Transcript: Christopher Phillips on his book Six Questions of Socrates | May 15, 2004

A caption reads “Christopher Phillips. Author.”

Christopher sits in a bar speaking into a microphone to a small audience. He is in his mid-forties, clean-shaven and with short wavy graying hair. He wears cream trousers and a white turtleneck sweater.

The caption changes to “Six questions of Socrates: A modern-day journey of discovery through world philosophy. University of Toronto Bookstore Reading Series. The Bedford Academy Pub. March 31, 2004.”

He says I DON'T
REALLY THINK I'M VERY ORIGINAL
IN DOING THESE DIALOGUE GROUPS.
I THINK THERE HAVE BEEN DIALOGUE
GROUPS FORMING ALL OVER THE
PLACE FOR QUITE A LONG TIME.
I WAS
PERSONALLY INSPIRED WAY BACK
WHEN, WHEN I WAS A STUDENT AT
WILLIAM AND MARY IN THE LATE
'70s AND EARLY '80s, WHEN ONE OF
OUR PHILOSOPHY PROFESSORS
ACTUALLY THOUGHT ENOUGH OF US,
TO TAKE US OUT OF CLASS TO A
LOCAL WATERING HOLE, LIKE THIS,
WHERE WE'D SIT IN A CIRCLE AND
QUITE OFTEN, STRANGERS WOULD
JOIN IN AND SIDLE OVER, AND I
USED TO THINK, WOULDN'T IT BE
GREAT IF I COULD JUST WILE AWAY
MY HOURS HAVING THESE GREAT
CONVERSATIONS.
BUT THERE HAVE BEEN UM...
IN FACT, I READ ONCE THERE WAS A
PHILOSOPHER IN CANADA, I BELIEVE
IN TORONTO, WHO HANGS HIS
SHINGLE IN A SHOPPING MALL, AND
HAS DIALOGUES WITH PEOPLE.
THERE HAVE BEEN PHILOSOPHERS IN
SCANDINAVIA, HOLDING DIALOGUES
WITH THE PUBLIC FOR DECADES, AND
ALSO THERE'S A BURGEONING CAFE
PHILO MOVEMENT IN EUROPE.
BUT MAYBE THERE ARE SOME
DIFFERENCES, EVEN THOUGH I THINK
WE'RE ALL KINDRED SPIRITS.
WE HAVE ABOUT 150 SOCRATES CAFE
GROUPS NOW IN THE UNITED STATES,
AND A SOCRATES CAFE DOESN'T HAVE
TO TAKE PLACE IN A CAFE.
IT'S MORE OF A CONCEPT THAN IT
IS ANY PARTICULAR PLACE.
WE HAVE GROUPS -- WE HAVE TWO
GROUPS IN MAXIMUM SECURITY
PRISONS, WE HAVE A GROUP AT A
HOMELESS SHELTER, A GROUP AT A
HOSPICE, A GROUP AT A
TRANSITIONAL HOUSING SHELTER.
WE HAVE MANY GROUPS AT SCHOOLS
THROUGHOUT THE UNITED STATES,
MANY AT LIBRARIES, A NUMBER AT
NURSING HOMES.
IT'S FOR ANYBODY, ANYWHERE WHO
WANTS TO ENQUIRE WITH OTHER
THOUGHTFUL SOULS.
MANY PEOPLE CAN'T COME TO A
CAFE, MANY PEOPLE WON'T COME TO
A CAFE OR A TAVERN.
MANY PEOPLE WON'T-- EVEN THOUGH
IT'S OPEN TO THE PUBLIC, THEY
DON'T FEEL WELCOME.
SO I BELIEVE IN BRINGING
PHILOSOPHICAL ENQUIRY TO
ANYBODY, ANYWHERE, AND MORE AND
MORE BRINGING IT ACROSS TO
PEOPLE AROUND THE GLOBE.
MY WIFE IS FROM MEXICO CITY, AND
WE--
ONE OF OUR BIG OUTREACH PROJECTS
RIGHT NOW IS TO HOLD DIALOGUES
WITH THE TENS--
THERE'S TENS OF THOUSANDS OF
STREET CHILDREN IN MEXICO CITY,
MANY WITH NO FORMAL
IDENTIFICATION AT ALL.
BUT MANY HAVE NEVER SET FOOT IN
A SCHOOL IN THEIR LIVES, NEVER
WILL, BUT THEY HAVE VERY RICH
EXPERIENCES, AND I HOLD THESE
DIALOGUES FOR SELFISH REASONS.
I HOLD THEM BECAUSE I LEARN SO
MUCH FROM THE PEOPLE WITH WHOM I
ENGAGE.
IT'S SUPPOSED TO BE A TYPE OF
ENQUIRY WHERE WE'RE ALL TEACHERS
AND STUDENTS AT THE SAME TIME.
PEOPLE OFTEN ASK ME, AM I
AFFILIATED WITH A UNIVERSITY,
AND IF--
AND I'M NOT, AND THEY SAY, “WELL
WHY NOT?
THAT'S THE PLACE YOU SHOULD BE.”
AND IT'S NOT WHERE I WANT TO BE.
I LOVE SCHOLARSHIP, I HAVE THREE
MASTERS DEGREES, AND I CERTAINLY
USED MY ROYALTIES FROM MY FIRST
BOOK TO PAY OFF ALL MY COLLEGE
LOANS, BUT THE IDEA IS JUST TO
HAVE THE KIND OF ENQUIRY WHERE
WE CAN TAKE OFF THOSE TEACHERS'
AND STUDENTS' HATS, AND JUST
ENQUIRE AS HUMAN BEINGS, WHERE
WE ALL HAVE SOMETHING UNCOMMON
TO REVEAL, BUT THE PROBLEM IS,
QUITE OFTEN, WE DON'T HAVE THE
TIME TO REVEAL IT, MUCH LESS THE
FORUM TO DO SO.
