by Lorianna de Giorgio / Forest Hill Town Crier / August 2006
In this day and age when our lives seem to be as fast as the cars we drive, it's nice to know there's a group of people slowing things down a bit and discussing the meaning of life.
Named after the Greek philosopher, the Toronto Socrates Cafe involves a handful of people who meet every two weeks at World Class Bakers, on St Clair Ave West to discuss a range of topics from love and compassion to patriotism and free will.
While many of the members are local, others come from as far away as the Beach and North York for the 7 pm Wednesday meetings.
Although the six or seven core members aren't philosophers, they follow the Socratic style of discussing, questioning and commenting on the diverse range of topics. Each meeting begins with the question 'what is ... ?' and the rest of the evening is peppered with the different members' opinions and comments on a particular topic.
A majority of the members are female and most of the membership is middle-aged.
"We tend to be curious about life in general. People are interested in learning and discussing, I think that's what we have in common," said founder Doreen Vanini.
No one's comments are judged or put down. Just as it was back in the fifth century Athens with Socrates and his devoted group of students, the two-hour Socrates Cafe meetings allow anyone to flesh out their ideas about something.
The local resident founded the cafe in February 2004 after she attended a reading by American author Christopher Phillips at the University of Toronto.
Phillips invented the first non-profit Socrates Cafe in 1996 in Montclair, New Jersey. Since then Phillips' idea has blossomed to more than 400 cafes worldwide.
Toronto Socrates Cafe is the only one in the city and one of a few in Canada.
"(Socrates) taught us how to be our won best teacher. You don't need some know-it-all guru to lead you to his truth with a capital T," said Phillips over the phone from Manhattan. "Each of us can be our own best thinker and questioner. Our own expert."
He added members not only get to exchange ideas but the cafes also serve as the truest form of democracy.
"I just don't know how you can have a democracy of people of diverse views who don't care to engage thoughtfully with one another," he said. "I don't want to emerge from these gatherings unscathed and unchanged. I want them to change me."
Back along St Clair, Tony Bolla, who has been a member of the Toronto group for the past year and a half, said the Socrates Cafe provides his brain with the perfect amount of exercise.
"It's a little bit like jogging your brain. It's a mental exercise." said the local web site developer. "I enjoy philosophizing and you don't often have opportunities to do that sort of thing."
The next meeting is on Aug 9 at 7 pm when members will discuss the topic of memory.
World Class Bakers is at 690 St Clair Ave West.