A great companion during the pandemic period | The Background

Monday, August 2, 2021

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A great companion during the pandemic period

Annie Kunnath

Eric Weiner is a man who wears many hats. He is an award-winning journalist, a columnist, popular speaker, traveller, and travelogue. He is passionate about writing and shares this love by conducting biannual writing workshops in places as disparate as Bhutan and Arizona. Above all, Weiner is a seeker. His lived experiences moulded his thoughts and shaped his identity. Thus, from India he learnt the secret of harmony in chaos; Israel instilled in him the importance of savlanut (patience); Japan taught him the art of being silent, and the philosophy of beautiful small things.

It was this seeker’s quest for knowing more of the world’s unexpected and unlikely happy places that resulted in Weiner’s first book The Geography of Bliss. His second book Man Seeks God is a record of his Flirtations with the Divine as the book’s subtitle states. The search was spiritual, taking him to Kathmandu where he meditated with Tibetan lamas, and to Las Vegas where he met the Raëlians. The journey’s trigger: a health scare that landed Weiner in a hospital and the question posed by an anonymous ER nurse: “Have you found your God yet?” Hence, from pursuing happiness, Weiner became a “God hopper”. Next, the “spiritual voyeur” (one of his many self-identification tags, “Confusion-ist White male” being another), takes a third world trip, this time to seek places of genius. Behind this ‘pilgrim’s progress’ were the questions whether, how, and why creative genius flourishes in specific places at specific times. But the journey’s source was not idle curiosity. It was altruistic – to create a culture of creativity in his own home for his young daughter.

The Socrates Express is Eric Weiner’s fourth book. He is In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers, as affirms the book’s subtitle. To Weiner, places are “repositories of ideas”. And places matter. That is why he travels. He believes in the importance of ‘meeting’ the dead philosophers in their own turf; reading their writings right where the thoughts originated; and in self-dissection. Like the time in Athens, in company of Epicurus. Weiner is in a café sipping Mythos beer, and reading Epicurus’ three types of desires, following which he questions his own obsession with bags – “fifty-four bags of various vintages and leather-and-canvas configurations”. Would Epicurus categorize his bag desire as “natural and necessary”, “natural but not necessary”, or “neither natural nor necessary”?

The book imparts a three-pronged knowledge on philosophy and philosophers. Firstly, there are the life lessons, one each from carefully chosen philosophers, answering a specific “How to…?” question. These philosophers are both women and men, from different spaces and times, and with different philosophies. It is to Weiner’s credit that in the world of philosophy where women philosophers are rarely heard of, he travels to Kyoto to meet Sei Shonagon, Ashford to meet Simone Weil, and Paris to converse with Simone de Beauvoir.

Secondly, The Socrates Express shows that there are common threads between the philosophers, either in their philosophy or in their mannerisms. Thus, like Epicurus, Shonagon too developed a categorization of pleasure. Confucius and Socrates taught in an informal and conversational style. Socrates, Rousseau, Thoreau, Nietzsche, and Gandhi loved walking. Marcus Aurelius, and Thoreau were “wisdom scavengers”. If Socrates and Thoreau annoyed people with their impertinent questions, they were good listeners, and practiced rigorous self-introspection.

Thirdly, there is Weiner’s associative reading tendency with the philosophers he is journeying with. He is practicing the philosophy of self-knowledge and the healing power of self-talk and jottings to self. In some manner or the other all these fourteen philosophers converse with him, some more intensely than the others. By journey’s end, we have a portrait of the author, his habits, his likes, and dislikes.

The Socrates Express is in the form of a day’s journey. Between the “Departure” and “Arrival” are three periods, Dawn, Noon, and Dusk, during which he converses with his chosen philosophers. Alongside, he observes the flesh and blood people living there today, who walk where the philosophers walked, and breathe the air they breathed. Do these today’s people share some long lost or living connection with the philosopher who once lived in their land?

Dawn breaks with Marcus Aurelius and the “Great Bed Question”: To rise or not to from bed. This frivolous question is linked with honouring one’s duties and dealing with difficult people. With Socrates the great questioner, Weiner walks the path of crazy wisdom, “casting aside social norms and risking ostracism, or worse, to jolt others into understanding.” The next companion is Rousseau the great solitary walker, who walked to think, and to think on the art of mindful walking. The last two philosophers Weiner meets before noon are Thoreau and Schopenhauer. From Thoreau he learns to see with the heart, and to look at the world from unusual angles even if this meant bending over and peering through one’s legs. Schopenhauer summons him to listen to others and to himself mindfully.

At noon, Epicurus explains the value of sensual knowledge and the meaning of true pleasure. Simone Weil shares the wisdom of attentive and receptive waiting, which involves self-discipline, and deep empathy. The “spiritually omnivorous” Gandhi enlightens Weiner on fighting that under certain circumstances, fighting is a sacred duty and a necessary good. Confucius speaks of the benefits of practicing ren (benevolence): through ren one can spin the whole world in the palm of one’s hand. At noon end, Shonagon shows him how to appreciate the small and simplest things in life.

