The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It’s been a rough year. Maybe these philosophers can help.

Mohandas Gandhi, pictured in 1930, taught that violence resulted from a failure of imagination and a reluctance to work to solve a problem. (AP Photo)
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‘No one studies philosophy if their parents can help it.” So says Eric Weiner in the introduction to his delightful new book, “The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons From Dead Philosophers.” He knows that pitching a modern audience on ancient teachings is a hard sell, but he’s got to try. Because in these troubling times, he says, you look to philosophy for something you cannot get from a Netflix binge: deeper meaning, “medicine for the soul.”

Part travelogue, part soul-searching memoir and part intellectual matchmaker, Weiner’s book packs an extraordinary amount into 287 pages of text. Erudite, funny and frequently self-deprecating, Weiner serves as your interpreter and guide along the way. Bursting with amusing trivia, insights and cultural references, he is on a quest to make even Schopenhauer relatable.

The book is organized into three sections: Dawn, Noon and Dusk, each with chapters highlighting a philosopher and a specific lesson we can draw from their teachings and writings. He begins with “How to Get Out of Bed Like Marcus Aurelius” (whose ambivalence leads Weiner to dub him “Hamlet under the Covers”) and ends with “How to Die Like Montaigne.”

In addition, each chapter begins with some kind of train trip, often to a far-flung site relevant to the philosopher at hand. Weiner’s enthusiasm is infectious. He delights in the Athenian subway, where the stations are filled with treasures unearthed during the construction, and strives fruitlessly to book a ticket on the Yoga Express in India. Sometimes Weiner finds ways to tie the train trip to the lesson at hand, but not always. Mostly, he just likes trains, and that is where he does his best thinking. This extra framework serves as a sort of palate cleanser between big ideas.

It is entirely possible to read this book just for pleasure, but it is so much more. Philosophers invite us to look at life differently (sometimes literally: Henry Thoreau liked to bend over and look at the world through his legs). Back in the Greek golden age, the author tells us, you chose your philosophical school with the same care people take today when picking a mate or a wireless plan. So Weiner has auditioned a number of eligible candidates and outlined why they might be worth taking on a date.

His curated list includes 14 philosophers, with just three women and three non-Westerners (Sei Shōnagon being a twofer). So it could be a bit more diverse. But he does not pretend this is the final canon, rather noting that these are philosophers who appealed to him. Clearly Weiner has auditioned a veritable “who’s who” of great minds before selecting his final cast.

This is no hagiography. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a drama queen who liked to moon people. Thoreau snuck back home from his supposed exile to have a slice of his mom’s pie (she also did his laundry). A good percentage of Weiner’s subjects were intensely annoying to their contemporaries. “I don’t understand you Socrates, so I wish you’d ask someone who did,” says one exhausted Athenian.

But the insights Weiner shares from his chosen few resonate with a fresh vibrancy for our problems today. Mohandas Gandhi believed that individuals who resorted to violence did so from a failure of imagination. Summarizing Gandhi’s thought on the violent type, Weiner writes, “Unwilling to do the hard work of problem solving, he throws a punch or reaches for a gun.” Gandhi advocated approaching conflict not as a win-lose proposition but one where “both sides get what they didn’t know they wanted.” Imagine that.

Confucius, so often defined as the enforcer of filial piety, cared more about kindness than anything else (a special untranslatable word, “ren,” shows up more than any other word in the Analects). After all, what requires more kindness than caring for an elderly, ailing parent? It is a concept that hits home for the sandwich generation.

Simone Weil would be well prepared for our pandemic, raised as she was by her parents to wash her hands repeatedly each day and open doors with her elbows. But what really makes her suitable for our turbulent times is her radical empathy, exemplified by one of her favorite queries, “What are you going through?” Her concern is a balm for us all.

Sometimes Weiner works a little too hard to mold a philosopher into the theme, as in the chapter “How to Grow Old Like Beauvoir.” Simone, he tells us, raged against the dying of the light. But in reading her dark “The Coming of Age,” he discerns an admittedly hidden note of optimism, resulting in his list of “Top Ten Ways to Grow Old.” The evidence drawn from Beauvoir’s life and works is thin, but thoughtful analysis results in one of Weiner’s longer, and richer, chapters. It is where the line between translation and translators’ own thoughts gets blurred.

Offering himself as a guinea pig, Weiner applies all that he learns to his own life. He is especially vulnerable when talking about his 13-year-old daughter, who accompanies him on many of his journeys. He engages with her as he weighs the lessons of his chosen subjects (and the question of how to be a good father) and discovers that teenagers can be wise, too.

Philosophy is not for the easily distracted, and even when translated by the hugely engaging Weiner, it can be a lot to absorb in one reading. Each chapter is like a chocolate truffle — tasty and dense — so don’t try to consume it all in one sitting. Space them out and savor the ideas to see which ones suit you. This is not a book to race through and then shelve away. Let it take time to digest, because despite the humor and wit, it is still meaty stuff. All the same, the ticket for the Socrates Express is well worth your time and will lighten your metaphorical burdens.

The Socrates Express

In Search of Life Lessons From Dead Philosophers

By Eric Weiner

Avid Reader/Simon & Schuster.
330 pp. $28