Studying philosophy can be a metaphorical journey into wisdom. My guest today experienced it as not only that, but as a very literal journey as well.
His name is Eric Weiner and he traveled thousands of miles around the world to visit the haunts of numerous philosophers as he sought to better understand their insights and how he might apply them to his own life. He wrote about this philosophic pilgrimage in The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons From Dead Philosophers. Eric and I begin our conversation with why he chose to take all his trips by train, and why rail travel is particularly conducive to thoughtful reflection. We then turn to the physical and philosophical stops he made on his journey, including why Marcus Aurelius wrote so much about getting out of bed and what ultimately motivated the emperor to start each day; what Thoreau can teach us about seeing; why Gandhi was very interested in the idea of manliness; how Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence can change the way we live our daily lives; and the lesson Simone de Beauvoir offers us on aging well. We end our conversation with Montaigne’s insight on how to get comfortable with death.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- Why Eric gravitated towards traveling by rail for this journey
- The real aim and original meaning of philosophy
- Why does Marcus Aurelius spend so much time writing about getting out of bed?
- “Is” vs “ought”
- The power of questions (even when they don’t arrive at concrete answers)
- The walking habits of famed philosophers
- What is Walden Pond like? What did it teach Eric about vision?
- Thoreau’s balance of Romanticism and scientific inquiry
- The morality of attention
- Gandhi’s misunderstood, aggressive philosophy
- Is Nietzsche’s “Eternal Return” a curse or a blessing?
- What can Simone de Beauvoir teach us about aging?
- Montaigne on death
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- My first interview with Eric on The Geography of Genius
- AoM series on the seasons of a man’s life
- Meditations on Meditations
- How to Think Like a Roman Emperor
- The Power of Wonder
- 20 Rules for Walking
- The Magic of Walking
- Solvitur Ambulando: It Is Solved By Walking
- What Do You Want to Want
- Hiking With Nietzsche
- Expect Great Things — The Mystical Life of Thoreau
- The Existentialist’s Survival Guide
- Simone Weil
- 7 Books to Help You Think About and Manage Your Digital Life
- Yoga Express
- Harness the Life-Altering Power of Eternal Return
- Dance Like Zorba the Greek
- The Coming of Age by Simone de Beauvoir
- Montaigne’s Essays
Connect With Eric
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Read the Transcript
If you appreciate the full text transcript, please consider donating to AoM. It will help cover the costs of transcription and allow other to enjoy it. Thank you!
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Studying philosophy can be a metaphorical journey into wisdom. My guest today experienced it not only as that, but as a very literal journey as well. His name is Eric Weiner and he traveled thousands of miles around the world to visit the haunts of numerous philosophers as he sought to better understand their insights and how he might apply them to his own life. He wrote about this philosophical pilgrimage in The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers.
Eric and I begin our conversation with why he chose to take all his trips by train and why rail travel is particularly conducive to thoughtful reflection. We then turn to the philosophical and physical stops he made on his journey, including why Marcus Aurelius wrote so much about getting out of bed and what ultimately motivated the emperor to start each day, what Thoreau can teach us about seeing, why Gandhi was very interested in the idea of manliness, how Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence can change the way we live our daily lives and the lessons Simone de Beauvoir offers us on aging well. We end our conversation with Montaigne’s insight on how to get comfortable with death. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/socratesexpress.
Brett McKay: Alright. Eric Weiner, welcome back to the show.
Eric Weiner: Thank you, Brett, happy to be back with you.
Brett McKay: So we had you on a few years ago to talk about your book, The Geography of Genius, where you go to explore these clusters of genius around the world that are happening out in human history. You got a new book out, similar sort of thing. You go, this time, to places where philosophers lived, walked, worked, thought, but you get there by train. And it’s called The Socrates Express. What was the impetus behind this book?
Eric Weiner: Well, first of all, I love trains. So, let’s get that out of the way, right off the bat. I’m not a train nerd as some people are who really get excited about tonnage ratings and locomotive types. I’m not that kind of train lover. I love the experience of riding trains, of just slowing down. I feel like I can think on a train the way I cannot think on an airplane or a bus or even driving a car. So, that was my means of transport. In terms of the subject matter, I think I gotta chalk this one up to middle age, which I know sounds a bit cliched, but it’s true. You start to wonder, what’s it all about? What am I doing here? And then I stumbled across this quote from a French philosopher named Maurice Riesling and he said, “Sooner or later, life makes philosophers of us all.” And I thought, “Huh. Why wait?” Why wait until life becomes a problem for me, it wasn’t at the time. And then that set me on the journey of exploring philosophy. And after I tucked away the book and sent it off to my publisher, the pandemic hit and life surely made philosophers of all of us.
Brett McKay: That’s for sure. I wanna go back to this idea of trains and this connection to philosophy, because you note this in the book and I’ve seen this with… When I’ve read different philosophers. A lot of philosophers didn’t like trains ’cause they were too fast.
Eric Weiner: Right.
Brett McKay: Of course, this was in the 19th century.
Eric Weiner: Right.
Brett McKay: But what is it about… You said you think better on a train compared to driving… Why do you think trains, for you, are conducive to philosophizing?
