5 Readable Philosophical Novels

There are many philosophical novels in existence. However, many of them are difficult reads either because they are complex in language or concepts (e.g. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” or “Faust“) or because — while readily understandable — they were badly in need of an editor (e.g. “Atlas Shrugged.”) Here are a few novels with interesting philosophical lessons that aren’t killers to read.


5.) Ishmael by Daniel Quinn: A man answers an ad that begins: “Teacher seeks pupil.” The teacher he discovers and the lessons he is taught aren’t what he bargained for. The book considers the impact of modern man versus aboriginal people, and the two groups’ respective place in the world.

 

4.) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: In a futuristic world, people are controlled and manipulated by genetic engineering, classical conditioning, sleep-teaching, not to mention heaping helpings of drugs and promiscuity. The book considers the role of technology in humanity’s trajectory, and it contrasts Orwell’s bleak vision of dystopian governance with one that is every bit as manipulatory — if a great deal more pleasant in appearance.

 

3.) The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: A young prince from a far-away land comes to Earth, and shows how wise the young can be and how absurd adults often are.

 

2.) Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse: A man who feels out of step with humanity faces events that force him to reconsider what it means to be a man in the world of men.

 

1.) The Journeys of Socrates by Dan Millman: The prequel to Millman’s acclaimed book “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior.” It blends Eastern and Western philosophy in the training of a warrior.

POEM: The Endrow, or: How To Survive a Cornfield

I was once a kid in the corn.

News at Eleven ran a story
about a child found dehydrated
and on death’s door — deep in a field.

Any farm-boy will tell you,
you can’t get lost in a cornfield —
not truly lost.

Pick one of the two directions
that your row runs,
and walk.

When the rows re-align at right angles,
that’s the endrow —
you’re almost out.

Sure, it sucks if you hit the river,
because then you’ve got to walk
all the way back past where you started,
moving in the opposite direction.

But a kid has a lot of walk in him.

The only way to get lost in a cornfield
is to panic, and lose all faith
in the logic of a field.

In nature, one may walk oneself in circles
’cause one leg is stronger than the other,
and nature’s chaos is omnisymmetric
to an order-loving human brain.

But, in a field, the rows run true,
and the only way to walk in circles
is to feed your fear
and lose faith in the straightness of rows.

One can’t teleport a harvester into a field,
it needs to be driven there on a road.

Find your endrow, find your road.

BOOK REVIEW: Be As You Are ed. by David Godman

Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana MaharshiBe As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi by Ramana Maharshi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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In the early days of yoga, before there was Power Yoga or Yin Yoga — or even Hatha Yoga or Raja Yoga, there were three approaches to yoga. Bhakti yoga was devotional yoga, the yoga of the believers who pursued the path through worship. Karma yoga was the yoga of action: practiced by doing selfless deeds. Jnana yoga, often said to the hardest, was the path of knowledge, and it involved intense study and – in particular – introspective study of the jnani’s own mind. Sri Ramana Maharshi was one of the most well-known Jnana yogis of modern times (he lived from 1879 to 1950.)

This book presents Sri Ramana’s teachings in a question and answer format. The editor, David Godman, begins each chapter with an overview of Ramana’s views on the subject at hand, and he then launches into the Q&A exchange that makes up most of each chapter. The preludes are beneficial not only because they set up the topic, but also because they help separate Ramana’s core beliefs from the way he occasionally explained matters to non-jnani’s or those who weren’t ready to grasp what he believed was the fundamental teaching. (There’s a fair amount of, “Until you realize the self, X is true, but after you achieve self-realization Y will be true.)

Sri Ramana’s central teaching is that the jnani must actively inquire about the nature of the true self (a practice called atma-vichara, or self-inquiry.) As such, the book is organized as a guide to building a practice of self-inquiry.

The book’s 21 chapters are divided among six parts. The first part investigates the self as Sri Ramana refers to it. This isn’t the individual self that one is normally referring to in common speech. Part II is entitled “Inquiry and Surrender” and three out of the four chapters, herein, discuss the process of self-inquiry. Three chapters may sound like a lot, but this practice really is the core of jnana yoga. These chapters not only explain how self-inquiry is done and what it’s supposed to achieve, they also contrast the practice with others that bear a resemblance to atma-vichara, such as reciting “Who am I?” as a mantra, as well as, neti-neti — an exercise in negation in which one considers all the things that aren’t the self (e.g. “I am not my body.” “I am not this thought,” etc.)

