Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Here's to Socrates!

I read Christopher Phillips's Socrates Café today. I must admit, despite its cool title and very trendy populist texture, the book's prose was often rambling and painfully pedantic. I found my eyes drooping at least a few times, especially since most of the book consists of page after page after erratic page of brief and ultimately vague descriptions of innumerable people trying to say lots and lots of profound things. The plausibility, or authenticity, of the "conversations" was dubious at best. I got a good feel for how undergrad intro philosophy professors must feel. How many times can you see people get worked up so ignorantly about rabbit holes you know were tracked and closed millennia ago? ("Yeah, but how do we even know we're here, man! .. And, besides, what is 'here' anyway!"). The book quickly went from bordering on fatuity to basically wallowing in it. It reminded me of that surrealistic philosophy anime movie, Waking Life, which I found banal precisely because it tried to be oh so profound. (Of course, the story and, above all, the animation were tops.) As I read, I was thankful, truly thankful, for every single narrative interlude (about Phillips journey and some of his touching Socratic encounters), so I could get a breath from the heavy breathing in the chat sessions. It was like reading an undergrad's philosophy journal: intentionally, even cathartically, formless and aimless and groping. At least Phillips didn't indulge in any undue anti-religious boot stomping.

I hate to come across so negatively about the book, since I really appreciate what it's trying to say. Despite the unpleasant presentation was inspiring, and in several ways, informative. Bring philosophy -- understood as a hearty Socratic love for honesty, humility, learning and cooperative excellence in the pursuit of truth -- back to the people, shouts Phillips, founder of the Society for Philosophical Inquiry.

The fabled "Socratic method" gets a lot of press as being very subtle and nuanced, and, for many a non-philosopher, it holds a kind of mythical mysterious allure. But let me make things easy for you and tell you the discovery I and my dormmate made my freshmen year of college. After weeks -- whole weeks, I tell you! -- of discussing and pondering this "elenctic method", this means to "aporia", in and out of class, we discovered the true Socratic method. When your "interlocutor" makes a claim, just select a word or short phrase, at random really, and repeat it in a rising, deliberate, interrogative, quizzical tone.

For example, if you say, "Today is a nice day," I just reply, "Today?" Or maybe I'll say, "Nice?" And so forth. Regardless what word I repeat, you'll be thrown back on your heels, suddenly unsure how to proceed. Chit chat has just become possible grist for the gadfly's mill. (Ah, Socratic bliss!) "Yes," you continue, a little hesitantly, perhaps frowning ever so faintly at me as I stare you down with a waiting grin, "yes, the weather is nice today." "Is?" I reply coyly. "What's your problem, man? It's just a nice day," you snap. "Problem?" And so forth. Great fun and true ancient Greek wisdom. (Once we made this breakthrough, though, my dormmate and I had no more wonder about why Athens offed Socrates.)

Anyway, over lunch today I had a flash of genius to combine populist philosophy with popular consumerism: Hemlock Beer. Or, just "Hemlock". Good possible slogans:

"Hemlock. To beer or not to beer?"

"Thinking of drinking? Drinking for thinking. Hemlock."

"Hemlock. It puts the head back in beer."

"Ours wouldn't have killed Socrates."

(Reader submissions?)

Hemlock is basically just beer -- but with profiles and quotes from famous philosophers on the side of the can. To ensure the beer weren't too highbrow, these can-side profiles would have whimsical and wry, sort of like The Onion covering Plato. Think about it: What better way to spend a night out (or in) than haggling and yelling with drunk people about the deep questions of life! ("I drink therefore I am?" "Why beer and not nothing?" "Does beer have a soul? Do I have a soul? If so, is it made of beer?" "Does Miller Lite really taste great ... or is it really just less filling?" "Got milk?" Etc.) I imagine it would be immensely popular in college dorms as well as posh seashore condos.

In the excitement of creativity, I thought of a product extension: Philosopher Brews. Find out what brews various philosophers enjoyed best and run a series of special brews in their honor.

You could even have drinker essay contests. "What did you learn while drinking Hemlock?"

I unabashedly admit this beer rests on almost pure gimmick, but I would insist it were finely brewed, affordable beer. Of course, I realize it might be little naughty of me to fuse education with heavy drinking... but well, I can only hope things go down smoothly.

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