Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy

Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy

by Christopher Phillips

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"A bracing, rollicking read about the spark that ignites when people start asking meaningful questions." —O Magazine

Christopher Phillips is a man on a mission: to revive the love of questions that Socrates inspired long ago in ancient Athens. "Like a Johnny Appleseed with a master's degree, Phillips has gallivanted back and forth across America, to cafés and coffee shops, senior centers, assisted-living complexes, prisons, libraries, day-care centers, elementary and high schools, and churches, forming lasting communities of inquiry" (Utne Reader). Phillips not only presents the fundamentals of philosophical thought in this "charming, Philosophy for Dummies-type guide" (USA Today); he also recalls what led him to start his itinerant program and re-creates some of the most invigorating sessions, which come to reveal sometimes surprising, often profound reflections on the meaning of love, friendship, work, growing old, and others among Life's Big Questions.

"How to Start Your Own Socrates Café" guide included.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393078824
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 10/18/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 12,331
File size: 270 KB

About the Author

Christopher Phillips is an educator, author, and pro-democracy activist.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

What Is the Question?

Can I ask you a question?

"Psychiatry is the rape of the muse!"

    The outburst jolts me from my reverie. I'm perched on a swivel stool in the middle of about forty-five people seated on filigreed wrought iron benches and chairs in the courtyard of an art deco café in San Francisco. It is a Tuesday night in midsummer and we're about halfway through this particular weekly gathering. We're trying to answer the question "What is insanity?"

    The dialogue started out grounded in concrete examples, which quickly begged more and more questions. Was Hitler insane? Or was society itself insane at the time and did he just tap into it with cold and calculating sanity? Was Jack London insane? What about Edgar Allan Poe? And van Gogh? Was insanity a key to their genius? Is anyone who sacrifices his health for his art insane? Or is such squandering the essence of sanity? Is it sane to risk your life for something that you believe in? Or for something you don't believe in? Is a businessman sane who works all day at a job he hates? Is a society wacky that tries to prolong perpetually the lives of the terminally ill? Is a society that does not sparingly use its natural resources off its rocker? Is it nutty to have thousands of nuclear weapons poised to be launched—an act that would obliterate the planet? How can anyone be sane in this world? Or is the universe itself insane? How is the concept of insanity related to such concepts as irrationality, eccentricity, lunacy,andcraziness? Is it possible to be sane and insane at the same time? Is it impossible not to be? Is it possible to be completely sane, or completely insane? What are the criteria for determining that someone or something is insane? Is there really any such thing as insanity?

    Questions, questions, questions. They disturb. They provoke. They exhilarate. They intimidate. They make you feel a little bit like you've at least temporarily lost your marbles. So much so that at times I'm positive that the ground is shaking and shifting under our feet. But not from an earthquake.

    Welcome to Socrates Café.

    Even though it is the dead of summer, it is a chilly evening. No matter. The courtyard is filled. The motley group of philosophical inquirers—aging beatniks, businesspeople, students, shopworkers, professors, teachers, palm readers, bureaucrats, and homeless persons, among others—are huddled in the middle of an ivy-laced garden. In a way, the gathering slightly resembles a church service—for heretics. And what connects us is a love for the question, and a passion for challenging even our most cherished assumptions.

    All attention now is fastened on the tall, rail-thin man who lashed out against psychiatrists. He did so only after a psychiatrist said with an air of authority that the only antidote to insanity is psychiatric treatment. While the psychiatrist in question seems ruffled by the disparaging remark about his profession, his critic is sitting stock-still, the picture of calm. He has deep-set blue eyes that seem to be looking inward and a gaunt face that reveals the faintest hint of a smile. His bright red hair is neatly combed straight back except for one rebellious lock dangling over his forehead. At the moment, the only sound to be heard as we look his way is the trickling water in the gargoyle fountain.

    "What do you mean?" I ask the man. "How is psychiatry the rape of the muse?"

    I have an inkling that he hoped his statement would have shock value and that we would let it pass, unchallenged. Not at Socrates Café. Here we subscribe to the ethos that it is not enough to have the courage of your convictions, but you must also have the courage to have your convictions challenged.

