The Socrates Express
- Eric Weiner
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What about bigger losses? Surely there is none greater than the death of a loved one. Grief is natural and the Stoics encourage it, right? Wrong. The Stoics acknowledge the need for some grieving, but not much. “Let your tears flow, but let them also cease,” wrote Seneca to a friend who had lost a loved one.[Nadav’s note: What a dick]
Old age is a large, immovable object, and closer than it appears. Encounters with it are never gentle. You do not brush up against old age. You do not sideswipe old age. You collide with it head-on.
Old age is what her longtime partner, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, called an “unrealizable.” An unrealizable is a state of being we inhabit but never fully internalize; only others do.
The truth is we don’t really think about growing old. We think about staying young. We don’t have a culture of aging. We have a youth culture to which an aging cohort desperately clings.
“A difficult friend, a disappointing lover, and an impossible employee,” says author Leo Damrosch in his excellent biography of Rousseau.
a lifelong urinary problem (eventually diagnosed as an enlarged prostate) that required frequent visits to the toilet,
Rousseau’s philosophy can be summed up in four words: nature good, society bad. He believed in the “natural goodness of man.” In his Discourse on Inequality, he paints a picture of man in his natural state, “wandering in the forests, without industry, without speech, without domicile, without want and without liaisons, with no need of his fellow-men, likewise with no desire to harm them.” Nobody is born mean-spirited, petty, vindictive, paranoid. Society makes them that way. Rousseau’s “savage man” lives in each moment with no regrets about the past or worries about the future.
his final and unfinished work, Reveries of the Solitary Walker. It is an odd yet endearing volume, “a book that is and is not about walking,” as Rebecca Solnit points out in her history of walking.
The walking philosopher gives the lie to one of the discipline’s greatest myths: that it is a mental pursuit wholly divorced from the body. From Archimedes’s eureka moment in the bath to Descartes’s masterful fencing to Sartre’s sexual escapades, philosophy has a swift corporeal current running through it. There are no disembodied philosophers, or philosophies. “There is more wisdom in your body than in all of your philosophy,” said Nietzsche.
To my surprise, it is the philosopher-emperor Marcus who answers. Respond to adversity, real or imagined, not with self-pity or hand-wringing, but simply by starting over.
“Schopenhauer?” I say—or, rather, ask, as if the name itself constitutes a metaphysical question. She nods grimly. The mere mention of the philosopher of pessimism has soured her mood, or so I imagine. It’s difficult to distinguish a sullen German from a happy German. There are, I’m sure, subtle changes in facial muscles and ocular motion, but these lie beyond the ken of an outsider like me.
Tolstoy and Wagner kept portraits of the philosopher in their studies. The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges learned German so he could read Schopenhauer in the original.
In his essay “On Authorship,” the philosopher foreshadows the mind-numbing clamor that is social media, where the sound of the true is drowned out by the noise of the new. “No greater mistake can be made than to imagine that what has been written latest is always the more correct; that what is written later on is an improvement on what was written previously; and that every change means progress.”
Political bonds, Epicurus thought, reduced your self-sufficiency, and amounted to outsourcing your happiness. His motto was Lathe Biosas. “Live in obscurity.”
Epicurus defined pleasure differently from the way most of us do. We think of pleasure as a presence, what psychologists call positive affect. Epicurus defined pleasure as a lack, an absence. The Greeks called this state ataraxia, literally “lack of disturbance.” It is the absence of anxiety rather than the presence of anything that leads to contentment. Pleasure is not the opposite of pain but its absence. Epicurus was no hedonist. He was a “tranquillist.”
As Rousseau reminds us, often what we consider natural, “the way things are,” is really the way things are here and now. A local truth masquerading as a universal one.
It doesn’t take much, says Weil. A simple five-word question can soften a heart, and change a life: “What are you going through?”
Attention is not something we do so much as consent to. Less weight lifting, more yoga. “Negative effort,” she called it. Genuine attention, she believed, is a kind of waiting. For Weil, the two are virtually the same. “We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them.” The opposite of attention is not distraction but impatience.
All disputes stem not from a misunderstanding per se, but a “category error.” It’s not that the two sides see the same problem differently. They see two different problems.
She supervised the packing of her most precious books: Plato, Saint John of the Cross, the Bhagavad Gita.
The person who applies his full attention to something—anything—makes progress “even if his effort produces no visible fruit,” says Weil.
Gandhi was wary of such compromises. He was all for give-and-take but not when it came to one’s principles. To compromise on principles is to surrender—“all give and no take,” he said. A better, more creative solution, is one where both sides get what they didn’t know they wanted.
Neither cared for metaphysical speculation. (When a student asked Confucius about the afterlife, the Master replied, “If you cannot understand life, how can you understand death?”) Both were sticklers for definitions. “If words are not right, judgments are not clear,” Confucius said.
Thoreau saw too much. It exhausted him. “I have the habit of attention to such excess that my senses get no rest, but suffer from a constant strain,” he writes in his journal.
The Berlin Wisdom Project identified five criteria that define wisdom: factual knowledge, procedural knowledge, life-span contextualism, relativism of values, and management of uncertainty.
Stoics do not jettison all emotions, only the negative ones: anxiety, fear, jealousy, anger, or any of the other “passions” (or pathe, the closest ancient Greek word to “emotion”).
Not only does the Stoic consider the glass half full; he finds it a miracle he has a glass at all—and isn’t it beautiful? He contemplates the demise of the glass, shattered into a hundred pieces, and appreciates it even more. He imagines life had he never owned the glass. He imagines a friend’s glass breaking and the consolation he’d offer. He shares his beautiful glass with others, for they, too, are part of the logos, or rational order.
The Enchiridion, or Handbook. The teachings of the former Roman slave turned philosopher Epictetus. Stoicism distilled to its essence.
Like Socrates, Epictetus had no interest in metaphysics; his was a rigorously practical philosophy.