WE MIGHT ALL-- AND WE MAY WELL
ALL, AND WE PROBABLY SHOULD WELL
ALL HAVE DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES,
IN MANY CASES DRAMATICALLY
DIFFERENT.
I THINK THAT'S ALL TO THE GOOD,
AND SOMETHING TO CELEBRATE.
BUT ONCE AGAIN, MAYBE THE ONLY
THING THAT WE WILL REACH
CONSENSUS ON, IS NOT SOMETHING
THAT WE REACH CONSENSUS ON AT
THE END, BUT AT THE OUTSET, AND
THE CONSENSUS IS TO LISTEN
CAREFULLY TO WHAT EVERYBODY HAS
TO SAY, WITH THE IDEA THAT YOU
LEARN MORE ABOUT YOUR OWN VIEW
BY REALLY LISTENING CAREFULLY TO
WHAT OTHERS HAVE TO SAY.
I DON'T KNOW ABOUT CANADA, BUT
IN THE UNITED STATES, YOU CAN
TAKE CLASSES ON ARGUMENT,
RHETORIC, DEBATE, BUT AS FAR AS
I KNOW, THERE'S NOT A SINGLE
CLASS IN A UNIVERSITY ON
LISTENING, AND THAT'S REALLY, I
THINK, TO OUR DETRIMENT.
BECAUSE AGAIN, I CAN ONLY SPEAK
ABOUT MY OWN BELOVED COUNTRY,
BUT THIS IS A TIME IN THE UNITED
STATES WHERE THERE'S SUCH AN
UTTER BREAKDOWN OF
COMMUNICATIONS, IF YOU LOOK AT
OUR CONGRESS, PEOPLE ON BOTH
SIDES OF THE AISLE, THEY DON'T
EVEN YELL AT EACH OTHER ANY
MORE, THEY DON'T COMMUNICATE AT
ALL.
THEY'D RATHER CIRCUMVENT THE
PROCESS.
AND IF THAT IS A MICROCOSM OF
WHAT IS GOING ON IN THE UNITED
STATES, IF YOU LOOK AT OUR TALK
SHOWS AND OUR RADIO SHOWS, THE
MODEL THESE DAYS, IS HE WHO
BROWBEATS AND INTERRUPTS THE
MOST WINS, SOME SORT OF NON-
REDEMPTIVE VERBAL COMBAT.
AND I THINK THAT IF THAT IS WHAT
WINS THE DAY, I'M NOT SURE THAT
YOU CAN HAVE A VIBRANT,
PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY.
NOW I'M A STUDENT OF POLITICAL
PHILOSOPHY, AND WHEN I STUDIED
AT WILLIAM AND MARY, I STUDIED
VERY MUCH IN DEPTH ONE OF MY
FELLOW MEMBERS OF MY ALMA MATER,
THOMAS JEFFERSON, AND JEFFERSON,
AND HIS PEERS FORMED WHAT WERE
CALLED COMMITTEES OF
CORRESPONDENCE, DELIBERATELY
COMPRISED OF PEOPLE FROM A
PLURALITY OF PERSPECTIVES.
WHEN THEY WERE EVEN TRYING TO
DECIDE WHAT SORT OF COURSE THEY
SHOULD CHART, AND WHETHER THEY
SHOULD BECOME A DEMOCRACY.
AND EXHAUSTIVELY EXAMINING A
WIDE ARRAY OF IDEAS AND IDEALS
WITH THE SENSE THAT IT'S GOOD,
IT'S A GOOD EXERCISE TO INVITE
PEOPLE FROM A PLURALITY OF
PERSPECTIVES, AND ONLY BY DOING
SO CAN YOU ENGAGE IN THIS
WONDERFUL TENSION WHERE YOU CAN
REACH A HIGHER PLAIN TOGETHER,
RATHER THAN FEEL THAT YOU HAVE
TO PREACH AND PROSELYTISE ONLY
YOUR IDEA, AND THAT IDEA SOMEHOW
HAS TO WIN THE DAY.
I ALWAYS OPERATE FROM THE
HUMBLING PREMISE THAT I COULD BE
WRONG.
IT DOESN'T PARALYSE ME IN ACTING
IN THE WORLD, IN FACT, IT
INSPIRES ME.
BUT I LIKE TO HEAR WHAT OTHERS
HAVE TO SAY, AND I'M FASCINATED
BY THEIR SOULFUL NARRATIVES.
AND SO FOR ME, IT'S ALWAYS A
BLESSED EXPERIENCE TO HAVE ONE
OF THESE, AND ALL I CAN DO IN MY
COUNTRY IS TO TRY TO MODEL
ANOTHER WAY OF DISCOURSE THAT AT
LEAST IS AN ALTERNATIVE TO SOME
OF THE OTHER FORMS THAT I HOPE,
AND I'M VERY HEARTENED, IN FACT,
THAT THIS IS TOUCHING A CHORD
WITH SO MANY PEOPLE.
I UM... OF COURSE I LIKE TO SELL
MY BOOK, AND THAT'S HOW MY WIFE
AND I BASICALLY LIVE, IS OFF OUR
MODEST ROYALTIES, BUT FOR ME,
IT'S ALWAYS WONDERFUL WHEN
PEOPLE ARE INSPIRED TO START
THEIR OWN GROUP, AND UM...
BECAUSE WE'RE ONLY GOING TO
REACH A CERTAIN POINT TODAY.
THERE WILL PROBABLY BE MANY
HANDS UP, HOPEFULLY, BY THE TIME
WE COME TO AN END, BUT THIS IS
SUPPOSED TO BE THE SPRINGBOARD
FOR FURTHER AND DEEPER ENQUIRY.