Part III is about Gurus and transmission of teachings. It takes on such questions as: is a Guru necessary, and what constitutes a Guru (i.e. must it be a living human? Can it be a book?) The second chapter in this part is about sat-sang, which may be literally translated as “sitting with the guru,” but refers to a kind of transference that flows from being together.

Part IV is on meditation and yoga. Sri Ramana differentiates self-inquiry from meditation, though superficially they seem to be similar activities. He discusses dharana (concentration) and mantras in these chapters as well. One inclusion that may seem unrelated to the general theme is chapter 12, which is about the four-stage model of life called the asramas (student, householder, hermit, ascetic.) The chapter on yoga is about the eight limbs of yoga described by Patanjali, and their relevance to the practice of Jnana yogi. It should be noted that Ramana downplays the importance of these practices to the jnana yogi (a.k.a. Jnani) with the exception of pranayama (breathing exercises.)

Part V discusses samadhi, siddhi (supernormal psychic powers that some yogis believe can be achieved), and other challenges and phenomena that may be experienced during one’s practice of self-inquiry. While superpowers sound cool, Sri Ramana (as well as Patanjali) warned against he pursuit of these abilities as they become distractions from obtaining self-realization.

That last five chapters are grouped under the title of “Theory.” These chapters deal in the big “meaning of life” kind of philosophical questions. Much of these chapters consist of Ramana telling the interviewer to stop over-intellectualizing about obscure philosophical matters and start asking oneself who is asking the question (in other words, get back to self-inquiry and forget about abstract navel-gazing.) At any rate, the questions include: was the universe created, and – if so – how? is reincarnation real? what is the nature of god? is karma real? is free will real? etc. They are fascinating questions, and Ramana offers a few intriguing ideas, but mostly discounts the value of philosophizing.

There are no graphics in this book, but there is a glossary, notes, and a bibliography.

I found this book to be thought-provoking. At times it can be a bit repetitive. The key point that Ramana sought to get across is (in theory, not practice) straightforward. At times it seems like the questioner is badgering the witness because he doesn’t like the answer, such as when Godman wants Sri Ramana to elaborate on the nature of suffering and the need for compassionate acts. Ramana keeps telling Godman to just go back to self-inquiry and all will take care of itself. That said, Sri Ramana offers some fascinating thoughts, and generates beautiful food-for-thought.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who wants to know more about jnana yoga or to get a different take on the philosophy of yoga in general.

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5 Things to Which My Introverted Self Has Been Oblivious

5.) In the absence of information, people write their own stories, and everyone gives himself the leading role in his own story.

Therefore, sitting in the corner, minding one’s own business, deep in introspection, may balloon into: “He’s giving me the silent treatment. I bet he hates me and wishes I would die.”

 

4.) Quietness may be interpreted as arrogance.

I was told this by a teacher in Middle School, but — at that stage in my life — that seemed an impossibility. In those days, I was self-conscious about being introverted — and I was shy, to boot. (That’s not redundant. If you think it is, I’d recommend Susan Cain’s Quiet)  Because I felt that I so blatantly lacked confidence, it seemed hard to imagine that someone would misinterpret my quietness as being over-confident and / or narcissistic. How could it not be obvious that I lacked the confidence to be arrogant, but people see a lot less than one (or they) might think they do.

 

3.) Miss eye contact, miss a lot.

It’s not just that one misses non-verbal communication, it’s that it might be assumed that you caught a signal when you didn’t.

 

2.) When you are in deep introspection, you may have total inattentional blindness, but others may not recognize that. 

You may be familiar with inattentional blindness from the gorilla – basketball pass video. It’s the fact that we can’t mentally multitask, no matter how much we might think we can. If our attention is given over to one task we may miss even the blatantly obvious. Most people don’t think this is the case, and it doesn’t feel that way. That’s because we are usually quite good as bouncing our attention between different events and stimuli. (Though never without a degradation of performance.) However, if you’re entranced in introspection, you may look like you’re giving the evil eye to the angry hoodlum at the bar, or that you’re seeing the projectile flying at your face, but maybe not.

