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Christopher Phillips

Christopher Phillips is known for promoting the art of Socratic enquiry in cafés, schools and even prisons all over the globe. David Taube met him to talk about his new book, Socrates In Love, a series of anecdotes, interviews and essays based around the five Greek concepts of love.

In your book you discuss five ancient Greek forms of love [see sidebar]. Which do you find the most indispensable?

The one I knew nothing about was xenia [‘the love of strangers’]. In fact, I went into investigating it sort of grudgingly. But I find in this day, in an age of endless demonizing and mindless stereotyping of anyone who’s different than us, that xenia is absolutely indispensable. Social evolution and our greater emancipation is based on overcoming preconceived notions of people. So I have to say that of all the five forms, that was the one which over time I became the most passionate about, even though at the beginning I thought it was completely dispensable. But to me that’s the beauty of Socratic inquiry.

Some people might think “What does ‘the love of strangers’ mean? Do I have to love every person I’m passing on the street?” Of course not; but it does mean you have to be open to the possibility of surprise encounters. Say the electricity suddenly goes out and we’re all dependent upon each other. What then?

The first time I visited a maximum security prison I had all these stereotypical notions – all of them shattered immediately by these extremely thoughtful but troubled people who at the same time were mordantly honest with themselves in most cases. The same thing happened in Japan. I was told people there were too reserved to reveal much of anything about themselves, but this wasn’t the case. I think there can be an ‘intellectual’ tendency to stereotype because so many people who engage in inquiry really see themselves above others. They try to proselytize, and they try to lead people to their version of the Truth or the promised land instead of engaging with people as equals, and really wanting to hear other people’s truths and stories. To me that kind of attitude is all based on xenia.

Through dialogue can we come to agree standards about love or will there always be this endless refrain of ‘It has to be changed’?

Look at any society and there’s standards of morals and values, but young people in particular question them. They see hypocrisies practiced, and they attempt to revolutionize them. So I think there does have to be this sort of revolutionary component. I mean, people challenge the common sense wisdom of the day, whether it’s about love or how to have the best type of society, and that’s a healthy exercise. If you don’t continually challenge society’s assumptions, how do you know that the values you have are the best ones? It doesn’t mean that you paralyze yourself: it means that you question your acts and examine them. If you don’t, as Sartre said, “You’re like stone.” You’ve become incapable of growth. You’ve rejected growth, which can be part of love. To me philosophical enquiry is filled with passion every step of the way.

Thinking of all the responses people gave throughout the book, were there any ideas you thought were plain wrong?

I don’t know, I don’t think in the course of my dialogues I came across any that I thought were wholly wrong, but some spoke to me more than others. But I mean, anyone who claims to be acting in the name of love of their God and yet seems to practice a sociopathic way of expressing that through unbridled violence and brutality I think is practicing a form of ‘love’ I find abhorrent.

Look at our [American] government. If you love your own little group above all others – your little group of cronies, your little group of political advisors, your family at the expense of others – if you just want the best of things for them, then you really don’t give a rat’s ass about anyone else. In fact you create policies which advance the very few privileged at the expense of everyone else and which ensure that innocents with very little control over their lives are caught in a crossfire of heinous brutality. That is a love I would do my utmost to eradicate, and replace with a type of love where we see all of us, all humans, as equally deserving to have hope, opportunity and choice in life; where we have the opportunity to discover those talents which create a more emancipatory type of experience for the average human being.

Does that type of love have to involve all five forms?

I don’t know. I mean those were five classical Greek forms of love. I certainly didn’t go into writing my book with a basic working premise that we need to practice all these forms. I just wanted to investigate them.

I think those five forms of love are good springboards, but I don’t think they’re all that love can be. At the end of the book I introduce a section about Socratic love, which means love tantamount to a type of inquiry where you don’t just simply pose questions as some ironist or some poseur, but you really try to sympathetically imbue yourself in the views of others as a means of both personal and societal growth at the same time.

I dare say that there’s probably so many other forms of love. When I went to South Africa and engaged in dialogue with people in Soweto, they talked about their tribal notion of love, which was based on the philosophy of umbutu, meaning ‘I am in you, and you are in me’. It’s a love in which there is no ‘I’ without there first being a ‘we.’

Is Socratic love compatible with monogamous marriage?

It can be, but I think it depends on the couple. What Socratic love is most compatible with is honesty and integrity. If you and your wife clearly believe in monogamy and have reasons for that, as my wife and I do, then that is a type of intimacy you wouldn’t want to share with others; whereas there are couples who believe it’s okay to be open and to explore with others as long as there’s an agreement. A monogamous relationship does not have to mean in any way that you close yourself off to erotic discovery, but in fact it can be the best way to go about it –with the person you love most, you can engage in endless discovery of this sort, and that it can in turn be a springboard to so many other discoveries in other realms of love and creativity.