Eric Weiner: You’re absolutely right about some philosophers not liking trains. A lot of people in the 19th century, when train travel really became widespread, didn’t like trains because they complained they were too fast. They got all nostalgic for the carriage and the horse-and-buggy when you can go more slowly and feel the land, and they felt like the trains moving at, oh, 15, 20 miles an hour back then were just… The scenery was a blur and it was all too fast. So it, that shows us how relative these things are. But compared to hurtling through space in a tin can at 600 miles per hour, I like the slowness of a train. I find it easier to think when I’m moving more slowly and I like sort of this… Especially those European trains, where you get your own compartment or a compartment you share with some strangers and you get this combination of coziness and expansiveness at the same time, which I just find wonderful. And I just feel like I could just ride a train forever with a stack of books and a cup of coffee, and I’m good to go.
Brett McKay: Do you get by train in the United States?
Eric Weiner: I do. I took a train clear across the US from my home, Washington. DC, to Portland, Oregon. It took four days and three nights. And it’s not, okay, the fastest way to cross the country, it’s not the cheapest way, but in my mind, it’s the best way. So whenever I can, I take a train.
Brett McKay: So, let’s talk about the way you organize this book. So it’s organized into three parts, Dawn, Noon, Dusk. Am I reading in too much into this, but does this also fall like the seasons of a person’s life, like youth, middle age, elderhood?
Eric Weiner: You are absolutely not reading too much into it.
Brett McKay: Okay.
Eric Weiner: That was my intention exactly. It is course of our life. And in the Dawn section, there are questions that as we’re growing up, there are skills that we need to learn, like how to see and how to listen, how to walk, that we learn at that age and then when we’re sort of in mid-stride of our lives, we wanna fight, we wanna be kind, we wanna do all these other things. And then there are certain questions that we really grapple with in the twilight of our life. How to have no regrets, how to cope with setbacks, how to grow old and even how to die.
Brett McKay: And the type of philosophers that you picked in this book, they’re not like analytic philosophers where they’re trying to…
Eric Weiner: Right.
Brett McKay: These are philosophers… The original intent of philosophy is like, how to live a good life.
Eric Weiner: Mm-hmm. Philosopher means, literally from the the Ancient Greek, a lover of wisdom. It doesn’t say anything about PhD dissertations or analytical thinking or logic chopping, as it’s been called. Lovers of wisdom. And I love that, because I think that’s what we should all aspire to, to be lovers of wisdom. I’m holding a device in my hand right now called an iPhone that contains pretty much all of human knowledge and just so much information, but not really any wisdom, and there is a difference. We tend to conflate them. Data, information, knowledge, wisdom. Information is readily accessible these days, as I say, with the swipe of our finger, but wisdom is something else. Wisdom is of a different kind, and that’s what these philosophers were interested in.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s pay a visit to some of these philosophers you highlight in the book.
Eric Weiner: Sure.
Brett McKay: And the one you start off with is Marcus Aurelius, the famous Roman emperor, one of the last good emperors, but he was also a Stoic philosopher. And you noted this, and I’ve never noted this ’cause I’ve read the Meditations, his sort of personal diary that he wrote, sort of pumping himself up, but we have it today, but I didn’t know… But you noticed this is that he always talked about getting out of bed. He talks a lot about getting out of bed.
Eric Weiner: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah, what do you think is going on there?
Eric Weiner: Well, I think just because you’re a Roman emperor doesn’t mean it’s easy to get out of bed, and I found this very relatable. I thought, here’s this guy who is, as you say, one of the last good Roman emperors, controlled like two-fifths of the world population, yet he had trouble falling asleep at night and trouble getting out of bed in the morning, and he would sort of wrestle with it on the pages of Meditations: “Should I get up? I’m lazy or good for nothing. Why should I get up?” And it just seemed very modern to me and very relatable, as I said. It’s my story too. I have trouble getting out of bed in the morning.
And the French philosopher, Albert Camus, said that “the only truly serious philosophical question is whether you should commit suicide or not.” And that’s okay. We can talk about that later, but I thought, “Well, yeah, once you’ve answered that one and you decide not to commit suicide, you still have to get out of bed.” And that’s the one that Marcus wrestles with, and what I find interesting is how he ultimately answers it, which is not, “I’m gonna go achieve something and make my name in the history books,” it was the sense of duty, the sense of other people, that “I should get out of bed for others, because people in this Empire are counting on me.” And if you’re at home with the wife and kids and sometimes… Or a dog… This is what gets you out of bed. The dog needs to be fed, kids need to be driven to school, and Marcus had a similar revelation.
Brett McKay: And you also use this question of “Should I get out of bed in the morning?” to explore the idea of “is” and “ought.” Can you talk a little about that?
Eric Weiner: Yeah, so this was an idea from a Scottish philosopher named David Hume, and he thought that we can’t jump from an “is” to an “ought.” In other words, we can’t jump from a factual observation, empirical observation, to an ethical imperative. So with the case of getting out of bed, you would say, “Well, it is a good idea to get out of bed because you get exercise and your earning potential increases, therefore you ought to get out of bed.” He thought that was a mistake. And this is why it’s sometimes known as Hume’s Guillotine because he severs the “is” from the “ought.” So oftentimes, we just will make observations about something in the world, anything, that red wine is good for you or red wine is bad for you, therefore you ought to drink it or you ought not to drink it. And he thought that was a mistake. You can’t jump from the “is” to the “ought.”
