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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

If challenging received wisdom can be a precarious occupation, Phillips believes it's as necessary now as it ever was. America, he thinks, is politically and spiritually adrift, a condition not unlike that facing Greece in the time of Socrates. Though he's scrupulous in keeping his views to himself during cafe meetings, he's less guarded in private.

"I see my beloved democracy just a shell of what it was," he says, suddenly flashing his gray-green eyes like a wrathful Olympian. "I'm trying to hold dialogues with people to recapture a democracy that is on the wane. People don't realize that even the greatest civilizations have a shelf life. I don't think most people realize what an advanced state of decadence we're in."

Even while Socrates was upending the status quo and offering new ways of thinking, Phillips says, much of the rest of the Athenian populace (minus women and slaves) was indulging in "rampant sophism"--shallow, pseudo-sophisticated reasoning that bred political apathy. Today, Phillips believes, a similar ethos has infiltrated the "knockdown, drag-out kind of debate" that thrives on TV talk shows, abetting a meltdown in civic participation.

"The [Athenian] powers that be would rather stay corrupt and let that seal their doom, which it did, rather than let someone usurp their powers," Phillips intones darkly over the remains of his Souplantation salad. The moment passes, and Phillips returns to being an easygoing, mildly self-deprecating bookworm who likes to hold hands while walking with his wife and still speaks with a trace of the mellifluous Tidewater accent of his native Newport News, Va.

"You're asking my opinions now, and I'm very strident in my opinions," he says a few minutes later. His hope, he explains, is that Socrates Cafe will not only help participants clarify their thinking and become more open to diverse ideas, but translate their convictions into action. Hey, wasn't it another ancient rogue thinker, Karl Marx, who said the point of philosophy wasn't just to interpret the world but to change it?

Cecilia Phillips, 29, who shares many of her spouse's intellectual passions, says that her husband has grown "much more tolerant toward other perspectives" in the six years they've been together. "He's really trying to learn from others, their perspective," she says. "I think he has a much deeper social consciousness."

For a man with three master's degrees--in natural sciences, education and the humanities--Phillips much prefers to take philosophy out of the ivory tower and into the street. He says the ontological bug first bit him when his mother gave him a volume of Plato.

Born and raised in a West Virginia coal-mining camp, Phillips' mother was an independent thinker and the only member of her family to break with the Jehovah's Witnesses faith, says her son. "We used to go to the country store and she just loved to hear people's stories. And that's why I became a journalist, a feature writer, is because I love to hear people's stories."

Once he began writing for Reader's Digest and Parade magazines, he found himself drawn to stories about "unsung heroes, people making a difference. I realized I wanted to be part of that tradition."

It took a few more crucial life transitions before he made the leap. When Phillips started Socrates Cafe, his first marriage was breaking up. One of his best friends recently had committed suicide. "It just exploded all these self-imposed obstacles," he says. "I didn't like my life and I didn't like me that much. I asked myself: What sublime risks am I willing to take?"

Fortunately for Phillips, one of the first people to turn up at a Socrates Cafe, on a night when no one else came, was Cecilia. The question she and Phillips decided to address: What is love?

The first years, Phillips says, were a struggle. The couple were living off Cecilia's teacher's salary, bouncing to different addresses, driving a 1985 Chevy Nova with three working gears and falling thousands of dollars into debt.

But with the royalties from his book sales, they've steadily been able to work themselves out of that hole and are now virtually debt-free, living cheaply on a combined annual income of less than $20,000. Phillips also is founder of the nonprofit Society for Philosophical Inquiry (www.philospher.org), which now has about 200 members.

"We would like to have a house, yes, we would like to have kids, yes," he says.

"I'm an eternal optimist," he says. "I really think some eccentric billionaire is going to see this thing has legs and isn't just a fad."

Cecilia, who has been keeping track of the time, signals her husband that it's time to leave the restaurant and head over to Dutton's. It's one of those perfect summer evenings, cool and serene, and the small gathering, mixed by age, sex, ethnicity and occupation, has arrived in a talkative mood.

Since Sept. 11, many Socrates Cafes have pondered variations on questions about war, terrorism and how justice is served. This night is no exception.

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