As dusk falls, Weiner learns from Nietzsche the secret of eternal recurrence, that reaping the best fruitfulness from existence is by living dangerously and with no regrets. Epictetus teaches him how to cope with the angst of the unknown and the unpredictable. From Simone de Beauvoir who feared ageing more than death Weiner understands that old age collides with humans, and one is never ever prepared. Finally, Montaigne whispers to him the art of dying fearlessly. If nothing else makes one a philosopher, death will; death does.

The journey transforms the traveller effectively, because at the arrival point faced with a broken smartphone, and justly agitated, Weiner wonders what is the good in spending years assimilating the thoughts of great philosophers, if their philosophy could not help him circumvent a mini crisis? That is when he pauses, revisits their thoughts, and understands that he will live with obstacles, learn to navigate them, da capo, again, and again.

Weiner admits that he is a student of human quirks; reason why he amasses interesting titbits on the philosophers he is journeying with, presenting them as flesh and blood human beings, and not just repositories of lofty ideas. We learn of their sleeping and waking patterns, of their rituals immediately after waking. Thus, Marcus Aurelius is not a morning person; Simone de Beauvoir woke up at 10 am and dallied over her espresso; Kant was up at 5 am, had a cup of weak tea, smoked a pipe, just one, then worked; Nietzsche was a dawn person splashing cold water on his face, drank a glass of warm milk, and worked till 11 am.

The Socrates Express stays true to its title using various rail expressions like “train of thought”; “of the railroad age”. The book has also facts and technical data related to all things rail. And we learn that trains are not all same. Some lull by their gentle sway; some shake and rattle and have a “rusty seesaw” rhythmic motion. The trains are also anthropomorphic. They “make human noises”; “snort, whistle, belch”. Railway cars “whine, squeak, protest”. The Japanese Shinkansen with its “flat platypus nose attached to a toned swimmer’s body” is both ridiculous and beautiful.

Weiner crosschecks his assumptions and corrects erroneous ideas. In one of the endnotes, he clarifies that the expression ‘off the rails’ is not a fruit of the railroad age as is commonly held. Rather, it was the philosopher Thomas Hobbes who coined the term more than a century before the first railroad.

On a more technical note: each philosopher with whom Weiner travelled has useful explanatory endnotes. There is also an interesting bibliography, and references for further reading on the philosophers discussed (primary and secondary sources), as well as on Philosophy in general, and Train Travel.

All these make The Socrates Express a worthy read. However, one cannot overlook the fact that the book has no surprising plot. All Weiner’s four books follow a familiar pattern: a nagging question that sends him globe-trotting; a near quixotic quest; a penchant for train journeys and all things rail; a certain sprezzatura while seeing, hearing, and meeting natives; attraction to slovenly cafés because they are less demanding and offer more scope for creative reflection; a return home with answers, at times, suspiciously quick fix. And, just like his earlier books, this one too has scatological humour. Is it acceptable to swear, use obscene expressions and other raw talk in one’s writing? Weiner’s use (and abuse) of such a language points to the need for a philosophical engagement on the semantics and pragmatics of profanity.

My reticence is also on the understanding of the word ‘wisdom’. Right at the beginning of The Socrates Express Weiner notes: “Wisdom is something you do”. He speaks of wisdom as a skill that one can learn through dogged effort. But is wisdom only action? Or even just a skill, a techné, an art that can be learnt and honed? True, wisdom is manifested in action, but is it not more than action, or an expertise? Is there not the intuitive wisdom, the gut feeling whisper of sheer silence experienced as by Elijah at mount Horeb, for example?

Weiner is mistaken in noting that the last journey of Gandhi was thirteen days after his assassination, when his ashes travelled on a train from Delhi to Allahabad to be immersed in the Sangam. Records show that there are at least three further journeys. One involved a train travel, when on 29 January 1997, part of Gandhi’s ashes travelled in a second-class coach of the Puri-New Delhi Purshottam Express, to be immersed in the Sangam.

Weiner may not have an academic background in philosophy. But he has an all-consuming hunger that refuses to be sated with religion or travel. This hunger is his love for wisdom. As he is quick to point out, what philosophy and philosophers do is to look at the world differently. What matters is not possessing wisdom, but its pursuit, the how to of it: how can one lead a happier, more meaningful life? As for philosophers, they trouble us. They nag; they are very exigent; they are not condescending and therefore not popular; they question assumptions, especially their own. The world sees them as crazy, zigging when others zag.

This book could be a great companion during the pandemic period, walking us through fourteen stations of philosophical therapy: how to wake up; how to wonder; how to walk, and walk the talk; how to see with other eyes; how to listen with more than one’s ears; how to relish the transient and the abiding; how to heed; how to fight the good fight; how to be kind; how to appreciate the small and great things; how to live life with no regrets; how to cope; how to grow old; how to take leave of this life.

The Socrates Express is all this and more. It teaches us that journey’s end does not matter much, as does the peregrination itself. And if this is not the beginning of wisdom, then what is?

The Socrates Express. In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers, by Eric Weiner.
Pp. xiii + 331, Avid Reader Press, New York, 2020. ISBN 978 1 9821 5209 3.
U.S. $16.00; Rs 699.

Annie Kunnath is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Comparative Religions and Civilizations, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

The edited version of this review was published in The Telegraph, 2 July, 2021. This is the full version of it. 

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