Journalist and author Eric Weiner’s The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers (2020) is a travelogue, memoir, and self-help book all rolled into one. It’s a distillation of the teachings of 14 great philosophers.
The “Express” isn’t just part of a catchy title. Each chapter starts with a wisdom-seeking train journey that Weiner took to locations where past great philosophers lived, worked, and thought (or are studied.) This introductory vignette orients Weiner’s study of these philosophers’ concepts: how to wonder like Socrates, see like Thoreau, listen like Schopenhauer, have no regrets like Nietzsche, fight like Gandhi, grow old like Beauvoir, cope with hardship like Epictetus, and so on.
The insights resonate with a fresh vibrancy for our problems today. Gandhi (on “how to fight”) believed that individuals who resorted to violence did so from a failure of imagination. Gandhi’s most significant fight was the fight to change the way we fight. He taught that a perpetrator of violence, “unwilling to do the hard work of problem-solving, he throws a punch or reaches for a gun.”
Weiner packs just enough background details on the philosophers’ life stories and how their intellectual traditions are rooted in the context of their times. Stoicism, for example, evolved when ancient Greece’s city-states were facing sociopolitical uncertainty.
The slave-turned-philosopher Epictetus distilled Stoicism to its essence with the dictum, “Some things are up to us, and some are not up to us.” Weiner writes, “Most of what happens in our life is not up to us, except our internal reactions to those events. The Stoics have a word for anything that lies beyond our control: “indifferents.” … Their presence doesn’t add one iota to our character or our happiness. They are neither good nor bad. The Stoic, therefore, is “indifferent” to them.”
Indifference, thus, is an empowering philosophy. With outward events, we are less powerful than we think, but with our reactions, we’re much more powerful.
There’s a scene in the movie Lawrence of Arabia where Lawrence, played by Peter O’Toole, calmly extinguishes a match between his thumb and forefinger.
A fellow officer tries it himself, and squeals in pain. “Ouch, it damn well hurts,” he says.
“Certainly it hurts,” replies Lawrence.
“Well, what’s the trick, then?”
“The trick,” says Lawrence, “is not minding that it hurts.”
Lawrence’s response was Stoic. Sure, he felt the pain, yet it remained a raw sensory sensation, a reflex. It never metastasized into a full-blown emotion. Lawrence didn’t mind the pain, in the literal sense of the word: he didn’t allow his mind to experience, and amplify, what his body had felt.
Socrates Express won’t be the most exhaustive philosophy book we can access. Moreover, as we read through, it’s helpful to have some prior appreciation for what we’re reading. For philosophers we’ve studied best, Weiner’s prose will reiterate the key findings. (That was Gandhi, Epictetus, Thoreau, Confucius, and Aurelius, for me.) The other chapters will seem comparatively less insightful.
Ultimately, Weiner reminds what we should be really looking for isn’t knowledge but wisdom. The difference, he says, is that, while information is a jumble of facts and knowledge is a more organized clutter of facts, wisdom is something else altogether. Wisdom “untangles the facts, makes sense of them and crucially, suggests how best to use them.” Put succinctly, “knowledge knows. Wisdom sees.”
Weiner’s prose meanders, it ventures down sidetracks, it stops frequently, it staggers, and it distracts. And it never arrives anywhere. And that’s the whole point. “The Socrates Express” begins in wonder—as does philosophy. The journey never ends—the quest for wisdom is ongoing. By the end, if, at Weiner’s prompting, philosophic thought has done its best, the curiosity of the journey has evoked remains.
Recommendation: Read Eric Weiner’s Socrates Express. It’s an engaging reminder that many philosophical systems are not just academic abstractions whose real meaning is lost in the minutiae.
Weiner’s prose invites us to start “questioning not only what we know but who we are, in hopes of eliciting a radical shift in perspective.” Socrates Express is a reminder that philosophy ultimately isn’t a cure-all for our current or future woes. Instead, philosophy is worthwhile because it builds immunity against negligent judgments and unentitled certitude. And it’s as relevant today as it’s ever been.