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The Chutzpah of a Philosophical Spirit

March 19, 1986|BOB SIPCHEN

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Envision Socrates on a Hobie Cat, and you may be ready to follow Phillip Berman, 29, on the circuitous spiritual quest that led to the publication last November of his hard-cover book "The Courage of Conviction" (Dodd, Mead & Co.).

A collection of essays from 32 "of today's most prominent men and women," Berman's book takes the reader through a hodgepodge of minds, from the Dalai Lama's to Hugh Downs'; from Lech Walesa's to Irving Wallace's. Moving alphabetically from the convictions of Jane Alexander to those of Michael York, one trudges through pretentiousness and soars along on clear passages of profundity. At the end of the journey, the reader at least may have sampled a fair range of the beliefs held by the mainstream of intelligent people midway through the 1980s.

To get to the point where those views were printed, Berman took an unlikely journey that led from the waves of Newport Beach to Harvard Divinty School and now continues as he drives across the country trying to persuade people to read the essays he persuaded his contributors to write.

A good place to begin that travelogue might be the Harbor Reform Temple in Newport Beach, where Berman was bar mitzvahed. Following that important rite of passage, Berman's father reportedly told his 13-year-old son: 'Now you are bar mitzvahed and now you are a man, and if you don't want to go back to the synagogue you don't have to."

"And I didn't," recalled Berman, who recently passed back through Orange County on his self-designed and largely self-financed book tour. Instead, the adolescent took the money he had collected at his bar mitzvah and bought a 14-foot Hobie Cat.

"I wouldn't say I was a happy-go-lucky kid, 'cause apparently I've always been inordinately aggressive and driven," Berman said. But for the next few years, Berman's drive focused on sailing his catamaran and shredding Orange County waves.

Berman's life began to change, however, in his senior year at Corona del Mar High School, when his father, a Santa Ana attorney, died after a six-month battle with cancer.

"I didn't know how to deal with it at the time, I really didn't," Berman said. So rather than deal with it, "I just surfed and sailed constantly."

While still in high school Berman had co-authored a book on Hobie Cat racing that became a best seller in its market niche, he said. After graduating, he talked Hobie Cat Co. into letting him promote the book. With a Hobie Cat on top of a canary-yellow Dodge van, he took off across the country to race and lecture in what had seemed like a California jock's dream come true.

'Lonely and Angry'

But looking back, Berman recalls that he was "lonely and angry and confused"--and that his inner state was reflected in his actions. He gained a reputation for "obnoxiousness" on the sailing circuit, he conceded. "I would scream and yell on the race course and be a pretty unfriendly guy."

Following that tour, Berman wound up in the Virgin Islands. It was there, he said, that he began to understand that "existence is ephemeral."

"I realized that that whole year, what I'd been doing was trying to shrug off the responsibility I had to answer the question, 'How should I live my life?,' " he said.

In a turn of events worthy of a scene in a Woody Allen movie, Berman, who was by then working as a busboy at a fancy French restaurant, met a chef who had studied philosophy at the Sorbonne. Amid the crepe and souffle pans, the chef told Berman, "Young man, you are interested in the meaning of life, and the only way you'll satisfy that interest is to study philosophy," Berman said.

So Berman returned to Orange County and enrolled at Orange Coast College. The first course he took was Prof. Alfred Painter's Philosophy 100.

Impressed With Professor

One day Berman invited his instructor to go sailing. "As we say in sailing terms, it was blowing like snot," Berman recalled. But without hesitation, Painter dangled from a trapeze harness as the Hobie Cat skimmed across the bay on one pontoon. Berman was impressed. "It was Dr. Painter who made me think, 'Hey, this philosophy is a pretty nice thing; I'd like to be like that. . . ," Berman said. "He really inspired me."

In "The Courage of Conviction," several contributors describe moments of sudden inspiration and understanding. Jane Goodall, the noted primate expert experienced such an epiphany while gazing at a stained-glass window as the organ at Notre Dame Cathedral played Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Psychiatrist Robert Coles' life changed during the early days of the civil rights movement when he witnessed a vicious police assault and "the sight of a lone dark girl of 6 walking with her head high past grown men and women who cursed her and screamed threats at her. . . ."

Berman's epiphany came while he was jogging along the beach in Corona del Mar.

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