Philosophy Made Simple – Robert Hellenga

(Reviewed by JD Jung)

Rudy Harrington, a sixty-year-old widower, is trying to find the meaning of life…his life. Is there any purpose left? To try and answer this question, he takes up the study of philosophy.

Since his wife, Helen, died seven years ago and his three daughters have moved out on their own, he feels that it’s time to move on. At the protests of his girls, he sells the house in Chicago and moves to Texas to grow avocados. During this time, he consults a book entitled Philosophy Made Simple, which was written by his future son-in-law’s uncle, philosopher Siva Singh.

Rudy always considered himself a Platonist, since he sought to find the reality behind appearances. However, Helen was more of an Aristotelian, seeing things for what they physically were. For example, though she loved Renaissance art, she appreciated it solely for its beauty, while Rudy tried to look through the paintings. But Rudy still struggles to interpret Helen’s affair with Bruno Bruni in Italy. Was there meaning behind it, or was it simply an avventura?

When he arrives in Texas, Rudy embarks on numerous adventures of his own. As each incident unfolds, he considers a new philosopher and looks past the obvious. Simple events become visions, signs, or omens. But at what point do you leave Plato, Aristotle, Kant, or any philosopher behind and go it alone?

In The Sixteen Pleasures, daughter Margot moved to Italy, but she still resented her father for selling the house in Chicago. This prompted me to pick up a copy of Philosophy Made Simple, to learn Rudy’s side of the story—and I found the book entrancing. Yes, it seems that the subject matter is serious, but, actually, this novel is enjoyably quick, light, and humorous.

Author Robert Hellenga includes so many colorful characters in his storytelling. Among them are Medardo, the grove manager, who reluctantly engages in Rudy’s philosophical discussions while trying to show Rudy how to truly enjoy the moment. Additionally, there’s Norma Jean, the painting elephant, Father Russell, a priest with no congregation, and Rudy’s daughters Meg, Molly, and Margot—as well as all of the characters involved in Molly’s Indian wedding.

To some degree, we’ve all asked the same questions that Rudy does. Should we simply appreciate and accept events for what they appear to be? And is the future really the problem, or is it the reluctance of letting go of the past? Philosophy Made Simple will prompt you to revisit these issues, while chuckling at the same time. You may not have the answers, but you’ll be mulling over them long after you finish reading the book.

(review previously appeared on

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