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Jamming like Socrates

Library hosts monthly ‘Socrates Café’


There is some irony in hosting an event named for Socrates in a library.

The Greek philosopher — sentenced to death in 399 BCE for impiety and corrupting younger citizens by the way he talked to people — left no writing behind, as he felt writing was an unhealthy shift away from memory and oral communication. He preferred dialogue, portrayed in the works of Plato and Xenophon, as a way to challenge people’s assumptions and help others develop their ideas or admit they don’t know what they are talking about.

As far as we can tell, we would be more likely to meet up with Socrates at the gym, in the park or maybe, just maybe, at a café, than a library.

Last weekend I was among half a dozen people, mostly strangers to one another, who sat down in a conference room upstairs at the Thomas Branigan Memorial Library for a “Socrates Café.” There was a married couple who didn’t know the other participants; a pair of friends who weren’t acquainted with the others; and two fellows, including me, who came solo. Our ages appeared to range from 50 to 75; but all we would learn about each other were our first names, which we wrote on cards and folded so they stood on the table in front of us.

The Socrates Café is a kind of gathering popularized in 1996 by Christopher Phillips, an American writer and educator who organized conversations — sometimes taking place in cafés, but also in other public spaces — in which participants explore a question or topic employing critical inquiry or a “Socratic” process of asking questions and weighing the answers.

Socrates, we are told by his disciples, played the role of a modest ignoramus, innocently yet persistently questioning people in a way that pulled the threads of truths they held. Ultimately this, coupled with his refusal to submit or flatter, led to his execution. But this was not that kind of encounter.

Library manager Shuly Serrano convened our group — “led” would not be quite accurate — moderating with a light hand and acting mostly as a partner in the conversation. She welcomed us and solicited a topic for discussion. We chose the question: What are the causes of division, or what we call “polarization,” in our society?

There was no formal method and no expectation, in an hour or so, that we would establish firm truths solving this problem. That is no failure: After all, some of Plato’s dialogues ended with Socrates and his interlocutor deciding they hadn’t reached a conclusion, either. This was, rather, an exercise in conversation.

This is no small feat. Conversation as a means of sharing thoughts or ideas, to try them out and build upon another’s contribution without falling into contentious disputes, perhaps reaching an understanding one could not have discovered alone, is not widely practiced. It certainly is not a model that prevails on so-called social media, about which let us say nothing more here.

In Plato’s Symposium (the term, in its original Greek, refers to a drinking party), the participants were drinking wine and had known each other for years. A good conversation is like jazz in its effortless give and take, listening and speaking, finding cohesion without dictating where things lead. In conversation as with music, achieving this follows practice.

Our group was amiable and patient. We wandered away from, and found our way back to, the topic. A few spoke more than others but no one hogged the floor. One person liked to play the role of interviewer; another tended to lament the state of our politics and social fabric. Sometimes we explored the topic theoretically, sometimes through stories. Occasionally we returned to questions, which Phillips maintains are more important than proclaiming answers; but we did not broach the potentially volatile moment where one’s basic assumptions are laid bare — the button Socrates reached for systematically. Still, for strangers with no previous social connection, it was a taste of good conversation — a decent jam.

The Las Cruces Public Libraries offers a rich assortment of programs gathering people around interests ranging from book discussions, chess and role playing games, music, yoga and other physical exercise, films and much more. In some ways, this is arguably the sparest, an empty space to bring one’s clarity of mind and openness to learning from others on a topic unknown.

The meeting adjourned with a tentative plan to meet again on the last Saturday in June. At press time, I did not see it on the library’s calendar, but if it happens, I’ll return.

Socrates, Thomas Branigan Memorial Library