October 2009

The Nation Reviewed

Socratic dialogues

By Alan Saunders
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

“My idea of heaven is sitting in my garden with the sun on my back, a cup of tea and someone I love,” says a woman at the back of the room. It’s a philosophical claim that, like so many, invites more questions than it resolves. Is she saying that heaven is simply a blissful moment – or a series of blissful moments? Is it not possible that heaven – if it must be on earth – can be found not in the single, joyous instant but in a whole life well lived? Shouldn’t we call that ‘heaven’, rather than just ‘a good life’?

Well, it certainly does no harm to kick these ideas around, and people do seem to enjoy it. These days, there are philosophy cafés in Melbourne and Sydney, throughout the English-speaking world and, naturally, in France. France, I suspect, is behind it all, which is why we tend to prefer our philosophy in cafés rather than pubs. Lurking in the minds of those of us who attend these gatherings is a romantic folk memory of the cafés of Paris: the Procope, where Voltaire drank up to 40 cups of coffee a day, or the Deux Magots, where Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir talked of existentialism. I bet it wasn’t philosophy all the way at these places, though. Some nights it was probably just Voltaire talking about the purgatives he took or Simone chastising Jean-Paul for eyeing off Juliette Greco, but these days we’re more focused.

For three years, Philo Agora has been conducting philosophical discussions every fortnight. The name of the group derives from the ancient Athenian agora, where you could shop for ideas, as well as commodities.  The group takes over a large, homely room – walls covered with matting, baskets of flowers dangling from the corrugated ceiling – which seems to have been tacked on to the back of an inner-city café. A modest fee gets you a seat at a table and there’s a short philosophical talk followed by responses from the audience.

And the audience? Who goes to this sort of event, when they could be at the place opposite eating tapas or up the road at the pub? The ages range from young to old, though bulging, it should be said, in the middle (or just beyond it). There are one or two willowy young women in long dresses with floaty hair, but most are dressed for comfort: these are not your groovy, inner-city latte types.

 “I would guess they’re 95% university educated,” says one of the founders of Philo Agora, Peter Bowden, who teaches ethics at the University of Sydney. “We try to be a philosophy café for the people. We try to talk about how we lead our lives, so we discourage actively people who get too academic. We’ve turned down a talker who can’t relate philosophy to ordinary people.” In pursuit of ideas that concern everyone, they’ve recently had talks on suicide, hypocrisy in politics and the relevance of philosophy of science to ‘real’ science, but one subject never fails: “Anything on God and religion brings them out,”  Bowden tells me. “We had one on Dawkins and we had them flowing out into the streets.”

Religion is on the agenda again tonight, though the numbers present do not constitute a hazard to traffic. The question is whether ‘heaven’ is an effectual reward; our speaker thinks that it isn’t. There are many conflicting descriptions of heaven in religious texts, so what could the place be like? Possibly not all that interesting, especially if you were stuck there for eternity, so the promise of it is probably an insufficient incentive to exemplary behaviour.

The talk is a bit light on philosophical detail (which perhaps is fair enough, given that few philosophers have had much to say about what eternal life would be like). The audience, though, is attentive and enthusiastic. A microphone is passed around and more or less everybody has something to say, most giving testimony as though this were a revivalist religious meeting. “We try to encourage the more shy people,” explains Bowden. “We jokingly say they’re not invited back if they don’t pick up the microphone.”

There are rules here. Each contribution is limited to a couple of minutes, nobody is allowed to dominate and there is no conversation because we have to be out by nine. The philosophers who gather at Thangs Café in Melbourne have gone so far as to publish a set of rules: “Listen for the wisdom in simple ideas … Be reasonable, and provide as far as you can, reasons for your viewpoint. Examine others’ reasoning and help them reason more clearly … Avoid unnecessary sidetracking.”

Tonight, we hear about somebody’s near-death experience and there’s a woman who thinks that the idea of heaven is a way of helping us deal with loss.  One man says that his dog cringes when there’s lightning: perhaps once we all cringed and so invented ‘heaven’ and ‘God’ as ways of coping with life. Another – with the distinct air of an old-style leftie – says, “a lot of simple souls need some concept of heaven to get through”. Governments, he thinks, use the idea of heaven to manipulate us and get us to fight in their wars. The man who offers perhaps the most acute observation of the evening thinks that eternal life and eternal damnation are excessive rewards for a life lived well or badly. Surely a million dollars if you’re good or a day’s torture if you’re bad would be about right – but eternity?

There is bad news, too, in this world of ideas: the café’s kitchen is closed and if you want to eat, you have to have cake. If you’re in need of a decent meal to accompany your deep thoughts, you’ll probably have to go to London, where The School of Life – whose “ambassadors” include the noted philosophical-populariser Alain de Botton – offers regular dinners (£50 for three courses and wine), so that strangers can come together in some of London’s best restaurants for conversation.

What, one wonders, would Socrates have made of menus carefully designed to encourage chat about things that matter? He thought that one should eat only to live. This is not the only reason why he’s an unpromising hero for the modern philosophy café. The Philo Agora people may yearn for the days when you could be buttonholed by the old guy while you were strolling across the marketplace, but would they – would any of us – really enjoy the relentless questioning of all we hold dear, made the more annoying by his habit of protesting his ignorance? No wonder his fellow Athenians made him swallow the hemlock. He really wasn’t a café sort of guy.

Alan Saunders
Alan Saunders was a writer, philosopher and broadcaster who contributed to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Bulletin and other publications. He was a presenter on ABC Radio National for 25 years where his programs included The Philosopher’s Zone and By Design.

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