The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers
“Eric Weiner’s The Socrates Express presents universal concepts in an immediately accessible way, reminding us that, in an increasingly frenetic world, there is no more important lesson than the ephemeral nature of life.”
In The Socrates Express, veteran journalist and travel writer Eric Weiner crafts a delightfully entertaining, practical guide to navigating life. Realizing he’s a tick past middle age, the looming specter of mortality prompts Weiner to call on his formidable research skills, ransacking centuries of philosophy to select 14 philosophers to form the basis for this remarkable volume.
Framed as a series of train journeys both literal and metaphorical, each real-world destination a former haunt of a specific philosopher, The Socrates Express is divided into three parts: how to think, how to live, and how to die. Each section melting seamlessly into the next, Eric Weiner is the occasionally snarky engineer distilling each great thinker’s philosophical movement, translating complex ideas into relatable and useful advice for the 21st century.
Roman emperor and memoirist Marcus Aurelius is the first whistle stop; we meet this inadvertent first self-help guru not in Rome, as one may expect, but onboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder, traveling from Chicago to Portland, Oregon. A kind leader, Aurelius represented no philosophical movement, his Meditations rather a series of notes to self—musings on how to become a better human being. The philosopher king determines the theme of The Socrates Express; no high-flown academic treatise, this book offers up advice for no purpose other than living a more fulfilling life.
It makes sense Socrates is next up. A man whose passion was conversation, his obsession with asking questions—a journalist’s most successful tool—a hallmark, there is no more appropriate place for Weiner to punch his ticket.
Premise and method set, The Socrates Express effectively utilizes the train travel metaphor to explore the examined life. Hurtling from Point A to Point B, both in the physical world and the journey of the mind, Weiner crafts a seamless, engaging study of condensed knowledge crafted in graceful prose, with whistle stops at stations where he picks up passengers like Gandhi, in his suitcase the example of how to fight; Nietzsche, explaining the surreal concept of Eternal Recurrence of the Same—the theory we all live the exact same lives an infinite number of times without benefit of increased self-knowledge; and Stoic Epictetus, exhorting us to accept the unhappiness of life along with moments of astonishing joy.
It is Simone de Beauvoir, whose thoughts on coming to terms with aging suggest taking a thoughtful pause, at the hub of the book. While still possessing the acuity and agility to do so, Weiner recognizes middle age as a time to fill gaps, round off unfinished projects, and evaluate what is left to be done. The resonance with his current stage of life is palpable.
Alongside this interconnectivity with Weiner’s current mindset is the juxtaposition of occasional, delightful appearances of his suitably unimpressed daughter, the perfect foil to her father’s aesthetic ramblings. Her carefully crafted adolescent persona of world-weary boredom, negated by periodic demonstrations proving an impressive comprehension of complex ideas, tasks her with running the wisdom of the ages through a filter of 21st century skepticism. A brilliant stroke, reminding the reader while the period we live in presents unique challenges to deep study, the desire to understand humanity is timeless.
Eric Weiner’s The Socrates Express presents universal concepts in an immediately accessible way, reminding us that, in an increasingly frenetic world, there is no more important lesson than the ephemeral nature of life.