Part of Socratic inquiry here would be to go back and question your code and ask, “Is this the best way to achieve the intimacy we aspire for?” I’ve never been prompted to ‘experiment’, but I find that being with the one I love the most is an endless form of discovery – that you can practice endless variety with just that one significant other. Other people apparently don’t agree with that. And that, to me, is the wonderful thing about this form of inquiry: there is no such thing as a universal rule when it comes to humans, human behavior or philosophy. There’s an exception to almost any rule, and to me that type of variety is fascinating. It’s what makes this type of inquiry really endlessly thrilling, even after nearly eleven years.

It seemed you never explicitly touched upon your religious convictions in the book, but where would they fit into Socrates in Love, if at all?

I think we could have a long philosophical discussion on ‘What does it mean to be religious?’ Many people, from our President on down, have claimed to be religious – deeply so – but I believe they have often been practicing the exact antithesis of the values and virtues their religion espouses.

I don’t think that means I’ve necessarily abandoned my parents’ faith altogether by not going to church. I don’t think I’m an atheist. I don’t know what an atheist really is, to tell you the truth. An atheist says “I don’t believe in God.” What does that mean? An atheist seems to recognize and embrace the concept of God, only to reject it ultimately. I could say I don’t believe there’s a God, which to me means I so far don’t buy into any concept of God that’s been offered up. I'm not presumptuous enough to assume there's no concept of God I wouldn't find amenable – there may well be, only so far, I haven't come across it. I’m open. I think that’s my religion: one of openness.

In terms of unconditional love, do you think that’s possible? Is it even coherent?

I don’t know. I don’t know what unconditional love truly amounts to, as I talk about it in my book. I think that love has to be subject to conditions in some ways. For instance, I’m conditioned by my experiences, by my belief systems and by all kinds of things. I do have expectations. I do judge others; but I do try first and foremost to judge myself, through honest lenses. I do think there are codes to live by and types of love worth striving for, but hopefully they, although conditioned, are types of experimental love which expand the boundaries and constantly push the envelope of ideas and ideals of what it can mean to love.

When we have competing regional and ethnocentric doctrines, how do we say which one is right and wrong?

I don’t know. I mean absolutely right or wrong? I don’t think one could ever be so presumptuous. But I think what we do have to do is quit avoiding dialogue at every turn and engage with people of different value systems instead.

I think it’s dangerous whenever our country says it won’t talk to people of other approaches. I think we should be the ones who invite dialogue at every turn if at all possible. I think the people you shun dialogue with quite often are more like you than you care to realize. Such people may in fact have more in common with one another – and so in that way ‘transcend’ their faith, albeit in a negative and even pernicious way – than they do with people of their and other faiths who view their respective belief system as one that exhorts them to inquire far and wide in ways that make them more open and empathetic beings. So it’s important to engage and find out. The problem is if you hold a value system based on a notion that you are better, that your group is better, then you do not value human life very much. But I would argue that that’s not a value system worth having.

If you shut off dialogue it means you’re shutting yourself off from other human beings. There are people from just about all belief systems who do that. On the other hand there are people from all the noble religions who believe in the notion that you must inquire far and wide with others from a plurality of perspectives as a way of gaining greater understanding of your own beliefs. The first Surah in the Koran says to read, to inquire – and yet somehow the Koran has been perverted by some with a very blinded approach who wouldn’t dare inquire with anybody who differs. But you also have that among many people of different Christian sects; and you have it among atheists too. They have more in common if they close off inquiry.

Many people practice forms of love whose inspiration springs from belief systems about which I and others would say there isn’t any warrantable evidence that it has a rational foundation. And yet these people act in the world in supremely humane ways. So sometimes rationality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I may think the foundation of a person’s belief system is irrational – and yet, what a humane, paradigmatic individual Martin Luther King is compared to some master of cold rationalism who interacts with the world in barbaric ways. So to me the rational justification of ideas per se certainly wouldn’t be any final guide. That’s why I’m always a little leery of somebody who just says all religion is bad, that religion is the root of all evil – they’re no more justified than someone who says all atheists are evil. I think it’s an easy out, instead of taking it on a case by case basis and taking the time to inquire with people. It’s just so easy to lump and stereotype people into all these categories.

Perhaps the investigation is as important as the outcome?

Look at science. It’s constantly being overhauled and up-ended. New paradigms come in and out of fashion all the time; there’s that revolutionary component. For some reason they’re trying to come up with a unified ‘theory of everything’. But I think if the universe is perhaps a mirror of human beings, it may be a bundle of contradictions. And there may not be a single, unifying explanation of everything.

You know, I think the forms of love in my book are just five ways of approaching excellence as the Greeks conceived of it. This allows us to come to the epiphany that these five forms of love are all facets of the same thing.

David Taube is majoring in Philosophy, Psychology and Magazine Journalism at Syracuse University.

Words of Love

These are the five Greek words for love:

Eros: Erotic desire; or in its wider form, romantic love.

Philia: Friendship love. Also, the form of love where you can say “I love chocolate” or “I love wisdom.”

Xenia: Love offered to strangers. Hospitality, broadly speaking.

Storge: Family love. The nurturing love of a mother, for example.

Agape: Unconditional love – not in the sense of “I love everything you do,” but in the sense of “I’ll still love you, whatever you do.”

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