This page contains a list of the seven best philosophical books on death. Finding good introductory philosophy books can be difficult for two reasons. First, searching google for recommendations usually doesn’t bring up anything useful. Second, phrases like “best books on death” are ambiguous. One person may be looking for a short, beginner friendly introduction, someone else may want a comprehensive academic overview, a third person may be looking for classic works on death. This list tries to account for this ambiguity by recommending different types of books on the philosophy of death. Here are the best philosophical books on death in no particular order:
Phaedo – Plato
Publisher description: The Phaedo is acknowledged to be one of Plato’s masterpieces, showing him both as a philosopher and as a dramatist at the height of his powers. For its moving account of the execution of Socrates, the Phaedo ranks among the supreme literary achievements of antiquity. It is also a document crucial to the understanding of many ideas deeply ingrained in western culture, and provides one of the best introductions to Plato’s thought. This new edition is eminently suitable for readers new to Plato, offering a readable translation which is accessible without the aid of a commentary and assumes no prior knowledge of the ancient Greek world or language.
Letter to Menoeceus – Epicurus
Publisher description: Epicureanism is commonly regarded as the refined satisfaction of physical desires. As a philosophy, however, it also denoted the striving after an independent state of mind and body, imperturbability, and reliance on sensory data as the true basis of knowledge.
Epicurus (ca. 341-271 B.C.) founded one of the most famous and influential philosophical schools of antiquity. In these remains of his vast output of scientific and ethical writings, we can trace Epicurus’ views on atomism, physical sensation, duty, morality, the soul, and the nature of the gods.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich – Leo Tolstoy
Publisher description: Hailed as one of the world’s supreme masterpieces on the subject of death and dying, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is the story of a worldly careerist, a high court judge who has never given the inevitability of his death so much as a passing thought. But one day death announces itself to him, and to his shocked surprise he is brought face to face with his own mortality. How, Tolstoy asks, does an unreflective man confront his one and only moment of truth?
This short novel was the artistic culmination of a profound spiritual crisis in Tolstoy’s life, a nine-year period following the publication of Anna Karenina during which he wrote not a word of fiction. A thoroughly absorbing and, at times, terrifying glimpse into the abyss of death, it is also a strong testament to the possibility of finding spiritual salvation.
Death – Shelly Kagan
Publisher description: There is one thing we can be sure of: we are all going to die. But once we accept that fact, the questions begin. In this thought-provoking book, philosophy professor Shelly Kagan examines the myriad questions that arise when we confront the meaning of mortality. Do we have reason to believe in the existence of immortal souls? Or should we accept an account according to which people are just material objects, nothing more? Can we make sense of the idea of surviving the death of one’s body? If I won’t exist after I die, can death truly be bad for me? Would immortality be desirable? Is fear of death appropriate? Is suicide ever justified? How should I live in the face of death?
Written in an informal and conversational style, this stimulating and provocative book challenges many widely held views about death, as it invites the reader to take a fresh look at one of the central features of the human condition—the fact that we will die.
Philosophy and Death: Introductory Readings – S. Brennan & R. J. Stainton
Philosophical reflection on death dates back to ancient times, but death remains a most profound and puzzling topic. Samantha Brennan and Robert Stainton have assembled a compelling selection of core readings from the philosophical literature on death. The views of ancient writers such as Plato, Epicurus, and Lucretius are set alongside the work of contemporary figures such as Thomas Nagel, John Perry, and Judith Jarvis Thomson.
Brennan and Stainton divide the anthology into three parts. Part I considers questions about the nature of death and our knowledge of it. What does it mean to be dead? Is it possible to survive death? Is the end of life a mystery? Part II asks how we should view death. What (if anything) is so bad about dying? If death is nothingness, should it be feared or regretted? Part III examines ethical questions related to killing, particularly abortion, euthanasia and suicide. Is killing ever permissible? Under what conditions or circumstances?
The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Death – B. Bradley, F. Feldman, & J. Johansson
Publisher description: Death has long been a pre-occupation of philosophers, and this is especially so today. The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Death collects 21 newly commissioned essays that cover current philosophical thinking of death-related topics across the entire range of the discipline. These include metaphysical topics–such as the nature of death, the possibility of an afterlife, the nature of persons, and how our thinking about time affects what we think about death–as well as axiological topics, such as whether death is bad for its victim, what makes it bad to die, what attitude it is fitting to take towards death, the possibility of posthumous harm, and the desirability of immortality. The contributors also explore the views of ancient philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato and Epicurus on topics related to the philosophy of death, and questions in normative ethics, such as what makes killing wrong when it is wrong, and whether it is wrong to kill fetuses, non-human animals, combatants in war, and convicted murderers.
With chapters written by a wide range of experts in metaphysics, ethics, and conceptual analysis, and designed to give the reader a comprehensive view of recent developments in the philosophical study of death, this Handbook will appeal to a broad audience in philosophy, particularly in ethics and metaphysics
The Denial of Death – Ernest Becker
Publisher description: Winner of the Pulitzer prize in 1974 and the culmination of a life’s work, The Denial of Death is Ernest Becker’s brilliant and impassioned answer to the “why” of human existence. In bold contrast to the predominant Freudian school of thought, Becker tackles the problem of the vital lie — man’s refusal to acknowledge his own mortality. In doing so, he sheds new light on the nature of humanity and issues a call to life and its living that still resonates more than twenty years after its writing.
This list was created by following a method that I’ve found to be useful when searching for introductory philosophy books. It involves:
- browsing required reading lists on university course syllabi
- searching for books using the Open Syllabus Project
- browsing the bibliographies of articles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- searching for recommendations on philosophy forums
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
If you’d like to learn more about death, check out:
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