    It takes him some time to fix his gaze on me. "Plato spoke of a type of divine madness which he defined as 'possession by the Muses,'" he says at last, choosing his words carefully. "Plato said having this madness was indispensable to the production of the best poetry. But psychiatrists want to modify our behavior, they want us to be moderate people. They want to destroy our muse."

    "I'm a psychiatric social worker," a man quickly interjects. I expect him also to take offense at this critique of psychiatrists. But instead, with a pensive half-smile, he says, "I worry a lot about the long-range effects on people of antipsychotic medications. Just as psychiatrists try to 'cure' children with attention deficit disorder by giving them Ritalin, I think that drugs like Haldol and Zymexa and the old Thorazine are dispensed with alarming frequency to adults because of society's desire to control behavior. Moderate behavior is the god of our mental health system. To me this is chilling."

    "Isn't it better to be insane than to let them kill the artist in you?" the gaunt-faced man asks his unexpected ally.

    "But is it a choice between moderation and sanity?" I ask. "Can't we be a little insane, or somewhat insane, without being completely insane? In Plato's dialogue Phaedo, Socrates says that a combination of sobriety and madness impels the soul to philosophize, and I'm wondering if the same is true with art. Can't we temper the insanity within in a way that enables us to be even more in touch with our muse, and so be even more creative than we'd otherwise be able to be?"

    But then I start to wonder if I know what I'm talking about. I seem to be the last person to know sane from insane. For a good while, I've been on the rather zany quest of bringing philosophy out of the universities and back "to the people," wherever they happen to be. Almost always, I do it for free. Apparently what I am doing is seen as too new, too different, too outside the norm, too ... crazy. So, either for free or for a pittance, I facilitate philosophical discussions, which I call Socrates Café. I go to cafés and coffeehouses and diners. I go to day care centers, nursery schools, elementary schools, junior high and high schools, schools for special-needs children. I go to senior centers, nursing homes, assisted-living residences. I've been to a church, a hospice, a prison. I travel across the country—from Memphis to Manhattan, from Washington State to Washington, D.C.—to engage in philosophical dialogue and help others start Socrates Cafés. I pay all expenses out of my own pocket, earning a dollar here and there by other means. I often ask myself, "Am I crazy to do this?" But that is beside the point. I do not want to profit from this. This is not about money. It is a calling.

    For one thing, I don't facilitate Socrates Café to teach others. I facilitate Socrates Café so others can teach me. The fact is that I always learn much more from the other participants than they could ever learn from me. Each gathering enables me to benefit from the perspectives of so many others. For another thing, you might even go so far as to say that this crazy quest of mine has saved my sanity. But that might be going too far. So I'll just say this: I'm seeking Socrates.

    Eventually, more hands go up around the circle. The discussion heats up, gathers a certain momentum. Then a bald, stocky man with a fedora clinched in one hand jumps to his feet. "I can speak as an expert on this subject," he says. His remarkable bright green eyes seem to dance from one person to another. "I've been committed to psychiatric institutions three times since the beginning of the year. Who are they to commit me? Who are they to classify me as insane? I'm one of the sanest, smartest people I know." He remains standing.

    He seems surprised that his comment is not met with shock or derision. Instead, he is peppered with questions. People want to know his story. It seems clear that most are asking themselves, "Who better to comment with insight on insanity than a person who has been labeled insane?" I am hard pressed to think of any other setting in which a group of people, most of them total strangers, would crave hearing more from someone who's just said he's certifiably insane (even if, as he insists, he's been misdiagnosed).

    Then he goes on to say one of the most memorable and reasonable things I've ever heard: "Don Quixote was mad. But his madness was of a type that made him immortal. The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno said Don Quixote's legacy was ... himself. And he wrote that 'a man, a living, eternal man, is worth all the theories and philosophies,' because in a sense he remains on earth 'and lives among us, inspiring us with his spirit.' I think that what Unamuno says of Don Quixote is even more true of Socrates. Unlike Don Quixote, Socrates apparently lived among us at one time. And he was the epitome of a rational person."

