Clever Thinkers : Six books exploring how philosophy helps us solve life problems

Philosophy may be more associated with Dead White Men, but many contemporary philosophers examine how the structure of philosophical inquiry, and the cumulative wisdom of millenia of thinkers, can apply to the modern world. The books we’ve chosen this week look at how philosophy can help us clarify and tease out the complexities of everyday life problems – from how to achieve happiness, to the ethics of assisted dying, and even to the etiquette of dating.

Lives of the Stoics: the Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman

Lives of the Stoics is an eye-opening mix of history, philosophy and self-help. Holiday and Hanselman (creators of the popular Daily Stoic website and podcast) show us that there is more to Stoicism than its current association with unemotional endurance. Through the mini-biographies of the most notable Stoics – from Zeno, the founder of this school of philosophy, to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the authors show the different ways these practitioners lived by their philosophy; and through these examples, help readers learn how stoicism can teach us about happiness, success, resilience and virtue.

The Socrates Express: in Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers by Eric Weiner

Socrates is not the only philosopher whose teachings help guide Eric Weiner out of his mid-life crisis – through a series of figurative and literal journeys around the world, we meet 14 philosophers, a diverse group including Marcus Aurelius, de Beauvoir, Gandhi and Sei Shonagon, a 10th-century Japanese courtesan commonly regarded as the World’s first novelist. These thinkers help Eric Weiner figure out what he considers a meaningful life. The Socrates Express invites us to join in a process of self-examination, and to consider how philosophy can teach us how to think, how to live, and how to die.

Vexed: Ethics Beyond Political Tribes by James Mumford

In Vexed, James Mumford analyses the ethics of six issues – assisted dying, social welfare, sexual liberation, gun control, transhumanism and the rights of former felons. In doing so, he exposes the surprising contradictions within the “package deal” political beliefs of both sides of politics (particularly in the US) – for example, rationales for being pro-gun and pro-life/anti-abortion are inherently contradictory, even though both are associated with the political Right. Vexed is a provocative book that challenges readers to strive for ethical consistency by forming specific opinions on individual issues, rather than buying into political identities as a whole.

The Kindness Revolution: How we can Restore Hope, Rebuild Trust and Inspire Optimism by Hugh Mackay

Veteran social psychologist Hugh Mackay has observed how the last two years have challenged Australians’ livelihoods and resilience – and encourages the idea of “radical kindness” as a way to process and heal from these difficulties. Mackay reminds us that our capacity for kindness – compassion, tolerance, respect, sensitivity – to strangers is at the very heart of our humanity; and by choosing kindness over cynicism and indifference, we will contribute to a powerful, grassroots effort towards creating the country we want and need.

When you Kant Figure it Out, Ask a Philosopher by Marie Robert

This book takes agony-aunt advice to the next level. While Kant, Nietzsche or Heidegger may never have impulse-bought at IKEA, nor got dumped via text message, their powers of clear thinking can still help us in present-day situations. Marie Robert matches twelve modern dilemmas – digital detox, death of loved ones, hangovers, dating – to the teachings of some of our greatest philosophers. When You Kant Figure It Out, Ask a Philosopher is witty and fun, and makes Western philosophy accessible for modern audiences.

In Search of Wisdom: a Monk, a Philosopher, and a Psychiatrist on What Matters Most by Matthieu Ricard, Christophe Andre and Alexandre Jollien

A monk, a philosopher and a psychiatrist walk into a cabin in the woods and start chatting… what follows is not the punchline of a joke, but rather an intimate, enlightening discussion on the essence of being human. The three authors became close friends after discovering and admiring each other’s writings; here they draw upon their learnings in positive psychology, mindfulness, Buddhism and spirituality to explore topics such as compassion, gratitude, listening without judgment, living according to one’s ideals, and responsibly exercising freedom of thought, speech, and action.