THIS
ISN'T SUPPOSED TO BE THE END OF
ANYTHING, IT'S JUST SUPPOSED TO
BE THE LAUNCHING PAD AND
HOPEFULLY YOU'LL CONTINUE
TALKING AMONGST YOURSELVES WHEN
WE END THE FORMAL CONFAB, AND
HOPEFULLY YOU'LL WANT TO START
ONE OR MORE GROUPS.
AND TORONTO'S A BIG PLACE, AND
THERE SHOULD BE A LOT OF GROUPS.
IT
DOESN'T HAVE TO BE A SOCRATES
CAFE AT ALL, IT CAN BE ANYTHING
YOU WANT.
BUT JUST THE MAIN THING IS THAT
PEOPLE GET TOGETHER AND GET
TOGETHER WITH DIVERSE SOULS IN A
SETTING WHERE YOU NEVER KNOW
WHO'S GOING TO COME, AND THAT
CAN ACTUALLY BE A LOT OF FUN.
SO UM...
AND THERE IS A THOROUGH GUIDE
YOU CAN PULL OUT ON OUR WEBSITE.
IF YOU JUST GO TO
philosopher.org MY WIFE AND I
HAVE WRITTEN A COMPREHENSIVE
GUIDE ON HOW YOU CAN DO ONE OF
THESE THINGS, AND WE'RE GOOD
CORRESPONDENTS.
WELL NOT--
THERE WAS A REALLY NICE FEATURE,
I DON'T THINK IT CAME OUT IN THE
CANADIAN EDITION, BUT IF YOU GO
TO--
TIME MAGAZINE JUST CAME OUT WITH
A FEATURE ABOUT US.
AND IF YOU GO TO time.com AND
THEN GO TO THE TABLE OF
CONTENTS, YOU'LL SEE A FEATURE
ON SOCRATES CAFE IN THE U.S. AND
I THINK IT REALLY FAITHFULLY
DESCRIBES THE TONE AND TENOR OF
WHAT WE'RE TRYING TO DO.
AND IF YOU READ THAT AND TAKE
PART IN THIS, AND ALSO THEN LOOK
AT OUR GUIDE, YOU'LL GET A VERY
STRONG SENSE OF WHAT IDEALLY
THIS IS ALL ABOUT.
WELL, SO SINCE I DID TAKE THE
TROUBLE TO WRITE A BOOK, I'M
GOING TO READ YOU THE--
PART OF THE FIRST DIALOGUE.
I'M NOT GOING TO READ YOU EVERY
BIT OF IT.
AND I'LL, AS A STORY TELLER, I
PROBABLY WILL CHANGE AND
EMBELLISH FROM TIME TO TIME, AND
THEN I'LL READ YOU JUST PARTS OF
A COUPLE OF LITTLE SNIPPETS
AFTERWARDS THAT JUST EXPLAIN
WHAT I WAS TRYING TO GET OUT OF
THIS, AMONG OTHER THINGS AS A
WRITER AND A PHILOSOPHICAL
ENQUIRER.
AND WHAT I HOPE, AMONG MANY
OTHER THINGS, YOU, AS A READER
GET OUT OF IT.
AND THE SECTION I END WITH
ACTUALLY ENDS WITH A QUESTION,
AND I THOUGHT MAYBE THAT WOULD
BE A GOOD QUESTION, HOPEFULLY,
THAT YOU MIGHT WANT TO JOIN THE
DISCOURSE YOURSELF AND IMMERSE
YOURSELF IN IT, AND ANYWAY, TAKE
IT IN ANY DIRECTION YOU WANT TO.
SO IS THAT OKAY?
DOES THAT SOUND OKAY, LIKE A
PLAN?
ALL RIGHT, SO LET ME READ--
THIS IS FROM THE FIRST SECTION
ON WHAT IS VIRTUE, THE FIRST SIX
QUESTIONS THAT I READ FROM.
IT'S FROM A VIGNETTE CALLED,
“ARRETTE INTERRUPTED.”
AND THE VERY FIRST RESPONDENT
FROM THIS DIALOGUE SAYS, “I
DON'T THINK THAT VIRTUE, WHAT WE
CALL ARRETTE EXISTS ANY MORE.”
SO I'M THINKING, “NO SUCH THING
AS VIRTUE.
HOW CAN THAT BE, IN THIS, OF ALL
PLACES?”
BECAUSE I'M IN THE ANCIENT AGORA
OF ATHENS, GREECE, AND I'VE JUST
POSED THE QUESTION, “WHAT IS
VIRTUE?”
AND THERE'S ABOUT 20 OF US
HUDDLED TOGETHER IN A TRANQUIL
SPOT AMID THE RELENTLESS BUSTLE
OF THE SPRAWLING CITY OF 4
MILLION WHICH IS FRANTICALLY
GETTING READY TO HOST THE 2004
SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES.
AND AGORA IS TYPICALLY
TRANSLATED AS “MARKETPLACE,” BUT
I THINK A MORE APPROPRIATE
TRANSLATION IS, “GATHERING
PLACE.”
AND THOSE WHO CONVERGED
CENTURIES AGO IN THIS CENTRE OF
COMMERCIAL AND CIVIC LIFE,
DIDN'T JUST COME TO BARTER AND
SELL A WIDE RANGE OF
MERCHANDISE, BUT ALSO TO
EXCHANGE AND EXAMINE A WIDE
ARRAY OF IDEAS AND IDEALS.
WELL MOST TOURISTS MILLING
AROUND, PAY US NO MIND, AS WE
SIT IN THE SHADE AMONG THE RUINS
OF THE STOAE WHICH WAS ERECTED
HERE TO COMMEMORATE THOSE WHO
HAD FOUGHT TO WIN FREEDOM FOR
THE GREEK CITY STATES, AND TO
HONOUR ZEUS, WHO GREEKS AT THE
TIME BELIEVED HAD DELIVERED THEM
TO FREEDOM.