    He pauses for a moment, his head now bowed. Then he looks up at all of us and says, "Socrates left us himself. He left us his wisdom and his virtue. And he remains among us, inspiring us with his spirit." We look at him in wonder.

    A statuesque woman with short purple hair who is wearing a purple Green Peace T-shirt eventually asks, "Was Socrates really all that sane?"

    "What do you think?" I ask her.

    "Well," she replies, "when Socrates was tried and convicted of heresy for impiety and for corrupting the youth of Athens, his prosecutors hinted that if he'd agree to keep his mouth shut they wouldn't put him to death. But Socrates said he'd rather die than quit asking questions."

    "Was it crazy of him to prefer death?" I ask.

    "Socrates said that the unexamined life isn't worth living," she says. "So I guess for him it wasn't crazy."

    "I think he was crazy," says a somewhat disheveled man in sandals, a Hawaiian shirt, and a battered bowler hat that completes a picture of sartorial strangeness. "But his brand of craziness has been the guide for civilizations whenever they try to set themselves on a road of sanity. Socrates was the quintessential social being. Wherever he went and engaged in dialogue, he tried to help people be more thoughtful and tolerant and rational. He wasn't insane, because his decisions were conscious and rational choices within his control. Even his decision to end his life was such a choice. But by normal societal standards he was crazy—a good crazy."

    I end this evening's discussion on insanity by saying what I typically say at the end of every Socrates Café: "It's something to keep thinking about."

    And then ... the participants clap. Are they nuts? The discussion was intense, passionate, frustrating. Emotions were highly charged. It ended with many more questions than answers. Nothing was resolved. So why clap? I don't know, but I wind up clapping too.


Seeking Socrates? What in the world do I mean by that?

    Here's the short answer: For a long time, I'd had a notion that the demise of a certain type of philosophy has been to the detriment of our society. It is a type of philosophy that Socrates and other philosophers practiced in Athens in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. A type that utilized a method of philosophical inquiry that "everyman" and "everywoman" could embrace and take for his or her own, and in the process rekindle the childlike—but by no means childish—sense of wonder. A type of vibrant and relevant philosophy that quite often left curious souls with more questions than they'd had at the outset of the discussion, but at times enabled them to come up with at least tentative answers. A type of anti-guru philosophy in which the person leading the discussion always learns much more from the other participants than they could ever learn from him. A type of philosophy that recognized that questions often reveal more about us and the world around us than answers. A type of philosophy in which questions often are the answers.

    But centuries ago something happened to this type of philosophy: It disappeared, for all intents and purposes. To be sure, in the eighteenth century, Voltaire held court in the gilded and red velvet setting of his favorite Parisian café—Le Procope, where he fine-tuned his ideas about reason and the development of a natural science about man. And two centuries later, in the wake of the Nazi occupation of France, Sartre developed his philosophy of existentialism under the cut-glass art deco lamps at the Café de Flore. But these cafés were reserved for the intellectual elite, who often seemed to think they had a corner on the answers. It seems safe to say that, unlike this cabal of chatterers, Socrates didn't think he knew the answers, or that knowledge was the rarified domain of so-called intellectuals. The one thing Socrates knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, he was fond of saying, was that he didn't know anything beyond a shadow of a doubt. Yet Socrates, contrary to what many think, did not try to pose as the ultimate skeptic. He wasn't trying to say that all knowledge was groundless, that we were doomed to know nothing. Rather, he was emphasizing that what he had come to know, the truths he had discovered by hard-won experience, were slippery, elusive, always tentative at best, always subject to new developments, new information, new alternatives. Every last bit of knowledge, every assumption, Socrates felt, should always be questioned, analyzed, challenged. Nothing was ever resolved once and for all.

    It is with this ethos in mind that I launched Socrates Café. And the one and only firm and lasting truth that has emerged from all the Socrates Café discussions I've taken part in is that it is not possible to examine, scrutinize, plumb, and mine a question too thoroughly and exhaustively. There is always more to discover. That is the essence, and magic, of what I have come to call "Socratizing."