 

1.) If one doesn’t outwardly express emotions, some people may not realize that you have them. 

It seems self-evident that everybody experiences fear, anger, or sadness on occasion. Some more frequently. Some less. Some wear emotions on their sleeves, some hold their cards close to the chest, and every point in between. Part of the problem is that our intuitive understanding of what it looks like to be without emotion is flawed. As is discussed in Antonio Damasio’s book Decartes’ Error, a true lack of emotion (as seen in those with damage to parts of the brain involved in emoting) may look like the inability to make a decision (i.e. paralysis by analysis,) rather than our traditional notion of Star Trek’s Spock — a perfectly rational decision maker who can’t be insulted and doesn’t get sarcasm.

Around the World in 6 Myths

6.) Thor & Loki in the Land of Giants (Norse): There’s no shame in putting a mere dent in the impossible.




5.) Rama & Sita (Hindu / from the Ramayana): Careful with your assumptions. You may end up looking like a jerk even if you’ve proven yourself generally virtuous.




4.) Anansi the Trickster (Ghanan / Akan): Don’t do favors for tricksters.




3.) Arachne the Weaver (Greek): Don’t be arrogant, even if you’re the best.




2.) Izanagi & Izanami (Japanese [creation myth]): Hell hath no fury…




1.) White Buffalo Calf Woman (Native American / Lakotan): Don’t let your lust get away from you and be careful in your assumptions.

BOOK REVIEW: The Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse

The Journey to the EastThe Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This lesser-known Hesse work adopts a theme common throughout the author’s books in that it’s philosophical man-versus-himself fiction. The book’s protagonist, H.H., is a member of a secretive league [called “The League”] with whom he is undertaking a journey of self-discovery. H.H. fails to complete the expedition, and that fact haunts him into old age. Ultimately, H.H. finds Leo, a servant who’d been on the journey with him, with whom H.H. had a great affinity, and whose disappearance (along with some loot) led to H.H.’s abandonment of the trip. In the process, the lead discovers that nothing was what it seemed.The book examines how vulnerable people are to disillusionment and how quickly they can lose their passion, and it urges the reader to consider from what source one draws one’s strength.

This novella is a little under a hundred pages, and is told in five chapters. The first couple of chapters describe the ill-fated journey. The third chapter is a pivot in which H.H. is considering his inadequate attempt to chronicle events, and is advised to get closure by tracking down Leo. In the last two chapters, H.H. does find Leo, receives the man’s wisdom, and ultimately finds out what really happened.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a quick and simple read, but is extremely thought-provoking. I’d recommend this book for anyone who likes to think about life’s big questions.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

The ProphetThe Prophet by Khalil Gibran
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a combination of a narrative poem and a collection of morality poems. The story of the narrative poem is that a wise man (i.e. the Prophet), Almustafa, is about to sail away from his recent — but temporary — home on Orphalese, and he’s asked to speak on a range of topics so the people of Orphalese can gather his wisdom before he goes.

In 26 chapters, the prophet expounds on each topic upon which he is questioned. Topics include relationships, possessions, laws, religion, teaching, and death. The wisdom presented is practical, profound, and reflects a mystic sentiment (i.e. the idea that the divine is within us rather than something separate.) This is an extremely quotable volume. Among his responses, the Prophet says that one should not be too controlling in relationships, that one should not live life under the dictates of fear, that it’s not for one to determine what is moral for another, and that one should not engage in morality or worship for show.

I’ll keep my review short as the book is tiny and certainly worth your time. I’d recommend this book for all readers. I think it has some insight to offer just about anyone.

[Note: Some spell the author’s first name “Kahlil” and others “Khalil.” I picked one at random.]

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10 Great Quotes from “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran

10.) “But let there be spaces in your togetherness.

“And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.”

-on Marriage

 

9.) “He who wears his morality but as his best garment were better naked.”

-on Religion

 

8.) “And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.”
-on Pain

 

7.) “What of the ox who loves his yoke and deems the elk and deer of the forest stray and vagrant things?

