Coffee talk: Are Socrates Cafes the antidote to modern life?
[from The Ottawa Citizen, Aug 27, 2005]
It's a fact of modern life: Good dialogue is a rarity. Take the
average nine-to-five human who minds children and parents and hasn't
shared an hour with a good friend -- without interruption -- for months.
Or the guy on a cell, trapped in rush-hour traffic, with a virtual
stranger reciting forgettable blond jokes.
Want a good mental meal? Join a Socrates Cafe. Think about big ideas: What
is a just war? What is a friend? What is truth? Curious minds from diverse
communities hold cafe meetings in coffee shops and other comfort zones.
They meet for a couple of hours and talk philosophy -- Socrates-style
philosophy which examines life with questions. In ancient Greece, Socrates
built a career asking questions en route to self knowledge and human
excellence. Think: the unexamined life is not worth living.
Why ask why? Why does anyone want wisdom? It's a personal thing. But
what's obvious is: Socrates cafes -- which attract thinkers -- exist
against a backdrop of a number of society's less than uplifting
preoccupations, among them, material wealth, drugs, pervasive technology,
instant success, radical body sculpting and a reluctance to end poverty.
Of course, groups of people in private homes have been chatting about
books, heritage preservation and society's ills forever. In Europe, cafe
philosophers are commonplace. But the Socrates Cafe movement is aimed at
bringing philosophy to the masses.
Christopher Phillips invented the Socrates Cafe in 1996. At that time, in
his mid 30s, he was Socrates incarnate, asking a lot of questions about
his job, his marriage and the future.
Phillips was living in the Mississippi Delta. He worked as an adjunct
English professor and was studying for the first of three master's
degrees: in the humanities, natural sciences and teaching. His marriage
was faltering, his academic career repetitive. At the same time, he was
writing articles, mostly for Parade magazine, a U.S. Sunday newspaper
insert. "I had this forte writing about unsung heroes, people on their
little patch of the earth, who had a really big social conscience living
on a shoestring budget or less, trying to make a big difference in the
world," says Phillips on his cell from Manhattan. "That made a big impact
"I decided I wanted to be one of those people. What really spoke to me was
having the types of dialogues with friends and strangers that I had had
way back in my college days when we would go to a local watering hole and
have at it 'til the wee hours of the morning. Strangers would sidle over
and join in and it was the best time ofmy life."
Socrates believed in examining life so Phillips adopted the Socratic
method in his cafes. "Instead of focusing on the outer cosmos, Socrates
focused primarily on human beings and their cosmos within," writes
Phillips in Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy, published in 2002.
"Socrates never seemed larger than life to me, but rather someone who felt
he could always become more than he was at any given time ... Soon after I
discovered him for myself, I made a sincere but rather inchoate vow to be
like Socrates. But I never seemed to get around to putting word into
Socrates Cafe, the book, deals with Phillips' drive to be more like
Socrates and revive philosophical talk amongst everyday folk. In the past
nine years -- since the first Socrates Cafe began in Montclair, New Jersey
-- at least 350 cafes have been formed throughout the world.
The United States has many Socrates Cafes. Canada has six, at last count.
Ottawa isn't on the official list, but Toronto has one group. Doreen
Vanini, a marketing consultant and strictly non-fiction fan, founded the
Toronto Socrates Cafe last year after meeting Phillips at a reading event
for his book, Six Questions of Socrates. A half dozen regulars meet every
two weeks at the homespun World Class Bakers on St. Clair Street West.
It's home to a 40-seat cafe and the meeting spot for several discussion
On a recent sultry night, 10 women and one guy threw out their ideas on
the nature of power at a long table. Tony Bolla led a mainly 40-plus
crowd. He clutched several pages of notes, mainly quotes about power to
ignite discussion. He didn't need them. Each person brought a different
idea, presented in measured intervals, as if the event were a play in
The talking points? Child labour, George Bush, Terry Fox, the media,
survival of the fittest, the French Revolution, Oprah's attempt to get
into a Paris Hermes store after hours and Henry Kissinger's famous line:
Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.
Bolla, 50, a website developer for community-based organizations, studied
political science and philosophy at the University of Toronto. "It's a
mental jog," he says. Socrates Cafe reminds him of childhood Sunday visits
with family in Toronto's Annex.
"All the aunts and uncles, cousins and so forth got together at grandma's
place after church," says Bolla. They would "sit around and have coffee
and spend hours just in discussion. Today that extended family isn't quite
as cohesive as it was back then. There isn't that weekly gathering."
As the only guy in the Socrates Cafe, he particularly likes the
opportunity to hear the female viewpoint. "We discussed what is life at
one point. My perspective was the scientific aspect. How is it created?
What does it consist of? Women had more interest in personal implications,
such as the meaning of living a life."
Lucy Izon, 52, a freelance travel writer, also likes hearing diverse
viewpoints on big questions. "It's like lateral thinking," she says. "It's
like ideas coming at you from different directions, something coming from
left field that you hadn't considered before.
"It's nice to know there are people around who want to spend two hours
doing this kind of thing. We just go through the motions so much these
days of listening, reacting, talking, doing. We don't stop to really think
Of course, that's exactly what interested Socrates. In Socrates Cafe,
Phillips writes that excellent human beings, in Socrates' spirit, strive
to acquire certain virtues, such as temperance, courage and wisdom. "Why?
Because the acquisition of such virtues creates a different kind of wealth
-- a wealth of empathy, of imaginative vision, of self-discovery."
