Long-dead thinkers from Socrates to Nietzsche are the latest hot property when it comes to self-help books. But can they really make effective gurus, asks Neil Armstrong.

Can a thinker who last plied his trade two millennia ago really help? Does a controversial 19th-Century German scholar make a good life coach? Might the study of Jean-Paul Sartre be the key to a new you?

More like this:

-        The rise of books you don’t read

-        What courage really means

-        A sociopath for our Instagram age

Publishers think the answer to all of these questions is a definitive ‘yes’ – for books positioning philosophers as self-help gurus are the latest trend in publishing.

Last autumn saw the publication of Lessons in Stoicism by John Sellars, which aims to show how we can benefit from thinking like the ancient Stoics; and How To Be An Existentialist by Gary Cox, a “genuine self-help book offering clear advice on how to live according to the principles of existentialism formulated by Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, and the other great existentialist philosophers”.  Then there was How To Teach Philosophy To Your Dog: A  Quirky Introduction to the Big Questions in Philosophy by Anthony McGowan, which begins by suggesting that studying philosophy “may empower you to become a better person”, and ends by considering the meaning of life.

Meanwhile the recently-published An Ethical Guidebook to the Zombie Apocalypse by Bryan Hall, imagines a Walking Dead-type scenario as a means to introduce the reader to some of the key moral dilemmas explored by thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Kant. Then next week comes How to be a Failure and Still Live Well by Beverley Clack, which draws upon philosophy and theology to consider how failure can help you to live a good life.

During the 20th Century, philosophy was perceived as a dusty discipline for specialists, a highly challenging field whose cloistered experts argued endlessly over obscure concepts

And you can already find on bookshelves, among many others, titles such as Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life, The Existentialist’s Survival Guide – “a manual for living in the 21st Century – when every crisis feels like an existential crisis”, and two books devoted to Nietzsche, What Would Nietzsche Do? and Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche for Our Times.

So, eat your heart out, Eckhart Tolle. Make way, Deepak Chopra. The late Stephen Hawking was clearly premature with his pronouncement that “philosophy is dead”. 

Why is philosophy back in fashion?

However, there undoubtedly was a period when it was on life support, at least as far as the lay person was concerned. During the 20th Century, philosophy was perceived as a dusty discipline for specialists, a highly challenging field whose cloistered experts argued endlessly over obscure concepts. It didn’t have much to do with the real world. So why is it breaking out of academia and becoming fashionable now?

Angie Hobbs, Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy, University of Sheffield, believes it is because we’re at such a global crisis point. “I think [philosophy is booming] for the same reasons that therapeutic, ethical philosophy took off in the Hellenistic times, which was also a period of enormous change, of the Greek city states disintegrating and big monolithic powers like Alexander the Great and the Macedonian empire taking over.

“At the moment, again we’ve got people seeing the world in extreme flux – financially, geo-politically, with regard to climate change. Is liberal democracy going to survive? Is the planet going to survive? There are really huge worrying questions. People are looking for a guide through these very uncertain times.”

Lessons of Stoicism author Sellars agrees that this could be a factor in the growing interest in philosophy as self-help. After all, there are self-help books by celebrities, psychologists, athletes, management consultants and mystics. Why not philosophers?

“I think in the 20th Century, even right up to the millennium, there was a sense of optimism and progress – everyone was getting wealthier, you could buy more stuff and you didn’t really stop to think about it that much,” Sellars says. “Then when the credit crunch came, all of that optimism was sucked out of everything. The idea that if we just carry on as we are and everything will keep improving, that simply went. People started to think ‘what are we doing and why are we doing it?’ and a real appetite for guidance developed.

“[Previous to the last century], the philosophers of antiquity and later periods always offered this kind of advice. There’s a sense in which we are reconnecting with a very old way of thinking about what philosophy is.”

Live fast, be stoic

Stoicism is one thought system positively flourishing at present. Its roots extend back to Socrates, the ancient Greek considered the father of Western philosophy, while later Stoicism is based largely on the work of three thinkers who lived in the 1st and 2nd Centuries AD: Seneca, the tutor of Nero, Epictetus, a former slave, and Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome. Despite the fact that the Stoics generally took a dim view of huge wealth, their works are currently de rigueur in Silicon Valley. Twitter founder Jack Dorsey is believed to be a fan and Apple’s Steve Jobs once said: “I would trade all of my technology for an afternoon with Socrates.”

Key Stoic principles, simply put, are to acknowledge that you can’t control much of what goes on in your life, and to accept that you are part of a greater whole, that is nature.

The Stoics suggest that what’s most important in order to lead a good life is internal rather than external. Get your head straight, is, if you like, the core advice – John Sellars

John Sellars is one of the founders of Stoic Week, a global online experiment which has been running annually since 2012 to discover if people measurably benefit psychologically from following the philosophy for just a week. Results indicate they do.

“The Stoics suggest that what’s most important in order to lead a good life is internal rather than external. It’s about developing the right character, the right state of mind,” Sellars says. “It’s not about the stuff you own or about what happens to you in the external world. Get your head straight, is, if you like, the core Stoic advice.”

Existentialism is another area of philosophy being mined for life lessons. But while the lay reader can pick up a work by one of the Stoics or Plato or Aristotle, for example, and find it accessible and readable, many texts by existentialists such as Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre are notoriously challenging, sometimes even for the professional.

The eminent British philosopher Gilbert Ryle concluded his 1928 review of Heidegger’s Being and Time, a key book in existential philosophy, by admitting: “I am well aware of how far I have fallen short of understanding this difficult work” although, he added, tongue firmly in cheek, “it is most beautifully printed and the pages have generous margins”.

Existentialism does not lend itself to concise, simple explanation. Some philosophers identified as such even rejected the label. “Existentialism is a philosophical approach which begins with the lived experiences of the individual human subject – thoughts, feelings, actions; in Sartre’s pithy phrase: ‘existence precedes essence’” explains Hobbs. “It values freedom and authenticity: the challenge is to live life with passion, sincerity and courage in the face of a world which has no meaning beyond that which the individual gives to it, and which often appears absurd.

However, that is not to say it should be treated as a grab bag of feel-the-fear-and-do-it-anyway style self-help adages. Indeed, Hobbs sounds a note of caution about the attempted distillation of any philosophy into pop philosophy books.

These books also need to make clear that, even done at its very best, philosophy isn’t a magic wand which can just sprinkle fairy dust and fix your life – Angie Hobbs

“Books summarising the views of famous philosophers – Plato, Nietzsche or whoever – need to be very honest about the fact that they are simplifying very complex often very difficult and challenging and knotty thought systems,” she says.

“They need to be very honest that this is just a taster – philosophy lite. ‘Philosophy lite’ doesn’t have to be philosophy dumbed down but it has to be presented as the foothills of Everest. Philosophy is very difficult and the summit is really high. These books also need to make clear that, even done at its very best, philosophy isn’t a magic wand which can just sprinkle fairy dust and fix your life.”

Nevertheless, they do sell, and to all kinds of people. Colleen Coalter, a publisher at Bloomsbury, says there is no typical reader profile for this sort of book. “We see all ages. The audience reflects the longevity of philosophy and the fact that the questions speak to anyone, anywhere, at any time. If you can get the right author writing on the right topic at the right moment, then you’ve got a success on your hands.”

Meanwhile Sellars expresses the hope that these books can be a gateway for audiences that will lead them into deeper philosophical inquiry. But above all, he says, “my own view is that if someone can take something away from one of these books and it genuinely benefits them in dealing with the stresses and strains of everyday life, then there’s no great harm in that.”

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.