AND WHERE WE'RE SITTING, ON
PIECES OF MARBLE THAT WERE ONCE
PILLARS OF THE STOAE, IS ALMOST
PRECISELY WHERE, IN THE 5th
CENTURY B.C., SOCRATES IS SAID
TO HAVE GATHERED, WITH FRIENDS
AND ACQUAINTANCES AND
ANTAGONISTS TO ENGAGE IN
PHILOSOPHICAL ENQUIRY.
SO ALL EYES ARE NOW FIXED ON
MARIA, THE FIRST PERSON TO
SPEAK, AND I DON'T SEEM TO BE
THE ONLY ONE TAKEN SLIGHTLY OFF
KILTER BY THIS FIRST RESPONSE
RIGHT OUT OF THE STARTING GATE,
TO OUR QUESTION, “WHAT IS
VIRTUE?”
BUT BEFORE I CAN ASK MARIE WHY
SHE BELIEVES THERE'S NO LONGER
SUCH A THING AS VIRTUE ANY MORE,
ANOTHER PARTICIPANT LOOKS AT HER
AND SAYS, “WAS THERE EVER ANY
SUCH THING AS VIRTUE?”
SO TWO STEPS BACKWARDS NOW.
AND MARIA SAYS, “OH YES, MOST
DEFINITELY.”
FINALLY I GET A WORD IN
EDGEWISE, AND I SAY, “WELL HOW
SO?”
MARIA, AN ARTIST, DOES NOT
RESPOND RIGHT AWAY THIS TIME.
IT TURNS OUT THAT SHE'S A
DISTANT COUSIN OF MINE WHOM I'VE
MET FOR THE FIRST TIME THE
PREVIOUS DAY, AND SHE HAD MOVED
A DECADE AGO TO ATHENS FROM THE
VOLCANIC ISLAND OF NISSIROS,
PART OF THE COUNTRY'S DODECANESE
ISLANDS FROM WHICH MY FATHER'S
PARENTS IMMIGRATED TO THE UNITED
STATES IN 1922, AT A TIME WHEN
GREECE WAS RULED BY THE
CONSTITUTIONAL MONARCHY OF
GEORGE II, WAS MIRED IN
MISERABLE ECONOMIC STRAITS MADE
WORSE BY ITS ONGOING WAR WITH
TURKEY.
MY PARENTS ENTERED THROUGH ELLIS
ISLAND, WHERE THEIR LAST NAME
WAS SUMMARILY CHANGED FROM
FILIPU TO PHILLIPS.
WELL, MARIA FILIPU SAYS, “LOOK
AROUND YOU, WHAT DO YOU SEE?”
YOU SEE MAGNIFICENT RUINS.
YOU SEE THE REMAINS OF A SOCIETY
THAT WAS STEEPED IN VIRTUE, AND
SHE SAYS, “WHERE WE'RE SITTING
NOW, WHERE SOCRATES HELD COURT,
IS THE MOST VIRTUOUS PLACE OF
ALL, AN OASIS OF VIRTUE.”
AND SHE MAKES A SWEEPING GESTURE
TOWARD THE BREATHTAKING AND
LARGELY INTACT PARTHENON TEMPLE
PERCHED IN THE DISTANCE ON THE
ACROPOLIS HILL.
AND SHE SAID, “THE PARTHENON AND
ALL THESE RUINS AROUND US, ARE
THE PRODUCT OF VIRTUE, OF GREAT
MINDS AND SOULS TRYING TO FREE
THEMSELVES FROM ILLUSION,
SOARING THE HEIGHTS THAT HADN'T
BEFORE BEEN ATTAINED.”
AND HER VOICE FULL OF PASSION,
SHE GOES ON, “IT MAKES YOUR
SPIRIT SOAR, IT INSPIRES YOU TO
IMAGINE NEW POSSIBILITIES OF
WHAT IT IS TO BE A HUMAN BEING.”
AND SHE SAID, “WHEN I SAY THAT
I'M NOT SO SURE THAT THERE'S
SUCH A THING AS VIRTUE ANY MORE,
I MEAN THAT, IF WE'RE NO LONGER
CREATING THE PRODUCTS OF VIRTUE,
THEN IT SEEMS TO ME THAT VIRTUE
ITSELF NO LONGER EXISTS.”
SHE SAID, “WE CAN'T BOAST IN MODERN
GREECE ANY MORE OF HAVING THE
GREATEST WORKS OF ART AND
ARCHITECTURE, WE CAN'T BOAST OF
HAVING A DEMOCRACY THAT'S THE
ENVY OF THE WORLD.
WE CAN'T BOAST OF HAVING GREAT
PLAYWRIGHTS AND PUBLIC
INTELLECTUALS, LIKE SOCRATES AND
HIS PEERS, WHO DIDN'T JUST
CREATE PRODUCTS OF VIRTUE, BUT
WERE THEMSELVES PRODUCTS OF
VIRTUE.”
SHE SAID, “WE HAVEN'T HAD ANY OF
THESE PRODUCTS OF VIRTUE FOR
CENTURIES, SO HOW CAN WE HAVE
VIRTUE ITSELF?”
A MAN NAMED GEORGIOS HAD
STROLLED BY JUST AS WE WERE
GETTING UNDERWAY, AND THOUGHT
THAT WE WERE JUST ODD ENOUGH
THAT HE'D WANT TO JOIN IN, SAYS
NOW, “WELL THIS AGORA WAS JUST
REDISCOVERED AND EXCAVATED
SEVERAL DECADES AGO.
SOON AFTER SOCRATES DEATH, IT
WAS ABANDONED, AND THE PUBLIC
LIFE WAS ABANDONED ALONG WITH
IT.
WITHOUT A PUBLIC LIFE WHERE
EVERYONE FEELS LIKE THEY'RE
REACHING TOWARD GREATER HEIGHTS
THAN THEY CAN REACH ALONE, THERE
CAN'T BE VIRTUE.”
