I know that Pythagoras is the basis for all the Philosophy (and probably mathematics). I ordered The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library but I already have the following Philosophical books:

  • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  • Enchiridion by Epictetus
  • Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche (unabridged edition)
  • Six Great Dialogues: Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Symposium, and The Republic by Plato
  • The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud.

Will I be able to fully understand these books if I have never read about Pythagoras or Aristotle before, especially if some of them are Stoic?

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    "I know that Pythagoras is the basis for all the Philosophy (and probably mathematics)." - That seems debatable. In any case, whether any one in particular can read any of these books will depend on the person. Sep 30, 2015 at 20:15
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    I did a Philosophy major and I've never read a word of Pythagoras.
    – user207421
    Sep 30, 2015 at 23:07
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    Four thoughts. (1) Asking about a list of books that are pretty arbitrary together makes the question of little use to add the SE. (2) I'm not sure how answers to this question can be much more than opinions. (3) I'm convinced I "fully understand" several of the texts there; that's a very steep criterion. (4) I did four different degrees in philosophy and have never read Pythagoras. While in a sense, he's the first philosopher of a sort, there's little known connection between him and subsequent philosophy.
    – virmaior
    Sep 30, 2015 at 23:33
  • @virmaior I voted for reopen because I think the answers help the questioner to come into contact with philosophy. I think one should not discourage but support such wish. E.g., the convergent answers concerning Pythagoras get some weight even when they are all opinion based. But each respondent is free to add an argument why he does not consider Pythagoras a must - or ask the questioner for an argument which supports his opposite view.
    – Jo Wehler
    Oct 1, 2015 at 0:09
  • Okay, I will start a discussion about these sorts of questions on meta, but for now, I'll retract my close vote.
    – virmaior
    Oct 1, 2015 at 0:22

8 Answers 8


It's arguably not possible to "fully" understand any great work of philosophy. In the Platonic tradition, in fact, the general assumption is that you are being pointed in the direction of things that can never be fully explained, communicated or apprehended.

With that said, Plato is extremely readable if you get a good translation, and is an excellent place to start studies of philosophy --he's arguably the best, and almost certainly the most influential philosopher within the entire Western canon. His work has an unfamiliar cultural context, and his end goal is to expand your mind beyond all ordinary limits, but he works hard to make that process as smooth and painless as possible. Starting with the shorter works and working your way to the longer ones is probably a good approach --the order you listed your works of Plato is probably as decent a reading order as any for that particular selection.

Pythagoras was undoubtedly an influence on Plato, but many more people read Plato than read Pythagoras --it isn't necessary to have read Pythagoras in order to engage with Plato.


Pythagoras the basis of philosophy? No way. For one thing, nothing he wrote has survived, and the stories his followers told are clouded by myths and legends. In terms of actual ideas, Pythagoras may have done some interesting things in math, but Euclid (of Alexandria) did considerably more.

Many people agree with Whitehead that everything in European philosophy is a series of footnotes on Plato. That being said, some modern philosophers would protest that there are lots of footnotes.

One question is, "Why Plato?" Or more accurately, "Why Plato's teacher Socrates, Plato himself, and Plato's student Aristotle?"

My philosophy teacher answered, "Because they are the first ones that got it right."

Nietzsche was brilliant, but he was not a philosopher. Similarly with Freud. In fact almost all philosophers are brilliant, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they are correct. The question you want to ask yourself is how do you tell if something is worth reading? After all, you only have one lifetime, and there are several lifetimes of philosophical reading out there.

At it's heart, philosophy is a love of wisdom and truth. If it strays too far from that, either it gets disregarded or it leads to fatal ethical and other mistakes.

To give one example, Edmund Husserl founded phenomenology, and his two greatest students were Edith Stein and Martin Heidegger. Because of what they believed, Stein died a martyr and is now a Catholic saint, while Heidegger died an unrepentant Nazi sympathizer (and pretended that his philosophical beliefs had nothing to do with his political ones; go figure). So... will you read "Finite and Eternal Being" or "Being and Time"?

  • As Burkert showed Pythagoras did nothing in mathematics, his contributions if any were philosophical. How does one decide what makes one a philosopher, or when a philosopher is correct? There is no accepted standard of truth as in science or mathematics. And why should one judge philosophical arguments based on biographical details?
    – Conifold
    Oct 2, 2015 at 0:38
  • Fair questions, and appropriately philosophical ones. :-) Oct 4, 2015 at 12:57
  • @Conifold -Biographical details are important because actions speak louder than words. In philosophical terms, it's easy to make up fantasies and tell lies. But all persons perform actions and make decisions based on their fundamental philosophical beliefs. It is logical that a believer in the concept of a master race will slaughter "non-humans" and other "useless eaters". Oct 4, 2015 at 14:20
  • @Conifold - It is difficult to do science experiments in philosophy because of the time scale needed, plus you'd be doing experiments on human subjects without their knowledge or concent. WRT mathematical proofs, Godel's Incompleteness theorem has shown that there are many truths that cannot be proven. In addition, math proofs require that you start with assumptions, but philosophy constantly questions assumptions. Oct 4, 2015 at 14:23
  • @Conifold - What makes one a philosopher? I suppose the definition can be rather fluid; after all, Pythagoras supposedly was the first man to call himself a philosopher, or lover of wisdom (which is probably why he was recommended to you). What makes a philosopher correct? Ah, that is a tough one. Taking Socrates as the example, an important characteristic would be a teachable humility: Socrates knew that he was ignorant, hence he always asked questions. A 2nd characteristic would be an unquenchable thirst for wisdom--a very difficult-to-define quality. But probably the best place to start. Oct 5, 2015 at 3:33

You will definitely be able to understand those pieces of literature if you have an advanced comprehension of the english language. Without that, the books will seem as if there are no words. You need not too much background information to read the books, but you may want to learn about what influenced the authors to write the books and the perspective they are coming from. I hope this helps and have fun reading.

