Back when, in Greece, before Starbucks or phones or internet, people might stroll to the town center in the morning and run into neighbors and friends and strike up conversation. A popular thing to do as Athens had pretty good weather, nice architecture and the food wasn’t so bad either. They’d gather together under some olive trees, maybe with a hunk of goat’s cheese, bread, figs, and in the glow of good food and sun, they’d chat – about family, other neighbors, society, you know – the gamut. As time went on, regular meetups gave rise to some animated talks. That’s what happens when folks get together – carry-over conversations beget jesting, guffawing, and also – great exploration of their own and other’s ideas.
Kinda like when your 3 bff’s come for a sleepover Friday nite and over pizza and soda you get to talking about your 9th grade class, who said what to whom, who aced the math test Monday, who failed the math test, who recently got into trouble with the headmaster and is going to be stuck Friday staying after school. On to diatribes about the cruelty of homework, the injustices of gym, and the current status of your friends’ boyfriend. From there to heated debates on classic vs. contemporary fiction, Jane Austen vs. J.K. Rowling, politics in America, and current best places for lunch in Passy. Next thing you know, it’s Saturday afternoon and most important topics have been covered.
This is indeed, what happened in Greece. Word went round about the scintillating talk, the spirited exchange of ideas and before you knew it, the meetup had a following. It took an organized fellow named Plato to take the reins and over time to establish what is now called – the first school in Western civilization – The Academy. Plato’s Academy started with a bunch of friends under some olive trees chatting up a storm. He had studied with Socrates, the famed logician. Plato saw the potential in the situation – realizing quickly that a dedicated group might be just the thing to start something new. Shared inquiry. He foresaw conversations about the vagaries of human nature and all its permutations turn into meaningful explorations about: what it means to know oneself, how do we truly know another, what is the nature of friendship, etc onto larger social issues – how best to govern a society, how best to maintain order, and so forth. Solid stuff.
But you might be wondering what the hang-up is with Plato, et all…? From chatting to dialogic discourse, we arrived at the foundations and principles of our Western civilizations. Yes, that’s great and all! But the answer is our blog’s topic today is the direct result of having a teenager in the house. Think back to the foggy days of yore – how, at that certain age, the Quest for Meaning hit smack dab in the center of your soul – one day you were only concerned with the next chapter in your cat novel series or getting the last pudding in the fridge before your sister got it, the next thing you know, you are wondering if there is a God in heaven above and grappling with the ethics and morals of it all. Trying times.
Said teenager’s aim at the moment is to join the school Philosophy Club. Whose motto is something along the lines of, “A civil discussion of challenging ideas is a powerful method of personal growth and social engagement.” Sounds on the up and up. The Club, however, is only open to the grade above and higher. To contend with this perceived slight, our teenager hunkers in a corner of the school basement with some pretzel bread for lunch and a book of Rene Descartes, the French philosopher. He’s the cheeky one who said, “I think, therefore I am.” and “An optimist may see a light where there is none, but why must the pessimist always run to blow it out.” or “Divide each difficulty into as many parts as is feasible and necessary to resolve it.” Useful ditty, that.
Our parenting strategy has always leaned toward the “laissez faire” model – French for – Let (people) do (as they choose). A bit casual, you might say. Yes, but proven to work out in the end – encouraging individuality and a highly-developed sense of independence. It’s true you might end up with a teenager who says things like, “I’m a radical leftist who dislikes organized religion and who opposes tax cuts and the right to bear arms.” Well, to this we can only (sigh in admiration) say – at least they are thinking for themselves! Our parenting motto has run along the lines of – There isn’t much that a little talking can’t help frame. See, there is a running theme here, after all. Plato’s dialogues began with open-ended questions that were meant to open up in inquiry and to develop ideas. In Paris, the most vibrant city in the world, it is this conversational feast we bow down and try to honor by joining, finding that around every corner just waiting to happen, is something to say.