HE FALLS SILENT FOR A BIT,
BEFORE THEN SAYING, “THIS IS THE
PLACE WHERE SOCRATES ASKED SUCH
GREAT QUESTIONS WITH OTHERS AS,
WHAT IS JUSTICE, WHAT IS VIRTUE,
WHAT IS MODERATION, WHAT IS
COURAGE, WHAT IS THE GOOD, WHAT
IS PIETY?”
HE SAYS, “THEY DIDN'T JUST WANT
TO GAIN A BETTER UNDERSTANDING
OF THE NATURE OF VIRTUE AND ITS
QUALITIES BY ASKING THESE
QUESTIONS.
THEY WANTED TO APPLY THEIR
DISCOVERIES SO THEY COULD
REALISE THEIR NOBLER
POTENTIALS.”
AND HE LOOKS AROUND AND ASKS US,
MORE THAN RHETORICALLY, “WHO
DOES THIS ANY MORE?”
RENE, THE WOMAN SEATED BESIDE
HIM, SAYS, “I THINK PEOPLE WERE
SCARED TO DO IT AFTER WHAT
HAPPENED TO SOCRATES.
THEY CONVICTED HIM ON TRUMPED UP
CHARGES OF BEING A HERETIC AND
TRAITOR, AS A MESSAGE TO ALL
THOSE WHO MIGHT ASPIRE TO
ENQUIRE LIKE HIM, THAT THEY'D
BETTER QUIT THEIR QUESTIONING
WAYS AND THEIR CRITIQUES OF THE
RULERS OF THE TIME.”
AND SHE POINTS TO A NEARBY FIELD
WHERE WILD FLOWERS ARE GROWING,
AND SHE SAYS, “THAT'S WHERE HE'S
SAID TO HAVE DRUNK THE SMALL CUP
OF HEMLOCK AND DIED.
AND HE HOPED THAT OTHERS WOULD
BE INSPIRED BY HIS EXAMPLE, AND
WOULD CONTINUE QUESTIONING MORE
THAN EVER, BUT,” SHE SAID, “WHEN
HE DIED, VIRTUE DIED, TOO.”
ALTHERIA, A LIBRARIAN IN ATHENS,
NOW SAYS, “WE DECLARED THE YEAR
2001, THE YEAR OF SOCRATES IN
GREECE.
AND THERE WERE ALL THESE
CONFERENCES AND READINGS AND
PANEL DISCUSSIONS, AND PEOPLE
DELIRIOUSLY AND ENDLESSLY
DEBATED THE MEANINGS OF PASSAGES
AND PHRASES.”
SHE SAID, “WE DID RE-ENACTMENTS
OF PLATO'S SOCRATIC DIALOGUES,
WE HAD MORE SOCRATES
IMPERSONATORS THAN YOU HAVE
ELVIS IMPERSONATORS IN YOUR
COUNTRY.”

The audience laughs.

Christopher says I DIFFER WITH THAT, WE HAVE A
LOT OF ELVIS IMPERSONATORS IN
THE UNITED STATES, I DON'T KNOW
ABOUT TORONTO.
SHE SAYS, “WE DIDN'T HOLD ONE
LIVING, BREATHING DIALOGUE LIKE
WE'RE HOLDING NOW.
AND IT WOULDN'T HAVE OCCURRED TO
US TO DO SOMETHING LIKE THAT.
WE'RE SO FAR REMOVED FROM THE
TYPE OF QUESTIONING THAT
SOCRATES AND OTHERS PRACTISED.
WE TREAT IT LIKE A MUSTY MUSEUM
PIECE.”
AND SHE SAID, “SO WE NO LONGER
LIVE THE EXAMINED LIFE THAT THEY
MODELLED.”
“OKAY, SO,” I SAY, TRYING TO
STEER A HEARTFELT RESPONSE TO
THE QUESTION, “VIRTUE IS...”
AND ALETHARIA SAYS, “VIRTUE IS
QUESTIONING CONVICTIONS WITH THE
INTENT OF DISCOVERING A HIGHER
PURPOSE IN LIFE, AND THEN
PURSUING THAT PURPOSE SO YOU CAN
BECOME MORE EXCELLENT, AND IN
THE PROCESS INSPIRE YOUR SOCIETY
TO BECOME MORE EXCELLENT.”
AND I ASKED HER, “WHAT EXACTLY
DO YOU MEAN BY, HIGHER PURPOSE?
WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?”
PATTY, A HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT,
WHO IS ALSO A RELATIVE OF MINE,
SAYS, “IT'S SOMETHING THAT'S
GREATER THAN YOURSELF.”
SHE SAYS, “FOR EXAMPLE, THE
ATHENIAN CIVILISATION THAT
EXISTED BEFORE SOCRATES
ADULTHOOD, IS A GOOD EXAMPLE.
WHILE IT WAS FRAUGHT WITH
PROBLEMS AND FOIBLES,” SHE SAID,
“THEY DID WORK TOGETHER TO
CREATE A MORE OPEN SOCIETY,
WHERE MORE PEOPLE COULD DEVELOP
THEIR TALENTS TO THEIR FULLEST
AND THEY TRIED TO DISCOVER THIS
WONDERFUL BALANCE BETWEEN
SELFLESSNESS AND SELFISHNESS,
BECAUSE THEY KNEW YOU COULDN'T
REACH A HIGHER GROUND WITHOUT
HELPING YOUR SOCIETY REACH IT,
TOO.”
BUT MIKOS, A JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL
STUDENT THEN SAYS TO US, “VIRTUE
ISN'T SOMETHING TO BE DEFINED,
REALLY.
IT'S SOMETHING TO BE LIVED.”
