the Classical Tradition. I have worked on the influence of the ancient world on British literature and culture, especially in the Victorian age, and when being a conventional classicist have written mostly about Latin literature and Roman culture. I have also written short books on Jane Austen and Westminster Abbey.


I wrote...

Classical Literature: An Epic Journey from Homer to Virgil and Beyond

By Richard Jenkyns,

Book cover of Classical Literature: An Epic Journey from Homer to Virgil and Beyond

What is my book about?

The book is about Greek and Latin literature from the beginning, about 700 BC, to the second century AD. I thought that readers would like a balance between the broad sweep of literary history and a fuller exploration of the greatest works. So I give most space to Homer, Greek tragedy, Virgil, and the Latin poetry of the ‘Golden Age’, but there are plenty of others in between. I also include some books of the New Testament, since they are classical texts too. The book is essentially chronological, because literary history is a story, but my foremost aim is to present the best of what the Greeks and Romans wrote and to show, as well as I can, what makes it the best.

Book cover of The Art of Happiness

Epicurus wrote a series of letters summarizing his philosophy and we also have a couple of sets of short aphorisms that report key ideas. All of these are translated in this volume, along with the ancient biography of Epicurus and a substantial introduction. For any one keen to learn more about Epicureanism, the first thing to reader are his letters, especially the Letter to Menoeceus and the Letter to Herodotus.

The Art of Happiness

By Epicurus,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Art of Happiness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The teachings of Epicurus-about life and death, religion and science, physical sensation, happiness, morality, and friendship-attracted legions of adherents throughout the ancient Mediterranean world and deeply influenced later European thought. Though Epicurus faced hostile opposition for centuries after his death, he counts among his many admirers Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Jefferson, Karl Marx, and Isaac Newton. This volume includes all of his extant writings-his letters, doctrines, and Vatican sayings-alongside parallel passages from the greatest exponent of his philosophy, Lucretius, extracts from Diogenes Laertius' Life of Epicurus, a lucid introductory essay about Epicurean philosophy, and a foreword by Daniel Klein, author of…

Who am I?

John Sellars is a Reader in Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the author of multiple books on ancient philosophy, including Hellenistic Philosophy. He is also a founding member of Modern Stoicism and The Aurelius Foundation, both non-profit companies devoted to bringing Stoicism to a wider audience and showing how it can benefit people today.


I wrote...

The Pocket Epicurean

By John Sellars,

Book cover of The Pocket Epicurean

What is my book about?

A short, smart guide to living the good life through an introduction to the teachings of Epicurus. As long as there has been human life, we've been in search of what it means to be happy. More than two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Epicurus came to his own answer: all we really want in life is pleasure. Though today we tend to associate the word "Epicurean" with indulgence in the form of food and wine, the philosophy that Epicurus established was about a life well lived even in the hardest of times. As John Sellars shows in this concise, approachable guide, the vision of an ideal life developed by Epicurus and his followers was a life much more concerned with mental pleasures and the avoidance of pain. Their goal, in short, was a life of tranquillity or contentment.

Book cover of Lectures on Ancient Philosophy

Hey, this non-fiction book I’ve read has a lot to offer. Great study for those who wants to understand more about metaphysical world!

This is his fourth book that I’ve read besides Reincarnation, The Secret Teaching of All Ages, and The Wisdom of the Knowing Ones. I love his books, because can I learn a lot of mystical things which is related to the fantasy series that I’ve been working on. And it has a great impact on my writing for the first book in my series.

It taught me that we are not alone in this world. There are a lot that we don’t know about spiritual dimension that can’t be seen with our mundane eyes. As within, so without. Our inner wisdom creates the reflection of our reality.
I feel contented with the knowledge shared in this book. It helped me to enlighten my perspective…

Lectures on Ancient Philosophy

By Manly P. Hall,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lectures on Ancient Philosophy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Complete in itself, this volume originated as a commentary and expansion of Manly P. Hall's masterpiece of symbolic philosophy, The Secret Teachings of All Ages.
In Lectures on Ancient Philosophy, Manly P. Hall expands on the philosophical, metaphysical, and cosmological themes introduced in his classic work, The Secret Teachings of All Ages. Hall wrote this volume as a reader's companion to his earlier work, intending it for those wishing to delve more deeply into the esoteric philosophies and ideas that undergird the Secret Teachings. Particular attention is paid to Neoplatonism, ancient Christianity, Rosicrucian and Freemasonic traditions, ancient mysteries, pagan rites…

Who am I?

