Monday, January 30, 2023

Review of The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers by Eric Weiner

This review was written by Eugene Kernes   

Book can be found in: 
Genre = Philosophy
Book Club Event = Book List (03/18/2023)

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“We don’t want what we think we want.  We think we want information and knowledge.  We do no.  We want wisdom.  There’s a difference.  Information is a jumble of facts, knowledge a more organized jumble.  Wisdom untangles the facts, makes sense of them, and, crucially, suggests how best to use them” – Eric Weiner, Introduction: Departure, Page 6

“This realization gets Marcus moving.  He has a duty to get out of bed.  “Duty” not “obligation.”  There is a difference.  Duty comes from inside, obligation from outside.  When we act out of a sense of duty, we do so voluntarily to lift ourselves, and others, higher.  When we act out of obligation, we do so to shield ourselves, and only ourselves, from repercussions.” – Eric Weiner, Chapter 1: How to Get Out of Bed like Marcus Aurelius, Page 24

“Of course.  This inscrutable, inevitable Socrates.  Philosophy’s patron saint.  The King of the Question.  Socrates didn’t invent the question, but he altered the way we ask them and, in turn, the answers they yield.  You think and act differently because of Socrates, even if you know nothing about him.” – Eric Weiner, Chapter 2: How to Wonder like Socrates, Page 26



Information is an unorganized collection of facts.  Knowledge is a more organized collection of information.  It is wisdom that knows what to do with the facts.  More knowledge does not necessitate more wisdom, and can sometimes make people less wise.  People can have wrong ideas.  Knowledge is a possession, while wisdom is behavior.  Wisdom is a skill, that requires effort to acquire, not luck.  Philosophy is about that wisdom.  Training the skill of wisdom.  Philosophy is a way of thinking, rather than a body of knowledge.  Philosophy is a way of being in the world.  How to be.  Philosophy provides more than just a description of the world, but a world that can be.  Philosophy provides possibilities of being.  Philosophy challenges and demands.

14 philosophers are represented.  Although the philosophers are dead, their wisdom is not.  Their wisdom is timeless.  From diverse backgrounds, regions, and philosophies of life.  The narrative takes the form of train rides, and how each philosopher thought about parts of life.  Starting with how to wake up, going to how to live life, and ending in death. 

The 14 philosophers are Marcus Aurelius, Socrates, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henry David Thoreau, Arthur Schopenhauer, Epicurus, Simone Weil, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Confucius, Sie Shōnagon, Friedrich Nietzsche, Epictetus, Simone de Beauvoir, and Michel de Montaigne.


Marcus Aurelius:

There are acts that people need to do, not because it better or profitable but because they ought to be done.  A duty to act, rather than obligation.  While obligation is an external enforcer of behavior, duty is internal responsibility.  Duty is done voluntarily because it can empower the individual and others.  Obligations are done to prevent repercussions. 



Although Socrates did not invent the question, Socrates changed the way questions are asked.  Changing how questions are asked, changes the responses.  While some question can obtain clear responses, there are other questions that are have much more ambiguity and uncertainty.  Some questions have information as an answer.  Other questions have more than information as an outcome, but meaning.  An appropriate question reframes the problem, to understand the problem differently.  A question that prompts a revaluation of the search itself.  Eliciting a shift in perspective.  A good question begets more questions.  They precipitate in a ruthless self-interrogation. 

Socrates did not think Socrates knew anything, but an oracle considered Socrates wise.  Socrates considered this claim, and thought that Socrates possessed a kind of wisdom, a wisdom of knowing what was not known.  For Socrates, there was a virtue in honest ignorance than suspect knowledge.  Ignorance masquerading as knowledge was a terrible way of being.  Socrates was about the means, not the ends.  About method rather than knowledge.  Knowledge is transient, while methods are not. 

Understanding oneself requires distance.  A perspective gained through conversation.  Philosophy came about through conversation.  Although Socrates had conversations with everyone, no matter their status, Socrates was not a fan of wasting time on trivial chitchat.


Henry David Thoreau:

Philosophers are divided on the use of the senses.  Some claims that the senses cannot be trusted.  Others claims that the senses are the only way to understand the world.  Thoreau did not care whether the senses were trustworthy or not, but thought that they were all that humans had and therefore needed to be used as best as they could. 