Brett McKay: And Marcus Aurelius, he kind of solved that problem saying, “Well, I’m not gonna say getting out of bed is good or bad.” It’s just like, “I just gotta get out of bed ’cause I have to. It’s a duty.” That’s it.
Eric Weiner: Yeah, it was a sense of duty to others, and even though you’ve read Meditations, so you know it can be a lot of navel-gazing going on there, definitely, because you know, it was his diary, so we’re actually eavesdropping on him, he didn’t mean to publish it, but in addition to the navel-gazing is this sense of duty, which was a Stoic thing and a Roman thing, but he got out of his own head, realizing there were others counting on him, and this duty really wasn’t just as, “Oh, I’m a Roman Emperor, I have to get out of bed and help people.” It was his duty as a human being, and this is where his Stoicism becomes readily apparent. His duty as a human being to help others, because the Stoics see us all as connected. If you smash your thumb with a hammer, you help the thumb because it’s connected to the rest of the hand and the rest to you, and that’s how he thought, and it’s a Stoic idea, really, that’s how we should relate to others, not as separate entities from us, but as extensions of us.
Brett McKay: So we can’t talk about philosophy without talking about Socrates. Sort of like we consider him the father of philosophy, and what’s interesting about Socrates is that he didn’t have a Socratic doctrine. If you read, even, if you read his Dialogues, he starts off asking these questions like, “What is justice?” and then you spend pages and pages, and at the end, you’re like, “I still don’t know what justice is.”
Or even what Socrates… But Socrates instead, he proposed a way of engaging with the world, and so how would you describe the Socratic engagement?
Eric Weiner: Yeah, it is… It’s not a body of knowledge, as you say. You can’t really read what Socrates thought, all you can do is experience and observe his method, and it is, as you say, engagement, it is a way of just engaging in conversation. I know that doesn’t sound highfalutin’ and Nobel Prize-worthy, but that’s what Socrates did. One contemporary philosopher says he engaged in enlightened kibbitzing, which is a great term, which I think is what he did. He would buttonhole people in Athens, a general, for instance, some fancy general, and ask him what courage is, and it soon became readily apparent that the general didn’t really know. How could a general in an army not know what courage is? How can an artist not know what beauty is?
And so he would challenge people, but he did it in this sneaky way in that he would just sort of start to engage them in conversation and ask questions, and every question was followed by another. It’s sort of like the five-year-old who always says why. “Can we have ice cream now?” “No.” “Why?” “Because it’s 10:00 AM.” “Why can’t we have ice cream at 10:00 AM?” “Because we don’t.” “Why?” And it drives us nuts, and it drives us nuts just as Socrates drove people in ancient Athens nuts. Not because the questions are silly, but because we can’t really answer them fully.
Brett McKay: Right. Yeah, like you call these like ultimate questions, and we tend to avoid those ’cause we don’t have any good answers for them.
Eric Weiner: Or we tend not to really sit with questions. We see a question as kind of an inconvenience, a little shortcut on the way to an answer, right? Questions must lead to answers. And Socrates basically said, “Whoa, let’s hold on here a second, let’s experience this question fully, and see where it takes us.” And we’re so results-oriented these days, as they were back then, to be honest, that we always want to get to the answer. And Socrates thought you can’t get there unless you really sit with the question, experience it. And that means questioning your assumptions. What do you mean by courage? What do you mean by justice? We just jump ahead to, okay, we need to increase earning potential for people. Well, why? Why is that good? And it’s almost a childlike process. It’s childlike curiosity. And more than curiosity, wonder. All philosophy begins with wonder. Well, we have largely, I think, lost this capacity for wonder in our lives.
Brett McKay: And like you said, Socrates is basically… He’s just… It’s… We call it dialogue, but it’s just conversation. And I think we’ve all experienced those late night talks with friends, where you’re just asking questions and just sort of spitballing and you don’t really come to any conclusions, but it… You felt, I don’t know, you felt invigorated, gratified by being in that conversation.
Eric Weiner: Yeah, because you’ve experienced the questions, and you’ve asked them in ways that you wouldn’t in the classroom, or in the corporate board meeting, because you might be laughed at. But Socrates basically gives us permission to be a five-year-old and ask those annoying, silly questions.
Brett McKay: And you apply this to your own life, you talk about it, you were a bit kind of complaining to your friend that, “I wish I was more successful, sold more books, whatever.” And then your friend just asks you like, “What does success look like to you?”
Eric Weiner: Right.
Brett McKay: And you didn’t really have an answer for that.
Eric Weiner: No, I didn’t. And it’s kind of floored me, that I had just always assumed that I needed to be more successful. However successful I was, I needed more. And she said, “What does success look like?” And the way she… Something about the way she phrased it that just stopped me in my tracks. Like, “I don’t know. I don’t know what would be enough. I don’t know what it would look like. Maybe it looks entirely differently from what I thought.” And a really good question is met, not with an answer, but with silence. You know you’ve asked a good question when the person on the other end is quiet. That means that you’ve shaken them out of their stupor, as Socrates did, and they are starting to see things a little bit differently. Not 90 degrees, maybe 10 or 20 degrees, but sometimes that’s all it takes.
Brett McKay: Did you ever… Have you gotten any closer to an answer to what does success look like to you?
