Monday 23 July 2007

Yes, Socrates, Indeed

Socrates in Love: philosophy for a passionate heart, by Christopher Philips (WW Norton)

Ten years ago a publication with ‘x’ or ‘sex’ in the heading was a guaranteed bestseller, but with a cultural shift towards feeling, caring and emotional confessionalism, using ‘love’, ‘passion’ and ‘heart’ instead is an understandable move. But as every short introduction to philosophy is at pains to points out, the term comes from the Greek ‘philo’, meaning love, and ‘sophos’, meaning wisdom, so perhaps philosophy’s mass-marketing fate was sealed already.

Thankfully, rather than treating us to a gleeful expose of Socrates’ love life as the title suggests, Christopher Phillips gives an accessible introduction to the multi-faceted nature of love and theories thereof, in this, the final book in a trilogy exploring the Socratic method, following Socrates Café and Six Questions of Socrates. Phillips is the founder of the non-profit Society for Philosophical Inquiry (which is not ‘anti-academic’ but ‘embraces a type of vibrant and relevant philosophy’), itinerant philosopher, champion of coffee shop culture and pioneer of the Socrates Café – a discussion group he sets up wherever he happens to be. This book draws heavily on these discussions, all premised on the hypothesis ‘that by investigating questions dear to their hearts, a community of inquiry would fast gel, with the questions as the glue that bound participants together’ (p75). Let’s gel….

Taking as its model the Classical Greek concept of love, the book is split into six chapters, covering the illustrious-sounding eros, storge, xenia, philia, agape and then ‘socratic love’: it distinguishes erotic love, familial love, love of strangers, friendship-love, and unconditional love. Each chapter paints a distinctive picture of these different ways of loving – and being loved – through a mix of historical background, conceptual analysis, cultural case studies and personal testimony. What emerges is not so much a neat love hierarchy or an over-arching academic theory of love, but the insight that love plays all sorts of roles in people’s lives and means different things to different people.

For example, the book explores what it is to love a country in a time of political tumult: in a section on Castro, Phillips tells us, ‘my brother and I, too, have been blinded by ideology. It distorted the passionate idealism for which we risked our lives’; a section on post 9/11 America and Hurricane Katrina explores why we help strangers; the words of an American soldier posted in Iraq throw light on why people risk their lives for their countries. The section on love between friends is sympathetic towards deep-rooted and meaningful relationships, whilst the final chapter gives a noble defence of Socratic love: ‘we should continually seek for new ways of being human that lead to greater human beings’ (p310).

And in this, the admirable thrust of the book is to show that when it comes to love, there’s an emotional component and a rational component and the two don’t separate easily. When it comes to dialogue and discussion, passion is a key player alongside sound arguments and critical incisiveness. And when it comes to knowledge, it’s worth throwing caution to the winds and risking sounding like an idiot because some things, like arête – the Greek concept of ‘excellence’ – are more important in the long run.

Unfortunately Socrates in Love is not a good example of ‘excellence’. The book includes transcripts of what people have said at Phillips’ café meetings, which isn’t very scientific – the people whose views are recorded aren’t proportionally sampled or anything, but are just those who turn up. But there is also a problem with the discursive exposition that holds the book together. Phillips uses an eclectic mix of thinkers from Aristotle to 20th century figures like Herbert Marcuse, Theodore Adorno and Bertrand Russell, and draws on the Spanish essayist and philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, Watsuji Tetsuro (Japanese philosopher 1989-1960), and Sun Tzu (Chinese military strategist 544-496BC) amongst many others. The result isn’t a rollercoaster feeling of exhilaration so much as gentle carsickness; rather than an investigation of these thinkers’ ideas, there is only a chattering static of soundbites. It’s difficult to see what name-dropping like this to introduce straightforward points really achieves, especially when Phillips prefers the participants of his discussions not to read – or even think – about the issues beforehand, precisely to avoid this sort of useless posturing.

