Alum Updates Socrates’ Philosophy, Captures International Attention

Christopher Phillips (Class of ’00, M.A. Humanities External Degree) has captured the attention of The Christian Science Monitor and Time magazine with his two books, Socrates Café and the new Six Questions of Socrates, as well as for his ever-growing international web of philosophy discussion groups, Socrates Café.

Phillips said he looked around and saw the impasse between political parties, between countries, between adherents of differing religions. He saw the problems arising because of it. Then he looked at ancient civilizations, especially the Greeks, and made the comparison—and from that he developed a philosophy about it.
“In Greece, that great civilization broke down not from outside sources, but from within. It broke down because of lack of communication, because of lack of dialogue, the kinds of dialogue initiated by Socrates and the other great philosophers from that time. I see the same things now.

“I thought about it. I can either complain about it or try to do something about it. I’m trying to do something about it.”

What Phillips—whose original family name, he said, was Philipous until it was arbitrarily changed as his family members were processed through Ellis Island in 1922—did was return to Greece; philosophically, by adopting the Socratic methods and Socratic teachings, and literally, by returning to the agora, the area of Athens where Socrates posed his philosophy questions to anyone who would listen, and posed them again.

Socrates’ six basic questions, as listed in Plato’s Dialogues, are: What is virtue? What is moderation? What is justice? What is courage? What is good? What is Piety? By adopting the street-level approach to philosophical dialog, Phillips ended up with two results: He founded the Society for Philosophical Inquiry, which gave rise to the Socrates Café, and he authored the two books.

In his world travels while establishing Socrates Café chapters, asking his questions of ordinary and extraordinary people alike, and touring with his books, Phillips said in his statement about Six Questions of Socrates he “found surprising ideological similarities between peoples and cultures that are—at least geographically—very distant from each other. In maximum-security prisons and schools, in places that have seen some of the most tragic human-rights protests in recent history, and in the agora of Athens.” He also saw “links between Western thought and the rich experiences and traditions of peoples far removed from the ‘canon’ of academic philosophy.”

Phillips said in a story written by The Christian Science Monitor in March that he abandoned philosophy as a major because so many instructors “spoke in monotone voices, read from prepared texts and took umbrage at questions.”

However, he told Dateline, “I had one instructor, Ben Mijuskovic, adjunct professor of philosophy, who was my thesis advisor, who was inspirational, encouraging and supporting, non-threatening. Studying with him was a good experience. In fact, the master’s I got at Cal State Dominguez Hills was my best [Phillips has three master’s degrees. The one from Dominguez Hills was his third] because it was rigorous, exacting and it made me think deeply.”

In fact, Phillips said, “The thesis I wrote for my degree at Dominguez served as a template for my scholarly writing for the general public," meaning the books Socrates Café and Six Questions of Socrates.

The Web site for the Society of Philosophical Inquiry is http://www.philosopher.org.

 

– Russell Hudson

Originally appeared in C A L I F O R N I A S TAT E U N I V E R S I T Y,
D O M I N G U E Z H I L L S Dateline Dominguez Hills, Summer 2005.