Thoreau is considered a Transcendentalist, someone who has faith in thinks unseen.  But Thoreau had even more faith in the seen.  Thoreau considered knowledge tentative, and lacked certainty. 

Seeing is imbued with emotions, making seeking very subjective.  Feelings determined how something was seen, and what was seen.  Seeing requires collaboration with what is seen.


Arthur Schopenhauer:

Schopenhauer thought that people’s experiences came from a mental representation of the world, not the actual world.  Objects only exist after there is someone to perceive them. 

Schopenhauer worried about confusing data with information, information with knowledge, and knowledge with wisdom.  Worried about information being mistaken for insight.  Information is a means to obtain insight, but has no value in itself.  Too much noise becomes a distraction to insight. 



There is a primacy to pleasure and pain, that does not need to taught.  Epicurus defined pleasure as what can be called positive affect.  Pleasure as a lack, and absence.  A lack of disturbance.  An absence of anxiety.  Pleasure as a lack of distractions from contentment.  Pleasure not as an opposite of pain, but its absence. 

Epicurus was a tranquillist, not a hedonist.  There are experiences that are more than an absence of pain, but experiences such as peace of mind cannot be described in terms other than as an absence. 

Trivial pleasure above pain, prevents happiness.  For some, pain is physical, for others it is mental pain, or emotional pain.  But pain is still pain, and cannot be ignored in order to obtain contentment. 

Pleasure cannot increase beyond a certain point.  Pleasure varied is not the same as pleasure increased.  Seeking more pleasure through different experiences can cause needless suffering.  Duration of pleasure does not mean that more duration is more pleasurable.  Tranquility cannot be doubled.  Epicurus and Buddha identified desire as a root to all suffering.  Tranquility as goal of their practice. 


Simone Weil:

Things exist if they are attended to.  What is not paid attention to, is not seen.  The quality of attention determined the quality of live.  Choosing what to pay attention to, and how to pay attention.

Attention at its fullest is those rare moments called flow.  A state when perception is heightened sense of reality.  There are hazards of multitasking.  Attention demands focusing on some aspects, and ignoring others.  While concentration constricts, attention expands.

For Weil, attention was a moral virtue, and demands selfless motivation.  Paying attention because it is the right way to behave, rather than because it makes a person more productive.  Giving someone attention is a rare and pure form of generosity.  Taking away attention is the same as taking away love.  Everything else is a poor substitute to giving someone attention.  Giving time without attention is a cruel fraud. 


Mohandas K. Gandhi:

For Gandhi, means mattered more than ends.  Gandhi was process oriented rather than results oriented, which delivered much better results.    It was not about the fight, but how to fight.  Not the destination, but the adventure getting there.  

Gandhi wanted a world without violence, but knew that it was unrealistic.  Until them, people needed to learn to fight better.  Fighting can be productive, and the lack of fighting can be unproductive.  A fight gets people to consider both sides.  Fighting is necessary, and can be morally good if fought well.   Not a fight to win, but to fight the best fight. 

Violence harms the perpetrator and the victim.  Gandhi hated violence, but hated cowardice more.  Violence was preferred to cowardice.  Nonviolence is not appropriate in all contexts, but it works most of the time.  The object for Gandhi was for a nation to reclaim its sovereignty, with freedom coming from sovereignty.  A nation worthy of sovereignty.  Gandhi did not want India’s independence to come through violent means.  Cannot develop a peaceful nation using violent means.  Revolutions fails when they use brutality, because they also brutalize themselves.  Peace through violent means is illusory, for there will be more violence later.

Gandhi did not invent nonviolence, which came from Jain religion.  Gandhi developed a different type of nonviolence resistance which was given the name of satyagraha.  A Truth Force.  There was nothing passive about satyagraha.  Nonviolence requires more courage than violence.  The courageous suffer voluntarily to change human behavior. 

Peaceful intentions with nonviolent calms the situation.  While reacting with violence provokes more assaults which become justified.  People’s minds take time to change.  Even as a British colony, Gandhi’s nonviolent means had made the British lose the moral high ground. 

