Christopher Phillips, PhD, is founder of the global Socrates Café movement, dedicated to making ours a more understanding, connected and participatory world through rigorous, methodical yet accessible philosophical questions. Hundreds of ongoing Socrates Cafés and kindred groups have been established, including in Saudi Arabia, with people of many ages and walks of life at venues including community and cultural centers, libraries, universities and schools, coffee houses, hospitals, prisons, as well as via virtual platforms.
In addition to many scholarly essays, he has authored an array of general interest books translated into many languages, including the acclaimed international bestsellers, Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy, Six Questions of Socrates, as well as Socrates in Love, A Child at Heart and the upcoming Soul of Goodness. His various popular philosophical children’s books includes Philosophers’ Club and Day of Why.
Christopher has been Network Ethics Fellow at Harvard University, Senior Research and Writing Fellow at University of Pennsylvania, the first-ever senior education fellow at the National Constitution Center, and was recipient of the Distinguish American Leadership Award. Christopher’s newest book is Soul of Goodness: Transform Grievous Hurt, Betrayal and Setback into Love, Joy and Compassion. You can find out more about his work at ChristopherPhillips.com.
How did you become interested in this area (Philosophy)?
I had little choice but to become interested. As I write in my newest book, Soul of Goodness, when I was quite young my Greek grandmother, or Yaya, Calliope Kavazarakis Phillips, began to instill me with philosophical teachings that she herself had learned from her own parents. She was the oldest of eight, and as such in that matrilineal society (the oldest female sibling received and all inheritances, per tradition), she was a forbidding, astute, loving, incredibly intelligent and passionate person. Though I was raised in the Tidewater region of Virginia, I spent all my childhood and adolescent summers in Tampa, Florida, under my Yaya’s wing and tutelage. So while my friends back in Virginia were enjoying a leisurely break from the formal school year, I was being schooled by my Yaya, who took advantage of this time to instill me in all things bright and beautiful about my Greek heritage.
After immigrating (not once, but twice) from the tiny volcanic island of Nisyros, in the South Aegean, to the U.S. through Ellis Island and eventually settling in the Tampa Bay region of Florida, my yaya Calliope (named after the ancient Greek muse of wisdom and poetry) put out her shingle as a teacher of Greek language and culture. I believe she’s the very first one to have done that in Tampa.
As a youngster, I learned from my Yaya her unique take or slant on (what follows is notes I took when I was 11):
- eudaimonia – Guarantor of human flourishing, wellness, prosperity, blessedness. Spirit of joy obtained through suffering and agony, when your heart is in another. “The one who lives well”—for arete—is blessed, prosperous and joyful.— Socrates, Plato’s Republic, Book 1
- and atopos – Spirit of a wanderer rooted at home, apart from yet connected, out of place yet belonging, strange yet familiar, marvelous and distasteful – “This is a custom of [Socrates]: . . . he stands apart wherever he happens to be.”
- and daimon – Divine voice of conscience, reflection, self-awareness, goodness
- and sophrosyne – Spirit of a sound and healthy (good and just) mind and soul. Conductor of the spirit orchestra. Teaches you when to restrain and when to let loose, when to go it alone and when to team up. Socrates, Plato’s Republic, Book 4: “Sophrosyne . . . stretches through the whole, from top to bottom of the entire scale, making the weaker, the stronger, and those in the middle . . . sing the same chant together.”
As I write in Soul of Goodness, this is in essence “the chant of arete, a Hellenic Greek term for all-around excellence in all life’s dimensions. A siren song with sophia-scored notes, compelling you to lead a life outside common hours, marching to your own drummer. It does not lead one to set out to achieve the comparatively puny goals of happiness or the good life—goals commonly and scandalously misattributed to Socrates himself—but leads one to reach for kinds of excellence and joyousness on the other side of (or more likely, along with) suffering, agony, despair.
Even though I have since gone on to earn lots of lots of degrees, including three masters degrees and.a PhD, philosophy has remained earthy and down to earth for me, thanks to my Yaya Calliope, but in ways that inspire me forever to push outwards the bounds of creating, sculpting human ways of being
So I also learned about these rich concepts in ways that differ quite markedly from how they’re typically bandied about these days in academia and elsewhere. I try to set the record straight about them in Soul of Goodness, not as an end in itself but so readers can learn how to channel these concepts, which are also kinds of ‘spirits,’ I maintain, that can help get us through the most trying times.
