A joyride through philosophy

Sudhirendar Sharma
A neatly distilled narrative on life-changing voyage in pursuit of discovering wisdom.
Eric Weiner’s love for trains can be termed infectious, as he takes reader on a journey to places that bear testimonies to timeless philosophical wisdom. Like philosophy, suggests Eric, train travel helps unearth hidden perspectives in new ways of being. In these troubled times when most of us are literally ‘misliving’, nuggets of wisdom are badly needed as ‘medicine for the soul’ and hence this journey across continents. In the comforting company of fourteen philosophers – from Socrates to Confucius and from Thoreau to Gandhi – The Socrates Express helps explore joy in uncertainty for turning the tumult at home and at workplace into a veritable cause for celebration. Not an easy task though, but Neitzsche would advise that it is not our actions but reorientation of attitude that alone can help revalue what we may or may not value in our life. The core idea of this immensely readable book is to help the reader enhance the taste for life.
Written with passion and purpose, it is a journey from the state of sleep to wakefulness that not only typifies a day but an entire life. Organized into three stages of each day – Dawn, Noon and Dusk – it provides specific lessons that can be drawn to make each stage a meaningful lived reality. From ‘How to get out of bed like Marcus Aurelius to ‘How to Die like Montaigne’, the journey of life is packed into a day of learning on how to wonder, walk, see, listen, enjoy, pay attention, fight, be kind, be appreciative, and grow old. It isn’t a self-help book though, but one that helps navigate through the daily quota of anxieties and travesties.
Philosophy provides clues to ruthless self-interrogation, to not only question what we know but who we are and what we think. In a way, it is an experiment in isolation to capture the reality of nature. To do that, Thoreau used to often look at life upside down through his legs. In an engaging date with each of the carefully curated list of philosophers, Eric pays strict attention as much to their idiosyncrasies as to the essence of their divergent thoughts. What comes out is a neatly distilled narrative that takes the reader on a life-changing voyage in pursuit of discovering wisdom toward reinventing oneself to brace today’s chaotic times.
Socrates valued ignorance as a necessary step on the road to true wisdom; Schopenhauer wondered if one could comprehend the world without knowing oneself; Confucius elevated kindness to a philosophical linchpin; and, for Epictetus forgoing pleasure was one of life’s greatest pleasures that eventually enhanced our taste for life. With so much on offer, the book works like a cup of coffee. It is not only the pleasant weightiness of the mug but the warmth of holding it that savours the gentle swoosh of liquid in each sip. The Socrates Express is one such cup of overflowing wisdom that can make philosophers out of us all, as it eases simple reading to be both profound and persusive.
Erudite and reflective, amusing but insightful, Eric makes each of the philosophers relatable as he plays a guide and interpreter along the way. Even amusing trivia gets conveyed as some sort of wisdom. For instance, Japanese philosopher Shonagen could not bear people who wore a white shirt that was slightly yellowed. One might consider it as some sort of irrigating fastidiousness but this pricky attitude can also be easily interpreted as being sensitive, only perfect things could be delightful. Even avoidable things can draw attention to the profound.
Like in his previous bestsellers The Geography of Bliss and The Geography of Genius, Eric’s love for geography comes alive in The Socrates Express yet again. How else could he learn that there is stillness in chaos in India, while patience is the essential take home from Israel. In each of his train travels, Eric picks an add-on lesson to act as an icing on the philosophical cake. What attracts readers’s attention is not only the philosophical ideas but the circuitous manner in which these are arrived at. It enriches the narrative into a work of delightful reading.
How to read such a book that has skimmed wisdom from some of the best minds? Even if one races through the book, it may not be easy to shelve it away. It ought to kept by the bedside for the ideas to get digested through the day. Given the fact that the ideas have been curiously segregated into aspects that determine how we deal with people and happenings through the day, The Socrates Express can act like a gentle reminder to measure how we embrace wonder. The travel on this philosophical train is worth your time, and will help you shed the extra baggage that we inadvertently tend to carry. There is lot of stuff to be uploaded mentally on board though.
The Socrates Express
by Eric Weiner
Simon&Schuster, New Delhi
Extent: 330, Price: Rs.699.
(Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer on development issues based in New Delhi, India)
First published in Deccan Herald, issue dated April 4, 2021.