The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers
By Eric Weiner. Avid Reader Press, 2020, 330 pp.
As Eric Weiner observes in his introduction to The Socrates Express, "In the literary world, how-to books are an embarrassment, the successful but uncouth cousin. Serious writers don't write how-to books, and serious readers don't read them.
How bold then to write a how-to book about that most serious subject, philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom. A clash of high culture and low, you might think.
But Weiner, a former foreign correspondent for NPR, in searching for ways to deal with his own "persistent melancholy," has created a work of applied philosophy that is thoughtful, entertaining, and useful. He renders the abstract practical by focusing on 14 philosophers who were themselves practical. "It was not the meaning of life that interested them," he says, "but leading meaningful lives."
Framing each chapter as a train journey to a relevant place—"philosophy and trains pair well," says Weiner—he visits Athens for "How to Wonder like Socrates"; Frankfurt, for "How to Listen like Schopenhauer"; Bordeaux, for "How to Die like Montaigne"; and Ashford, in the UK, for "How to Pay Attention like Simone Weil."
In each chapter, Weiner explores a salient aspect of the philosopher's thinking, relating it to their lives, to his own life, and to living itself. In "How to See like Thoreau," for example, he discusses Thoreau's belief in the senses as the path to understanding. The man was apparently known for his "eerily acute" senses, especially his "piercing," "enormous" eyes: his vision, Weiner says, was "legendary." He was skilled at lingering, at seeing slowly. "He once spent an entire day watching a mother duck teach her ducklings about the river, later delighting children with his duck tales."
Weiner distinguishes Thoreau from the Rationalists, who believe we reach enlightenment through the intellect ("Cogito, ergo sum"), and also from the Transcendentalists, who "had faith in things unseen." Thoreau, he says, was "less interested in the nature of reality than the reality of nature."
Certain themes recur throughout the book—slowness, attention, life's uncertainty—and Weiner draws some astute comparisons between the various philosophers he profiles. He suggests, for example, that Socrates and Thoreau are "philosophical brothers," each leading an "examined life," alternating between "terrific velocity and utter stillness," asking important but impertinent questions that annoyed people.
Some philosophers emerge more clearly than others from Weiner's treatment—Simone Weil remains, for me, an enigma—but all the profiles yield interesting portraits and ideas. Among the best chapters is "How to Cope like Epictetus," which explores Stoicism. "A philosophy for life's rough patches," says the author, it essentially teaches "change what you can; accept what you can't."
Although "much of life lies beyond our control," say the Stoics, "we command what matters most: our opinions, impulses, desires, and aversions. Our mental and emotional life. We all possess…the power to master our interior world."
Needless to say, it isn't easy corralling those "impulses, desires and aversions"—and it is hard not to complain even if, as the Stoics believe, "to wish life…otherwise represents an egregious failure of reason." But as Weiner says at the start, "Philosophy is therapeutic but not the way a hot-stone massage is therapeutic. Philosophy is not easy. It is not nice. It is not palliative. Less spa than gym."
Playful and probing, this happily nonacademic and quite serious book is thought-provoking and a delight to read.