I also was schooled by my Yaya Calliope about the pre-Socratics, about Zeno of Citium, to whom she took a particular shine; but her heart and soul was with Socrates. She gave me a collection of Plato’s Socratic dialogues when I was about 10, and I had but little choice to pour over it. Thankfully Plato, a poet and dramatist of the life of reason, was an engaging writer, and most of what he wrote wasn’t as over my head as I worried it might be. I became smitten with the Socrates he adumbrated – not just the historical version but latter versions that Plato featured and that also to me had an integrity and imaginative vision and intellectual honesty, even if that particular ‘iteration’ of Socrates didn’t exist in real life.
But these were not by any means mere didactic teachings. For her, the life of excellence and virtue hinged on cultivating what she referred to as the ‘Socratic spirit,’ a curious, fascinating amalgam of forces and practices and knowledge traditions that could see you through the most difficult times. I never really realized, until my father’s devastating unexpected death, how critical these teachings and practices of hers were in enabling me to see my way through all the terrifying ugliness that ensued in the wake of my father’s passing, and about which I write in Soul of Goodness – and not just as a memoir, but as a guide or path of sorts for others who themselves are experiencing grievous or extreme setbacks, reversals, loss, in their personal and private lives.
What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?
That’s a challenging question for me, in part, because I don’t consider myself a teacher (probably why I feel atopos in the academic cloister 🙂 – more of a ‘modeler.’ I consider myself an ‘openist’ (which is different that a ‘pluralist’), and by that I mean I try to be open to new discoveries, ‘surprises,’ paradigm shifts in knowing and creating, and to model and sculpt a type of persona, sensibility, ethos in which to live a life of conscience, excellence, integrity, boundless childlike curiosity.
Be that as it may, there are key Hellenic Greek concepts by which I live and do try to impart whenever given the opportunity. I sport a heart-shaped tattoo on my forearms with the Greek lettering for the concepts of arete and meraki. These are words I was brought up with on how to live. The one I would choose above all the others, since you have asked for one, is arete. As the great Greek scholar H.D.F. Kitto put it, arete is about being an excellent all-rounder, but with an ethos imbued, in which duty to self and to others goes hand in glove.
By the lofty benchmark of arete, we should, each in our singular way, strive to be excellent doers, thinkers, makers, strive to learn between and above and beyond any specific discipline or knowledge category, and strive for a kind axiological and existential way of being in which we never try to advance by self-aggrandizement, at the expense of others, but rather to immerse ourselves in this world in ways in which we’re always trying to make conditions more fertile for all our other fellow humans to be all to ‘be all they can be,’ always while cultivating a keener social conscience, sculpting ideas and ideals (and maybe imagining, discovering and realizing new ones along the way) that make our mortal moment one in which those who came before us would be most proud.
The concept of meraki (as well as others) is entwined (I say this as someone with dual Greek-U.S. citizenship) with this unique Greek way of living out loud, with passion, and commitment and joy, soulfully, rather Zorba-like – probably the towering public intellectual and philosopher Cornel West, my dear friend, a great Socratic thinker and unswerving supporter, would call it living a life of jazz, guided by an existential ‘Coltrane-ian’ ethos and pathos. In this way, you live with ‘Socratic spirit,’ with poetry and passion and commitment and unwavering discipline and stick-to-it-ive-ness that not only is about living an engaged present, spending yourself in a way that does justice to those who came before you (many if not most of whom had no opportunity to articulate much less realize) their more sublime aspirations, those present with you know, maybe starting with your own family and forever expanding outward the circle of inclusion from there, and those still to come, not just in the next immediate generations, but for hundreds of generations hence. I believe we’re largely lacking that kind of imaginative and empathic vision today in the age of woke and cancel culture and extraordinary polarization that can lead us to be isolated even from ourselves. All the more reason to try to model and example of how to live rightly and righteously, not in a one size fits all prescriptive way, but in a way that inspires others to find and chart their own unique path that always takes into account arete and meraki.