  • by "advanced comprehension of the english language" you mean technical philosophical words ?
    – mil
    Sep 30, 2015 at 18:12
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    @mil I am referring to comprehension of the English language. This entails an above average comprehension level in general. I hope I'm helping.
    – Teagen Dix
    Sep 30, 2015 at 18:15
  • Thank you, well English is not my native language but I speak it well and understand well
    – mil
    Sep 30, 2015 at 18:40
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    @mil: essentially you don't want to be struggling over what a sentence or paragraph is saying, rather than its argument; I have a patchy second language so I know what it's like to try to read something when the syntax is strange, or some vocabulary is missing. Sep 30, 2015 at 20:34

Meditations will be no trouble to anyone with decent English (assuming, of course, it's not in the original Greek!) With the rest, your mileage may vary. I would always advise someone learning on their own to read commentaries of the primary texts first (rather than the texts themselves), or even more general texts discussing key philosophical areas as opposed to individual philosophers.

But what exactly are you trying to achieve? "Philosophy" is a vast field; so big that there is not complete agreement as to what's in it, and that's even if you just stick to Western philosophy. And given that vastness, your choice of books represents a fairly disconnected smattering of ideas. Furthermore, I doubt many would see Freud's work as being part of the canon. Few, too, would regard Pythagoras as "the basis for all Philosophy". Even Marcus Aurelius, it could be argued, was not studying philosophy; he was doing philosophy (a.k.a. "being philosophical")

There are several good "Introduction to..." books you could use as your starting off point. Bertrand Russel's "History of..." isn't the worst. Roger Scruton's "Modern Philosophy" is worth a look.


Pythagoras isn't the basis for all (Western) Philosophy. If anyone deserves that title, it's Plato. This has been explicitly credited; in fact Whitehead wrote:

The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. -- Process and Reality

As for mathematics, Pythagoras was influential, but Euclid may be a better read as he's been taken as a model of logic by many. In fact, he influenced the structure of Spinoza's "Ethics" centuries later.

As for the books you list, yes can read them all without a foundation in philosophy. You might run into a technical term here or there, and should be careful about terms whose philosophical meaning differs slightly from the common meaning (e.g.: form, idea, impression).


Nietzsche may seem "easy" at first glance but actually he is difficult. You may get an idea of philosophical skepticism applied to morality by reading his works. Nietzsche is a double-edge knife. You may like his style but there is a chance he may not like yours.

Plato of course is very important, you are going to read his works again and again. More repetitive reading different levels of understanding or misunderstanding.

Freud work The Interpretation of Dreams is an excellent piece of literature, and the work that Freud unfolds his psychological system.

I believe Thales is regarded the "first philosopher" in the Greek tradition. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thales


I do not know the Enchiridion of Epictetus. All other books are readable also by a beginner in Philosophy. My personal choice and order from the named philosophers would be:

  • Plato: Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Symposion, First book of Republic and “Parable of the cave” (from Book 7, 514a ff.) and “Parable of the sun” (from Book 6, 507b – 509b). I would start with a short biography of Plato to know the context and some events from his life. After reading Phaedo I would begin studying some secundary sources about Plato’s theory of forms.

  • Sigmund Freud: The Interpretation of Dreams (from 1900). I also recommend The Future of an Illusion (1927) and Lecture 35 from New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1932).

  • Friedrich Nietzsche: Thus spoke Zarathustra. The book can be considered a mocking on the Gospel. Nietzsche was an atheist.

  • I do not share the view that Pythagoras is the basis for all philosophy and probably also for all mathematics. Why do you think so? The person who told you this view, did he give any arguments supporting this view?

  • Friedrich Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil is a collection of aphorisms. I think, you must decide for yourself how many aphorisms you can appreciate. Because an aphorism generally does not give any argument. Either it hits the point or one forgets it.

  • Marc Aurel: Meditations. After reading some of his meditations I was rather disappointed. I had expected original and deep thoughts, not commonplaces from the Stoic tradition.

In addition, I would like to recommend a modern dictionary of philosophy, e.g., I am quite happy with The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy.


Yes you will definitely be able to understand those texts, but that statement needs some qualification.

Firstly, you need to understand that more of the work in reading texts is to do with how much mental work you put in to considering and challenging their ideas. Simply reading the text like a novel probably won't leave you too much more enlightened. This is much easier if the language of the work/translation you are reading is your first language, but of course that isn't 100% necessary.

Secondly, you probably won't finish the text with quite the same depth of understanding of someone who has experience with other ideas that are related to the texts, (what the text is responding to and why, what common counter-arguments are, etc.). This is fine, and everyone starts out this way, but don't always expect to fully "get" a text the first time you read it (especially in the case of Nietzsche). Because of this, if you have a series of related texts I would normally suggest reading them in the order they were written unless you have a good reason to do otherwise.

(EDIT: Something a lot of people do is to read the original text alongside an companion text that is meant to explain the ideas in a more plain-language manner, and I've heard a lot of people recommend it if you can find a decent companion text.)

To answer your question at the end, Pythagoras was very influential but isn't necessary for any of the texts you listed, and Aristotle was Plato's student so Plato's ideas naturally wouldn't rely on that.

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