Cornel West on Christopher Phillips’ Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy

Photo credit: Susan Yin, Unsplash

hristopher Phillips is the greatest living embodiment of the Socratic spirit in our catastrophic times. His global grassroots movement of Socrates Cafés and Democracy Cafés have transformed the lives of millions of people in every continent on the Earth. His brilliant and wise books have touched the minds and souls of so many of us. And his soulful style and genuine compassion have enriched the lives of we fortunate ones. When the historians write of the ugly and beautiful in our turbulent age, the Socratic words, works and deeds of my dearest brother Christopher Phillips should loom large.

How did I come to know this modern-day Socrates? In 2012, I received a letter from Brother Chris. He told me he was teaching a course he’d developed, ‘The Socratic Method and Deliberative Democracy,’ at the University of Pennsylvania, where he’d been appointed Senior Writing and Research Fellow after earning his doctoral degree at age 50. He shared that my book Democracy Matters was the principal text he’d chosen for the class. I was touched and honored also to learn that it was after reading my The American Evasion of Philosophy and Race Matters that Brother Chris had the epiphany that scholarship and teaching could be woven into his life of service to all. Brother Chris invited me to speak to his students. Familiar with his mission to take philosophy out of the ivory tower and bring it to people anywhere and everywhere, and with his praised Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy, which elevates the wisdom of ordinary people, I knew he was the real deal. I called Brother Chris on the phone to accept at once, and we quickly arranged a date.

LIMITED-TIME EBOOK PRICE: Get Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy for just $2.99 from April 5 through April 12 (US only).

$2.99 at: Amazon | Apple Books | Barnes & Noble | Google Play | Kobo

That first time I met Brother Chris in person, I saw with my own two eyes that this originary figure in the Socrates Café movement had a golden heart. Since our first encounter at Penn, where I had rich exchanges with his students, the campus community, and the Philadelphia community at large on the theme of Socrates, democracy, and social responsibility, Brother Chris and I have stayed in close touch and continued collaborating, including when he was the first Senior Education Fellow at the National Constitution Center, and then a Network Ethics Fellow at Harvard University, where I am again teaching. It has been a joy to serve as an advisory board member of his nonprofit Democracy Café, an international movement that attempts, in such a grim moment of so much hatred and envy and contempt, of escalating domination and exploitation of the world’s most vulnerable folk, to make our world more connected, loving, understanding, egalitarian.

Since our first encounter nearly a decade ago, any time I get a chance to spend time with my dear Brother Chris, I come running with a smile. He’s one of the great gems that anybody who gets a chance to know him and Socratize with him can testify to. He always uplifts my spirit. Even in down moments, I have stronger bounce-back when I’m reading one of his profound books, or when I’m in conversation with him. Even under these pandemic conditions, even under these very difficult circumstances, you have certain sources of joy and certain sources of enablement, and Brother Chris is one of them for me.

His mission to resuscitate the Socratic way of questioning is more important than ever if we’re to resurrect our democracy in these decadent times. Above all else, we must have courage to think critically, and that’s what Socrates Café is all about. It’s the only way we can break through and constitute some light in this moment of bleakness and darkness. The Socratic way of questioning that Brother Chris exemplifies is one of not just raising questions, but also of putting oneself in the questions; and oftentimes, as a result, the answers will manifest in the life you live as much as the utterances you put forward.

The first time Brother Chris visited me at Harvard, he showed me a tattoo on his forearm. It has that most important Greek term, Arete — excellence, the highest virtue. Arete is the kind of excellence that has to do with ascending to the best. It’s like John Coltrane’s ‘Ascension.’ You can always be more loving, more courageous, more empathetic, more critical, more open which, taken together, represent the best human qualities that go into ascending to become a better human.

How do we each gather this Arete within ourselves and galvanize it in such a way that we share it with others? By gathering with others and immersing ourselves together in the examined life. That’s what Brother Chris has been doing for 25 years now with Socrates Café, and that’s why, among other reasons, I love this Brother.

At the end of Socrates Café, he writes about the exchange Socrates, in his prison cell, had with his closest friends just before he drinks the hemlock:

they ask him what they can do to “be of most service” to him. Socrates has just one request: he bids them to continue to “follow that path of life” which they have discovered, over the course of many rich dialogues together, makes life worth living.

That’s the path of life that Brother Chris himself has taken. Whether huddled with a team of soccer players on a street corner in Soweto, homeless families in Phoenix, with school children and adults at the Peace Park in Hiroshima, with indigenous youth in the plazas of Chiapas, Mexico, with our brothers and sisters in prison, Brother Chris is beloved for Socratizing with one and all as equals.

What a grand example and force for good Brother Chris is — and this is reflected in his Socrates Café and his other written works, textual gems of the heart, mind, soul and body by he who decided to be true to his sacred Socratic calling and empty himself of his divine and human gifts in the open streets of the world to enrich the precious lives of us all. How blessed I am to have such a sublime Brother in my life!

Get the ebook for just $2.99 from April 5 through April 12 (limited-time ebook price available in the US only).

$2.99 at: Amazon | Apple Books | Barnes & Noble | Google Play | Kobo

Christopher Phillips’ Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy is also available in paperback wherever books are sold.

Amazon | Apple Books | Barnes & Noble

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