    Socrates Café does not have to be held in a café. It can take place anywhere a group of people—or a group of one---chooses to gather and inquire philosophically. It can take place around a dining room table, in a church or a community center, on a mountaintop, in a nursing home, a hospice, a senior center, a school, a prison.


    Anywhere and anytime you desire to do more than regurgitate ad nauseum what you've read, or think you've read, about philosophers of the past who are considered by academics to be the undisputed exclusive members of the philosophical pantheon. It can take place anywhere people want to do philosophy, to inquire philosophically, themselves, whether with a group of people or alone.

    To be sure, one of the most fruitful and flourishing places for Socrates Café to be held is at a café or coffeehouse. The gatherings typically start out small, but word spreads, and eventually more and more people come. People tell me quite frequently that "there's a hunger" for this type of discussion, that people are "weary" of the "guru approach" to group discussion. I'm not so sure about this. It seems to me that the gurus are flourishing. In fact, at one coffeehouse where I facilitated Socrates Café, while our discussion was taking place out back in the garden, tarot card readers were operating a brisk trade inside the café. Some of these mystic soothsayers seem to have been none too amused by the fact that a number of their clients, who sat with us in the garden while waiting their turn at the tarot-reading table, wound up so immersed in our dialogue that they ended up passing on the opportunity to shell out money to have their future foreseen.

    But over the short haul at least, tarot card readers and their ilk need not fear what I'm doing. For every client they lose, there are many more to take their place. There has been an upsurge of interest in the irrational the likes of which has not been seen since a similar fascination contributed to the demise of the short-lived "golden age of reason" of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. Millions of people still embrace such irrational phenomena as astrology. Even military commanders and politicians—even first ladies of the United States—quite often resort to this "method" to predict whether a crucial battle or competition or significant event of some other sort will have a favorable outcome. I'd argue that this modern-day embrace of the irrational reveals that overall our civilization is hardly more rational than in the days when Roman commanders sought to predict their immediate future by examining the intestines of chickens. In a way, it is startling to me that otherwise rational people can give in so easily to the temptation to see a connection between independent phenomena that happen to coincide in time. But then I recall that even the fourth-century Greek philosopher Aristotle, one of the greatest philosophers of all time, who lived amid a resurgence of belief in supernatural phenomena, was not surprised by the citizenry's pervasive love affair with the irrational. Based on his careful observations of human nature, Aristotle came to the conclusion that few men "can sustain the life of pure reason for more than very brief periods."

    The classical Greek scholar E. R. Dodds noted in The Greeks and the Irrational that in the days of Aristotle, astrology and other irrational practices "fell upon the Hellenistic mind as a new disease falls upon some remote island." Why? "For a century or more the individual had been face to face with his own intellectual freedom. And now he turned tail and bolted from the horrid prospect—better the rigid determinism of astrological Fate than that terrifying burden of daily responsibility." The fear of and flight from freedom—which goes hand in glove with a fear of honest questioning—that is taking place today does not simply parallel what happened in ancient times. Rather, it seems to be the same fear and same flight. Today we're not so much experiencing a return of the irrational as we are an upsurgence of the irrational elements in us—such as tendencies to build belief systems on foundations of quicksand, and proclivities for destruction and self-idealization—that are part of the human fabric.

    There are antidotes to the irrational. Though by no means perfect, and certainly not always skillfully handled, such antidotes can enable us to better understand ourselves, better overcome our fears, better come to grips with the irrational in us. One such antidote is the Socratic way of questioning utilized at Socrates Café. More and more people are discovering its inherent joys. They are discovering that the Socratic method can be of immense help in putting perplexities into better focus, in envisaging new directions of self-realization and human aspiration, and in pressing home the debate with the irrational.

    The Socratic method of questioning aims to help people gain a better understanding of themselves and their nature and their potential for excellence. At times, it can help people make more well-informed life choices, because they now are in a better position to know themselves, to comprehend who they are and what they want. It can also enable a thoughtful person to articulate and then apply his or her unique philosophy of life. This in turn will better equip a questioning soul to engage in the endless and noble pursuit of wisdom.