Eric Weiner: No, I’m still working on that. But I’m wide open to the possibility that it’s not what I think it is. And whenever I find myself, thinking, “Well, I need to be on the Colbert show. I need this, I need that.” And I stop and my friend’s question comes back to me, “What does success look like?” And it’s helpful. But the problem with these great questions is you have to keep asking them over and over again, once is not enough.
Brett McKay: No, that’s a good advice. I’ve had that moment where you’re doing something and finally you just stop and you’re like, “Why am I doing this?”
Eric Weiner: Right.
Brett McKay: And then you just like, “Maybe I don’t need to be doing this.”
Eric Weiner: Exactly.
Brett McKay: And that’s helpful. Alright, so the next place you go, is you visit Rousseau’s, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s old tramping grounds, and I say, “tramping,” because this guy apparently was a walker. What did you take away from visiting where Rousseau walked?
Eric Weiner: Well, he was a walker. He was a nomad. He was sort of this rootless soul… We’re talking back in the 18th century, when it really wasn’t so easy to be a rootless soul, but he bopped all over Europe, often kicked out of places. And his favorite way to get around, this is pre-railroad time, was, was by walking. And he would walk sometimes 20 miles a day, he walked some 200, 300 miles once in the course of two weeks, and he would go off on these walks, usually in the countryside, and he’d carry a pack of playing cards with him and he would jot down ideas and thoughts that came to him when he walked. And he said that his mind only works when his legs are active. And I thought there was great truth to that.
Brett McKay: And like lots of other philosophers were walkers, like Socrates in his Dialogues… Typically, he goes on walks with people when he’s engaging with them. Nietzsche was a walker, as well.
Eric Weiner: Yeah, he’s… Socrates is walking around the agora, the marketplace of ancient Athens; Nietzsche is hiking in the Swiss Alps; Immanuel Kant, who is very rigorous and disciplined, would go on these constitutionals at 12:45 PM exactly every day. So they all had different styles, but they all walked. And I think, there is… It’s not a coincidence. Maybe you’ve experienced this yourself when you’re stuck on a problem or you’re looking for some answer, and you can’t think of it and you’re sitting at your laptop and you’re like, “Eff it, I’m just gonna go for a walk.” And you go for a walk, maybe for 10 minutes, maybe for an hour, maybe for two hours. But something happens during that walk where the idea comes to you and you become unstuck. Psychologists call this defocused attention, right? So we have defocused our attention. We’re no longer staring at the problem. But we’ve defocused it and moved it back to our subconscious. But then by walking, we’re still engaging the brain. You’re not just vegging out when you’re walking, you have to think about not tripping and watch where you’re going. So you have just enough of that part of the brain engaged, but the rest of it’s freed up.
Brett McKay: What was your takeaway Rousseau? Like, walk more? I mean, what was…
Eric Weiner: He was a philosopher of the heart. He was a romantic, one of the first, really, and it is walk more, but it’s… God, it sounds corny and cliche today to say it… But follow your heart. Be willing to be a rebel, be willing to walk when everyone else is running and driving, and listen to that thing beating in your chest. And he thought that people… I’ll sum up his philosophy in four words: Nature, good, society, bad. That’s essentially it. And what’s more natural than walking, right? So he thought basically, that we are born naturally good people and it’s only society that corrupts us. So there is something to be said of that. There’s a reason we like to go for walks in the woods, there’s a reason why we feel at peace when we’re off in the forest or on a mountain top, and that’s certainly one of the lessons of Rousseau.
Brett McKay: And I guess that’s why you included it in that Dawn section, for the youth of our life. Every young person needs to figure out what they really want. Are they doing something ’cause their parents told them so, to do it, teachers told him to do it, or are they really following what’s inside of them?
Eric Weiner: Right. And children just do this naturally. They tend to just follow their instincts, and emotions move through them quickly. Maybe you’ve seen a four-year-old or a three-year-old, they’ll be so angry and they’re just crying, and then a minute later they’re okay, it’s gone, and they’re happy. And Rousseau, who thought a lot about education, actually would say that that’s because they have not yet been corrupted by society, and they let their emotions flow through them unencumbered. They don’t get stuck with guilt and remorse and all these other adult emotions. So yeah, there was something very child-like about Rousseau and it’s another reason I included him in the Dawn section.
Brett McKay: There’s also… You got a balance there ’cause Rousseau, he kind of let his proclivities get… He’d just like show his butt… He mooned people, basically.
Eric Weiner: Yeah, he did, but I don’t think the term mooning people existed in the 18th century, but he was doing it, and he had a masochistic streak. He liked a good spanking.
And I think perhaps this’d be a good place to point this out that these were some weird dudes and dudettes here, and that my philosophers were… I like them because they were deeply flawed human beings. Socrates was weird. Rousseau mooned people, Nietzsche, don’t get me started. They were all… We think of the philosopher as this almost angelic figure who’s just sitting by himself, thinking deep thoughts, and no, these people have wrestled with how to get out of bed, how to stay out of trouble, all kinds of stuff.
Brett McKay: So another, an American kindred spirit of Rousseau, I think would be Henry David Thoreau. He’s a romantic as well, and you go visit Walden Pond where Thoreau did his experiment in self-reliance. And I’ve always wanted to go to Walden Pond, but I’m afraid that if I’m gonna go, I’m gonna be underwhelmed by it. Did that happen to you?