Veiled violence would not be welcomed by Gandhi.  Acting peacefully requires clean thought.  Disruptions and psychological warfare wear a cloak of nonviolence, but are harming others.  The attitude to the negotiation partner matters.  Opposition is not always a bad thing, but an enemy is a problem.  Best to find ways to convert rather than condemn the other.

Compromise has risks, creating an uneasy calm.  Agreeing to just one side or another is either going to harm oneself by dishonesty or hurt the partner more, but always hurts both.  Gandhi appreciated the negotiations in which both sides receive what they did not know they wanted. 



An individual with ren, practices the 5 virtues of respect, magnanimity, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness.  Confucius elevated kindness, making it the basis for good governance.  A practical kindness. 

Confucianism does have rules and rituals, but the rituals are not mindless, as their motivation matters.  Proper ritual conduct is needed even if the individual does not see value in the ritual.  It is within proper ritual conduct that kindness rests.  The goal of these ritual was character development, and the acquisition of moral skills.  Practicing kindness, to develop kindness.


Sie Shōnagon:

Beauty is a moral virtue.  Morally appropriate individuals understand aesthetics.  An ingredient in a good life and a good person.  Making something more beautiful is generous.  Even tiny detains can kill or save someone. 


Friedrich Nietzsche:

Nietzsche legacy is tattered because of work exploited by Nietzsche’s sister.  The philosophy was meant to be an experiment in reorienting perspective within a world of uncertainty.  Cannot avoid uncertainty, no matter how much someone runs towards certainty.  Rather, an individual needs to find value, and if needed to reevaluate those values.  Choosing to find joy in uncertainty.  To do so would result in uncertainty no longer being as terrifying.  This change of perspective is difficult to come about. 



Philosophers that gathered at the stoa, because known as Stoics.  Stoics practiced their philosophy publicly, for everyone to see.  Stoics did not avoid politics, for to them, philosophy was a public act.  

Stoics tend to be though of as heartless.  But actually, Stoics did not suppress all emotions, just the negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, and jealousy.  Stoics are not joyless, nor pessimists. 

Stoics believe in reason, and a rational order.  Finding beautify in the miracle of life, and are willing to share their views because others are part of that rational order. 

The essence of Stoicism is that there are things that an individual can control, and things that an individual cannot control.  While most of life is beyond individual control, the focus should be on what can be controlled such the mental and emotional life.  Everyone can master self-control of the interior world.

Only those who want nothing, are free. Voluntary Deprivation was meant for pleasure, not pain.  There is pleasure in forgoing pleasure.  By denying certain comforts, they are appreciated more, while losing their hold on the individual.  Voluntary Deprivation facilitates self-control, cultivates courage, and prepares the individual for potential nonvoluntary deprivation. 

Like Socrates, Epictetus was not interested in metaphysics, and wanted a rigorously practical philosophy.  Like Socrates, acknowledged ignorance as a step towards true wisdom.  An acknowledgment of limitations.


Simone de Beauvoir:

Deficiencies of character are usually blamed on old age.  But old age only amplifies existing personality traits.  As an individual ages, they become more intensely themselves.


Michel de Montaigne:

Death might be an end, but not the goal of life.  Death happens not because of ailments, but because there is life. 


The book is about how to think, not what to think.  The book is not a rendition of the 14 philosophers lives and philosophies.  There is very little information on their lives and ideas.  What the book does is take some parts of their life and philosophy to make a contemporary practical case for the ideas.  Ideas that define different ways of being, to provoke a reflection on one’s own life.  The value of each idea is relative to the reader.  Ideas will resonate depending on interest.  

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest this book?
•What is information?
•What is knowledge?
•What is wisdom?
•What is the purpose of philosophy?
•How to obtain wisdom?
•Who are the philosophers represented?
•How to get up in the morning?
•How to ask questions?
•How to use the senses? 
•What is pleasure?
•How to pay attention?
•How to fight?
•How to be kind?
•How to be aesthetic?
•How to approach uncertainty?
•Why commit Voluntary Deprivation?
•How to age?
•How to die?

Book Details
Edition:                 First Avid Reader Press
Publisher:             Avid Reader Press [Simon & Schuster]
Edition ISBN:      9781501129032
Pages to read:       276
Publication:          2020
1st Edition:           2020
Format:                 eBook

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          4
Overall          4