    No matter what question we discuss at Socrates Café, the dialogues, as Socrates says in Plato's Republic, are "not about any chance question, but about the way one should live." So the discussions do not just enable us to better know who we are but lead us to acquire new tactics for living and thinking so we can work toward determining, and then becoming, who we want to be. By becoming more skilled in the art of questioning, you will discover new ways to ask the questions that have vexed and perplexed you the most. In turn you will discover new and more fruitful answers. And these new answers in turn will generate a whole new host of questions. And the cycle keeps repeating itself—not in a vicious circle, but in an ever-ascending and everexpanding spiral that gives you a continually new and replenished outlook on life.

    Wherever Socrates Café is held, those who take part form a community of philosophical inquiry. My fellow Socratics have an enduring curiosity that cannot be quenched or satisfied by the facile responses of know-it-all gurus or of psychologists who cubbyhole their existential angst into demeaning paradigms of psychological behavior. Those who take part in Socrates Café are more concerned with formulating fruitful and reflective questions than with formulating absolute answers. Everyone is welcome and virtually all topics are valid for debate. Together, and alone, we push our thinking in surprising directions.

    The possibilities are limited only by the questions your imagination and sense of wonder enable you to come up with. They don't have to be the "big questions." Or, at least, the big question may turn out to be something like "What are the big questions, and what makes them so?" During the hundreds of Socrates Cafés I've facilitated, I've often come to find that it's the unexpected, the seemingly trivial or inconsequential, or the offbeat question that might well be the most worth delving into and examining for all it's worth.

    By becoming a more adept questioner, by developing a lifelong love affair with the art of questioning, I'll wager that you'll be able to answer more expertly than ever that question of questions, "Who am I?"

    Walt Whitman, in his poem "By Blue Ontario's Shore," wrote:

I am he who walks the States with a barb'd tongue, questioning every one I meet.

    You may not want to emulate Whitman and question everyone you meet "with a barb'd tongue," but by becoming a better questioner, by rekindling your love of questioning, you likely will develop a better sense of who you are, who you can be, where you are, why you are, and how you might want to chart a new course for yourself. You may not discover the answer that perhaps you'd anticipated, but that's part of the thrill of the search—the discovery of the unanticipated, the surprise of the novel.

    The new course may be no more, and no less, than beginning the journey of philosophical inquiry. Almost without fail, newcomers to Socrates Café say enthusiastically after taking part in their first discussion, "I've been looking for something like this for so long." They discover rather quickly that engaging in what I call the Socratic quest for honesty gives their life added depth and meaning and dimensions. Asking more and better questions will give you greater personal autonomy. You will never see the world, and your place in the world, in quite the same way again as you expand your intellectual and imaginative horizons.

    Contrary to popular belief, the more questions you have, the firmer the footing you are on. The more you know yourself. The more you can map out and set a meaningful path for your future.

    This book is about my experiences seeking Socrates with people of all ages and all walks of life—and with myself. It is about rediscovering and tapping into my love of questions, questions, and more questions. It is about following the charge of the Delphic oracle: "Know thyself: It is not a traditional self-help book, though it might prove helpful in any number of ways. I do not pretend to be a teacher, much less a guru. Or rather, if I am a teacher, then everyone else who seeks Socrates with me is a teacher too.

    The many dialogues interspersed throughout this book are real enough, though they are not rendered verbatim. I never brought along a tape recorder to any of the philosophical confabs in which I took part. What's more, the dialogues included here have had ample time to age and filter through my mind before I put pen to paper. Plato must also have added the perspectives of time and imagination when he eventually set down the "original" Socratic dialogues for posterity. In fact, he seemed to use considerable literary and philosophic license at just about every turn, in order to present even more perspectives, to make his dialogues all the more real and timeless, and to make Socrates into a figure of, some would say, mythic proportions.

    As with Plato's dialogues, there's no getting around the fact that the dialogues in this book are more, and less, and other, than the "real live dialogues" they strive to depict. Most important, the ensuing dialogues are a seamless part of one great ongoing dialogue without beginning or end.

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