Socrates Hits the Streets

At 40, Chris Phillips is underemployed, deeply in debt . . . and absolutely thrilled about how his life has turned out. Since 1996, this former journalist and schoolteacher has dedicated his life to teaching small groups of people how to use the Socratic method to revolutionize their everyday lives. Wandering about the republic, Phillips reaches out to anyone willing to engage with him in a common quest to lead the examined life, facilitating hundreds of “Socrates Cafés,” in which ordinary men and women gather to ask the Big Questions, and to ask questions about the questions. He’s also launched scores of after-school “Philosophers’ Clubs” for kids. “I didn’t have any master plan when I started doing this,” he admits. “I just had this little idea: Let’s give philosophy back to the people.”

Like a Johnny Appleseed with a master’s degree, Phillips has gallivanted back and forth across America, to cafés and coffee shops, senior centers, assisted-living complexes, prisons, libraries, day-care centers, elementary and high schools, and churches, forming lasting communities of inquiry, composed of people, he says, who have nothing in common beyond “an immense respect for one another’s point of view, an immense desire to have their convictions scrutinized by others, and an immense curiosity that cannot be satisfied by the facile responses of know-it-all gurus.”

Phillips won’t charge for his work. (“It would be sacrilege to charge people when you learn much more from them than they could ever learn from you.”) This, he admits, has required some sacrifices. “I want to have a family, but I can’t afford to,” he laments. “My wife and I are crashing with friends. I drive a 1985 Chevy Nova with only three gears out of five working. It’s humiliating!”

But Phillips claims he’s profited in other ways. “If you look at the development of a more empathetic and pluralistic democracy as an end to shoot for, then giving everything I’ve got to attain this end is far more rewarding than anything I’ve sacrificed,” he insists. Besides, he recounts, at one of his very first Socrates Cafés, in Montclair, New Jersey, when only one person showed up, “I was so depressed! But we had this beautiful discussion on the question ‘What is love?’ and I ended up marrying her.”

Phillips has just completed a book about his mission, Socrates Café: Tales of the Examined Life, which will be published by Norton in February. Why the obsession with Socrates? “More than anyone else who’s ever lived,” Phillips believes, “Socrates models for us philosophy in practice–philosophy as deed, as a way of living, as something that any of us can do.”

As a teenager, Phillips recalls, he’d read the philosopher Walter Kaufmann’s Introduction to Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, a collection of writings about the pleasures and perils of the truly philosophical life. Kaufmann had issued a call for those willing to emulate Socrates in bringing philosophical inquiry to ordinary men and women–without making it less rigorous in the interest of accessibility. Deciding then and there to dedicate his life to “sublime risk-taking,” Phillips abruptly abandoned plans to attend engineering school and enrolled in a liberal arts college instead. Then, upon graduating in 1981, he just as abruptly decided to drive to Maine to be a writer. Over the next 15 years, however, as he worked as a schoolteacher and a college instructor, got married, and eventually found steady work as a freelance journalist, Phillips found himself becoming increasingly troubled. Everything had worked out fine, but something was missing.

While he was traveling across the country in pursuit of stories to report, Phillips recalls, he’d begun to notice a pervasive sense of self-absorption, intolerance, fatalism, and helplessness. In fact, since his professional life had become predictable and uninspiring, and since he and his first wife were splitting up, he felt this way himself. Then, when he learned that one of his former students had committed suicide, his Socratic sensibility kicked in. “I decided to stop wasting my time asking introspective, past-dwelling questions, and to ask forward-looking questions, questions that would help me make a radical transformation in my life,” he says. “I began asking questions like ‘What calling will make me feel as if I were getting the most out of my mortal moment?’ and ‘What can I do, here and now, to better the lot of humankind?'”

When the answer came, he says, it was an epiphany: “I wanted to be a philosopher in the mold of Socrates! I wanted to hold Socratic dialogues!” Phillips packed his belongings and started driving to Montclair, to study philosophy with Matthew Lipman, a Montclair State University professor who specialized in creating communities of philosophical inquiry. But on the way, he suddenly pulled over to the side of the road, overcome with terror. “What am I doing?” he wondered. “For the first time, I realized just how much I needed me,” he recalls today, “and that if I turned back, I would be abandoning myself in an unforgivable way.” Then he started the car up again and drove on.

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