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The New York Times bestselling author of The Geography of Bliss embarks on a rollicking intellectual journey, following in the footsteps of history’s greatest thinkers and showing us how each—from Epicurus to Nietzsche, Thoreau to Gandhi—offers practical and spiritual lessons for today’s unsettled times.
We contemplate for the same reasons we travel: to see the world from a different perspective, to unearth hidden beauty and find new ways of being. We want to learn how to embrace wonder. Face regrets. Sustain hope.
Eric Weiner, New York Times bestselling author of The Geography of Bliss, combines his twin passions for philosophy and global travel in a pilgrimage that uncovers surprising life lessons from philosophers around the world, from Marcus Aurelius to Arthur Schopenhauer, Confucius to Montaigne. Traveling by train (the most thoughtful mode of transport) he traversed thousands of miles, making stops in Athens, Delhi, Massachusetts, Coney Island, Frankfurt, and points in between, to recapture philosophy’s original purpose: teaching us how to lead wiser, more meaningful lives. From Socrates and ancient Athens to Simone de Beauvoir and twentieth century Paris, Weiner’s chosen places and thinkers provide important signposts as we navigate today’s chaotic times.
In The Socrates Express, Weiner invites us to voyage alongside him on his life-changing pursuit of wisdom and discovery as he attempts to find answers to our most vital questions.
“Part travelogue, part soul-searching memoir and part intellectual matchmaker, [The Socrates Express] packs an extraordinary amount into 287 pages of text…It is entirely possible to read this book just for pleasure, but it is so much more…. Each chapter is like a chocolate truffle — tasty and dense … Space them out and savor the ideas to see which ones suit you.”–The Washington Post
“A smart, funny, engaging book full of valuable lessons, The Socrates Express is not an explanation — it’s an invitation to think and experience philosophy filtered through Weiner’s words…The Socrates Express defies classification. Yes, it is a book about philosophy, but it’s also a book about being human, travelling, learning and — sometimes — coffee…”
“Delightful… There are so many reasons to love this book… If you are planning summer travel or a staycation, this book will take you places intellectually and humorously.”
—San Francisco Book Review
“A pleasant surprise. Part high-level survey of the central ideas of a diverse group of philosophers, part memoir, part “how to” book and part travelogue, [THE SOCRATES EXPRESS] is an invigorating introduction to some of philosophy’s eminently practical uses….”
“[Alternating] between informative and insightful to cheeky and challenging… Readers will enjoy Weiner’s unique approach and ultimately satisfying conclusions.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“A convincing and winningly presented case for the practical applications of philosophy to everyday existence in the 21st century… [Weiner’s] book offers an appealing way to cope with the din of modern life and look at the world with attentive eyes and ears.”
“Such a globe-trotting tour of philosophy can only be as good as its guide, and Weiner proves to be a curious, sincere, and generous companion…. ‘The world needs more philosophical enthusiasts,’ Weiner writes. This book is sure to generate its share.”
A Philosophical Chat with… Eric Weiner, author of The Socrates Express
1. In your book, you explore philosophers from all walks of life. How did you select the thinkers? What were you looking for?
I chose philosophers who were flawed humans, struggling with the questions that keep all of us up at night. How can I lead a happier, more meaningful life? What does it mean to be a good person? Where did I put my car keys? My philosophers were all wise, but in different ways. Different flavors of wisdom. They represent a wide swath of space and time, from Germany to China, the U.S. to India; and from the 5th century BC to the 1980s. No matter. Wisdom is portable.
2. During these difficult times of isolation and quarantine, what would you tell someone who is looking for a way to explore the world, and themselves?
Read! Seriously, read a lot. Then stop reading (for a while at least) and just be. Many of the philosophers I encountered were suspicious of excessive reading, and would have no doubt felt the same about excessive clicking today. Don’t merely read the ideas of others; absorb them, make them your own. Now is the perfect time to find your own still, small voice.
3. What can readers learn about aging from philosophy? What are we missing?
Old age is not a disease. It is not a pathology. It is not abnormal. It is not a problem. Old age is a continuum, and everyone is on it. We’re all aging all the time. This fact need not be cause for despair. Old age is a time to reconnect with curiosity and with that great source of all philosophy: wonder.
4. You spent a lot of time walking, or on a train, thinking about life’s biggest challenges. How does one’s environment affect how they relate to life?
I am an unapologetic “place person.” We are not disembodied minds, thinking (and feeling) in a vacuum. We are grounded in a certain place and time, and this matters. Where you are shapes who you are. Change your place, and you can change yourself. We sense this especially acutely now, since we are largely home-bound. You can travel vicariously with me, though, and still learn a lot about the big, beautiful world out there.
5. You’ve worked as an NPR correspondent for many years in India, and in your book you write about Gandhi’s theory of nonviolent resistance. Do some of his teachings apply today, to the protests spiking across the country?
Absolutely. A direct thread runs from Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. to the Black Lives Matter protests of today. King visited India (as did John Lewis) and studied Gandhi’s ideas. The locations differ but the tactics are the same: persistent, confrontational but utterly nonviolent resistance to injustice. Gandhi, I’m sure, would wholeheartedly agree with John Lewis’s call for getting into “good trouble.”
6. Another great section is on Thoreau, and changing our perspectives. How can readers take the time today to find gratitude, and beauty, in the small things?
By looking differently, and seeing the world otherwise. It doesn’t take much. Sometimes only the slightest shift, “a hair’s breadth aside from our habitual path or routine,” reveals new worlds, Thoreau said. He observed Walden Pond from every conceivable vantage point: from a hilltop, on its shores, a boat on its surface, and underwater; by daylight and moonlight, in winter and summer. Each perspective yielded a different beauty.
7. Where do you see the intersection between travel and philosophy?
I think what Henry Miller said of travel applies equally to philosophy. Your destination is never a place but “a new way of looking at things.” Philosophy doesn’t only describe the world as it is but as it could be. Both philosophy and travel share a common goal: self-transformation.
8. How has philosophy shaped your life?
Oh boy, where to begin? Philosophy has enabled me to cope with adversity– not by eliminating problems but by changing my attitude toward them. Philosophy has inspired me to utter the words “what if?” more than I ever thought possible. And, to be honest, philosophy has complicated my life, only in a good way. It’s taught me to question assumptions I didn’t even know I had. I take very little for granted now, and I think that is a good thing.
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The Art of Manliness Podcast, September 14, 2020
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Deviate podcast with Rolf Potts. August 25, 2020
The Frommer Travel Show. August 23, 2020
Travel with Rick Steves: August 15, 2020