“What of the old serpent who cannot shed his skin and calls all others naked and shameless?”

-on Laws

 

6.) “If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.”

-on Teaching

 

5.) “For if you should enter the temple for no other purpose than asking you shall not receive.”

-on Prayer

 

4.) “And if it is a fear you would dispel, the seat of that fear is in your heart and not in the hand of the feared.”

-on Freedom

 

3.) “For what are your possessions but things you keep and guard for fear you may need them tomorrow?”

-on Giving

 

2.) “Only then shall you know that the erect and the fallen are but one man standing in the twilight between the night of his pygmy self and the day of his god self.”

-on Crime and Punishment

 

1.) “Or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house as guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master.”

-on Houses

POEM: Little Wisdom

There’s so little that I know.
Banal advice: “Don’t tell, show!”

But I’ve learned a thing or two worth learning.
Enough to feel the warmth of a dream burning.

Feel grateful more often than superior.
Feel contented more often than inferior.

Mother nature offers no free rides.
You won’t find your line by riding tides.

I’m not the best. I’m not the worst.
Though I’ve been loved, loathed, cradled, and cursed.
And known hunger, and burned with thirst.

Foot to fire, you’ll find fear a liar.
It steals will as life’s great briar.

Creature comfort is overrated.
It casts away the moment sated.

Feeling you have the right to live as me.
Is not a laudable love of the free.
It’s just personal pan tyranny.

BOOK REVIEW: Trying Not to Try by Edward Slingerland

Trying Not to Try: The Art of Effortlessness and the Power of SpontaneityTrying Not to Try: The Art of Effortlessness and the Power of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book’s paradoxical title is perfect for its paradoxical subject matter, which is famously expressed in such quotes as, “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone” [ver. 48 of the Tao Te Ching.]  Slingerland lays down the ancient Chinese wisdom of wu-wei and de, but provides something novel by putting it in the context of the positive psychology and neuroscience of today. Wu-wei literally means “no doing,” but can be more meaningfully defined as “effortless action.” De (pronounced “duh”) is a charisma seen in people who have mastered the effortlessness and spontaneity of wu-wei.

While the book is built around the varied approaches of four Chinese philosophers—two Confucians (i.e. Confucius and Mencius) and two Taoists (i.e. Laozi and Zhuangzi)—the author relates this philosophy to the present-day thinking found in Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s conception of Flow, and the neuroscience of the subconscious.

The book consists of eight chapters. The introduction and the first two chapters outline the concepts of wu-wei and de using both Chinese and Western stories and examples to help clarify these arcane ideas and put them in the context of the social and spiritual spheres. Chapter 1 offers an extensive discussion of the operation of the brain as it relates to the discussion of effortlessness and spontaneity.

Chapters three through six make up the core of the book, and present the approach and thinking of Confucius, Laozi, Mencius, and Zhuangzi, respectively. This “boy-girl-boy-girl” Confucian-Taoist organization offers the reader sound insight into the varied approaches and allows one to see the evolution of thinking. Confucius gets the first cut, but his approach to effortlessness and spontaneity involves a great deal of effort and planning. It might seem that Laozi’s approach–which does away with effort and planning–might be more apropos, but it’s hard to imagine anything of benefit actually being spawned by such a loosy-goosy approach. The more nuanced approaches of Mencius and Zhuangzi offer additional insight, but do not eliminate the paradox. It’s this paradox that’s the subject of chapter seven.

The final chapter examines what the reader can take away–given that the paradox of wu-wei seems inescapable. The author proposes that, paradox or not, there is value in pursuit of effortlessness and spontaneity, and progress can be made by understanding and accepting said paradox.

The book has no graphics, but is annotated and has a bibliography–as well as an appendix table that summarizes the various approaches to wu-wei.

I enjoyed this book and found it fascinating. It’s highly readable, having humor and a wide range of examples from ancient myths to pop culture. The book offers a great value-added by considering the relevance of modern science and psychology to this ancient concept. I’d highly recommend this for individuals interested in Chinese / Eastern philosophy, as well as anyone hoping to bring a little more effortlessness and spontaneity into his or her life.

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