In 1996, Phillips had a yearning for this kind of wealth. He wanted more
out of life and he knew he needed to make changes. He left his wife,
settled in New Jersey and started a Socrates Cafe in Montclair which
offers great views of the New York skyline. "I was scared to death," he
says of the uncertain move. Yet comfort came quickly.
At the cafe's second meeting, he met Cecilia Chapa from Mexico City, a
master's student at the local university with a bachelor's degree in
philosophy. She would become his second wife.
Many cafes later, Phillips wrote Socrates Cafe followed by Six Questions
of Socrates. "I only wrote a book out of sheer desperation 'cause I could
never get any funding," says Phillips who supports himself, in part, from
book sales. Socrates Cafe has sold more than 50,000 copies. Each year, for
the last three, the Whitman Institute in San Francisco has given the
author $25,000. The non-profit foundation supports mainly educational
programs involved with improvements in critical thinking. John Esterle,
the foundation's executive director, says people are searching for better
questions to better understand issues.
Evan Sinclair likes mental stuff. As a kid, he would wake up early, grab
copy J or L from his parents' 1956 Compton's encyclopedia set and read it
in bed for an hour. At 55, the Internet marketer is co-founder of the only
Socrates Cafe in Manhattan. It's four years old. A dozen or so of the
curious meet Tuesdays in a public atrium of the Sony building on Madison
Avenue. Periodically, Sinclair posts an Internet notice about the group to
find new people and new ideas. "Once in a while, people walk by. We have a
little sign on the table that says Socrates Cafe. They say, 'What are you
guys doing?' and they sit down."
George Elliott Clarke, a writer and English professor at the University of
Toronto, hasn't heard of the Socrates Cafe but he collects mainly creative
types for similar "spur-of-the-moment" gatherings. Four or five men and
women meet in a central spot -- the Sky Lounge of the Intercontinental
Hotel on Bloor Street. The talk? Form in art, playing to audiences and
contemporary art expression: books, movies and the like.
Clarke, 45, usually pays for the gatherings, which resemble university
chat groups where people come and go as they please. "I like to think of
it as an opportunity for folks who would otherwise never meet, never know
each other to have a chance to exchange some views, think about their art,
think about each other's art, talk about what they're doing, explore ideas
and at the same time just have a very good time."
On one occasion, a gathering of 10 writers, publishers, poets and other
artists held together in splinter groups for six hours.
About three years ago, Diana Fitzgerald Bryden, a Toronto poet, collected
a similar artistic group in her Parkdale livingroom. She calls it a salon
for women writers -- playwrights and film makers among them -- of various
ages and stages of career growth who might not meet in Toronto's social
whirl. Apart from the joy of hanging out with her friends -- eight to 10
usually get together out of a loose group of about 30 -- Bryden says she
wanted a venue to talk not only about writing, but the ideas behind it.
Her salons can last four to six hours depending on interest (and wine
"In the literary world, it's often very codified when you go to (social)
events. Younger writers might not get to talk to more established writers.
It's mostly business."
The last meeting at writer Karen Connelly's house explored travel and
writing, the writer as tourist and the sheer luxury of travel. "One woman
who teaches at York (University) was talking about her creative writing
class and saying, 'Everyone sort of has been affected by the American Idol
syndrome so they often don't want to read'," says Bryden. "When (a group
member) says, 'Who do you want me to bring in, who would you like to hear
from, they'll say, 'Oh, your agent.' They have no interest, really, in
other writers. They don't want to talk about work that has interested
Instant fame with questionable talent might seem more attainable, what
with hot TV shows such as American Idol and America's Next Top Model. Yet
thinkers like Phillips and author Mark Kingwell maintain we're still
haunted by life's weighty issues: What does my life mean, why am I going
to die? "These are questions which are so basic to the human condition
they never go away ... no matter how trivial the mass culture becomes,"
says Kingwell. "Since Socrates, dialogue has been an important avenue for
Kingwell, a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto, thinks it's
great that people join Socrates Cafe groups but he laments the lack of
argumentative discipline. "Sometimes, when I've participated in them or
watched them, there's a lack of rigour, which to the professional
philosopher like me is a little bit unhelpful ... I think what happens
often times is people are sort of spouting off things, they have
contradictory arguments or they're wondering down tangents."
Phillips has brought the mental buzz of a Socrates Cafe to maximum
security prisons, libraries, churches and day-care centres. Phillips is
also co-founder of the Society for Philosophical Inquiry, a grassroots,
non-profit organization that supports, among others, those who are curious
and subscribe to the Socratic ethos. For the last four years, with no home
in the U.S., he and his wife have lived in furnished apartments, one month
here, one month there. Part of the year, they live in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Phillips used his entire book advance for Six Questions, $30,000 U.S., to buy a home there.
Phillips met with philosophy fans at his annual July 4 dialogue on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. About 25 people, liberals and evangelicals, among them, dressed to attract their colleagues in "gaudy Socrates Cafe Independence Day T-shirts." The topic? Which freedoms matter most. One big one? "The freedom to engage one another without fear," says Phillips. "America just worships at the altar of fear these days." It's good to have "a thoughtful exchange where you can think way outside the box" and dare to say you were completely for or against the war in Iraq.
What's next for Phillips? "I don't do this 24/7," he explains. "I love to write poetry. I love to write fiction. I love to work with children in schools. I want to be a daddy, even in my relatively advanced age. This has sort of been the source or the springboard for greater self realization of who I can still be. Nietzsche said we can all be co-creators of our own universe.
"The Socrates Cafe helps us discover better the often glaring gap between our espoused ideals and the way we're actually living -- and inspire us to do our utmost to bridge that gap," Phillips writes in an e-mail after our chat.
Beware: bridging can be scary.