HE SAYS, “LIKE, WHEN SOCRATES
WAS HAVING DIALOGUES HERE, HIS
SOCIETY WAS NO LONGER LIVING THE
VIRTUOUS LIFE.
SO,” HE SAYS, “SOCRATES AND
COMPANY BEGAN ASKING WHAT IS
VIRTUE, BECAUSE THEY QUIT LIVING
VIRTUE.”
HE SAYS, “WHEN YOU HAVE TO START
ASKING WHAT VIRTUE IS, THAT'S A
SURE SIGN THAT YOU'VE STOPPED
BEING VIRTUOUS.”
I SAID, “REALLY.
IS THAT NECESSARILY THE CASE?
I MEAN, CAN'T YOU STILL ASK WHAT
VIRTUE IS JUST TO BE ON THE
SAFE SIDE, OR JUST TO SEE IF
YOUR PHILOSOPHY OF VIRTUE JIBES
WITH OTHER PEOPLE'S
PHILOSOPHIES?”
AND HIS GIRLFRIEND ZOE SAYS,
“WELL, MAYBE THAT WAS THE
PROBLEM IN THE FIRST PLACE.
THE ATHENIANS DIDN'T STEP BACK
AND ASK THEMSELVES WHAT, EXACTLY
IT WAS THEY WERE DOING, UNTIL IT
WAS TOO LATE.”
AND SHE SAYS, “WHAT WE'RE DOING
NOW, EXPLORING WHAT VIRTUE IS
AND ISN'T, CAN BE AN EXAMPLE OF
VIRTUE IN ACTION, BECAUSE WE
HAVE A CHANCE TO LEARN MORE
ABOUT VIRTUE, AND HOW TO ACT ON
WHAT WE LEARN.
LIKE,” SHE SAYS, “THIS DIALOGUE
HAS ME THINKING THAT THE ROAD TO
VIRTUE IS ONE YOU CREATE FOR
YOURSELF, AND IT SEEMS TO ME
THAT NO TWO PEOPLE AND NO TWO
SOCIETIES TAKE PRECISELY THE
SAME ROAD TO BECOME MORE
VIRTUOUS.
BUT I THINK THEY ALL HAVE THE
SAME STARTING PLACE.
THEY ALL START OUT BY ASKING
WHAT VIRTUE IS, BECAUSE ONLY BY
ANSWERING THAT QUESTION A LITTLE
BIT MORE, CAN YOU THEN GO ON TO
ASK AND ANSWER, HOW CAN WE
BECOME MORE VIRTUOUS.”
ANTONIS, A RETIRED PHILOSOPHY
PROFESSOR SAYS, “SOCRATES NEVER
ARRIVED AT A FINAL ANSWER TO ANY
OF THE QUESTIONS THAT HE POSED.
HE LEFT IT UP TO GENERATIONS TO
COME, TO DISCOVER A MORE FINAL
ANSWER.
BUT,” ANTONIS SAID, “IF WE NO
LONGER ASK THE QUESTIONS HE
ASKED, WE'LL NEVER LEARN MORE
ABOUT VIRTUE, NEVER BECOME MORE
VIRTUOUS, BECAUSE WE WON'T HAVE
NEW ANSWERS TO EXPERIMENT WITH.”
AND I SAID, “WHAT EXACTLY DO YOU
MEAN BY EXPERIMENT?”
AND HE SAID, “WELL, SOCRATES
ASKED CERTAIN QUESTIONS ABOUT
VIRTUE, TO DISCOVER HOW TO HEAL
PEOPLE'S AILING SOULS AND HOW TO
HEAL THEIR AILING SOCIETY, AND
THE MORE HE EXAMINED THESE
QUESTIONS, THE MORE HE WAS ABLE
TO DISCOVER AND EXPERIMENT WITH
POSSIBLE CURES.”
AND WE
FALL SILENT AND THINK ABOUT ALL
THE GREAT THOUGHTS THAT HAVE
BEEN EXPRESSED SO FAR, UNTIL
MARIA, WHO HAD BEEN THE FIRST TO
SPEAK, NOW SAYS, “WELL I THINK
THE WAY SOCRATES CHOSE TO DIE IS
WHAT VIRTUE IS ALL ABOUT.”
“HE CHOSE TO DIE WITH DIGNITY AND
INTEGRITY, BECAUSE THAT IS THE
WAY HE LIVED.”
AND AFTER A MOMENT TO FURTHER
COLLECT HER THOUGHTS, SHE GOES
ON, “VIRTUE IS CHOOSING A WAY OF
LIFE THAT'S SO EXCELLENT, YOU'D
RATHER SACRIFICE YOUR LIFE THAN
SACRIFICE YOUR WAY OF LIFE.”
I ASKED HER, “DO YOU REALLY HAVE
TO BE WILLING TO SACRIFICE YOUR
LIFE TO BE CONSIDERED A PERSON
OF VIRTUE?”
AND SHE SAYS, “I THINK YOU HAVE
TO BE WILLING TO SACRIFICE WHO
YOU ARE, AT ANY GIVEN MOMENT.”
SHE SAYS, “SOCRATES AND OTHERS
EXPERIENCE CONTINUAL DEATH
AND REBIRTH IN THEIR QUEST TO
BECOME MORE VIRTUOUS.
IN THE DIALOGUES THEY HELD HERE
IN THE AGORA,” SHE SAYS, “THEY
HAD THE COURAGE TO OPEN
THEMSELVES UP TO OTHER VIEWS,
AND TO TRY TO DO JUSTICE TO THEM
BY CAREFULLY WEIGHING THEM AND
CONSIDERING THEM AGAINST THEIR
OWN VIEWS, AND THEY DID THIS
BECAUSE OF THEIR PIETY TOWARD
THE PURSUIT OF VIRTUE.
AND SO” SHE SAID, “THEY NEVER
EMERGED UNCHANGED OR UNSCATHED
IN THEIR DIALOGUES.
