Tag: happiness


How Ancient Greeks Gave Us Self-Help Literature

If you read self-help books, you’re probably not going to tell anybody that. When you’re at smart-people parties and you’re all drinking merlot, standing in a circle, and someone asks, “So what have you read recently?” you’ll probably make something up about reading Proust rather than admitting you just read three Tony Robbins books in a row.


Self-help books are the crust to literature’s pizza pie. For many, the crust is just plain dough that they could do without. Maybe they throw it in the garbage or maybe their dad eats it (me). But for some very intelligent people who I highly respect, the pizza crust is the best part. Because that’s fundamental pizza. In the same way, self-help books are fundamental literature.


If you don’t believe me—that self-help books are the very essence of why we read—then you can go ask the ancient Greeks and Romans. Aristotle, Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, Boethius, and so many more all wrote what would today might be called “self-help.” For example, in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, he writes: “If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs thee, but thy own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now.” This is a pretty good summary of cognitive behavioral therapy.


This sentiment, though, that Marcus Aurelius presents is indicative of the larger aim of self-help books (and literature as a whole). All any of us want is a happy life. It’s a basic truth that ancient thinkers accepted readily. Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s On the Soul, Ancius Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, and countless other classics provided a bedrock on which modern psychology, psychotherapy, and general well-being were built.



Aristotle, being happy. | Image Via Famous People


Today’s self-help literature follows our ancestors in the sense that it provides explicit suggestions to live a happy life. Other books also have this goal, but they dress their moral imperatives up with characters, setting, plot, and 10,000 different perspectives. Don’t get me wrong—fiction is everything. But if someone is looking to lead a happy life, then reading a self-help book on dealing with their emotions is a more direct method than parsing out happiness guidelines from The Girl on the Train.


Though they may today be seen as lowbrow, self-help books are actually the most populist philosophy literature out there. Self-help books may be tucked away on the top shelf in the back corner of your local bookstore, but people want to read them. People need to read them. It’s obvious why—people want to be happy. Let the people be happy. Next time you’re drinking merlot in a circle at a smart-people party, proudly state that you’ve just read Tony Robbins, and maybe a little Plato too.


Feature Image Via ThoughtCo