The Philosophical Dinner Party
By Frieda Klotz (New York Times, June 28)
[JB note: This article should be a must read for persons involved in so-called "strategic communications" so that they can put this oh-so-solemn activity in proper perspective]
What is the meaning of life? Is there a god? Does the human race have a future? The standard perception of philosophy is that it poses questions that are often esoteric and almost always daunting. So another pertinent question [...] is [:] can philosophy ever be fun?
Philosophy was a way of life for ancient philosophers, as much as a theoretical study — from Diogenes the Cynic, masturbating in public (“I wish I could cure my hunger as easily” he replied, when challenged) to Marcus Aurelius, obsessively transcribing and annotating his thoughts — and its practitioners didn’t mind amusing people or causing public outrage to bring attention to their message. Divisions between academic and practical philosophy have long existed, for sure, but even Plato, who was prolific on theoretical matters, may have tried to translate philosophy into action: ancient rumor has it that he traveled to Sicily to tutor first Dionysios I, king of Syracuse, and later his son (each ruler fell out with Plato and unceremoniously sent him home).
For at least one ancient philosopher, the love of wisdom was not only meant to be practical, but also to combine “fun with serious effort.” This is the definition of Plutarch, a Greek who lived in the post-Classical age of the second century A.D., a time when philosophy tended to focus on ethics and morals. Plutarch is better known as a biographer than a philosopher. A priest, politician and Middle Platonist who lived in Greece under Roman rule, he wrote parallel lives of Greeks and Romans, from which Shakespeare borrowed liberally and Emerson rapturously described as “a bible for heroes.” At the start and end of each “life” he composed a brief moral essay, comparing the faults and virtues of his subjects. Although they are artfully written, the “Lives” are really little more than brilliant realizations of Plutarch’s own very practical take on philosophy, aimed at teaching readers how to live.
Many of Plutarch’s works are concerned with showing readers how to deal better with their day-to-day circumstances.
Plutarch thought philosophy should be taught at dinner parties. It should be taught through literature, or written in letters giving advice to friends. Good philosophy does not occur in isolation; it is about friendship, inherently social and shared. The philosopher should engage in politics, and he should be busy, for he knows, as Plutarch sternly puts it, that idleness is no remedy for distress.
Many of Plutarch’s works are concerned with showing readers how to deal better with their day-to-day circumstances. In Plutarch’s eyes, the philosopher is a man who sprinkles seriousness into a silly conversation; he gives advice and offers counsel, but prefers a discussion to a conversation-hogging monologue. He likes to exchange ideas but does not enjoy aggressive arguments. And if someone at his dinner-table seems timid or reserved, he’s more than happy to add some extra wine to the shy guest’s cup.
He outlined this benign doctrine over the course of more than 80 moral essays (far less often read than the “Lives”). Several of his texts offer two interpretive tiers — advice on philosophical behavior for less educated readers, and a call to further learning, for those who would want more. It’s intriguing to see that the guidance he came up with has much in common with what we now call cognitive behavioral therapy. Writing on the subject of contentment, he tells his public: Change your attitudes! Think positive non-gloomy thoughts! If you don’t get a raise or a promotion, remember that means you’ll have less work to do. He points out that “There are storm winds that vex both the rich and the poor, both married and single.”
In one treatise, aptly called “Discussions Over Drinks,” Plutarch gives an account of the dinner-parties he attended with his friends during his lifetime. Over innumerable jugs of wine they grapple with 95 topics, covering science, medicine, social etiquette, women, alcohol, food and literature: When is the best time to have sex? Did Alexander the Great really drink too much? Should a host seat his guests or allow them to seat themselves? Why are old men very fond of strong wine? And, rather obscurely: Why do women not eat the heart of lettuce? (This last, sadly, is fragmentary and thus unanswered). Some of the questions point to broader issues, but there is plenty of gossip and philosophical loose talk.
Plutarch begins “Discussions” by asking his own philosophical question — is philosophy a suitable topic of conversation at a dinner party? The answer is yes, not just because Plato’s “Symposium” is a central philosophic text (symposium being Greek for “drinking party”); it’s because philosophy is about conducting oneself in a certain way — the philosopher knows that men “practice philosophy when they are silent, when they jest, even, by Zeus! when they are the butt of jokes and when they make fun of others.”
Precisely because of its eclecticism and the practical nature of his treatises, Plutarch’s work is often looked down on in the academic world, and even Emerson said he was “without any supreme intellectual gifts,” adding, “He is not a profound mind … not a metaphysician like Parmenides, Plato or Aristotle.” When we think of the lives of ancient philosophers, we’re far more likely to think of Socrates, condemned to death by the Athenians and drinking hemlock, than of Plutarch, a Greek living happily with Roman rule, quaffing wine with his friends.
Yet in our own time-poor age, with anxieties shifting from economic meltdowns to oil spills to daily stress, it’s now more than ever that we need philosophy of the everyday sort. In the Plutarchan sense, friendship, parties and even wine, are not trivial; and while philosophy may indeed be difficult, we shouldn’t forget that it should be fun.
Frieda Klotz is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn. She is co-editing a book on Plutarch’s “Discussions over Drinks” for Oxford University Press.