Top Ten Books on Wisdom and Enlightenment

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Top Ten Books on Wisdom and Enlightenment

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dec 5, 2011, 9:55 am

A version of the desert island question: If some great tragedy struck, and you had to bug out of your home, leaving everything behind, what ten books would you grab? (I know most wouldn't bother grabbing ANY books in this situation, but humor me, if you would). I will return here later today to post my own list after I've taken some time to consider.

Redigeret: dec 11, 2011, 11:31 pm

The Greek New Testament He Kaine Diatheke (the original)

Aeneid by Virgil

The Oxridge Woman by Leialoha Apo Perkins *

The Complete poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge
(and an edition that has some of his prose in it would be good)

The Complete Poems of William Butler Yeats
(and Some prose, tc. . . .)

Bellum Civile / The Civil War by Lucan
(Some of these aren't grabbable at the moment, and this is one of them, but this whole list is hypothetical, anyway).

Sophocles: Tragedies in 2 vols, in the Loeb Classical Library) ed.

Aeschylus: " " 2 vols. " " " " " "

The Bible No, I'm not fluent in the original Hebrew of the Old Testament. My choice of translation would be (1) Revised Standard (Ca. 1953) or (2) King James (Authorized Vesion)
I do have the whole Bible also in Hawaiian, Spanish, and Tongan,
but, outside of the New Testament, would have to stick to English
for as small a colleciton as this.

Odes by Pindar (Loeb Classical

Odes and Satires and Epistles by Horace
(like the Aeschylus and Sophocles (above), this is a total of 2

*married author.

dec 11, 2011, 9:39 pm

I thought about answering this, and then I realized that if I did go in for book-grabbing, it would not be books that I found especially important or valuable for their content, but rather books which would be hard to replace because of the particular sentimental value of the copy. I wouldn't grab the Bible, for example, because I could get another one of those any time; but I might reach for my signed copy of the Songs of Flanders and Swann.

dec 15, 2011, 1:42 am

I didnʻt think about the (im?)probabilities of acquiring again the
left-behind books.
Of those to be grabbed (2) most would require access to one of larger l;ibraries in -- wherever we were able to settle down. I think, smaller and medium sized public libraries wouldnʻt have them.
Bookstores? Maybe the biggest ones, and where I live that is pretty much down to just Barnes & Noble.

Redigeret: dec 22, 2011, 7:34 pm

I'd like to plug a new book I really love for this purpose: Returning to Sacred World by Stephen Gray. Very warm and wise primer for that desert island, or refugee camp, or ditch by the side of the road, or cloud-wracked monastery. From the Amazon description: "Returning to Sacred World clearly explains our spiritual predicament in this time of crisis and transformation and offers extensively field tested teachings and tools for awakening including meditation prayer and sacred plant medicines that elders say are here now as key allies to help us heal ourselves and our planet. Mystics and indigenous wisdom keepers are saying that an opening has now been created for a lifesaving vision arising from and uniting all corners of the Earth. The vision tells us that to sustain our world we need to transcend dogmas boundaries and hesitation and awaken to our innate wisdom and our connectedness to each other the living Earth and the heart of the Great Spirit."

Redigeret: nov 8, 2012, 11:10 am

In the library tent at one of the recent downtown Occupy sites in the USA, someone wrote on a blackboard, "The most important book to read is The Key, written by Whitley Strieber. Everything you need to know is there."

Here's a Huffington Post profile of The Key:

The Tarcher Penguin edition is the newest version of The Key. And here is a Q/A transcript about The Key, with answers from the author:

I've read a lot about religion and spirituality, but have yet to find as good a definition of sin as The Key includes: Sin is the denial of the right to thrive.

So if I had to choose only 10 books to take with me, The Key would be number 1. I would also take some natural cooking books, as well as The Crone: Woman of Age, Wisdom, and Power by Barbara G. Walker.

Redigeret: nov 26, 2012, 11:57 pm

George Eliot's Middlemarch is great secular wisdom literature.

