Three Books That Most Changed My Life

Earlier this month, I participated in a great interview with Clifford Lee Sargent. He has been producing the Better than Food book reviews for several years – a great video series that I’m a big fan of – and we have been discussing what sort of collaborative work we might engage in. So when he decided to start a podcast focused around “Three Books That Changed Your Life,” and asked me if I’d come on, I thought it was a great topic, and immediately agreed.

As it turned out – for me – it was a much more difficult topic to think out, at least at first. I suspect it would have been a good bit easier if there wasn’t so much of my life already behind me at this point – if I was in my mid 20s rather than my mid 40s – since then I would be a lot closer to the times when those sorts of life-changing reading experiences occurred. I’d probably have a lot more youthful enthusiasm about literature working for me as well. Though frankly, I wouldn’t trade the more sober realism derived from much more time put in reading, writing, reflecting, and teaching for that almost electric charge I do remember, but don’t often experience these days, that occurs in exciting encounters with books.

Settling On Three Books

Works of literature were what I thought of at first. I remember being entirely captivated with Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths, for example, enough to engage in some ultimately abortive writing about the philosophical concepts and perspectives played with in the short stories largely comprising that work. I also remember the effect reading – and then arguing about – Louis Ferdinand Celine’s Journey To The End Of Night had upon me early on in my graduate study years. Probably my favorite fiction writer is Philip K. Dick, though – not least for how he fits ideas from philosophy into the framework of his narratives and compelling characters – but which of his many books would I say was the one that changed me? Was it The Martian Time Slip, which I read down in Fayetteville at my new teaching position, which then led me immediately into reading more of his works? That’s a kind of change, to be sure, but other works of his have had a greater effect upon me, A Scanner Darkly, for instance, or The Man In The High Castle, or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich.

I considered as well other authors with whom I had – or rather discovered – some sort of affinity. I think that for a work to “change one’s life” there not only needs to be some new vista or vantage points opened up in the work, a new way of seeing the world’s depths and superficies, but also the book needs to read the reader in return, to induce some sort of reflective change within the person reading. This needn’t be one that the book has to accomplish entirely on its own. It might require some preparation by other books, or certain types of experiences, maturation, or even emotional states like sorrow, eagerness, confusion, or a dissatisfaction (I name these just as examples, not because those are particularly paradigmatic). I mulled over a number of other authors as candidates, the ones who captivated me, who made me muse or reflect as I read. They’re a rather motley lot: Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch, G.K. Chesterton, Rainer Maria Rilke, Albert Camus, Denis Diderot. . . .

What three books did I finally settle upon? None of them are all that closely connected with the works I’ve mentioned above. I realized that I was going about understanding and answering the guiding question all wrong. Wrong for me, that is, not for many or even most other people. What three books most changed your life? Among other things, I am a philosopher. Between college and graduate school, I devoted twelve years of my life to amassing a solid enough foundation in this inexhaustible field, and I didn’t do it as someone simply seeking knowledge or wisdom for its own sake, but as an existentially committed, experientially (and even experimentally) engaged course of study. The notion of philosophy as a way of life, you might say, was always at the forefront for me, and I was fortunate enough to have some professors and fellow students who viewed the discipline and its literature that way as well.

After graduating, I went on to teach, to write, to speak about, and to apply philosophy as my full-time work. That’s gone on for another fifteen years at this point. So once I started thinking about what philosophical works have influenced me the most, like kaleidoscopic images coming out of fuzziness into focus when you have given it a twist and rearranged the blobs of color, it suddenly all became clear to me.

My Three Books (and Authors)

Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and Epictetus’ Discourses. Those are the three books that have most changed my own life. Without any particular self-importance, but a good bit of happiness, I can also say that through changing my own life, these books also changed lives of numerous other people as well – students, colleagues, clients, and friends. In fact, I have to admit that it is largely through my teaching, writing, speaking, and creating videos about the ideas - and the deeper systematic perspectives - contained in these books that I have impressed upon others the notion that it might be good for them to take those on, try them out, and see what good comes of it. (It hasn’t been through the force of my own successful example in assimilating and incorporating those into my own life!)  Fortunately, Plato, Aristotle, and Epictetus can largely speak for themselves, once I do the work of introducing people to them, and inducing them to read and consider their works.

