Before I started studying philosophy on my own I was burdened by the question: “Which philosopher should I read first to break into philosophy?”
Ultimately, I chose Plato as my entry point, and I think that was a great option for many reasons.
For most people learning philosophy, Plato is a great place to start. His writing, especially in the Five Dialogues, is easy for beginners to understand, and he addresses a wide range of topics, exposing you to several branches of philosophy. Plus, his works form the backbone of Western Philosophy.
In this article, I’ll explain the reasons why Plato is the best philosopher for beginners trying to learn philosophy on their own. I’ll also give you a few alternative philosophers that would also make excellent starting points.
First, I’d like to go over something important to consider when choosing your starting point philosopher.
Curiosity: A Key Consideration for Picking Your First Philosopher
Before I go on to make my case for Plato as the best philosophy to read first, I want to remind you that you should feel free to disregard my argument in the name of your own personal curiosities.
While it’s worth considering chronology and ease of understanding, the most crucial factor to consider when selecting your introductory philosopher is how likely you are to consistently read them.
For instance, if someone has already listened to a lot of YouTube videos about Nietzsche’s ideas and finds them fascinating, then Nietzsche is probably going to be a better starting point than Plato.
The reader will already have his own reasons for reading Nietzsche, other than the fact that an authority told him to do so.
Of course, I believe Plato is highly readable for beginners, and that his work is interesting and will generate curiosity that sustains you through even his more difficult works like The Republic. But I just wanted to give you permission to read whatever your heart desires.
I know you don’t need my permission. But I also know that when I first started reading challenging books I was too open to other peoples’ opinions and too negligent of my own curiosity. And I know that that temperament led to less profitable and less exciting reading. My heart wasn’t in it. My focus wasn’t pitched high.
6 Reasons Why Plato is the Best Philosopher to Read First
Plato is the best philosopher to read first as a beginner because his works are engaging, short enough, easy to understand, diverse in topics, and foundational in Western philosophy. Plus, you’ll meet Socrates, the father of philosophy.
Read on to learn more about these six qualities of Plato’s works and see why they’re advantageous to beginners in philosophy.
Plato is Interesting & Engaging
Whether he’s writing about the soul’s destination after death, the structure of the ideal state, or how to educate the public, Plato does it in an interesting, elegant, and engaging way. He’s just as much a literary great as a giant of philosophy. People call his dialogues musical.
Also, much of his works are written in the dialogue form, where two or more people are discussing and debating some big philosophical question.
This creates an inherent sense of tension in the works, which makes them exciting. The reader wonders “Who will win the argument? What conclusion will they draw?”
This dialogue-based structure also makes it easy for the reader to feel involved. It’s like when you’re listening to two people discuss some issue on a good podcast. You just want to chime in with your own ideas, agreements, and counterarguments.
You can actually do this by jotting down notes in the book’s margins or in your notebook. This practice will help you get more out of the books. Marginalia is why I like to buy physical copies of books.
A high level of engagement is great for beginners because it makes you want to keep reading. You’re less likely to burn out and say “This is too dry and unrelatable,” something that might happen if you start with more complex philosophers dealing with esoteric questions.
Plato’s Writings Form the Foundation of Western Philosophy
Socrates kicked off Western philosophy as we know it, but he didn’t write any of his teachings down. He actually looked upon writing in the same way a grandmother today (and myself) might look upon social media, with distrust.
Thankfully, Plato, his attentive student, did a lot of writing, jotting down his teacher’s ideas as well as some of his own.
Here’s a quick intro video to Plato if you want one:
Plato’s writings form the backbone of many modern branches of philosophy, including epistemology, aesthetics, ethics, and political philosophy.
Whitehead, another great philosopher, said it best:
“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” — Alfred North Whitehead
Plato also wrote down the rules for practicing philosophy effectively. He established that to seek the truth, a philosopher must keep an open mind, debate and discuss with others, and use logical and rational arguments.
Reading Plato first can be helpful because many of the great philosophers who came after him were influenced by his work. Many bring up his ideas and arguments, sometimes explicitly, other time implicitly.
When I read Hobbes it was cool to think about his idea of the ideal state in relation to Plato’s ideal state, which Hobbes’ criticized and which influenced Hobbes’ own thinking regarding the issue.
Some philosophers might be easier to understand once you’ve read Plato since they have written their books in a way that assumes their readers are familiar with Plato’s works.
If you’re planning to read the great works of philosophy chronologically, a method I discuss in my guide for how to self-learn philosophy, then Plato’s Dialogues and The Republic are going to be your first two adventures in the subject.
Plato is Relatively Easy for Beginners to Understand
Compared to other philosophers, Plato is highly accessible to beginners, especially in his four dialogues in The Last Days of Socrates.
While an introductory book or lecture might be helpful, you don’t need any prior knowledge in philosophy to be able to read his works profitably.
You should be able to comprehend the majority of his arguments and ideas with little trouble. Sometimes you may have to consult The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or Google to clear things up.
You might have to reread a sentence here and there. That’s philosophy for ya. But for the most part, you’ll progress smoothly through the majority of his works.
Of course, Plato’s works do vary in difficulty. Some, like The Parmenides, are more challenging than others. Still, Plato’s The Last Day of Socrates and The Republic (slightly harder in my opinion) should be manageable for the newcomer.
Plato’s Dialogues Are Short (often under 50 pages)
Tackling shorter works is a great way to build confidence as a reader of philosophy because you’ll actually finish them.