The dramatic works of Shakespeare are unparalleled.

The essays of Montaigne offer great insight and consolation.

The novels of Jane Austen, such as Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility.

The essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his last great work, The Conduct of Life.

And I invoke Emerson's praise of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass as "the greatest piece of wit and wisdom yet composed by an American".

Don't forget the extraordinary intellectual power of Emily Dickinson in her poetry.

I'd include the stories, parables and aphorisms of Franz Kafka who, according to the critic Harold Bloom, "goes beyond Proust and Joyce in arming us with a spirituality in no way dependent on belief or ideology".

Cervantes' Don Quixote plays at being a fool, a knight-errant. There is much wisdom in both the Don and Sancho when taken together. It's the fusion of folly and wisdom that we sometimes call play, and maybe even love.

And finally I would add Lucretius whose writings derived from the ancient Greek philosophy of Epicureanism. The Lucretian tradition is in Western literature ranging from Vergil, Spenser, Shelley, Tennyson and Wallace Stevens. Lucretius is relevant for us today in warning us of the dangers of organised superstition and erotic frenzy. He didn't give credit to religion because he recognised it as pandering to our egoism and our solipsism, just as the late Christopher Hitchens warned us in our own time. Like Montaigne, Lucretius and Epicurus teach us not to fear death, and not to give in to melancholy.

Redigeret: nov 29, 2012, 8:33 pm

"(Lucretius) didnʻt give credit to religion, because he recognised it as pandering
to our egotism ;and our solipsism . . ."

I would qualify that to say that Lucretius DID "Give credit to religion -- WHERE (to his mind) credit "was due".
His main point was that religion shouldnʻt affect ethics or life style, because the deities donʻt care about what we mortals are doing or omitting. Aesthetically, itʻs all right to venerate them, if youʻre so inclined, but remember that it is just a matter of aesthetics, and not of morality or worldly prosperity.
The big puzzle in studies of Lucretius has been not
his ethics or his aesthetics, but why he thought that his readers needed reassurance about their fears of punishment in an afterlife.
Thereʻs no evidence --outside of Lucretius -- that such fears
were prevalent or even occasional among residents of the Roman Empire*.
One of my own teachers, J. Peterson Elder, a great fan of L., didnʻt have the answer to that one. He also said that an incredibly huge stumbling block in our knowledge of the life of Lucretius is the late, surprising bioraphical note saying that Lʻs writings were later "edited by Cicero" (!) If there was any such editing enterprise by
CIcero (L.ʻs contemprary), De Rerum Natura would probably have emerged worse, not better than we might hope .

Redigeret: dec 1, 2012, 7:18 am

>8 rolandperkins:

I would argue that whatever credit Lucretius gave religion was not really credit at all. To quote Harold Bloom, "Epicurus and his poetic disciple, Lucretius, affirm the joy of natural existence and urge us to accept the reality of death, without false consolations. The gods exist, but they are irrelevant, being remote from us, and indifferent to our suffering or our pleasure".

I can fully understand that most contributors to this group would resist Lucretius, being so apparently hypnotised by other worldly speculations. I am probably not going to win many friends by this stance of mine. But even if you don't agree with what Lucretius represents, and he certainly has had a bad press within much of Western history (particularly from Christianity), he nevertheless offers an antidote to wild metaphysical speculation. In this way he prefigures the trends in Western civilisation in preferring the scientific method over religion as a more reliable pathway to truth in explaining empirical reality.

This has had its precedents. Even Hippocrates recognised centuries earlier in ancient Greece that religion was an unreliable mode of explaining the real world. He succinctly described one of the logical fallacies so common to religious apologetics, namely, that of the Argument from Ignorance: "Men think epilepsy divine because they do not understand it. We will one day understand what causes it, and then cease to call it divine. And so it is with everything in the universe."

