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Alain de Botton recommends

6 books from classic thinkers whose (mainly pessimistic!) writing has shaped modern views on success.

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    The Complete Essays [Full text]

    Michel de Montaigne
    Project Gutenberg, 2006

    Montaigne likes to point out that philosophers don’t know everything, and that they would be a lot wiser if they laughed at themselves a little more. He also writes in a personal and often very frank way designed to shock the prudish. 'Kings and philosophers shit, and so do ladies,' he says. 'Even on the highest throne in the world, we are seated still upon our arses.'

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    Letters from a Stoic [Full text]

    Lucius Annaeus Seneca

    Seneca belonged to the Stoic school of philosophy, which is all about teaching you how to respond calmly to disaster. We tend to imagine that cheering people up involves saying happy things. But Seneca says the saddest things and strangely enough, he is very consoling. 'What need is there to weep over parts of life?' he asks. 'The whole of it calls for tears.'

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    Essays and Aphorisms [Full text]

    Arthur Schopenhauer
    Project Gutenberg, 2004

    Schopenhauer is another great pessimist who makes you feel happier. He makes some brilliant analyses of why love affairs tend to go wrong (he’s perfect to read after a breakup). His general drift is that you’d be mad to expect happiness from a relationship.

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    The Twilight of the Idols

    Friedrich Nietzsche
    Penguin Classics, 1990

    A much-misunderstood philosopher, seen as barking mad but actually very wise and sane. He tells us nice things about the need for struggle in life. No pain, no gain, or as he put it: 'That which does not kill you makes you stronger.'

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    The Essential Epicurus

    Prometheus Books, 1993

    Epicurus was the first philosopher to say that pleasure was the most important thing in life. People took him to mean sensual pleasure and the word 'epicurean' has been linked to gluttony ever since. But read the real Epicurus and you’ll see that his idea of pleasure was quite immaterial; in fact, it was all about having a group of good friends and reading books together outdoors.

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    The Last Days of Socrates

    Penguin Classics, 2003

    Plato recounts the last days of his mentor and teacher Socrates, famously made to drink hemlock by the people of Athens. It’s a tear-jerking account, as the funny and wise Socrates is put to death by his ignorant contemporaries. It’s also a lesson in how to stand up for your beliefs and inspiration for anyone standing up against the will of the majority.