Is there such a thing as a just war? Is "just" the same as "good?" Must soldiers hate their enemies to kill them? Is it right to kill those who would kill the innocent?
The Princeton Public Library is far from ancient Athens, but a dozen local residents, led by graduate student Kelly McGannon, sat around a table there last month and considered these questions at a gathering called "Socrates Café."
No, it's not the latest Starbucks wannabe. The Café is one of a series of discussion groups that give ordinary people a forum to wrestle with theoretical challenges. Inspired by the book "Socrates Café: A Fresh Cup of Philosophy," by Christopher Phillips, the Socrates Café movement is sweeping the country.
"I think people are hungry for it, without even knowing they're hungry for it," said McGannon, who started Princeton's own Socrates Café and is acting as its moderator.
McGannon said that as a graduate student in Princeton's Department of Art and Archaeology, she was craving an opportunity for dialogue that could reach beyond the insular university environment. When she read "Socrates Café" last spring, she said, she found exactly what she had been seeking.
"Socrates Café uses the Socratic method to try to get at the sense of where the ambiguities lie," McGannon explained. "The whole gist is not to get to some sort of concrete, truthful answer; it's just really the process, the dialogue, that's important."
McGannon said Socrates Café allows for and welcomes participation by people with a wide range of life experiences and little to no background in philosophy. A throwback to the days when Socrates would stop ordinary people in the Agora and ask questions to provoke them to think, more than 300 Socrates Cafés have sprung up in parks, restaurants, back yards — as well as in cafes, of course — from New York City to Sacramento.
Why does Socrates Café have such broad appeal? Phillips, who is also the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Society for Philosophical Inquiry and the author of "Six Questions of Socrates" and "Philosopher's Café," a children's book, said that it offers a nuanced discourse that is increasingly rare.
"Americans too often are adapting these days an 'if you're not with me you're against me' Manichaean mentality, thinking in stark black and white terms rather than an array of colors," he said. "Many of those Americans who share my concern about the direction the United States is heading are turning out regularly at Socrates Café."
The Café's structure facilitates that kind of open dialogue. When participants arrive at a meeting, they suggest questions for the group that may be related to current events or to their personal interests. The moderator frames these in broader, philosophical terms.
For instance, if a participant mentions the controversy over gay marriage, the moderator might suggest the question, "What is an excellent marriage?" Participants vote on which topic to discuss, and then the moderator makes sure that no one dominates the discussion and offers fresh questions if the conversation lags.
Now that the Princeton Socrates Café's three-month trial has been extended indefinitely because of the strong attendance at its first two sessions, McGannon is planning to advertise in Spanish and hopes to eventually start a second café for Princeton's Hispanic community. Coincidentally, Phillips is currently in Chiapas, Mexico, conducting discussion groups similar to Socrates Café with the indigenous Tzotziles and the Tzeltales.
"It's not the setting or the culture that so much matters as it is the ethos of those taking part in the discourse," said Phillips, who called the late Princeton philosophy professor Walter Kaufmann one of the great influences on his life. What's important is "whether they're genuinely open to considering a plurality of views, whether they genuinely welcome having their minds and hearts changed."
At the Princeton Public Library, the people at Socrates Café were doing exactly that as they discussed the concept of a just war. Participants brought up movies, popular fiction, religious doctrine and Viking lore to illustrate their points. They listened to each other, disagreeing but not interrupting.
Was stopping Hitler the last example of a clearcut justification for war? How clearcut was that justification when it took the United States so long to enter? Is war a male phenomenon? Or has there simply never been a woman powerful enough to wage one?
Finally, after two hours of intense conversation, McGannon announced that time was up. The room burst into applause. As they walked down the stairs and filtered out into the rainy night, the patrons of Socrates Café were still asking questions.
Socrates Café, at the Princeton Public Library at 65 Witherspoon Street, is scheduled for the fourth Tuesday of every month from 7 to 9 p.m. The next café will be held on Jan. 24.