Eric Weiner: Yes. [chuckle] I was. And I was underwhelmed before I arrived when I followed the Walden Pond State… It’s now a state park on Twitter, and they would send me alerts by 10:00 AM saying, “Walden Pond is full today. No more entry from visitors.” And the irony here that this great exercise in isolation, Thoreau goes off to Walden Pond, builds a cabin, lives there for a couple of years, is now overcrowded and a tourist destination. Henry David would come back and he’d be like, “No, that’s not what I had in mind.” It is underwhelming. It’s a pond. It’s a nice pond, nothing special about it. You can see… The cabin is gone. They’ve reconstructed a sort of scale model, but the site of the cabin is now just some stones and a marker. But people go there. It’s a pilgrimage site, and I’ve talked to locals who feel basically like, “You don’t need to come here. Go find your own Walden. That’s the whole point.”
Brett McKay: So besides being underwhelmed, what was your big takeaway from Henry David?
Eric Weiner: Yeah, so I go off to Walden Pond thinking for sure this chapter’s gonna be called How To Be Alone Like Thoreau or maybe How To Live Simply Like Thoreau, but being open-minded like Socrates, I soon realized that that wasn’t really what he was about. It was how to see like Thoreau, that all of this living alone in the woods, this isolation and simplicity stuff, was really a means to an end, and that end was better vision. He was very visual. Everyone commented about his eyes, that he had these piercing eyes, very observant eyes, and that he could, in this almost uncanny ability to pick up a dozen pencils out of a giant bushel, exactly a dozen each time by sight alone. So he had this almost supernatural vision, but really he had a whole sensibility that was attuned to seeing more beauty in the everyday than most of us do. He saw beauty everywhere.
Brett McKay: What I like about Henry David Thoreau is he’s a romantic. He’s kind of a mystic too, ’cause of these stories where he’d just stoop down, pick up an arrowhead that he just happened to find, and said, “This arrowhead belonged to some great native chief.” But then at the same time you go back to this idea of seeing. He was very scientific. I think there was a story of… There’s a legend that Walden Pond was endless. There was no bottom. And so, Henry David waited till the pond froze over and he got a plumb line and then just dropped it down, and then he went, “No, it’s actually not. It’s not bottomless.” And I think that that’s… I love that little, that story that’s just like, he really spent his life trying to see what the world was really like.
Eric Weiner: Yeah, and the thing is, he had this combination of skill sets, I guess we’d say, that we rarely see today, and that he had the mind of a scientist but the heart of a poet, and we don’t see that very often. And you’re right, he very much believed in empirical evidence, the power of observation. He was a naturalist and a scientist, and he studied the pond and he made observations, but he was not interested in what is known as the view from nowhere, which is the scientists’ view. This idea of objectivity, that we’re observing the rainbow, we’re not appreciating it necessarily, that somehow seeing the beauty of a rainbow is not a scientific act, but observing it and measuring the color hues is. Thoreau thought that was a mistake. He thought that we’re always seeing things subjectively, even when we’re being scientific about it, that we’re part of the experiment. And so, he never separated his mind from his heart essentially.
Brett McKay: So related to seeing is the idea of paying attention, and you highlight a philosopher that thought a lot about paying attention. A lot of people don’t know about her either, her name is Simone Weil. For those who aren’t familiar with Weil, can you tell us about her and her philosophy?
Eric Weiner: Okay. Also a strange person, and I say that in the best sense of the word. She grew up in France, the early 20th century, born in 1909, I believe. And she born into a very intellectual, very Jewish but secular family, and she studied like the dickens when she was young. She was reading the classics like by age 8 and that sort of genius level, but she had a very spiritual side which she spent the rest of her too short life exploring. And she was especially interested in attention, the quality of attention, and it really is a thread throughout her writing. That she thought that we define attention entirely wrong and that we don’t go about it the right way, that we confuse attention and concentration and they’re not the same thing.
Brett McKay: What’s the difference between the two?
Eric Weiner: Well, if you are… Are you sitting at a desk right now or…
Brett McKay: I’m actually standing in my closet, which is my slash recording studio.
Eric Weiner: Okay, I didn’t see that coming. Alright…So you are maybe concentrating. If you were at your desk and at your laptop, you are concentrating on the e-mails in front of you, you’re concentrating on a problem, and you’ll notice when you’re concentrating your body tenses up. It’s like you have furrowed brow and tensed muscles and you sort of contract, really, when you concentrate. But when you pay attention in the Simone Weil way, it is more receptive. It’s more of a waiting than a concentrating. You sort of widen your antennae and you are in a receptive mode and you’re waiting for something to come to you, and that, she thought, was true attention. And it’s less muscular, it’s, I would say, more yoga, less weight lifting, but she thought it was hugely important, and she thought it was a, I wanna say skill. But really it’s an orientation to life into the world that we’ve largely lost.
Brett McKay: And the way she described attention, it’s a moral act in a way. It’s not just about seeing what’s going on in your world, there’s actually, there’s moral weight to paying attention.
Eric Weiner: Right. And we tend to view things like attention, as just transactional, like so many other things. That you should pay attention so that you will get better grades in your school, so that you will then earn more money, so pay attention. She thought that paying attention, especially paying attention to the suffering of others, was a moral act. And she thought that that’s really, that’s all that the suffering person wants, really what they want is someone to give them full attention, and when you do that, she said, it’s not like an act of love, it is an act of love, giving another person your complete attention.