Some nuggets work: we learn the Tetsuro glossed the Japanese term for individual, ningen, as ‘someone who gains self-fulfilment by seeing herself as part of the “totality” of humans…working toward realising “the welfare of humankind”’. This is useful, both because it begs comparison with a more Western concept of the individual, and also because it points towards a more global idea of what it means to be human. The reason for the scare quotes is not clear. A two-paragraph exposition of Heidegger’s platitude that ‘care is the basic state of human existence’ (p159), however, was never going to cut much ice. Neither do three measly paragraphs on Ayn Rand’s contention that man’s ‘enlightened self-interest is his reason for being’ (p169) really do her position justice. Sometimes the book is in danger of summing up an entire life’s oeuvre too simply, dismissing thinkers who deserve a more considered reading out of hand by making out their views can be distilled to a couple of easily-read sentences. Which is strangely un-Socratic: Plato’s dialogues show Socrates most often as a figure who would never rest till he had thoroughly cross-examined, torn apart and utterly humiliated his opponents.

And this is the main problem with the text, it zips along at breakneck pace, throwing up exotic terminology (cubinidad –pride in being Cuban; ikigai – Japanese for a person’s deepest sense of social commitment), but fails to examine these ideas much further to arrive at any interesting conclusions about, for instance, why nationalism is important to emerging democratic states; or of how we should be good citizens in the contemporary West. The fervour that drives the exposition and the rapid-fire questioning is infectious but ultimately falls short of generating any genuine passion.

And on passion, arguments from etymology prove nothing very much but can be enlightening: the noun ‘passion’ comes from the Latin verb ‘pati’, which means, ‘to suffer’, and the Christian Passion is about the suffering and death of Christ. Passion hasn’t historically meant the sort of gloss-thin enthusiasm it denotes today, and neither does it fit easily with the rational life; it’s ‘a barely controllable emotion’ (OED, 2001) leading to a destabilising and intense obsession with a thing at the cost of everything else. ‘Philosophy for a passionate heart’ should be more about a steam-rolling mania for knowledge than about a comfortable (albeit sort of interesting) pondering over love. Personal anecdotes – including Phillips’ own story of meeting and falling for his wife (yes, yuk) – add little attraction to the romantic notion of suffering, or being passionate, for knowledge.

And in a culture where its popular to deny the possibility of knowledge, and educational impetus (especially in Britain) comes instead from a desire to make children into better citizens or simply to make tham feel better, the Socratic idea of knowledge being a means to wisdom directed towards benefiting society as a whole could do with a strong defence.

Phillip’s argument to this end draws on Martha Nussbaum’s work: the original Socratic mission, ‘really questioning everyone, recognising everyone’s humanity’, she says, ‘would never be completely at home in universities’. Phillips adds that Socrates would never have wanted learning to be institutionalised in the first place, because his vision would be one where ‘there would be no divides between disciplines, much less divides between one’s formal learning environment and society at large’. Most important is to live the examined life, questioning all beliefs and accepting ‘only those that survive reason’s demand for consistency and justification’ (p201).

But whilst this knowledge as way of life model is appealing, it’s difficult to imagine a society with no formal education system to speak of. Fetishising the figure of Socrates serves only to feed the very cultural problem it is supposed to solve. Socrates becomes a ‘personality’ to emulate, the atheist’s ersatz Jesus. Carry this idea through and the aim of thinking for yourself is now merely to feel better, to be closer to others and divulge ‘experiences’ in some asphyxiating group therapy. The idea that individuals can stand up for themselves under scrutiny and persistent questioning, to emerge with a better understanding and defence of their beliefs – the point of the Socratic method – is blunted.

In my view, the right point to make about the Socratic method is that, as it is, people can be trained to be good at questioning, analysing and reasoning; and the proper aim of Socratic dialogue was truth. Phillips’ discussions as represented in this book are simply forums for feelings rather than discursive discussions led by an experienced interlocutor. And in that respect, ‘Philosophy for a passionate heart’ is an apt subtitle – it’s about enthusing, not thinking. It’s truth that’s the really x-rated thing.

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