This can also be motivating for autodidacts. You’ll feel a sense of achievement with each work you complete, and this will make you want to keep doing it.
The four dialogues in Plato’s The Last Days of Socrates range from 30 and 100 pages in length, making them relatively short works of philosophy.
This short length makes them wonderful for practicing your critical reading skills. You can read them once for pleasure, then a second time to analyze the arguments and form your own critical opinion about them.
Dr. Sadler rereads Plato over and over again because he’s endlessly deep:
Whereas re-reading a 300-page tome of philosophy is a serious time commitment, rereading your favorite dialogue through a more analytical lens can be done in just one day.
Plato Gives You a Mentor Figure in Socrates
“Find a mentor.” We’ve all heard that advice multiple times throughout our lives. It’s a favorite amongst self-help gurus and a least favorite amongst introverts like myself.
Through my reading, I’ve come to the conclusion that a mentor doesn’t have to mean a person you talk with in person. In fact, your mentors don’t even have to be alive.
I’ve found many of mine to be characters in stories, real or fictive (Alexander Hamilton, Martin Eden). Many are authors of my favorite books (Emerson).
I use these figures just like a devout Christian uses Jesus. When I’m in need of words of wisdom, I think to myself, “What would Alexander Hamilton say to me about this problem I’m having?”. “How would he handle this situation?” If you’ve read enough about them then you can imagine their response with a high level of confidence.
Many philosophers and scholars consider Socrates, the titular character in Plato’s dialogues and The Republic, to be one of their most helpful mentors.
Although Socrates’s mentees can’t actually speak with him, he’s still there in their minds, standing over their shoulders as they study or write, provoking them to push themselves to view things objectively and to relentlessly search for the truth.
For any person interested in lifelong learning, Socrates is a great person to add to your collection of mentor figures.
He’ll remind you during times of demotivation that the quest for knowledge is a worthy one, and that reading a book, even though no one is grading you on it, is well worth the effort.
Plato Writes About Several Branches of Philosophy
There’s something in Plato’s oeuvre for everyone. He deals with questions about morality, politics, education, justice, immortality, metaphysics, and so much more.
Not only does this range make Plato’s works interesting to a wide audience. It also makes his works a great introduction to various fields of philosophy.
This allows you to sample the different branches of philosophy and identify specific questions you want to read more about.
Self-knowledge about your own authentic interests in philosophy will guide you when creating your reading lists later on.
For example, if you found everything he said about statecraft fascinating, you could draw up or follow a DIY study plan for political philosophy.
Alternative Philosophers for Beginners to Read First
Some people might not want to start with Plato. Maybe they just can’t take him seriously with a name that reminds them of that colorful, stretchy dough they used to play with as children. Maybe ancient philosophy isn’t their thing.
Whatever the reason, here are some other great philosophers that would serve well as an entry point into the world of philosophy, as well as who they’re best for.
Best For: Someone who wants to read one of the founders of Western philosophy other than Plato.
Plato’s successor, Aristotle gave us the scientific method of analysis and is widely considered to be one of the first thinkers to divide knowledge into separate fields — physics, psychology, rhetoric, zoology, politics, etc.
Though incredibly influential and thought-provoking, a lot of his works are hard to read, so I’d start with Nicomachean Ethics.
That was the first one I read and I found it pretty easygoing. It’s where he lays out his theory of virtue and gives you a code of conduct to live a virtuous life.
Best For: Someone who wants to bypass the ancient and medieval philosophers and read one of the founders of The Enlightenment period of philosophy.
I first encountered Descartes, the master of doubt, in a Philosophy of Mind class in college. Next to the other thinkers in that branch of philosophy, he was a cakewalk.
This was especially the case when reading Meditations on First Philosophy, which many consider to be the starting point of modern Western philosophy.
Descartes is definitely a great place to start if you want to learn about skepticism and feel the urge to read some influential arguments for God’s existence and the separation of mind and body.
You’ll also encounter the famous quote “I think therefore I am,” which is Descartes’ evidence that he in fact exists (yes, he doubted his own existence too).
Best For: A beginner who adores beautiful prose and wants to read the man who influenced the French Revolution and the rise of democracy.
Rousseau is one of my favorite writers and philosophers. His sentences are delightful to read. They’re powerful at evoking emotional responses. It’s hard to get far into one of his works without coming across an aphorism.
In his most famous work, The Social Contract, you’re hit with one right away:
“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” — Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract
I also find many of his ideas, such as the general will which was spoken of frequently by French revolutionaries, fascinating because of how influential and even dangerous they were.
Aside from politics, Rousseau also wrote about education and pedagogy in Emile, and about inequality’s origins in Discourses on Inequality (one of my favorites).
If you want to read Rousseau, I recommend grabbing a copy of Rousseau: The Basic Political Writings.
It contains The Social Contract, Discourses on Inequality, The State of War, and a few other classic essays.
Just Jump in & Start Reading Philosophy
There’s no better way to figure out if a philosopher is the right entry point for you than to start reading their books.
Taking action beats being stuck in analysis paralysis. It’ll also help you answer your question. By reading a philosopher you’ll learn more about your personal interests, reading level, and tastes. So just start reading someone.
On another note, beginners often benefit from a reading program that incorporates primary classic texts, introductory books, and technique books that focus on teaching you to read and think like a philosopher.
If you want a book-based reading program for breaking into philosophy, check out my 9-book reading plan for beginners in philosophy. It includes Plato’s Five Dialogues, as well as two other classic works.