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In His New Book, Eric Weiner Finds Life Lessons From Those Long Dead


Eric Weiner is feeling hungry, not for junk or comfort food - though he wouldn't necessarily be opposed - but wisdom, spiritual nourishment, reflection, the examined life. And so he's traveled in search of wisdom from more than a dozen philosophers, women and men, ancient and modern from Confucius to Socrates to 20th century thinkers. His book, "The Socrates Express: In Search Of Life Lessons From Dead Philosophers." Eric Weiner, the bestselling author of "The Geography Of Bliss" and a former foreign correspondent for NPR, joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

ERIC WEINER: Scott, it is wonderful to be speaking with you again.

SIMON: I guess we always have to begin with Socrates. If you saw Socrates on a subway today, you might look away and think, I hope that guy doesn't say anything to me.

WEINER: Yeah. He was the kind of person you would give a wide berth to. He had this big paunch, bald head. He had these eyes that were described as crab-like. And they had this - apparently, this amazing peripheral vision. And he was a troublemaker. I mean, if you saw him on the subway, he'd probably come up to you and start asking you a bunch of annoying questions, you know? I see you're riding the subway. Where are you going? Going to work. Oh, what's work? Why are you going to work? Why aren't you going somewhere else? And he would annoy you the way, you know, a 5-year-old annoys you with the why question. Can we have ice cream for dinner? No. Why? Because it's not good for you. Why? Because it's high in sugar. Why? That's Socrates in a nutshell.

SIMON: Yeah. But he kind of refined, if not invented, the question, didn't he?

WEINER: Yes, because until then - you know, he didn't invent it. People asked questions, but they were more what questions. What's the universe made of? But what Socrates did is he refined the how question. He celebrated the how question. How can we lead richer, more meaningful lives? How can we be a good person? How can we see more beauty? And so he, as it's been famously said, called philosophy down from the heavens and brought it into people's homes and made it something immensely practical. And I realize we don't today think of philosophy as practical, you know? No one studies philosophy if their parents can help it, you know? Because it's not exactly the road to riches.

SIMON: Yeah.

WEINER: But, in fact, that's how it began - as this very practical discipline.

SIMON: And I guess we must remind ourselves - Socrates didn't write it down, did he?

WEINER: Didn't write a single word. Didn't publish, and he perished, you could say. And, you know, he actually was very suspicious of a new technology in his day called the book. He thought if people started reading books and writing books, their memory would deteriorate. He was right about that.

SIMON: Yeah, I'm about to say. I want to ask you about the complicated figure of Mahatma Gandhi. I think you and I share a reverence for him and his philosophy of nonviolence and the way he animated justice and peace. But there are complications, aren't there?

WEINER: Yes, there always are. Gandhi was not perfect. He had some funny ideas about sex. I'll leave it at that for now. And he was wrong sometimes. But he owned his failings full on. He was, I think, an incredibly honest person. By that, I mean his words and his deeds were pretty much fully aligned in a way that I've not seen in any other person, if you know what I mean.

SIMON: Yeah. Can anyone withstand modern scrutiny?

WEINER: Oh, boy (laughter). That's a tough question. I would say no in the sense - and I don't think we should ask that of them. If you wanted to, you know, put together a book of philosophy by only well-adjusted, morally righteous, upstanding philosophers, it would be a very thin pamphlet, really.

SIMON: You know, I found myself thinking when I finished your book, there's - you know, we tend to read philosophy, if we do at all in our lives, when we're young on the idea it gives us a moral and intellectual grounding. But we really need to read philosophers when we're older and have been tested by life.

WEINER: That's a good point, you know? It's a cliche and a truism that, you know, college is wasted on the young. It was certainly wasted on me. I wish I had paid more attention, but I paid attention now. And I did find myself relating to, let's say, the middle-aged philosophers, Schopenhauer or Montaigne, one of my favorites. Stoicism is an entire philosophy sort of built for middle and late-middle age. It's the school of hard knocks. It's extremely relevant today because the Stoics say, essentially, some things are up to us, and some things aren't. And they draw that line pretty much on the side that most things are not up to us. The only thing we control - and this is key - is our reaction to events.

SIMON: You know, it occurs to me, without getting cheap about this, there's something we can invite everybody listening now to do to give them a different view of the world. And that's what Thoreau did and you did.

WEINER: Right. He would look at something he'd see every day like, oh, I don't know, Walden Pond. And he would look at it from a different perspective. He would stand atop a hilltop. He would get on a rowboat on the water. He would dive under the water, and he would occasionally bend down, put his head between his legs and look at Walden Pond upside down. And he realized that's when you see beauty - when you change your perspective.

However, I would not recommend that listeners try this at home because I did, and the blood rushed to my head. And I felt like I was going to pass out, and I didn't see any beauty. But, you know, that's OK. We can't all be Thoreau, and Thoreau doesn't want us to be Thoreau any more than Socrates wants us to be Socrates. The point of these philosophers is not to be them or even to read them. It's to imbibe them and digest them.

SIMON: Eric Weiner's book "The Socrates Express." Good travels to you.

WEINER: Thank you. You, too, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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