I have this tattooed on my forearms not so much as a reminder but an impetus that these are at the core of how I live. Socrates said in Plato’s Republic that all questions we examine should ultimately lead to greater insight into that question of questions, namely how one should live. But I think we need to cultivate concomitantly the spirits of arete, meraki, atopos, eudaimonia, sophrosyne, as we explore these questions – indeed, it’s sort of a ‘feedback loop,’ the spirits driving the Socratic method, and the method driving the spirits.
What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?
I’m not very practical by today’s benchmarks. Probably my most important piece of impractical advice is: you never know when your time is up, so give every day everything you have, take sublime risks if you have the opportunity, and try to do some good. Nietzsche said something to the effect that we shouldn’t requite evil with evil, but show those who have deliberately acted upon us and others in an evil way how they did us some good. But that can be too self-centered. I think we should, instead, when we are the victims of betrayal, loss, setback, and worse, because of the deliberate actions of others who may be filled with malignance, maliciousness, malevolence in this increasingly Age of Rage, that we should strive more than ever not to show how it did US some good per se, but how it drives us, more than ever, to DO GOOD, period. My own beloved father’s mysterious and untimely death certainly has, and all the ugly events that continue to swirl around it, more than anything else has made me even more driven to do what I can, while I can, to make ours a more heart-shaped world.
Do you have a favorite quote that you use?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said:
Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’
That question has always resonated with me. I believe he posed that question at a high school discourse in 1967, as part of his speech’s overarching “What is your life’s blueprint?” theme. I never was called upon, by any legal statute (like conscription) to serve my country or world, yet for me it was incumbent to do so. I don’t really preach to others, but try to live by example. Here I am, nearly 63, and continuing to live on a wing and prayer, even though I have a family (a young one!) to provide for. It’s more important than ever to try to make ours a more connected and understanding world. One of our longtime Socrates Cafe organizers in San Antonio, Texas (we have over 500 Socrates Cafe ongoing gatherings around the globe – go to SocratesCafe.com to learn more), a wonderful retired educator named Marta Amezquita, recently wrote me to tell me, “I truly don’t know another person whose intent is to create community whose sole purpose is to deliberately make participants feel seen & be heard. It is the epitome of love.” I was deeply moved by Marta’s kind words to me, which I hope describe to the core all that I’ve sought to do this last quarter century (and more, really).
I relate in Soul of Goodness my formative experiences, living just outside of Washington, D.C. There I witnessed the aftermath of the riots after Dr. King’s assassination, bearing witness to ‘Resurrection City,’ a vast but temporary encampment that was a key part of the great people’s anti-poverty campaign in the Mall area of Washington, D.C. This drew tens of thousands from across the U.S. to give voice to the voiceless and address the glaring inequalities in society. I write in my new book about the serendipitous experience helping an overwhelmed single mother there that surely laid the foundation for everything I have done since. My grand aim in life is to make sure everyone not just has a voice, but the opportunity to develop, discover, contribute their voice as participatory co-creators of this world.
“No one recognized the linkage between, and drilled down into, Plato’s conception of a healthy soul and Shakespeare’s “soul of goodness” like the American transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. He is the only writer and thinker I’ve ever come across to link the two conceptions. In “Character,” Emerson tells us that “a healthy soul stands united with the Just and the True, as the magnet arranges itself with the pole; so that he stands to all beholders like a transparent object betwixt them and the sun, and whoso journeys towards the sun, journeys towards that person. He is thus the medium of the highest influence to all who are not on the same level. Thus, men of character are the conscience of the society to which they belong. Such a soul is the epitome of autonomy and social conscience, which aren’t at opposite ends of a continuum but inseparable.from Soul of Goodness
Emerson then goes on to say that one with a soul of goodness escapes from any set of circumstances; whilst prosperity belongs to a certain mind, and will introduce that power and victory which is its natural fruit, into any order of events.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?
