Why should we fall in love with wisdom? (Philo = I love. Sophia = wisdom.) Well, ‘cos maybe it can do you a heap of good. Philosophy’s key premise works like this: If thoughts can be induced to rhyme with reality, then reality might be much easier to bear. To handle. Life ought to be an alliance with reality, not a struggle to subdue it.
That’s my grand takeaway from the latest book from Eric Weiner.
I’ve just finished reading Weiner’s “The Socrates Express,” and recommend it as a perhaps unusual yet potentially satisfying Christmas gift. The book’s subtitle explains its basic core: “In search of life lessons from dead philosophers.” Yet that line alone doesn’t manage to communicate the book’s highly attractive tone, which I found both quizzical and humorous. The book is less a trek through the history of philosophy’s leading lights, more a romp through that both far and recent past.
Weiner seems to present himself as a fretful, impatient, grumpy, even neurotic narrator. However, I see him much more as a deadpan comedian. A dry humorist in the tradition of Jack Benny and Bob Newhart — albeit one whose jokes are more cerebral and whose general bent is more academic.
Four subthemes animate “The Socrates Express.” The first is travel — truly no surprise for an author who made his bones with books such as, “The Geography of Bliss” and “The Geography of Genius.” Each of the 14 chapters opens with a train journey to a locale that exerted significant influence upon a given thinker. Another thread is formed by Weiner’s lucid and economic summary of each philosopher’s principal suppositions.
His third and fourth themes are the ones I found most interesting. Weiner tracks these key thoughts or postures as they shaped the progress of a philosopher’s life; and then he tries them out on his own life, usually with entirely mixed results (Once in a while, he treats us with a bit of acerbic and piercing commentary from his teenage daughter). The net result is that Weiner greatly humanizes a crowd of highbrows, and shows us that, when all is said and done, philosophy at its best is a sincere effort to grapple with life and next, at minimum, to wrestle it to a draw.
I have on my shelf several types of “introduction to philosophy” books. And I’ve made a deep dive into a few formal mindsets, primarily Stoicism. I keep the general summaries around to remind me of the full spectrum of major cognitive systems humanity has churned out over the ages. And to endow my present thinking with perspective.
Of that introductory lot, I’d judge Weiner’s book as by far the best.
It is the deftest, the most creative, the most communicative, the most experimental, and the wittiest. This is not to say he succeeds in every instance. His chapter on Gandhi I found superlative. But his chapter on Confucius seemed surprisingly dull and empty — I wished he’d selected an Asian seer with whom he felt a greater affinity. Buddha, perhaps. However, he more than makes up for a rare flub with other brilliant commentary — such as his chapter on Simone Weil. I confess I’d never heard of this savvy dame before reading Weiner, and I wound up feeling grateful for this introduction.
It’s no secret, as we draw to the close of 2020, that we live in hard times. And these times may turn harder still, before we’re through. So if you presently seek to nurture and bolster your own thoughts, postures and attitudes (as well as those of your pals) to better cope with life in our times, this book could provide a useful boost (for you and/or for them). Yes, it deals in philosophy. But the text is lucid, amusing and accessible.