“What is virtue?” Socrates asked. Moderation? Justice? Courage? Good? Piety?
Here, Phillips, founder and director of the Society for Philosophical Inquiry, goes on the road to pose the six classic questions to ad hoc forums around the world. Whether Socrates ever considered adding “How much time have you got?” to the list isn’t noted here, but seems relevant in view of Phillips’s presentation. The point, of course, is to enlighten the reader on how individuals as diverse—give the author credit—as members of the Navajo Nation in the southwestern US and Greeks in modern Athens place value on their societies, and themselves as members. Unfortunately, the feedback within these spontaneously recruited groups (we aren’t told much about the process, but they frequently contain students and senior citizens) tends often to be oversimplified and circumlocutory. This allows the author to weigh in—mostly after the fact, one suspects—with his own opinions and a wide-range overview culled at length from contemporary philosophers, academics, and inexhaustible others who ponder fundamental thinking. At one point Phillips quotes the screenplay of Gladiator on the pursuit of excellence; at another he cites the rock star Bono paraphrasing Gandhi. The familiar code of the samurai as evinced in the work of film director Akiro Kurosawa is also given an airing at the appropriate juncture: discussing the concept of courage in Japan. There are a few surprises—a tribal member from the Mexican State of Chiapas, for instance, reports there is no word for “justice” in his native language because his people were never unjust to each other—but primarily, there is a lot of pondering and referencing.
Proudly faithful to Socrates, whose mission was, per a quote from Greek writer Gregory Vlastos, “forcing himself on [those] who have neither taste nor talent for philosophy.”