First, I’d encourage them to take part in a Socrates Cafe. There are gatherings everywhere, and I also preside over them virtually by Zoom, so they are welcome to write me so I can let them know when our next ones are taking place. (If you can’t find a gathering near you, we have a guide on our SocratesCafe.com website on how to start and facilitate a Socrates Cafe) One other way to learn about me is to dip or dive into my books, from my first ones, Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy and Six Questions of Socrates: A Modern-Day Journey of Discovery through World Philosophy, to my latest, by far my most intimate and personal work, Soul of Goodness: Transform Grievous Hurt, Betrayal, and Setback Into Love, Joy, and Compassion.
In part, they might want to accompany me on the journey to sculpt a soul of goodness – and they can do that in part by using the complementary/complimentary guide that my wife and life partner Ceci (whom I met at a Socrates Cafe! she was the only one who attended that magical evening, as I write in ‘Socrates Cafe’) lovingly put together.
We also have a Socrates Cafe Youtube channel, which features everything from mini Socrates Cafes with my daughters to exchanges with luminaries like Cornel West,
author of the class ‘Race Matters’ .
Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy. How would you feel about that?
I would be thrilled out of my mind. (And the prominent Greek publisher Livanis, which sponsored my Greek citizenship application – it flew through in record time –
is publishing my newest book in Greek, so all the more reason to venture there, as well as also pay a visit the island from which my forebears came to the U.S. and where I visit whenever possible. My last visit to Nisyros starts off my Soul of Goodness – nowhere else on this universe to I feel more connected to myself, my family, and the immensity
itself, then Nisyros.
If I gave a talk or workshop, it’d likely center around, ‘How to question like Socrates?’ The artful framing, and answering, of meaningful questions, as timely as they are timeless, has in large measure been lost, I lament. A method of questioning, from scientific to Socratic (they are kindred – and I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the Socratic Method) without an ethos of heartfelt listening with all one’s being, is bereft of something critical. It would be interactive, and so I’d model it by actually having participants such a questioning love-in. I’d certainly touch on key influences in my decision to commit my life to spreading Socratic inquiry far and wide – starting with Socrates, but also including Hannah Arendt, Walter Kaufmann, Justus Buchler, and ever so many others.
When you learn to truly question like Socrates – not as a Socrates imitator or emulator, but as someone who understands that the best methods of questioning evolve over time – you learn better to ‘do’ like Socrates, because you become ever more imbued with the Socratic spirits about which I write in in Soul of Goodness – because make no mistake, daimon, sophrosyne, atopos, daimon, even arete and meraki, are comprised of spirits among other things.
In fact, I have held Socrates Cafes in the very agora area where Socrates once held court in Athens, and I lead off with that in my Six Questions of Socrates. I’d have at it in really immersive inquiry, guiding it with the Socrates Cafe method that I’ve sculpted and evolved over these past 25 years. I’m something of an accidental scholar and academic, and never dreamed I’d have three masters degrees (in the humanities, in education with an unheard-of specialty in Teaching Philosophy for Children), and in the natural sciences (with a specialty in DNA science), and then earning a PhD in Communications from an amazing university in Perth, Australia, long after graduating in 1981 from the College of William & Mary with a BA in Government. But through a serendipitous chain of circumstances, I did become a lifelong learner who straddles the informal and formal teaching and learning and doing disciplines, and I believe I’m a better human being for it. I’ve never aimed or sought to be a full-time prof, but I simply love to learn about things that give me more of a poetic-metaphorical approach to live and living, not as an end in and of itself, but that helps me discover more about what I can and must do to make life more worth living – and perhaps more worth dying for – for one and all.
My aim in large measure is always this: We simply must counteract the pervasive predisposition to think in black and white terms. We have to go back to thinking in nuance, to thinking in a dazzling array of colors in ways that lead us to continually reflect and to challenge ourselves, to explore the lapses and loopholes in any given way of seeing things, especially our own. There is a lot of preaching and proselytism these days, but not even of the kind of introspection that can lead us to mordantly yet gently examine whether our own ideas and ideals are all they are cracked up to be. The ongoing Socrates Cafe gatherings – hundreds of them now, the world over (I never dreamed it would become a global phenomenon, much less that it would have such staying power and even momentum after all this time) – are places and spaces where listen to one another with all our being, with all our might and mind, where we use philosophical questions as the springboard and platform to further discover uncommon common ground and forge meaningful connections, even or especially with those with whom don’t see eye to eye, but are my fellow beloved human beings.