Brett McKay: And it’s not just suffering people, it’s like everyone. I think everyone wants attention, everyone has a desire to feel noticed.
Eric Weiner: Right. And in these days, we’ve really fractured our attention more than ever. I’m constantly getting into, I guess, fights, we would say, with my wife when she picks up her phone, when we’re in mid-conversation, and it really pisses me off. Like, why are you checking your phone? You’re supposed to be talking to me. And it’s not that the two seconds it takes her to check her email or whatever it is, she has a real job, it’s that she’s cheated me of her complete attention. And children know this. They can detect counterfeit attention a mile away.
Brett McKay: Now, that chapter made me think about how I pay attention to my kids, and it sort of, it convicted me. I was like, “Ah. I probably could do a better job at that.”
Eric Weiner: Right. But you probably should not think of it as a job. [chuckle]
Brett McKay: Yeah, I know. Well, that’s like my modern instrumental…
Eric Weiner: Then it becomes this sort of concentration thing. “I have to do this.” And yeah, we are never fully paying attention to something, anything. We’re always divided, we’re never fully committed, and we’re… Simone Weil saw attention as actually more of a passive mode, and “passive” tends have negative connotations, I think, especially maybe for a podcast called The Art of Manliness. We might think of passive as negative, but she didn’t see it that way. That actually the highest thing you could do was to have this passive attention, and it actually took great courage and great devotion to do it.
Brett McKay: So another philosopher you talk about. You go to India, and I like this story ’cause I’ve heard stories about the crazy train system in India. But you go to India to explore Gandhi and his philosophy, and you had this quest to get on the yoga train. What was that?
Eric Weiner: Yoga Express.
Brett McKay: Yoga Express. So what’s the Yoga Express? Why were you so gung ho in trying to get on this?
Eric Weiner: Oh, come on. It’s called the Yoga Express. You’ve got to… [chuckle] I don’t do actual yoga, right? I don’t bend that way. But I wanted to ride the Yoga Express ’cause I thought that would be cool, and it was going to where I wanted to go, which was the site of Gandhi’s first Ashram in India, the city of Ahmedabad in the State of Gujarat. And many hundreds of miles from where I was at the moment in New Delhi, and I’m like, “I have to get on the Yoga Express,” and I contorted myself in all kinds of positions to get on the Yoga Express, but… Well, I won’t spoil it, but it proved to be more difficult than you would think to get a reservation on the Yoga Express.
Brett McKay: And how was that experience related to… Or maybe… Was there a relation to Gandhi’s philosophy at all?
Eric Weiner: Yes, there is, because if you’ve ever dealt with Indian bureaucracy… It could be the train system, could be anything, really, you know that there’s a strong impulse toward violence because [chuckle] it is so difficult to get anything done in that country, and they seem to just throw up obstacles every way, and it’s a test of patience and a test of resolve. And Gandhi was a big train rider. He loved the train, he took the train all over India, and he complained a lot about… He rode in third class, but he complained a lot just about the service and about Indian railways, and he was infuriated, but never got violent, but it’s sort of a test of how do you get what you want, a ticket on the Yoga Express? You can’t just be passive but how do you get it without resorting to violence?
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about Gandhi’s philosophy. He had this idea of soul force, and he had this idea, it’s non-violent, but it’s also, it’s not passive. It’s an aggressive type of non-violence.
Eric Weiner: It’s what John Lewis was talking about when he talked about good trouble, necessary trouble. That’s pure Gandhi, and Lewis studied Gandhi and traveled to India, as did Martin Luther King Jr. It is getting in your opponent’s face, but getting in their face non-violently. It’s not passive. Gandhi disliked the term “passive resistance.” He thought there was nothing more active than his form of non-violent resistance, but it involves confronting your opponent. I won’t say enemy, ’cause he didn’t believe in enemies, he believed in opponents. Confronting your opponent, but doing it non-violently.
Brett McKay: And when Gandhi talked about this idea of… I’ll call it aggressive non-violence, he spoke of it in terms of manliness. He used that word, like this is… He was obsessed with manliness.
Eric Weiner: Yeah. The more… I’ve studied Gandhi for a long time. I have sort of a weird Gandhi thing. I’ve long admired him, and as I read him, I discovered that the word “manliness” just appears a lot. And you’re right, most people don’t think of Gandhi as a manly man. He was skinny, but wiry and muscular, and he was assertive, and he wrote a lot about the need for manliness. He felt that the British, who were occupying India, had emasculated India, and it was his job to remasculate, if that’s a word, India, but in a new way, in this non-violent way. And as much as he hated violence, he wrote that the only thing he hated more than violence was cowardice, and he actually said, “Better to resort to violence than to be a coward.”
Brett McKay: And I guess, in Gandhi’s world view, conflict is not bad because conflict is what allows problems to be… Breeze to the forefront. You finally can see that there’s a problem there, and then from there, you can actually find a solution to the problem.
Eric Weiner: Exactly. Maybe you know couples who over the years say, “We never fight, we never fight.” And then when they announce their divorce, you’re not really surprised. I mean, you are and you aren’t. Because fighting can be healthy and Gandhi thought basically even if you’re not fighting, there’s kind of veiled violence going on beneath the surface, and that needs to be brought to the surface and dealt with non-violently, but, yes, that was what he thought.
