The greatest men who ever lived were voracious readers. Alexander the Great slept with Homer’s Iliad under his pillow. Theodore Roosevelt took dozens of books on his dangerous outdoor expeditions. Benjamin Franklin devoured books every day of his life.
Luckily for us, in addition to being voracious readers, the greatest men were very often prolific writers. They penned thoughtful meditations, carefully calculated personal essays, and gave speeches brimming with the gems of many years’ hard-won world wisdom.
Men today, more than ever before, are in desperate need of positive masculine role models and solid life advice. And, thanks to the wonders of the internet being a modern-day Library of Alexandria, us men have access to the wisdom of the ages at our fingertips.
10 Personal Essays Every Man Should Read
There are hundreds of great essays out there but here are, in my opinion, 10 of the best personal essays every man should read.
1 – “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
Men need to relearn that which has always been a valuable tenet of life: self-reliance.
That means you are not dependent on external sources. You rely on yourself for emotional validation, finances, health, and all that good stuff.
Self-reliance means trusting your instinct, trusting that your own inner genius shines true, and resisting the influence of society where you feel it does not serve you.
Self-reliance does not mean selfishness. It means discernment and improving oneself for the benefit of the greater good while adding to one’s own lot.
And the best way to begin your schooling in the art of self-reliance is to read this 1841 essay that was the culmination of Emerson’s years of introspection and examination.
2 – “Walking” by Henry David Thoreau
All good things are wild and free.
Every man needs to understand and implement the art of sauntering.
There’s no art in being hooked up to Facebook, Tinder, and Grindr every hour of the day. Forget responding to pinging notifications like some abused overeager dog. You need to disconnect. You need to embrace the spirit of the wild.
When you read Thoreau’s meditation on every walk being a “crusade”, an adventure, you’ll be straining at the leash to get away from the overhead fluorescents and go feel the wind rustle your hair, smell the flowers, and get lost in beauty.
There is something primal in us men that compels us to spend long hours alone in hard nature. Every day that passes in which you resist that call, is a day of strengthened slavery, heightened misery, and a greater adherence to what Thoreau called a life of “quiet desperation”.
3 – “On the Shortness of Life” by Seneca
Life is long if you know how to use it.
I know a lot of men who are vigilant with guarding their money. But I don’t know many who are half as vigilant with guarding their time.
Most men never really get serious about protecting their greatest asset until they’ve made a financial success of themselves and have grey hair to show for their efforts. That’s too late in my opinion.
You need to know that you are going to die. You need to know the difference between living and existing. And you need to know that we have plenty of life afforded to us but only if we use it correctly.
All this wisdom and more is contained within Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life”. This is an eye-opening work that bears underlinings and repeated readings so make sure you always have a hard copy handy.
4 – “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius
The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.
I stopped reading philosophy when I realised most philosophers were losers who did nothing with their own lives except ponder and stew in their own negative juices (Nietzsche is one who leaps immediately to mind).
When I read philosophy, I want something that will practically and positively affect my own life. I want actionable advice. I think most men feel the same way. You have a problem and you just want someone else to say, “Do this” or “Look at things like this”.
Meditations is the best self-help book of all time. And it was never even supposed to be read by anyone other than the writer himself, one of Rome’s greatest emperors, Marcus Aurelius.
Whatever you are going through right now, you will find something powerful in Meditations that will help you. It is required reading for men everywhere.
5 – “On Women” by Arthur Schopenhauer
In our part of the world, where monogamy is in force, to marry means to halve one’s rights and to double one’s duties.
Schopenhauer is the German Patrice O’Neal of the philosophy world. He has many great essays you can learn from (particularly On the Suffering of the World and The World as Will and Representation) but none is as controversial today than his angry diatribe against the fairer sex.
I don’t agree with half the stuff Schopenhauer writes about women but I do think it’s useful to read something that pushes a controversial idea so aggressively as he does in this essay.
Many men are inclined to place a woman and her wishes so far above his own position at the expensive of his own happiness and self-worth that it is valuable to think critically about why you are doing so.
Essays like this, ones that shine a light on the differences of the opposite sex in such an extreme way, can prove useful for bringing your thinking back to the middle. If you think your woman can do no wrong even as she is hurting you, this essay is the medicine you need to put some equilibrium back into your thinking (just don’t go full misogynist).
6 – “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift
a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food
If you want to draw attention to your position or change the currently established narrative, you can’t present “vanilla” arguments. Sometimes you’ve got to get a little crazy.
Satire is the ultimate form of pointing out dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. As Wittgenstein said, “A serious and good philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes.”
There is no better work to learn the art of satire from than Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” in which he outlines how the poor in Ireland can ease their financial problems by selling their children as food.
This is how you present an argument that gets people talking.
7 – “Areopagitica” by John Milton
Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.
The Western world is the freest it has ever been in history. Yet, with the ease in which anyone can publicly speak their minds, we are now undergoing a free speech crisis.
People seeking to get people fired over their political views, friends and family disintegrating because of disparate belief systems, crowds calling for certain books, shows, or even people to be censored and banned.
We must always remember what Heinrich Heine said a century before the first world war: “Wherever they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.”
One of the best works on the subjects of censorship and free speech ever written is “Areopagitica” by Paradise Lost author John Milton. It is four centuries after it was written but Milton’s wisdom is as relevant today as it was back then.
Every modern man must understand free speech and be able to build a compelling argument for it. You’ll be able to do that by using “Areopagitica” as your starting point.
8 – “The Strenuous Life” by Theodore Roosevelt
let us shrink from no strife, moral or physical, within or without the nation, provided we are certain that the strife is justified, for it is only through strife, through hard and dangerous endeavor, that we shall ultimately win the goal of true national greatness.
I have never lived in any other time apart from now so I have nothing to compare it to. Yet I struggle to believe any other generation of young men has been as gormless, easily offended, and averse to hard work as our current one.
Hard work, toil, getting your hands dirty, and fighting the good fight are all notions that seem foreign to today’s men.
Men today seem more content to dick around on mobile apps than actually get stuck into a project. They need a “pull your socks up” speech from one of the most admirable men who ever took the position of US presidency: Theodore Roosevelt.
Roosevelt is absolutely a man to model yourself on. And there’s no better way to begin that than by listening to his advice here.
9 – “The Scheme of Virtues” by Benjamin Franklin
What good shall I do this day?
Men today lack values. They lack character. And they make no conscious decision to remedy that. They were never taught to think about personal values in school so it was up to their parents and the church to develop those and anything that took place in the development of man’s personality was a total crapshoot.
Part of being an admirable man is having a code. I’m not talking nonsense like the “Bro Code” or any of that crap. I mean a proper code of conduct and ethics. A code that make others respect you.
If you’re interested in developing your own values but don’t know where to start, Benjamin Franklin’s “Scheme of Virtues” is the best place to begin your introspection.
You can improve every area of your life by following Franklin’s virtues or modifying them to suit your lifestyle.
10 – “Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin
I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am, also, much more than that. So are we all.
James Baldwin details some of the most moving accounts of poor race relations I have ever read.
I suggest this essay (or series of essays) not under the premise of instructing you to “not be racist” or “heed the lessons of the past” but rather under the premise that one should always examine how their actions, prejudices, and world perspectives have concrete impact on the people around them.
Understanding how your operation in the world affects others – even on the smallest levels – is integral to being a man of high sensibility.
If only we knew how devastatingly our actions can ruin the lives of others. A starting point to thinking about this and many other hard-to-stomach topics is in Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son”.
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