How about a little philosophy, just to lighten things up?
Over the last few months I’ve been reading serious books about serious topics: climate change, racism, misogyny, injustice at the US Supreme Court, and autocratic threats to our democracy.
I needed a break. Something a little lighter. And something to take my mind off The Great American Shitshow 2020 Edition. Just reading the news these days makes me feel anxious, helpless and angry.
So I ordered The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers by Eric Weiner. Maybe some of those dead philosophers could help me out.
It turned out to be just what I was looking for.
Eric Weiner is a journalist, author and speaker. He’s been a foreign correspondent at NPR and a reporter for The New York Times. His books include The Geography of Bliss and The Geography of Genius. The Socrates Express is his latest book.
The Socrates Express
By Eric Weiner
Avid Reader Press, New York, 2020
Philosophy is about the search for wisdom. Not information or knowledge and certainly not data. Wisdom. About how to act in the world, and above all how to think. Weiner puts this succinctly in the introduction.
“Philosophy is different from other subjects. It is not a body of knowledge but a way of thinking – a way of being in the world. Not a ‘what’ or a ‘why’ but a ‘how’“ [p. xvi]
Weiner takes us with him as he journeys around the world seeking wisdom, exploring the lives and ideas of fourteen philosophers from ancient thinkers like Socrates, Epicurus and Confucius, to modern (though still dead) ones like Gandhi, Rousseau and Simone de Beauvoir. He travels by train. He likes the “amniotic” atmosphere on trains. You can think on a train, he says, you can pause and reflect.
Structure of the Book
Every chapter of The Socrates Express opens with a little vignette written aboard a train to set the scene. And each one is devoted to a philosopher and a question; a “how” question that the philosopher’s work can help us answer. The first chapter, for example, is called How to Get Out of Bed Like Marcus Aurelius. “The Great Bed Question”, as Weiner calls it, is more about why we should get out of bed than how.
Weiner give us a brief sketch of Marcus Aurelius’ life and then explains his philosophy clearly and approachably. Aurelius was mainly but not exclusively a Stoic (more on Stoicism in a minute). But like many philosophers he’s also a “wisdom scavenger” picking up bits and pieces from others. Weiner then tries to apply Aurelian philosophy directly to his own present circumstances. We see him wrestle with the ideas, trying to understand them and to rigorously apply them. It’s warm and comfortable under the blanket. Why should he get out of bed? Something to do with duty, apparently.
The rest of the book follows this pattern.
The chapters are loosely threaded together but you can read them in any order you like.
Coping Like a Stoic
The chapter that resonated most for me was How to Cope Like Epictetus. It’s about Stoicism.
Stoicism, as Weiner explains, is about living in harmony with nature. This has nothing to do with environmentalism, at least not directly. It’s more about understanding that large parts of our lives are beyond our control. Stoicism teaches us to change what we can and accept what we can’t.
Stoicism seems to be enjoying a resurgence in recent years and it’s not hard to see why. As our world has become more integrated and more complex, its problems have become more diffuse and abstract. Globalization, technological advancement and climate change, to name just three, are powerful forces well beyond our control that profoundly impact our lives. How do we cope?
At the same time, we also have unprecedented opportunities to act in the world. A teenager like Greta Thunberg can travel the globe and reach millions more through the internet with her powerful messages about climate change.
Yet it turns out that Stoicism is primarily concerned with controlling our inner lives. As Weiner explains,
“Much of life lies beyond our control, but we command what matters most: our opinions, impulses, desires and aversions. Our mental and emotional life. We all possess Herculean strength, superhero powers, but it is the power to master our interior world. Do this, the Stoics say, and you will be ‘invincible.’” [p. 229]
“Do what you must, let happen what may,” say the Stoics.
I find some confort here. I can’t control anything I read about in the news. I should stop getting anxious and angry. Instead of feeling helpless I should do what I can – make donations, write letters, and hey! maybe even write book reviews to help people become more aware of the issues I care about. And instead of worrying about external outcomes I should focus on internal goals like doing all that I can to the very best of my abilities.
It’s not a completely satisfying answer because those external outcomes sure seem important. But it’s a start. I may have to learn more about Stoicism.
I was really struck by the common themes that emerge from these vastly different philosophers across centuries and geography. Like walking. Many of them walked long distances every day, not because they had no other means of transportation but because they did their best thinking while walking. Rousseau, Thoreau, Schopenhauer and even Nietzsche were all walkers.
One of the benefits of walking is that it slows you down. It allows you to better perceive the world. This is another theme: the importance of sense perception, of seeing, listening, paying attention, and appreciating the beauty in small things.
In Tokyo, Weiner meets a friend for drinks at a bar featuring a model train running through an exquisitely detailed miniature town.
“I nod and sip my whiskey, delighting in the solidity of the serious glass and the oaky taste and the slightly sweet aroma, all the while gazing at the tiny beautiful world that lay before me.” [p. 199]
Acceptance is another theme. In the 21st Century we’re all about doing things, achieving things, having impact, “making a dent in the Universe,” as Steve Jobs said. But Weiner shows us that many philosophers, not just the Stoics, are trying to teach us acceptance: acceptance of things we cannot change, of things that don’t really matter, of growing old, even acceptance of dying.
I really enjoyed The Socrates Express. Weiner is very open about the personal struggles and demons that drive him along this philosophical journey. He’s also a terrific writer, a skill many philosophers lack. Weiner translates for us, writing with down-to-earth clarity, enthusiasm, and delightfully sardonic humor.
At one point, Weiner is in rural Colorado trying to get back to Denver to catch a flight to Paris. But overnight snowfall has blocked the road. He’s anxious about missing his flight.
“I turn to Seneca, who promptly pisses all over my immediate predicament – and my life’s work: therapeutic travel. ‘Do you suppose that wisdom, the greatest of skills, can be assembled on a journey? Believe me, there is no journey that could deposit you beyond outbursts of temper, beyond your fears.’ Roman bastard.” [p. 241]
And sprinkled throughout the book are little gems like this one about Nietzsche:
“His poor eyesight was a secret blessing. It liberated him from the tyranny of the book. When he couldn’t read, he walked. He walked hours at a stretch, covering great distances. ‘Do not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement,’ he said. We write with our hands. We write well with our feet.” [p. 209]
If you’d like to learn how to wonder like Socrates, how to see like Thoreau, fight like Gandhi or grow old like Beauvoir, if you’d like a little help seeking wisdom in these tumultuous times, or if you just want a break from them, you’ll find The Socrates Express rewarding and enjoyable.
One caveat: “The Socrates Express” is a catchy title but it’s completely misleading. The book meanders, it ventures down obscure sidings, it stops frequently, it walks. And it never does arrive at a destination.
Of course, that’s the whole point.
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