De Rerum Natura certainly represents a poetry of belief, but it is a belief tempered heavily with scepticism, which recalls Epicurus as the founder of an "antireligious religion". My own studies and readings in the ancient classics confirm this view of Lucretius, and my former classics lecturer concurs. But for me, the wisdom is in the sublime quality of the poetry, even in translation. For example, when Lucretius makes reference to a "god-like mind" and "the majesty of the gods" in their "quiet habitations", we are not obliged to take that literally or accept that Lucretius believed in anything resembling divine grace. He is using poetry to communicate a sublime inner logic of his own, and that, for me, is what is most valuable.

Redigeret: dec 1, 2012, 7:01 pm

One reason for Lucretius's accepting the existence of the gods was that he was a thorough-going believer in sense perception. And people have seen gods; that it happened in a dream or a
personal vision, seen by no one else, didn't matter to him. It still WAS perception, so the belief was consistent with his brand of materialism.
Cicero argues somewhere that the Epicureans were only going through the motions of believing in the existence of the gods, and were just cautiously forwarding a position that could not be called atheist -- because
atheism didn't carry much prestige in philosophical circles in general. ANd someone who claimed that "The gods don't exist" might be though to be opposing the state religion (in which Cicero himself held the prestigious position of augur.
If we could bring back* Cicero, Lucretius and other philosophers of that era, I think they would find such threads as L T's "Atheism VERSUS Theism"# debates
to be very bizarre topics. With all their differences of opinion, they were always sticking to a recognizably human context,but the idea of Humanism as being necessarily secular was foreign to them. They, and Lucretius especially, were pragmatic enough to focus on what effect philosophy and religion have on everyday life. Cicero's De Natura Deorum, therefore, takes place in a context where no one is forwarding
non-existence of the divinities; it is all about what they are LIKE (their natura).

*bring back: e.g., in a Time Machine or however it is that
classical figures are brought back.

# I mean threads to that effect; I haven't got the exact title here.

Redigeret: dec 3, 2012, 9:43 pm

>10 rolandperkins:

I'm not saying that Lucretius was an atheist, if we accept that atheism is non-belief in a god or gods. It appears that Lucretius may have believed in their existence, but the critical thing here is that he didn't believe they mattered. Remember what Bloom said: "The gods exist, but they are IRRELEVANT, being remote from us, and indifferent to our suffering or our pleasure". Religion, therefore, is unnecessary and that is exactly what many atheists assert today.

As you say, it may also have been true that "atheism didn't carry much prestige in philosophical circles in general", but that doesn't stop us from reading the classics as literature. I don't believe in Zeus, or Apollo, or Athena, and I doubt that you do either. I suspect that both of us would agree that the supposed existence of such divine entities has no basis whatsoever in fact, and that in all likelihood such a belief is false and anachronistic.

I was astonished by your statement: "And people have seen gods; that it happened in a dream or a personal vision, seen by no one else, didn't matter to him. It still WAS perception, so the belief was consistent with his brand of materialism." You may be confusing sense perception with imagination and hallucination. To say that seeing something in a dream or by "personal vision", in whatever way you understand that to mean, is perception, is a logical fallacy. It is a circular argument - you are only asserting the very thing you set out to convince me of. Actually, there is plenty of neurological evidence to suggest that phantasms of the mind are NOT perceptions of anything real, which is why we recognise so many of them as pathological disorders and why we have mental hospitals.

Have people seen actual gods? Really? How do you know? Was it really a perception of SOMETHING? Or was it an hallucination? How do we know they weren't just deluded, or hypnotised? Knowing what we now know about the human susceptibility to delusion, self-deceit and the power of suggestion, and in the complete absence of any confirming evidence, how can anyone else take their claims seriously?