SO THERE WAS THIS CONTINUAL AND
WONDERFUL DEATH AND REBIRTH IN
THE COURSE OF ANY GIVEN
DIALOGUE.”
AND SHE PAUSES BEFORE THEN
SAYING, “SOCRATES NEVER SHOWED
HIS ESSENTIAL VIRTUE MORE THAN
IN THE MOMENT HE DRANK THE
HEMLOCK AND DIED.
SO,” SHE SAYS, “I DISAGREE THAT
WHEN HE DIED, VIRTUE DIED, TOO.
HE DIED SO THAT VIRTUE COULD
LIVE ON.”
THAT'S THE FIRST DIALOGUE IN THE
BOOK.
LET ME READ YOU A COUPLE OF
OTHER SECTIONS, FROM A SECTION--
SNIPPETS FROM A SECTION CALLED,
ALL THE WORLD IS AN AGORA.
“IN ESSAYS, THE FRENCH
RENAISSANCE INTELLECTUAL MICHEL
MONTAGNE WROTE THAT SOMEBODY
ASKED SOCRATES ONCE WHAT COUNTRY
HE WAS FROM, AND HIS REPLY
WASN'T THE PREDICTABLE, 'I'M
FROM ATHENS', INSTEAD SOCRATES
REPLIED, 'I AM OF THE WORLD'.
AND MONTAGNE GOES ON TO SAY THAT
SOCRATES EMBRACED THE WHOLE
WORLD AS HIS CITY.
THOUGH HE MAY HAVE CLAIMED TO BE
A CITIZEN OF THE WORLD, FROM
WHAT WE KNOW, HE PRETTY MUCH
STAYED PUT IN ATHENS, AND HE
WOULDN'T EVEN LEAVE WHEN HE WAS
TOLD THAT IF HE DIDN'T GO INTO
EXILE, HE WOULD BE PUT TO DEATH.
HE APPARENTLY FELT THAT HE COULD
BEST SET AN EXAMPLE AS A PERSON
IMBUED WITH WHAT HE CONSIDERED
RATHER UNIVERSAL AND TIMELESS
VIRTUES, IF HE PUT THEM INTO
PRACTISE AT HOME, AT A TIME WHEN
THE GREEK CITY STATE WAS
UNRAVELLING, AND WHEN LEADING
THE SO-CALLED VIRTUOUS LIFE WAS
NO LONGER HELD IN SUCH HIGH
REGARD.”
I'M NOT SURE IF I CONSIDER
MYSELF A CITIZEN OF THE WORLD,
BUT TO BE SURE, MORE OF THE
WORLD HAS SERVED AS MY OWN AGORA
OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS IN
PARTICULAR, AS I'VE TRAVELLED TO
HOLD PHILOSOPHICAL DIALOGUES IN
FAR FLUNG PLACES.
AND IN DOING SO, I GUESS I WAS
FOLLOWING IN SOCRATES'
FOOTSTEPS, AT LEAST IN THE
RESPECT THAT WHEREVER I WENT, I
ASKED SIX QUESTIONS THAT MANY
SCHOLARS AGREE THAT THE
HISTORICAL SOCRATES ASKED, AND
IN DOING SO, I WAS TRYING TO
DISCOVER MORE ABOUT THE NATURE
AND POTENTIAL OF HUMAN
EXCELLENCE.
AND THE TYPE OF VIRTUE, OR SETS
OF VIRTUES THAT A PERSON OR
SOCIETY NEEDS IN ORDER TO BECOME
MORE EXCELLENT OR TO ACHIEVE A
RARE TYPE OF EXCELLENCE.
AND THE QUESTIONS, AND AS I TALK
ABOUT IN MY BOOK, THERE'S OTHER
WAYS OF COURSE, TO TRANSLATE
THEM, ARE, WHAT IS VIRTUE, WHAT
IS MODERATION, WHAT IS COURAGE,
WHAT IS JUSTICE, WHAT IS PIETY,
WHAT IS THE GOOD?
AND MY TRAVELS TOOK ME TO PLACES
LIKE GREECE AND SPAIN AND
BELGIUM, AND EUROPE, THEY TOOK
ME TO JAPAN AND KOREA AND ASIA,
I VENTURED THROUGHOUT MEXICO,
FROM MEXICO CITY, THE LARGEST
CITY IN THE WORLD, TO THE REMOTE
OUTPOST OF CHIAPAS, WHERE THE
REGION'S INDIGENOUS PEOPLE STILL
STRUGGLE FOR FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN
RIGHTS.
I TRAVELLED EXTENSIVELY
THROUGHOUT THE UNITED STATES
FROM NEW YORK CITY RIGHT AFTER
SEPTEMBER 11th, TO THE NAVAJO
NATION.
I TOOK PART IN DIALOGUES WITH
IMMIGRANTS FROM ISLAMIC NATIONS,
WITH UNIVERSITY STUDENTS WHO HAD
COME TO THE UNITED STATES FROM
ISRAEL, AND THE PALESTINIAN
TERRITORY AND OTHER MIDDLE
EASTERN NATIONS.
AND BESIDES HOLDING DIALOGUES
WITH PEOPLE OF ALL WALKS OF LIFE
IN SUCH PLACES AS CAFES AND
COMMUNITY CENTRES AND PLAZAS,
INCLUDING ONE PLAZA WHERE ONE OF
THE MOST TRAGIC HUMAN RIGHTS
PROTESTS IN MODERN HISTORY TOOK
PLACE.
I ALSO WENT TO PLACES LIKE A
PUBLIC HOUSING PROJECT AND A
HOMELESS SHELTER AND A MAXIMUM
SECURITY PRISON, AND A FACILITY
FOR THE SEVERELY MENTALLY ILL.