Brett McKay: Alright, let’s talk about Nietzsche. You go to the Alps, ’cause Nietzsche had to go there ’cause he was a sickly guy. That’s one of the things about Nietzsche, he wrote this very manly, muscular prose about living dangerously, but he was a sickly… I don’t know, like a nerd, basically.
Eric Weiner: He was.
Brett McKay: He had to go to the Alps to recuperate, and you go on this hike that Nietzsche went on to where he got this idea of eternal recurrence. For those who aren’t familiar with eternal recurrence, can you walk us through it?
Eric Weiner: Okay, so here’s the idea. It’s a thought experiment, really. One day you’re visited by… Let’s say you get an email. They didn’t have email in Nietzsche’s day, but you get an email saying, “Here’s the secret to the universe. Your life repeats itself exactly, forever and ever.” Everything in Brett’s life that’s happened up to this point will repeat itself, including a conversation with me saying everything in Brett’s life up to this point will repeat itself. That’ll repeat also, and it will do this forever and ever, for all eternity. And then Nietzsche’s question is: How do you respond to this email? Do you say the recipient is just, “Oh, thank you for telling me this. This is great news,” or do you see it as a curse? This is like worse than a Nigerian telemarketing scam or whatever. This is just terrible. This is terrible news. And he thought how we answered that question determined our outlook on life and our degree of happiness. Really.
Brett McKay: And so the idea, the idea of eternal recurrence, is to make you live each day like, “Well, if I have to repeat this for the rest of my life, what would I… ”
Eric Weiner: What is worthy of eternity? And I should say briefly that he tried to sketch it out mathematically, and he did a bunch of research which he never actually published looking into the idea that if you take two people playing chess maybe eventually they’ll repeat every game exactly, so there is some scientific basis for it, but it’s essentially a thought experiment and it forces you to ask the question, “What is worthy of eternity?” And if you’re not living the life you wanna live, not only this time around, but forever and ever, maybe you should make a change.
Brett McKay: But then also it helps you… It kinda forces you to confront what do you do with the suffering? ‘Cause Nietzsche would say, “Well, you just gotta learn to love it or else you’ll just be miserable.” So he’d say, “Embrace suffering.”
Eric Weiner: Yeah, but he didn’t say it with such a resigned tone of voice, to be honest. He said it with lots of exclamation points. He loved the exclamation point. He talked about the need to dance. He was not a good dancer, but he just… He sort of dances across the page and he thought we need to dance, and dancing, if you think about it, it’s this kind of nonsensical thing we do where we move around to the beat of music, kind of, kind of not… It’s not productive. And there are all kinds of dances. There are funeral dances in many cultures when there’s great grief and sadness, and that’s essentially Nietzsche’s philosophy. It’s the dance of grief, it’s the dance of suffering. It’s easy to dance when the music’s good and everything’s going well, but what Nietzsche asks is, “Can you dance even when things are lousy?” Can you find a way to dance? And a sort of variation of eternal recurrence is what’s been called the “marriage test,” and let’s say, you’re recently divorced after a long marriage ended poorly, obviously in divorce. Would you do it again? Would you, knowing what you know, would you do it again? Would you marry that person and go through that marriage and go through the divorce? And now, that’s essentially what eternal recurrence is.
Brett McKay: When you were talking about dancing to suffering, when bad things happen, that made me think of Zorba the Greek, the end.
Eric Weiner: Right.
Brett McKay: The movie where the whole… The timber operation just crashes and then they dance at the end.
Eric Weiner: Exactly. And that’s sort of… It’s not resignation, actually, it’s something else. And I’m not quite there myself, but I definitely think Nietzsche was onto something, because he suffered. He, as you said, he was sickly, he had terrible headaches and stomach upset and terrible vision and yet he accepted it all and made it… He accepted his life, not despite the suffering, but in a way because of it.
Brett McKay: So you go and visit where a 20th century existential philosopher hung out, Simone de Beauvoir. And her seminal work is The Second Sex, which is about the female experience. But she also wrote about the universal experience of aging, getting old. And this section hit home for me because I’m starting to approach 40. I don’t feel old, but every now and then I look in the mirror and think, “Man, I’m getting really old.”
Eric Weiner: Yeah, she had that experience. She was 51 and she looked in the mirror, and she saw this stranger staring back at her and she’s like, “Oh, my God, when did I become old?” And then she went for a walk in the street and some woman came up to her and said, “You remind me of my mother.” And that was it. [chuckle] So that’s when she had her, I call it the collision with old age that we don’t brush up against old age or sideswipe it, we collide head-on with it.
Brett McKay: And like, how did she manage it? What did she suggest we do to deal with that?
Eric Weiner: Well, I should say that anyone who knows anything about Simone de Beauvoir will say, “Really? You chose her for aging?” Because she was, on the page, very pessimistic about it. She wrote this long tome, 500-page tome called The Coming of Age, which basically most of it was, “old age sucks, and there’s no redeeming… Nothing redeeming to it.” But if you read it carefully and you look at her life, you realize that she actually did age well. She was… Aged reluctantly at first, she fought it every step of the way. But she sort of came up with… She didn’t come up with a list, but I inferred the list from her writing of things you can do to age well. And I should say that we don’t have a culture of aging in our country. We have a youth culture and an aging population desperately clinging to the youth culture. And she thought this was a mistake. If you’re gonna be old, act your age, essentially. In other words, don’t try to imitate a 20-year-old, that’s just silly and absurd. And she thought it was hugely important to stay busy and continue with your projects. That was her favorite word.
