Calder At Large

Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: Socrates a man for modern times

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Students find plenty of value in the millennia-old thoughts of a rather ugly, smelly philosopher.

Actor Yannis Simonides drove an enthusiastic discussion after his performance of Socrates Now. Photo / Richard Robinson
Actor Yannis Simonides drove an enthusiastic discussion after his performance of Socrates Now. Photo / Richard Robinson

I'll say this for the guy in the fourth row at the performance of Socrates Now in the Selwyn College Theatre on Monday morning: he's a young man who knows his own mind.

Even when the performer, the New York-based actor Yannis Simonides, drew attention to the youngster's conspicuous white earphones by extravagantly gesturing that he should pluck them out, he remained defiantly wired. But he was missing something special.

He was one of 100 students, from Selwyn and from the Pacific Institute of Performing Arts (PIPA), attending a performance of the one-man piece.

The "now" in the title is telling: what does a philosopher, dead for almost two-and-a-half millennia, have to teach these 21st-century youngsters?

The man regarded as the inventor of the concept of ethics, who famously remarked that "the unexamined life is not worth living", was not a celebrity in the modern sense.

He was rather ugly; his bad personal hygiene was legendary; he was a poor, mainly absent father and a worse husband; he had a powerful thirst, particularly when it was someone else's shout; and he had what we would regard - though his contemporaries did not - as an unhealthy interest in young boys.

Worse still, though he could talk the handles off a Grecian urn, he left no written record of his ideas. We have only the writing of his students and contemporaries, notably Plato, whose Apology is the basis of Simonides' piece, which he has performed more than 320 times in 17 countries over 10 years.

The play, which takes place on a stage furnished with only a small riser, three chairs and a table, depicts Socrates' trial in 399BC. Remarkably playful for a man in peril of his life, he defends the charges (he calls them slanders) that he had corrupted the young by teaching them to disrespect the gods the city believed in and to believe in "other demons".

As the reincarnated Socrates develops his argument, it takes little imagination on the part of the audience to see that his words apply to the way we live now. Here is a man who challenged authority and orthodoxy - he compared himself to a horsefly biting a thoroughbred's arse - by the process that now bears his name: the Socratic Method distills wisdom out of a continuous (even endless) series of questions. It's the basis of what we call science.

The challenge the actor issues to the audience in the discussion - call it a Socratic Dialogue - that follows the performance is where the relevance of the piece's title comes into focus.

"We are living in a time of crisis," Simonides says. "In the environment, government, finance, politics. And if we have no sense of ethics, we don't know what we believe in."

He hails whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning for their "Socratic gestures of courage" and tells the students they are inheriting a troubled world - not unlike the world that Socrates lived in, when Athenian democracy was under grave threat.

"Is there anything you can do to save the world from collapse? How do we go about examining our lives?"

The youngsters in the audience pick up the discussion with impressive enthusiasm.

One thoughtful young woman wonders how you go about developing ethics ("Where do they come from?"); someone suggests the very Socratic ceaseless questioning.

They talk about how obsession with social media and television is rooted in "a fear of silence", of time taken just to think. Socrates' avatar reminds them that "you can't have courage in the absence of fear".

Another woman raises the idea that we might treat with respect people we disagree with if we turn our back on self-centred competitiveness. (This leads to a pertinent digression about how the Athenian culture that gave us Socrates was built on the backs of defeated and enslaved enemies.)

Says another: "We all have the ability to turn the spark on in others if we live an examined life."

After the show, I talk to an elderly man who says he didn't enjoy it because "I don't enjoy being shouted at".

Meanwhile, back in the auditorium, Simonides is plainly moved as he is farewelled with a lusty rendering of the Samoan hymn Ua e manumalo by the PIPA students.

It seems an apt end to a rich cultural exchange. And I can't help thinking what Socrates would say: if the message isn't getting through, it may be time to start shouting.

On the web

www.socratesnow.com.au

- NZ Herald

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