Words of Wisdom

(Quercus, 2011)

Words of Wisdom brings together 360 of Philosophy’s most famous quotations, explaining their meaning and telling the stories behind them. Western philosophy may be said to have begun in ancient Greece, where, inscribed in his temple at Delphi, the words of the god Apollo commanded those who sought wisdom to first ’know thyself’. From here, we trace this quest through the first ’lovers of wisdom’ – Thales, Pythagoras, Zeno – through some of its early greats – Socrates, Plato, Aristotle – and into modern times. Along the way, we discover the riddles of Heraclitus (’You cannot step into the same river twice’), the military strategy of Sun Tzu (’To win without fighting is best’), the stoicism of Seneca (’Life is long if you know how to live it’), and the faith of St Augustine (’do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that you may understand’). We find out why Thomas Hobbes thought that life is ’nasty, brutish and short’, why Leibniz considered this to be ’the best of all possible worlds’, but how Schopenhauer disagreed, thinking the world more resembled ’a penal colony’! From the famous paradoxes of Zeno, to the no-less-puzzling pronouncements of postmodernism, through almost every philosophical movement and school of thought that has shaped human history, the author provides a whistle-stop tour of the wise words of the great and the good – and, as well, the not so great and the downright naughty. We find out whether Machiavelli’s reputation for wickedness was fully deserved, how the Marquis de Sade gave his name to some very dubious practices, why Nietzsche thought a whip an essential aid to marital relations, and precisely why LSD guru Timothy Leary wanted us to ’Turn on, tune in and drop out’.

Words of Wisdom covers all this and more. With the author’s usual humour and clarity of style, the whole 2,500 year history of philosophy is laid bare. Each quote is set in the context of its cultural background, author biography and general outlook; trends are highlighted, links established, and influences traced, all in a way that is entertaining, thought-provoking, and even fun! Words of Wisdom is the perfect book for those who always wanted to ask what philosophy was about, but were afraid they might not understand the answer.

Purchase Options

This book is currently available in paperback, hardback, and ebook editions from various sellers (I’ve listed a few of these below). The book has currently been translated into Dutch and Chinese. If you are having difficulty getting hold of a copy where you live, please get in touch. NOTE: some of the links below are affiliate links – see here for more information.

Foreign Editions


One of those books you’ll go back to again and again

The Western Mail

Southwell has taken the trouble to collect an enormous number of famous and not-so-famous quotations and examine them in minute detail to give us their meanings and the context in which they were said, together with fascinating information on the people who said them. This has to be a labour of love, but it emerges as a highly readable series of essays on a subject that, for the most part, leaves anyone who has no knowledge of philosophy bemused. No mean undertaking, this, but it works. There will be philosophers who still leave us cold, others we warm to instantly. Nietschze may have written the tract that inspired Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra – I tried to read it myself once, as the music is so important to me, but it was terribly hard going – but as a philosopher, he’s as impenetrable as ever; until you read what Southwell has to say. It isn’t going to be high on everyone’s list of books to buy with their Christmas money, but it’s a wonderful book, the sort of book to have by the bedside and to delve into from time to time, perhaps when you reach the end of a particularly satisfying novel and want to wind down. Or when you have a quiet, reflective moment. Philosophers are a peculiar species – I studied philosophy as part of my OU Arts Foundation course, and didn’t really understand a word of it. Happily I was able to blag my way through the exam! Maybe, if I’d had this book to hand…


Books about quotes often fall into the trap of being a bit twee. Wise words from the ancients are recycled all the time, taken out of context, not thought about and bantered around as if you can boil down a whole philosophy into a couple of lines.

This is my usual rant about quotation books. Luckily, it doesn’t apply to Gareth Southwell’s Words of Wisdom. There were many, many things I loved about this book, so I’ll start with arguably the most important: Southwell’s analysis of the philosophies (and philosophers) he’s quoting. It’s evident that he’s thought deeply about all the meanings, that he’s read them in context, and that he’s spent a lot of time studying philosophy. The descriptions are well thought out and not at all cloying.

Whenever I open a book, I also open my notebook and jot down any interesting passages I find. In a book about quotes, I expected these to be numerous, and they were. The surprising thing was that many of the most interesting quotes in the book were from Southwell’s descriptions as well as from the philosophers he was paraphrasing. His sense of humour shone through and provided an easy-to-read but still in-depth analysis of philosophy from ancient to postmodern.

Which brings me to my next point: the number of modern and post-modern philosophers in the book. Often I find myself slightly irritated by the proliferation of quotes from Plato, Confucious and so on. Sure, they’re fantastic, and they have a place in any book about philosophy, but there are a lot of people who have been around in the past 200-300 years whose views are also well worth sharing. Southwell devotes a significant part of the book to these guys, thus avoiding the trap of writing a fusty, outdated tome and instead showing the relevance of philosophy to life nowadays, which is especially important in an age in which philosophy seems to be viewed more and more as ‘just people waffling on about their own empty opinions.’

Yet another thing I appreciated was the fact that Southwell doesn’t only treat writers as ‘valid’ philosophers if they have a philosophy degree and lectured in it at some point. The inclusion of Helena Blavatsky and Aleister Crowley pleased me especially; controversial figures many people would shy away from, but still leading lights in the philosophy of spirituality.

All in all, a glowing review for a fantastic book. I think it would make an excellent introduction to philosophy, and also a great point of reference for anyone looking for inspiration. It took me about four times as long to read as most books do, because I kept having to stop to jot down ideas that had been inspired by the writing. Definitely worth a read.

Scarlett de Courcier, Bohemiacademia.blogspot.com

This is a lovely little book. Southwell provides us with quotations from a range of philosophers (and non-philosophers, including novelists like George Orwell and political activists like Malcom X) through the ages. Entries are arranged chronologically and give a feel for the way that human thinking, and the ideas that matter to us, has developed over time. Each quotation is used as a springboard to a short explanatory passage, elaboration on the key idea and often a short biography of the speaker. These explanations and elaborations are pithy and provide just enough detail to whet the appetite for further research into each particular area, whether this is ethics, aesthetics, politics, religion, philosophy of mind, or any of the other vast array of philosophical issues invoked. I shall be dipping into this one for some time…

N. Condliffe, Amazon Review (5 stars)

This is a truly splendid introduction to the history and ideas of philosophy, presented in bite-sized “nuggets” that encourage the reader to persevere. Southwell’s writing is crystal-clear, and his commentary on the various quotations is always astute and often quite humorous.

Ronald Pies MD, Author of The Three-Petalled Rose, Amazon Review (5 stars)