You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Friday, December 14, 2012

BREAKFAST BOOK (4): WHAT WOULD SOCRATES SAY, edited by Alexander George

At first I thought I was a victim of bait and switch. This is not a book of contemporary questions answered by quotes from classical philosophers. And I would have quickly figured that out if I had taken even a minute or so to thumb through it. But it was cheap on a remainder table and it looked like fun,

Socrates remains silent for the most part, although he and other big guns may be occasionally referenced by one of the twenty-two academics who answer reader inquiries on the website They all teach at respected institutions, with Amherst College, home base of editor Alexander George, well represented. And this contemporary line up of philosophers probably have more to say and can speak more directly to the issues posed by the questioners than quotes pulled from The Critique of Pure Reason or The Nichomachean Ethics. For instance, I cannot image that Socrates would be very enlightening on the Santa Claus issue -- when to tell, how to break the news, and specifically is it morally wrong to let kids believe in St. Nick at all. On the other hand, Mark Crimmins, who teaches at Stanford, and Louise Antony from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, offer lively, contrasting views. I am curious to know how many parents will be convinced to follow Ms. Antony's tough love approach.

The book is divided into chapters with titles like, "What Can I Know," "What is a Man," and, "What Ought I to Do." (On that last one, yes, you should probably visit your mother for Christmas even if you don't particularly want to.) The question of relativity comes up often, in the moral rather than the Einsteinan sense. If lions eat meat why shouldn't I? Why are moral codes opposed to evolutionary codes? 

In some cases the inquirer might get more than he or she bargained for, but the responders are not above telling the questioners not to quibble so on some issues. When asked why philosophers so seldom agree, Nicholas J. Smith of Lewis and Clark in Portland, Oregon, is very to the point, "It is our job to disagree."

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