In his new book Socrates in Love Christopher Phillips examines love through the filter of Socrates' five-part typology: eros, storge, xenia, philia and agape. A neat idea. His method is to travel around the world and have conversations with a wide range of people on love-related topics. Another good idea. He seems a pleasant person - charitable, prepared to listen to anyone, compassionate. But I'm not convinced he is as Socratic as he thinks he is.
I became suspicious by p.13 when a friend of Phillips', Alexandros, describes Socrates as a reminder of the democratic glory days of Athens. Phillips doesn't comment on this, but I thought Socrates, at least as Plato presents him, was profoundly anti-democratic...what about his analogy of the passengers steering the ship rather than the skilled pilot? The lack of comment on this seems to endorse Alexandros' bizarre view...
Here are some other ways that this project seems less than Socratic:
First, throughout the book Socrates is portrayed uncritically as a kind of authority of almost godlike profundity. But isn't the spirit of Socrates's approach anti-dogmatic? Socrates wasn't someone who believed things because simply because someone important said them. Phillips mixes in a number of summaries of other 'authorities' whose work he summarises uncritically, such as Martha Nussbaum's...Socrates on very rare occasion seemed to accept truth by authority (such as when he took the Oracle seriously) but the typical stance he took was to question whatever was assumed to be the case, or at least to tease out how shaky were its foundations...that is a stance still worth taking as a philosopher.
Secondly, Socrates chose not to write anything down (see my previous post on this if you want to know why). That makes Phillips more Platonic in that sense than Socratic. This might not matter very much.
Thirdly, Socrates was good at irritating people. He was a gadfly and knew it. That's why they executed him. Phillips seems too nice to be truly Socratic - he presents a whole range of positions without challenging them. What's not to like? I think this matters more. The truly Socratic philosopher risks quite a lot more than Phillips risks here.
Lastly, Socrates was a genius (though he was also clearly wrong about a lot of things). One aspect of Socratic dialogue that it would be very difficult for most people to replicate was this. It seems unfair to criticise Phillips for not being a genius, but if you set yourself up as the new Socrates, you have to be aware of how hard an act he is to follow.
There are certainly moments of honesty in the book. The account of a close friend's suicide that provided the stimulus for the author to take the leap into doing what he wanted to do is an example. And some of the described encounters will be uplifting for readers who like to be inspired (bordering on Chicken Soup for the Soul territory at times). But for me the book doesn't match the hype and the en passant summaries of positions did not engage me.
It will be interesting to see what a wider readership makes of this - the publishers (Norton) are clearly hoping to create a Sophie's World or a Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance phenomenon, and Phillips is on tour in England shortly. The book falls within what I've called elsewhere 'the sugared pill' approach to writing about philosophy. I'm not a good judge of how well such books will do as I tend to focus on the active ingredient inside the pill. But the truth is that with this sort of book the coating is the ingredient that will determine success.
Part of the coating, the title, has been tested already - it is the English title of a successful Japanese novel by Kyoichi Katayama which was turned into a manga and a film - according to the notes on Amazon this other Socrates in Love is the bestelling hardback of all time there.