I’m an Indonesian writer who loves the idea of supernatural fantasy. I’ve always liked daydreaming. It started when a story suddenly kept playing inside my head like a movie. And that story now became my first fantasy book, Royal Arcanum. Never I imagined I’ll be a full-time writer now. I feel blessed that my family supported my writing career.


I wrote...

Royal Arcanum: Reimagined

By Keefe R.D.,

Book cover of Royal Arcanum: Reimagined

What is my book about?

18-year-old Cathy Charlotte somehow has a soul connection to the ancient Vesperian legend. Not that she knows, until Sylvia Elle, an angel in disguised came to reveal the secret, that Cathy is born from the mother who inherits an Italian royal bloodline. One day, Cathy is astonished to know that her mom is part of the frightening secret fraternity. Her mom doesn't want her to get involved. But the more Cathy is being pushed away, the more she demands the truth.

The fraternity is seeking mysterious knowledge from the Vesperian legend. They deeply believe in the old prophecy; “the one inherits the soul, the one holds the knowledge.” Once the mystery reveals, Cathy terrifies. Before anyone finds out what she knows, Cathy must save herself and her family from the wicked chaos.

Meditations

By Marcus Aurelius, Martin Hammond (translator),

Book cover of Meditations

While riding on the New York subway one day, the young woman sitting next to me was reading from the so-called “Little Black Book” (a collection of daily thoughts often read by members of Alcoholics Anonymous). After closing the book, she pulled out this very edition of Marcus Aurelius and I could not help but comment to her that she had made a great choice. Not only does the theme of the “Serenity Prayer” go back to Stoics, but Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (literally titled “To Himself”) show the thoughtful and meditative side of Stoicism. In addition, Marcus Aurelius seems to be practicing what we now call spiritual exercises. Last, what is especially striking is that the Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote many of these entries while he was stuck on military campaigns; thus, we see up close a man utilizing Stoicism to grapple with the messiness of life.

Meditations

By Marcus Aurelius, Martin Hammond (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Meditations as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Their icy blasts are refreshing and restorative. They tell you the worst. And having heard the worst, you feel less bad' Blake Morrison

Written in Greek by the only Roman emperor who was also a philosopher, without any intention of publication, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius offer a remarkable series of challenging spiritual reflections and exercises developed as the emperor struggled to understand himself and make sense of the universe. While the Meditations were composed to provide personal consolation and encouragement, Marcus Aurelius also created one of the greatest of all works of philosophy: a timeless collection that has been…


Who am I?

I am an associate professor of philosophy at Fordham University. I earned my Ph.D. at the University of Chicago (the same institution where the fictional Indiana Jones is said to have earned his doctorate!). I specialize in Greek and Roman ethics with a particular emphasis on Stoicism.


I wrote...

The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life

By Brian E. Johnson,

Book cover of The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life

What is my book about?

The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life offers an original interpretation of Epictetus's ethics and how he bases his ethics on an appeal to our roles in life. Epictetus believes that every individual is the bearer of many roles from sibling to citizen and that individuals are morally good if they fulfill the obligations associated with these roles. To understand Epictetus's account of roles, scholars have often mistakenly looked backwards to Cicero's earlier and more schematic account of roles. However, for Cicero, roles are merely a tool in the service of the virtue of decorum where decorum is one of the four canonical virtues--prudence, justice, greatness of spirit, and decorum.

The analysis found in The Role Ethics of Epictetus will be of great value both to students and scholars of ancient philosophy, ethics and moral philosophy, history, classics, and theology, and to the educated reader who admires Epictetus.

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