I think you will find that Lucretius' scepticism extended to claims of visions and revelations in a similar vein to that of Hippocrates who suspected that people were just plain deluded by their belief in epilepsy being a manifestation of the divine. And I think this scepticism was founded on his rational mode of thinking. His atomism is drawn from Epicurus who blended the metaphysical interests of the Presocratics with the ethical concerns of Socrates. We are under no obligation to believe in his atomistic metaphysics. However, it's worth noting that in the Epicurean/Lucretian system, the behaviour of some atoms swerving from their course resulted in collisions giving rise to myriad forms of things and the phenomenal world as we know it. This enabled Epicurus and Lucretius to reject determinism as an explanation of human behaviour, which allowed for the concept of human free will. This free will implies a measure of critical thought and rational judgement, and this is what I value in his writings, in addition to the sublime moments of his poetry. That is why he is in line with certain strands of sceptical thought within ancient Greek and Roman culture, and why he has contributed positively to Western civilisation in general.

Sceptical thought trumps unjustified belief. Sceptical thought helps us to siphon out the false from the true. What matters here is whether extraordinary religious claims about reality are really true, not whether the believer is sincere or not. This is where evidence comes in. At this point believers may invoke the necessity of faith and "personal experience". But they seem to forget that faith is what they rely on when they DON'T have any evidence to support their claims. Neither do they seem to consider that people have lots of personal experiences about lots of things, but they often contradict each other. Furthermore, there is no easy way to tell whether their personal experiences were genuine revelations of some "higher reality", or just plain delusion.

I think it is better to believe things about reality that can be reliably demonstrated to be true. I don't think it's good to believe in things about reality without sufficient evidence. People often believe in extraordinary religious claims (e.g. miracles and revelations) because they WANT to believe in them. This is not a reliable pathway to truth. Bertrand Russell knew this very well. His attitude was Lucretian to the extent that he thought that even if gods do exist, belief in them is unnecessary and unreliable:

"I do not pretend to be able to prove that there is no God. I equally cannot prove that Satan is a fiction. The Christian God may exist; so may the Gods of Olympus, or of ancient Egypt, or of Babylon. But no one of these hypotheses is more probable than any other: they lie outside the region of even probable knowledge, and therefore there is no reason to consider any of them". - Bertrand Russell.

You see, the difference between the kind of secular wisdom literature I listed and supernatural claims of religion is that the latter make claims about reality that cannot be justified. Most religions are not content to say their teachings merely represent some poetic truths. They insist that their beliefs reflect something about the outside world, in the same way a young child may insist that Santa Claus really exists and lives in the North Pole. Trinitarian Christians really believe in the actual existence of the Trinity. Muslims really believe in the actual existence of Allah. Mormons really believe in the actual existence of the planet Kolob where their gods supposedly live. Taoists really believe in the actual existence of the Tao. Secular wisdom literature, on the other hand, says something about the human heart, human hopes, fears and aspirations, and it does not pretend to be a science in the way of explaining objective facts about reality. It is not dogmatic, or at least does not require a dogmatic stance from the reader, but invites the reader to see things from another perspective, an alternate subjective outlook.

Now it is also possible to read religious beliefs as literature, not take them as established fact. But it's usually the case that unless one is a Unitarian, religious believers will deny that their beliefs are simply projections of their own psyche or poetic truths, however deep they may be; they often insist that their dogmas, visions or revelations are universally and factually true without any corroborating evidence. You imply that a personal religious belief is a private affair - oh, if only that were so! We all know that religion is more than just a belief, or set of personal experiences. Religions have a long history of political involvement - it's what believers want to DO with their unfounded beliefs that has been, and still is, the cause of much trouble in the world. Atheists, on the other hand, simply say that there is no good reason to believe that any god exists, and so any moral law or requirement drawn from such a belief can be equally disregarded. This aspect of contemporary atheism is Lucretian in that if gods do really exist, they are either indifferent or capricious. Therefore, we can afford to ignore them and the universal truth claims of their devotees.

By the way, I do not belong to any church or religious movement, but if I did I would pick Unitarianism for its openness, tolerance and spirit of rational enquiry. They also allow atheists seeking to celebrate community and the joy and meaning of life to become active members. I strongly recommend it to anyone reading this thread.