AND IN ALL THESE DIALOGUES, I
HOPE TO GAIN, NOT ONLY A GREATER
MULTICULTURAL UNDERSTANDING, BUT
WHAT I'D ALSO CALL A GREATER
MULTI-EXPERIENTIAL UNDERSTANDING
OF THESE PEOPLE'S RICH
PHILOSOPHIES OF VIRTUE AND ITS
ROLE IN ACHIEVING HUMAN
EXCELLENCE.
AND THESE EXPERIENCES IN TURN,
INSPIRE ME TO DELVE DEEPLY INTO
THE RICH PHILOSOPHICAL AND
CULTURAL AND RELIGIOUS
TRADITIONS OF THE PEOPLE WITH
WHOM I ENGAGED IN DIALOGUE, AND
ALONG THE WAY, I DISCOVERED
EASTERN PARTS OF THE WORLD,
WESTERN PARTS, DEVELOPED PARTS,
NON-DEVELOPED PARTS, NUMEROUS
PHILOSOPHICAL THINKERS WHO I
BELIEVE IN MANY RESPECTS WERE
KINDRED SPIRITS OF SOCRATES.
IN MANY WAYS, THESE INDIVIDUALS
WERE PARADIGMS OF VIRTUE AND
AUTONOMY, WHO, WHEN CHALLENGING
THE RECEIVED WISDOM OF THE DAY,
AND QUITE OFTEN RISKING THEIR
LIVES IN THE PROCESS, ENGAGED IN
THE LIFELONG PURSUIT OF A RARE
TYPE OF EXCELLENCE.
EACH OF THESE PHILOSOPHERS WHO I
DESCRIBE IN SOME DETAIL, BELIEVE
THAT AN INDIVIDUAL'S MOST
CREATIVE AND LIBERATING
POTENTIALS COULD NOT BE REACHED
UNLESS SOCIETY AS A WHOLE STROVE
FOR SUCH ENDS.
MANY OF THEM, PARTICULARLY NON-
WESTERN PHILOSOPHERS REMAIN
UNHERALDED OR ALTOGETHER
OVERLOOKED IN EVEN THE MOST
COMPREHENSIVE ENCYCLOPAEDIAS AND
DICTIONARIES OF PHILOSOPHY.
WHAT THEY HAVE IN COMMON, AMONG
MANY OTHER THINGS INCLUDING
THEIR WONDERFUL SCHOLARLY WORKS,
IS THAT THEIR REFUSAL TO PLAY IT
SAFE, AS THEY IMMERSE THEMSELVES
IN THE MOST VEXING ISSUES OF THE
DAY, WAS A SELF BASED ON A
PHILOSOPHICAL CODE THAT TO THEM
WOULD HAVE MADE IT
UNCONSCIONABLE NOT TO PLAY A
VITAL ROLE IN THE PUBLIC LIFE,
AT A TIME WHEN THEIR SOCIETIES
WERE AT CRITICAL CROSSROADS.
TO THEM, CASTING THEIR LOT WITH
THE REST OF SOCIETY WAS THE
PARAMOUNT DUTY OF A PHILOSOPHER.
SO WHY
DID I ASK THESE PARTICULAR SIX
QUESTIONS IN THIS BOOK?
WAS I, OR SOCRATES, OR ANYBODY
ELSE SAYING THAT IF ONE DELVED
INTO THESE SIX QUESTIONS, USING
A CERTAIN METHOD OF ENQUIRY,
THEN ALL THE ANSWERS AT WHICH
ONE COULD EVER HOPE TO ARRIVE
ABOUT THE NATURE AND POTENTIAL
OF HUMAN EXCELLENCE WERE THERE
FOR THE TAKING?
NO. I'M SURE SOCRATES AND ALL THOSE
WHO EXPLORE THESE SIX QUESTIONS
AND MANY OTHERS, I'M SURE THAT
THIS REPRESENTS JUST A FRACTION
OF THEIR CURIOSITY ON THE
SUBJECT AND THAT THEY ENQUIRED
INTO MANY, MANY OTHER QUESTIONS
BESIDES.
HOWEVER, I WOULD BE HARD PRESSED
TO IMAGINE A PHILOSOPHICAL
INVESTIGATION INTO HUMAN
EXCELLENCE THAT DIDN'T INCLUDE
THESE SIX QUESTIONS.
SO TO ME, THEY JUST SEEMED AN
IDEAL SPRINGBOARD TO LAUNCH INTO
A MODERN ENQUIRY INTO THE
SUBJECT, NOTHING MORE OR LESS.
ONE OF MY FAVOURITE SOCRATES
SCHOLARS, THE LATE LASZLO
VERSENYI, WRITES IN HIS
EXCELLENT BOOK, “SOCRATIC
HUMANISM,” THAT “THESE SIX
QUESTIONS WERE MERELY DIFFERENT
WAYS OF ASKING THE SAME
FUNDAMENTAL QUESTION, NAMELY,
WHAT IS MAN?
AND THAT SOCRATES WAS ASKING NOT
ONLY THE SAME QUESTION IN EACH
INSTANCE, BUT THE SAME ABOUT THE
SAME, CIRCLING AROUND THE SAME
CENTRE, APPROACHING THE SAME
THING FROM SEEMINGLY DIFFERENT
DIRECTIONS.”
WHILE I AGREE WITH VERSENYI THAT
EACH OF THE SIX QUESTIONS IS, IN
A SENSE, ASKING THE SAME ABOUT
THE SAME, I DON'T THINK SOCRATES
WAS PRIMARILY ASKING, WHAT IS
MAN?
I THINK RATHER, HE WAS ASKING,
WHAT IS HUMANKIND CAPABLE OF,
FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE?
BUT ALSO, OPTIMISTICALLY, HE WAS
ASKING, HOW CAN WE BECOME MORE
EXCELLENT?

Watch: Christopher Phillips on his book Six Questions of Socrates