These are three classic works of philosophy. Each of them articulates a systematic perspective that centers primarily around what we broadly call “ethics” (or “moral theory”) and “philosophy of human nature” (sometimes “philosophical anthropology” or “moral psychology”). Each of them unapologetically strays into or sometimes devotes significant attention to other areas within the larger field of philosophy – metaphysics, epistemology, political theory, aesthetics, and dialectic or argumentation, just to name a few.

But all three of these works centers around certain key questions. As an example: given all of the things that people say are good – wealth, security, physical pleasures, bodily beauty or strength, entertainment, power over others, social position, knowledge, relationships, character, self-sacrifices, just to name a few – which of these really are good? And how would we know this? Is it possible to “have it all”, or do we sooner or later have to make “tough choices”?

That is just one set of questions each of these works compels its reader to ask, and then to try to work out an answer to. They don’t offer that experience to you just once. What gives them their status as “classics” is a capacity to induce such a process of formulating questions and seeking out answers. Often we don’t even know that we needed to ask those questions. We may not have realized or suspected that those questions existed, let alone how pressing they might become for us. And when we first articulate them, we may ask them badly, in a clumsy way, placing the emphases on the wrong points.

Once they are asked, most of those questions not only grip us, driving us to seek answers, but they may have to be asked repeatedly. The answers we come up with early on typically turn out to be only partly right, only somewhat on point. We take those answers and examine them more closely, critically, sizing them up not only against the questions they respond to, not only in relation to our own exigencies and experiences, but also in connection to other answers that we’ve worked out. Sometimes in this process of proofing, we happily discover that these answers form the outlines of a coherent and consistent system. Quite often we learn this not to be the case, and once we have rested and regrouped, we return to that ongoing work.

Reading Oneself Into the Books

Another key set of questions reading and reflecting upon these three works brings to the fore a lived narrative, in which we are the central characters.  This is a story either of progress or decline, peppered with success and failures, assumptions and insights, priorities and sacrifices, goals and motivations, choices and their consequences. Each of these books articulates a grand and complex vision of the human being, a map of moral development and degeneration, breakthrough and breakdown.

Aristotle does this a bit more systematically in the Nicomachean Ethics than Plato does in his Republic, or Epictetus in his Discourses. But none of them provide a completely finished system, and in my view that is a good thing, for we learn much in following the loose ends out, in adapting the authors' positions to our own modern circumstances, or even in realizing where these great thinkers may indeed have stopped up short (and in trying to push their thought past those limits).

Each of these three offers its readers a theory of human nature. hat provides each of us with the opportunity to place ourselves within the framework of that moral theory. We can, for example, encounter the Platonic teaching about the three parts of the soul, and start thinking about where the predominances in our own personalities reside. Are we driven by our appetites and desires, allowing our rational capacities to be merely, as David Hume would later quip, “slave[s] of the passions” Perhaps then we have, in the course of our lives up to that point, given too much scope to those appetites. That would be entirely unsurprising in a society like ours, driven by consumerism, and often framing what disciplining or deferment of desires does have to be imposed largely in terms of greater future enjoyment of physical pleasures. How would one do that? Plato provides one set of answers, Aristotle a different but related set, and Epictetus in his turn a third, complementary set.

What would it require for the higher portions or dimensions of our human being to be fully developed? Plato provides us with answers that are fairly easy to read and to conceptualize in outline, but are correspondingly much more difficult to realize in full. They require ongoing effort, self-assessment, and often support from other people similarly motivated. Aristotle provides us with an overall vision of the human being that intersects with that of Plato on some points and diverges on others, but similarly enables us to work out some understanding of our current moral condition, to honestly assess what is good and what is bad about it, and to determine what – should we wish to improve it – we might productively begin or end, continue or taper off, rethink or reinforce. And of course, the same can be said of Epictetus as well, who offers us yet another fundamental perspective on moral matters, with different assumptions and emphases than those of Plato and Aristotle.