I think most of us would safely say that there is no evidence whatsoever for belief in the gods, therefore there is no reason to believe in their existence. Whether individual Greeks and Romans believed or disbelieved is a side issue. For us today, the real issue is whether the ancients have anything to say that is universally relevant to the human condition. I think they do IF we read what they say as literature. But there is no reason to believe that any of their claims to a supernatural reality, however that may be imagined, have any substance.

dec 16, 2012, 6:30 pm

Thank you for such an interesting discussion. I would like to add Walden by Henry David Thoreau as a book that offers a kind of catharsis to the jaded spirit of humanity.

dec 16, 2012, 11:19 pm

Yes, I've been told that Walden offers an opportunity for some fruitful reflection on the need to care for our environment, particularly in these times of rapid global warming. I look forward to reading it over the summer holidays here in Australia, especially as I will be visiting the US in 2013 for a holiday. Concord Mass. and Walden Pond is on my list of places to see.

dec 26, 2012, 5:56 am

Just finished reading A Christmas carol and surely it is a testament on wisdom!

jul 31, 2013, 12:11 am

I would take "The Pearl" and "Of Mice and Men"
John Steinbeck

jul 31, 2013, 12:15 am

I would like to know more about your books, you've read, regarding Buddhism, Siddharta Gautama, Zen Buddhism, (this comment is for you, DeusExLibrus).
How about books by Rumi?

aug 2, 2013, 12:59 am

There is A LOT out about Buddhism and the Buddha himself. Some good, some not so good. Zen Mind and the Three Pillars are classics on Zen Buddhism that have been around for decades now, and are well worth reading. Beginner's Mind is a dense, confusing work by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, and Three Pillars is basically an instruction manual on how to practice zen without a master. Three Pillars has been criticized for being non dualist in its approach to Zen, when Zen isn't really dual or non-dual, but I don't remember this being an issue, though its been a LONG time since I read the book. For an academic Therevadin introduction to Buddhism check out What the Buddha Taught.

The Theravada Buddhist canon is MASSIVE, and all of it isn't even available in english translation. (In the Buddha's Words, however, is a solid introduction. My one criticism is the book includes commentary before each sutra, so when you're reading be sure to read the bit before each translation after you've read the translation itself if you want to go into it unbiased. Also, the Dhammapada is highly recommended, as the "New Testament" of Therevada Buddhism. Most non-western Theravadins haven't read most of the sutras for one reason or another, but the Dhammapada is widely read and is a sort of manual for daily life as a buddhist. Dozens of translations are available, some better than others. I'd recommend you take a look at a few and find one you like.

As far as Zen, Shunryu Suzuki wrote a lot of great stuff, though none of it is easy reading by any stretch. Thich Nhat Hanh has written dozens of excellent books, including a brick called Old Path, White Clouds, about the historical buddha. I haven't read it cover to cover, but the bits I have read were quite good.

On a side note, Herman Hesse wrote an excellent little novel called Siddhartha, which is only tangentially about the Buddha (he makes an appearance at one point, but is not a central character). The book is about a man named Siddhartha during the period in India when the Buddha would have been active. Its a great little read and is highly recommended. If you have an evening or afternoon to kill sometime you should be able to get through it in one sitting.

the Scientific Buddha has been on my radar as something I want to take a look at for a while now, but other than skimming bits I haven't actually read it yet. It deals with the whole idea of the Buddha dharma lining up with scientific findings and contests the idea, and even questions whether its a meaningful or useful thing to focus on. Honestly, I've come down for a while now on the side of Buddhism and Yoga NOT confirming/matching up with science and it not mattering. They're different ways of looking at the world that are internally consistent, and the fact that Yoga or Buddhism might not match up with science shouldn't in my mind affect their validity.

jan 6, 2014, 6:22 am

I have just read tonight Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth. Now that is really thought provoking.

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