I was 12- or 13-years-old when an uncle gave me a copy of Jostein Gaarder's “Sophie's World.” It was long and full of ideas that were new to me, so I spent the summer with my head in and out of that book.
It opened the door to philosophy, and I crossed the threshold because it was fun — it spoke to me. That love for philosophy lasted until I got to college. Nothing kills the love for philosophy faster than people who think they understand Foucault, Baudrillard, or Kierkegaard better than you — and then try to explain them.
Eric Weiner's “The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers” rekindled my love for philosophy. A smart, funny, engaging book full of valuable lessons, “The Socrates Express” is not an explanation — it's an invitation to think and experience philosophy filtered through Weiner's words.
“The Socrates Express” defies classification. Yes, it is a book about philosophy, but it's also a book about being human, travelling, learning and — sometimes — coffee. Weiner, a former reporter for NPR and author of “The Geography of Bliss,” takes readers with him on a journey to understand the teachings of philosophers like Marcus Aurelius, Henry David Thoreau, Simone Weil, Confucius, Simone de Beauvoir, and Socrates. Along the way, he explores his relationship to their work, shows us how their ideas can help us improve our lives, and manages to sneak in a biography of each.
The structure of this book is brilliant. Weiner starts each chapter with a scene on a train ride between cities and then frames each philosopher's work in the context of one thing they can help us do better. The end result is an engaging read in which we learn to wonder like Socrates, see like Thoreau, listen like Schopenhauer, have no regrets like Nietzsche, fight like Gandhi, and grow old like Simone de Beauvoir. This, more than a book about understanding philosophy, is a book about learning to use philosophy to improve a life. Weiner talks about his own shortcomings and uses them to show us how we can all learn to take time to observe things, to accept that sometimes what we have is enough.
He makes philosophical thought an appealing exercises that improves the quality of our experiences, and he does so with plenty of humor and straightforward prose. However, despite the simplicity of some of his writing, this is still a narrative that engages with deep thought and encourages us to focus on questions instead of answers. Weiner enters into conversation with some of the most important philosophers in history, and he becomes part of that crowd in the process by decoding their messages and adding his own interpretation:
"A good question reframes the problem so that you see it in an entirely new light. A good question prompts not only a search for answers but a reevaluation of the search itself. A good question elicits not a clever reply but no reply at all."
Humanity is at the core of philosophy, and Weiner shows that here. In every chapter, his experiences and thoughts are at the core of the writing. This makes “The Socrates Express” much more than a regurgitation of the ideas of crucial thinkers; Weiner stands on the shoulders of giants and speaks from there, examining things like the way technology changes the way we act or how we spend large parts of our life waiting for things. This is philosophy yanked from books and history and thrown into the present. While using himself could be seen as egocentric, there is none of that here. In fact, Weiner's observations often lead to self-critiques that go hand-in-hand with his humor. A perfect example is when he tries to understand Epicurus's thoughts on the nature of desire by looking at his obsession with bags:
"I seep my beer(...)and take silent inventory of my various desires. I don't like what I find. I devote energy — too much, I know — chasing mirages. I devote a lot of energy to bags. I love bags (satchels, mainly, but also backpacks and briefcases) and, like all loves, this one consumes me. Epicurus would take one look at my outsize bag collection (I have a problem) and declare it, at best, a natural but not necessary desire. Yes, we need something to carry our stuff, but we don't need fifty-four bags of various vintages and leather-and-canvas configurations. A simple rucksack will do."
“The Socrates Express” is a fun, sharp book that draws readers in with its apparent simplicity and bubble-gum philosophy approach and gradually pulls them in deeper and deeper until they're contemplating desire, loneliness, aging, and death. The invitation is clear: Weiner wants you to grab a coffee or tea and sit down with this book. I encourage you to take him up on his offer. It's worth your time, even if time is something we don't have a lot of.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.
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