I should mention that while some readers do feel that, when it comes to these classic works, and the underlying moral theories they embody, you must pick one and stick with that selection, refusing and rejecting the others on any points where they might disagree, that is not the only possible course. Deliberately adopting a sort of eclecticism is indeed a live and legitimate possibility. Purists of various sorts do decry such pluralism, but they often overplay their hand. There are, to be sure, “eclectics” whose example gives a bad name to the term, mere samplers of the smorgasbord of philosophical doctrines who simply fill their plates but never really digest what they read and form it into something substantive.

Within the history of ideas we have some excellent examples of a different form of eclecticism. Cicero, who at times claims to belong to the Academic Skeptic school, nonetheless draws heavily upon Stoic, Aristotelian, and Platonist doctrines and ideas. Plutarch, who is a Platonist, and who emphatically points out where he disagrees with the Stoics, nevertheless adopts ideas from them when useful, and blends Aristotelian ideas into his moral treatises as well (sometimes crediting them to Socrates!)

What Makes These Works Classics?

Even if a person just grapples with one of these great thinkers – in fact, even if they just read one of these works, rather than studying more of that author’s available works – they generally realize gains far beyond any expectations they might have had at the start. That is one main reason these works remain classics, I suspect. There is a tendency to assume “classic" works are such because people in the past found them valuable, and that people in the present then follow along by way of imitation or affectation, modeling themselves along the lines of those past people who talked up these works.

It is really the opposite that is the case. Each of these works, and in general all the works that deserve the moniker “classic,” retain that title because of a perennial timeliness. They speak to us with a relevance and wisdom that astonishes the reader, and then draws the reader in. “Speaks to us” is almost a dry and abstract way of expressing what happens. These authors interrogate us, placing us on the proverbial hot seat, asking us as Socrates did with his fellow Athenians: what have you made of your life, and what are you doing with it? They place startling ideas in front of us, offer suggestions about what to make of the, and advocate ways of reasoning, evaluating, and acting in our present times. They lead us through arguments, offer us new starting points, even entangle us within what at the time appear to be insoluble paradoxes.

One feature essential to all three of these books that assumed central importance for me for me, both personally and professionally, was the focus on understanding the complex, inevitable, and often damaged interconnections between two fundamental dimensions of human being. On the one side there is our rationality, our intellectual capacities and faculties, our ability not only to reason and understand, but to communicate, to problem-solve, to persuade and be persuaded not just by force or emotion but by argument. On the other side is the entire affective side, encompassing our drives and even instincts, our aversions and desires, our emotions, our valuations of goods and evils. And the picture gets yet more complex than that. There is also – whatever we want to call it – our capacity for choice and action, what later gets called “the will”. And tying it all together, there is also the domain of the habits we develop, reshape, eliminate, build, and through which we act, feel, think, and choose.

Each of these three thinkers, and each of their masterworks, helps us develop an understanding of these matters, and not just about human beings in general, but also about particular persons, for instance ourselves. Each of them articulates for us a picture of what a harmonious, productive relationship between our intellectual and affective sides – our hearts and our minds – would look like. Better yet, each of them also sketches a path by which a person who adopted that model would progress towards it. And best of all, from where I sit, they also provide us with a wealth of insights about how to get back on that path from where we actually are, when we fail, when we lose track of it for a space – how to unscrew-up ourselves, or put a bit more robustly, how to unf**k your life.

The qualities of the Republic, the Nicomachean Ethics, and the Discourses that I’ve just praised so highly do take devotion of time, effort, and active thinking on the part of the reader in order to first glimpse as a promise or outline, then more and more distinctly as one reads, reflects, applies, experiments. There aren’t really any shortcuts in that process (though I suspect some viewers watch my videos with that aim in mind).

But in compensation, there is a virtuous cycle generated - a feedback loop of sorts - as one reads about, reflects upon, and tries out the ideas, changing oneself by increments in the process. Matters get clearer for the person who adopts Plato, Aristotle, or Epictetus as an ongoing mentor and dialogue partner. Ways in which the things that really matter turn out to be interconnected come more fully into view. A corresponding growth and fulfillment within one’s emotional side develops alongside the cognitive progress, and that provides an existential criterion that one is indeed moving along the right path.

So those are my three books. The ones that most changed my life, when I thought the question through!  To be honest, though, that change is still ongoing and deepening, and I hope that's always the case.