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He Has a Few Questions for You

Modern philosopher turns to Socrates to revive nearly lost art of public discourse

June 06, 2002|REED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The subject was war and morality, and the words "Adolf Hitler" and "Al Qaeda" hung solemnly in the air at the small Westside coffeehouse. But the soft-spoken man in black cowboy boots sounded upbeat as he patiently fired off another question to a room packed with pensive smiles and furrowed brows.

"What is the difference between defending yourself and going to war?" Christopher Phillips was quietly asking the dozen people crowded into the small cafe extension of Dutton's Brentwood Books. The amiable ambience felt far removed from the take-no-prisoners screaming matches that today often pass for public discourse--so far removed, in fact, that the scene might've been occurring in another time and place.

For Phillips, a 42-year-old former political science major, that time and place would be Athens in 4th century BC, when another man known for posing tough questions single-handedly swayed the course of human thought. Socrates, the founding godfather of Western philosophy, whose probing dialogues gained immortality through the writings of Plato, is the inspiration behind Phillips' 6-year-old Socrates Cafe, an enterprise that, despite its name, has little to do with bohemian poseurs knocking back ice-blended mochas.

"I think that Americans always go to war to preserve our way of life. The rest is just ideology. We want to protect that we're a rich country and we're powerful," says Jai Ying, a former Internet company worker who's between jobs.

Phillips, nodding thoughtfully, slowly steps from his bar stool at the front of the room. "If someone says, 'I'm going to war to prevent future 9/11s,' is that just?" he asks, nudging the dialogue in a slightly different direction.

For a few seconds the room falls silent save for the traffic whooshing by on San Vicente Boulevard. "You have to be convinced it is right," one man responds finally. "You also have to be convinced that it is a last resort, that there is no other way."

In its simplest form, Phillips says, Socrates Cafe is a way of getting people from various walks of life together to discuss such perennial brain-twisters as: What is justice? What is a good friend? What's the difference between destiny and fatalism?

To date, Phillips has orchestrated discussions on these and other Solomonic topics at nursing homes, maximum-security prisons, churches, homeless shelters, bookstores and coffeehouses across the country, gently prodding students, urban professionals, unreconstructed slackers, street people and others to share their worldviews and scrutinize their most basic assumptions. In the six years since he strolled into a Montclair, N.J., cafe and started rapping about this and that, Phillips has taken part in about 2,000 Socratic sessions.

Generally, Phillips starts things off with some brief remarks, after which he lets the group choose the topic. Often, these spring directly from the day's headlines. Once, at a Rhode Island bookstore, a man said he wanted to understand more about why the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, had been put to death. "You could see people getting very tense," Phillips says, until the group finally settled on the question: Who owns human life?

While Socrates' more-introspective-than-thou attitude didn't always play well at the Parthenon--the Athenians finally forced him to drink hemlock to shut him up--Phillips' respectful, incorrigibly curious demeanor appears to put people at ease, permitting lively, free-flowing exchanges. "People ask me, sometimes seriously and sometimes tongue-in-cheek, if I worry about the same demise" as Socrates, Phillips says over an early dinner Monday before his Brentwood engagement. "Being the gadfly is not the most popular profession."

Popular or not, Phillips, a former journalist whose grandfather was a Greek immigrant, seems determined to push his concept as far as it will go in today's culture of grindingly oversimplified debate.

Building on word-of-mouth and last year's publication of "Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy" (W.W. Norton), his chatty memoir/travelogue/do-it-yourself manual, Phillips has been turning up in prominent newspapers, magazines and on National Public Radio. His book has even made it onto a few high school and college syllabuses. His illustrated children's book, "The Philosophers' Club" (Ten Speed Press, 2001), is also selling well.

In recent months, Phillips has been taking his act to such places as South Korea, Japan, Europe, Mexico City and the southern Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, where he and his Mexican-born wife, Cecilia, held a Socrates Cafe with members of the region's impoverished indigenous communities. "There were soldiers with guns looking at us like we were crazy," Phillips says.

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