He Has a Few Questions for You

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The subject was war and morality, and the words "Adolf Hitler" and "Al Qaeda" hung solemnly in the air at the small Westside coffeehouse. But the soft-spoken man in black cowboy boots sounded upbeat as he patiently fired off another question to a room packed with pensive smiles and furrowed brows.

"What is the difference between defending yourself and going to war?" Christopher Phillips was quietly asking the dozen people crowded into the small cafe extension of Dutton's Brentwood Books. The amiable ambience felt far removed from the take-no-prisoners screaming matches that today often pass for public discourse--so far removed, in fact, that the scene might've been occurring in another time and place.

For Phillips, a 42-year-old former political science major, that time and place would be Athens in 4th century BC, when another man known for posing tough questions single-handedly swayed the course of human thought. Socrates, the founding godfather of Western philosophy, whose probing dialogues gained immortality through the writings of Plato, is the inspiration behind Phillips' 6-year-old Socrates Cafe, an enterprise that, despite its name, has little to do with bohemian poseurs knocking back ice-blended mochas.

"I think that Americans always go to war to preserve our way of life. The rest is just ideology. We want to protect that we're a rich country and we're powerful," says Jai Ying, a former Internet company worker who's between jobs.

Phillips, nodding thoughtfully, slowly steps from his bar stool at the front of the room. "If someone says, 'I'm going to war to prevent future 9/11s,' is that just?" he asks, nudging the dialogue in a slightly different direction.

For a few seconds the room falls silent save for the traffic whooshing by on San Vicente Boulevard. "You have to be convinced it is right," one man responds finally. "You also have to be convinced that it is a last resort, that there is no other way."

In its simplest form, Phillips says, Socrates Cafe is a way of getting people from various walks of life together to discuss such perennial brain-twisters as: What is justice? What is a good friend? What's the difference between destiny and fatalism?

To date, Phillips has orchestrated discussions on these and other Solomonic topics at nursing homes, maximum-security prisons, churches, homeless shelters, bookstores and coffeehouses across the country, gently prodding students, urban professionals, unreconstructed slackers, street people and others to share their worldviews and scrutinize their most basic assumptions. In the six years since he strolled into a Montclair, N.J., cafe and started rapping about this and that, Phillips has taken part in about 2,000 Socratic sessions.

Generally, Phillips starts things off with some brief remarks, after which he lets the group choose the topic. Often, these spring directly from the day's headlines. Once, at a Rhode Island bookstore, a man said he wanted to understand more about why the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, had been put to death. "You could see people getting very tense," Phillips says, until the group finally settled on the question: Who owns human life?

While Socrates' more-introspective-than-thou attitude didn't always play well at the Parthenon--the Athenians finally forced him to drink hemlock to shut him up--Phillips' respectful, incorrigibly curious demeanor appears to put people at ease, permitting lively, free-flowing exchanges. "People ask me, sometimes seriously and sometimes tongue-in-cheek, if I worry about the same demise" as Socrates, Phillips says over an early dinner Monday before his Brentwood engagement. "Being the gadfly is not the most popular profession."

Popular or not, Phillips, a former journalist whose grandfather was a Greek immigrant, seems determined to push his concept as far as it will go in today's culture of grindingly oversimplified debate.

Building on word-of-mouth and last year's publication of "Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy" (W.W. Norton), his chatty memoir/travelogue/do-it-yourself manual, Phillips has been turning up in prominent newspapers, magazines and on National Public Radio. His book has even made it onto a few high school and college syllabuses. His illustrated children's book, "The Philosophers' Club" (Ten Speed Press, 2001), is also selling well.

In recent months, Phillips has been taking his act to such places as South Korea, Japan, Europe, Mexico City and the southern Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, where he and his Mexican-born wife, Cecilia, held a Socrates Cafe with members of the region's impoverished indigenous communities. "There were soldiers with guns looking at us like we were crazy," Phillips says.

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.

Blake Gardner, a young man with a brown bandanna around his head, who plans to set up his own Socrates Cafe, proposes the group discuss when is it just to go to war. The others agree, and the conversation is off and running for the next hour and 20 minutes.

Phillips plays the role of conductor, stepping in when he senses a line of thought has petered out and frequently asking speakers to define their terms or flesh out their ideas. Cecilia, furiously scribbling away on a notepad, keeps track of the dialogue's ebbs and flows and jumps in once or twice with a comment.

As the evening breaks up, Eric Vollmer, an arts and grant consultant, says he was "surprised and sort of delighted with the level of conversation. The skill that [Phillips] has is quite remarkable."

And what will Phillips take away from the evening? Most likely, the same thing he always does. "The one great lesson I've learned is that people can change," he says. "Most people never do. And it starts with somebody taking the time to talk to 'em."

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