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Socrates in LoveReview - Socrates in Love
Philosophy for a Die-Hard Romantic
by Christopher Phillips
W. W. Norton, 2008
Review by Eccy de Jonge
Jul 8th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 28)

Divided into six chapters, exploring the Greek understanding of love, from Eros, to Philia and Agape, Socrates in love is soap philosophy for those in need of a wash by one of America's self proclaimed auto dictats. Each chapter combines bits of dialogue, pieces of autobiography and idle chatter between the friends and colleagues in the Philosopher's Café where Philips spends much of his time. In Eros we are introduced to a long list of "names" including Bertrand Russell (32) whose ramblings on love were incidental to his philosophical writings; and Simone de Beauvoir (33), whom Phillips fails to remind us, suffered 40 years of heart-ache infidelity at the side of her life time companion Sartre, some of which is detailed in her novel, A Woman Destroyed. Whereas the only reason for drawing on the work of Herbert Marcuse appears to be due to the title of his book, Eros and Civilization.

As a work of scholarship then, Socrates in Love falls far short. But then this is not Phillips' mission. His mission, as he explains on page 75, is, 'of bringing people together ... to engage in Socratic dialogue' for the purposes of engaging in a 'love-in' (75). To which, he happily assures the reader, by attending one of his café dialogues, you too may meet the love of your life (76). Whether you'd learn how to do philosophy, however, is another matter.

In Storge, described as 'parental love' we are thrown into a world of American small town mentalities with moms and pops informing us that as parental love = unconditional love, not-forgiving the misdeeds of everything one's kin does is tantamount to not loving: 'if I ever stray from my lifelong commitment to be there for [my son] I'll betray parent love' (86) but never fear: 'Storge ... can be at the root of all sorts of conflict and tension' (94), whereupon the author moves us from the execution of Timothy McVeigh, to the Zulu concept of ubuntu which means: 'I'm who I am because of who we all are' (109). This in turn becomes a 'striving for goodness' (117) though how it bears relevance to a US soldier serving in Iraq (119-125) is anyone's guess, especially since corporal Diane only cares about her fellow soldiers for whom she would die (125). 

Xenia by contrast, is love as practice, extended to those we do not know. Phillips throws up Martin Heidegger as the philosopher of care, even though Heidegger was nothing of the sort. To say that our primordial being is care, as Heidegger claims in Being and Time is far removed from Phillips' assertion that Heidegger insists we 'must care'. (159). This is pop philosophy at its worst – and, in the next discussion of Ayn Rand, about to become further misconstrued and reactionary.

Onto Philia (friendship) where a blackout has moved the troupe of pseudo-philosophers to sit in a circle in Washington Square Park where Tiffany's mom, Trish says that 'no matter how little time you live in a place, you can still make it better" (213).

Finally, we move to agape − the highest form of love (227) where Prisoner X has come to the conclusion that "unconditional love is only for fairy tales" (229). Intent on proving him wrong, Phillips turns to Nelson Mandela, the Japanese philosopher Watsuji Tetsuro and the pop singer Bono who, 'is taking two of his young children to Africa so they can see firsthand the tragedy that is unfolding there' (280). What this has to do with 'love' let alone love of God, with which agape has traditionally been associated, is anyone's guess.

In failing to offer any detailed analysis on the meaning of love, Socrates in Love has little to say on the subject of love (though it is amusing how even the evangelist Billy Graham gets a mention). As Phillips continuously fails to reference his sources Socrates in Love becomes worthless as an academic tome and unhelpful to the non-researcher, as the "recommended reading" list falls far short of the writer's mentioned in the main text. This is a road trip without the road; a journey of enlightenment that wants its cake and to eat it too -- or rather -- as Phillips says of Hunter S. Thompson's doctrine of love -- its wild turkey.

© 2008 Eccy de Jonge

Eccy de Jonge is the author of Spinoza and Deep Ecology, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.


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