To make friends late into life, she made one of her best friends ever, Sylvie Le Bon was her name, 30 years separated them but they were the best of friends. And really, in a way, stop caring what other people think. Simone de Beauvoir observes that some of the greatest artists really had a breakthrough late in life after they’d achieved some success, they were able to go off in a completely different direction, because they didn’t care what others thought. And so she actually ended up aging quite well and came to embrace it late in life.
Brett McKay: And have you been able to live some of the stuff that she recommended?
Eric Weiner: So-so, I would say. I’m sort of a… I’m a little bit older than you. And I’m at the stage where it’s… I’m engaged in what I call “the great summing up,” which is, essentially, you start to look back at your life and you look for a narrative, you look for a thread to sort of make sense of it. And this can be an act that can make you depressed, or it can actually be uplifting. And I think for most of us, it’s more uplifting, because we start to see this narrative arc. I mean, really, we’re creating the arc in our mind, but never mind, it’s there. I once met a composer of classical music in Iceland who was older than me and looking back he said, “Well, I met everyone I needed to meet when I needed to meet them.” And I think Simone de Beauvoir would agree with that too. You start to see that things happened for a reason. I’m not saying that everything is fated, but all the pieces start to fit together.
Brett McKay: So the last philosopher you visit is Montaigne. And he famously wrote these essays of just about everything. Could be about food, sex, but then he also wrote a lot about dying, and he famously said, “Philosophy is learning how to die.”
Eric Weiner: Yeah, he changed that by the end of the essays to, “Philosophy is learning how to live and dying is just part of it.” But he wrestled with death and dying throughout his life and on the page. I should say that he lived in a time, even though it was the 16th century in France, that it’s not that different from ours in that there was a plague, bubonic plague in Bordeaux, where he was actually mayor. And he did what a lot of people did, he escaped. His family owned a vineyard out in the countryside. And he went there, went up to his tower, wrote his essays, in fact, invented the form of essays, and thought a lot about death and dying. And he thought about it mostly intellectually until one day, he was out riding. He was a real equestrian, he loved riding. And some jerk on a big horse knocked him down and just flattened him. And he thought he was dying. I mean, he was coughing up globs of blood, and he thought that was it.
He had what today we’d call a near death experience and changed his attitude toward death and dying. And he realized how… Well, he said it wasn’t death that he was afraid of, but dying, the process and that’s probably true for most of us. He realized that it’s just… It is part of a natural process. And the Greek philosopher Epicurus says, well, you didn’t think about that you were nothing before you were born. That never bothers you. So why should it bother you that you’ll be nothing after you die? And Montaigne wrestles with that, and ultimately, he concludes that we just don’t know, but nature knows best, that nature has your back. He says, don’t be afraid of dying. Don’t worry, nature’s got you covered.
Brett McKay: So you’ll know what to do when it’s time to happen.
Eric Weiner: You’ll know what to do. When you think about childbirth, we didn’t… People… Women gave birth successfully, not always successfully, but obviously we’ve propagated the species for many centuries before modern medicine came along. And there’s a healing process in nature, if you break your bone, it will heal, and he just thought that we should not look at death as something out there, there’s me and then there’s death. Where part… You start to die the day you’re born, and that’s not something that necessarily needs to make you depressed, it’s just part of nature.
Brett McKay: Has that helped you at all? Does…Think about dying?
Eric Weiner: Again, I have to give the so-so answer. A lot of this is easier in theory than in practice, but I like Montaigne, I liked how he was sort of like me in that he took a little bit from here and there, he read all the philosophers, and ultimately his saying was, what do I know? He had that sort of questioning what he really knew, and he was just very relatable, I thought, and yeah, I keep going back to what he wrote about death and dying and it still freaks me out. The idea of nothingness, I have to be honest, but I do find not just comfort in his words, but wisdom.
Brett McKay: And for those who want to dabble in philosophy, Montaigne’s a lot, it’s a fun read, I would consider it. He’s like the first blogger, ’cause he just is right about whatever he wrote.
Eric Weiner: Exactly, there you go, he wrote about thumbs, he wrote about cannibals, he wrote about his penis, he wrote about food, and then he wrote about death and dying and religion and all these serious topics too, and they were very personal and as you read them, they become increasingly personal and you find that he’s hitting his stride.
Brett McKay: Well, Eric, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Eric Weiner: Well, I have a website, ericweinerbooks.com, Weiner, WEINER, all one word. Or on Twitter, Eric underscore Weiner. Again, WEINER.
Brett McKay: Well, Eric, this has been a great conversation. Thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Eric Weiner: Thank you, Brett. I really enjoyed it.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Eric Weiner. He’s the author of the book, The Socrates Express. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his book and his work at his website, ericweinerbooks.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/socratesexpress, where you can find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast, check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years, and if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium, head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code MANLINESS at check out for a free month trial. Once you’ve signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast.
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