Exploring Accidental Philosophy And The Motion Of Travel Writing With Eric Weiner

Everyone comes to philosophy in different ways. For famous thinkers like Thoreau and Montaigne it was by accident and author Eric Weiner fell into the same role of an accidental philosopher over the course of his life.

A best-selling New York Times author of books like The Geography Of Bliss and The Socrates Express, Weiner talks about his work as a journalist, grumpy philosophers he has a lot in common and more on Stoic Athenaeum.

Thanks for taking the time to speak about your work Eric. Before we talk about your literary work, I’m interested to know what some of your first experiences with philosophy were.

I’ve always been interested in the big “why” questions. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is freshly fallen snow so beautiful? Why do I have to eat my broccoli?

When I was thirteen, I read Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World. That was a real eye-opener. Later, as a young adult, it was Will Durant’s The History of Philosophy that rekindled my interest.That was it. I was hooked. I didn’t study philosophy at university (I wish I had) but I retained a lifelong interest in the subject, and in leading a philosophical life.

During your career as a business reporter for The New York Times, were there any philosophy-based practices that helped with on the job?

Yes, although at the time I didn’t know it had a name. The Stoic practice of premeditated adversity—contemplating worst-case scenarios and thus robbing them of their power over you. Mine was a stressful, demanding job. A lot could go wrong: a misplaced word, a bungled statistic. I anticipated all these editorial catastrophes, and more. Very few actually occurred, but I had robbed fear of its grip on me. I was free.

As part of your reporting, you travelled to many different locations. What were some of the places and stories you felt most personally connected to?

India. I lived there for three years and continue to visit as often as possible. There is something about the country—the chaos, the multitudes, the possibilities, —that inspired me, and continues to do so. Maybe I was Indian in a previous life!

Among your best-selling books is The Geography of Bliss. What served as the inspiration for writing the book?

I had been working as a foreign correspondent (for National Public Radio) and while it was, on one level, satisfying work it was also depressing. I was, like most journalists, focusing on the worst of humanity: wars, famines, conflict.

This struck me as not only disheartening but also unfair. Surely, there was a lot of good in the world? So, I set out to uncover that, to write about a different, happier side of life. I still used my skills as a journalist–investigating, interviewing, exploring—but for a different, sunnier purpose.

Your most recent work The Socrates Express has also become a best seller and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I was struck by the idea that trains are a great place to grapple with some of the biggest philosophical questions. How would you describe that feeling?

There is something about a train, isn’t there? I can think on a train. I cannot think on a plane or a bus. But I can think on a train. I’m not sure why, to be honest. I suspect it has something to do with the rhythmic motions, the relatively slow speeds, and the cocoon like quality of life on the rails.

Of all the philosophers you write about in the book, were there any who you came away with a deeper appreciation for once you’d walked in their footsteps

There were many, but two come to mind: Thoreau and Montaigne. I think they were both accidental philosophers, much like myself. They both came to philosophy out of a sense of urgency: they had tried everything else and nothing worked.

And they both were very much grounded in one place. If I close my eyes, I can picture Thoreau ambling along the shores of Walden Pond, notebook in hand, eyes wide open; and Montaigne, high up in his tower, surrounded by books, contemplating what he does, and does not, know.

I was particularly interested in the chapter about the Japanese philosopher Sei Shonagon. What other parts of Japanese philosophy do you think can be practical for today’s world?

Finding beauty in the everyday, and in the small. It’s really that simple.

If you could have a conversation with any of the philosophers in The Socrates Express, who would it be and why?

Schopenhauer. He was so grumpy, a real misanthrope, yet he also experienced stolen moments of beauty, when listening to music (he adored Rossini) or walking Frankfurt’s streets or helping an animal in distress.

How did he reconcile these two seemingly opposite poles of himself? Plus, he was a real gourmand. We’d have lots to talk about.

Another part of the book that resonated was the relationship you have with your daughter. How do you think philosophy helps with being a parent and what techniques would you recommend for helping introduce it to younger generations?

Parenting is a lot like philosophy. Both are open-ended projects; you’re never really done parenting any more than you are done exploring the nature of beauty or the meaning of truth. Both parenting and philosophy are “how focused.” Answers are less important than questions.

Are there any modern-day philosophers who you think are worth looking into?

Martha Nussbaum. She is a clear and original thinker. In another era, she’d be a household name. But sadly, we don’t really value philosophy, at least not like many of our ancestors. As Plato said, “What is honoured in a country is cultivated there.”

What is the next project you’re working on and can you reveal any details?

I’m working on an “un-biography” of Benjamin Franklin. I realise that might seem a bit coy, All I can say is: stay tuned!

Enjoy the interview? Check out Stoic Athenaeum’s talk with Dr Armand D’Angour on the life of a young Socrates and how he brought it to life in his excellent book Socrates In Love.

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