Socrates for the rest of us

socrates2.jpgThis week's Time makes it official: the Socrates Café movement has trickled down to Middle America. You have to respect Christopher Phillips, founder of the Society for Philosophical Inquiry. He met and fell in love with his wife, Cecilia, when she was the only person to show up for one of his earlier cafés. Now they travel the country and live out of suitcases to spread the concept of everyday people gathering to discuss big questions. Phillips has written about the movement in Socrates Café and Six Questions of Socrates. The six questions: What is virtue? What is moderation? What is justice? What is good? What is courage? What is piety?

Some recent reports, focusing on Phillips' tour to promote Six Questions, have hinted at the sort of spiritual conversations that can emerge from such questions.

Kenneth LaFave in The Arizona Republic:

The book is filled with a smoldering, bumptious sort of energy that emerges from the varied applications of commonly held beliefs. An Islamic student in California insists that moderation is cognate to modesty, and makes a case for women wearing the veil. Soldiers glare at Phillips while he tries to discuss justice with indigenous peoples in the rebel-torn province of Chiapas, Mexico. A 16-year-old Spanish gypsy declares that goodness is something we cultivate, while evil is inherent. A Navajo participant says courage is fighting for your country even when that country's government has crushed your people's way of life.

Brad Smith in The Tampa Tribune:

"If it's a normal crowd, you never quite know who's going to show up," Phillips said a few days ago from an airport in Las Vegas, where he had led a debate in a casino for the first time.

The casino topic: What is an artful life?

"You look around and see all these people gambling, and you think this is the antithesis," Phillips said. Yet, more discussion revealed that an artful life doesn't have to mean being a successful painter or musician.

. . . The book recounts his visits to Greece, Japan, South Korea and Mexico and discussions there with people from many backgrounds: Navajo, Confucian, Islamic, Jewish, Catholic.

Bo Emerson in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

"He's a fantastic question asker," said Jason Malec, a pastor at North Point Community Church, who would like to see a Socratic exchange at his church.

"I want to create that type of open environment where people can . . . ask any question they want."

Great Books discussion groups have plowed this ground for many years, but they focus on specific texts. And Peter Kreeft, a philosophy professor Boston College, wrote a series of popular books in the 1980s that imagined Socrates engaging people on abortion, Jesus and issues at play in the best late-night dorm-room conversations.

It's good to see an idealistic entrepreneur spreading the Socratic method as widely as his book sales will allow.

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