Tom Hodgkinson meets the scholar and former archbishop to discuss Socrates, Christ and how to live
I arrived at the Porter’s Lodge at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where Rowan Williams is Master, one beautiful autumn morning, and announced myself. I was taken over to the Master’s Lodge, Rowan’s home while at the college. The lodge has a vicarish feel. The main sitting room is often used for functions so has an institutional appearance. However, there are some homelier touches: while Rowan goes to get me a cup of coffee, I see a Bechstein grand piano and an upright piano, as well as a harpsichord. On the piano are scattered a few books of sheet music. To my surprise they include The Best of David Bowie 1969-1974 and The Best of Disney, as well as the less surprising Hymn for St Peter.
TOM HODGKINSON [with some enthusiasm] Are you a David Bowie fan?
ROWAN WILLIAMS I am sorry to disappoint you, but that is my son’s book.
TH A Disney fan then?
RW That is my daughter’s. We are quite a musical family.
TH Thanks very much for taking the time to talk to me today. I was hoping to do a quick history of Christ-like movements, from Socrates to the present day. I suppose it’s quite a well known idea that Socrates is a proto-Christ-like character. Do you draw a line through any of these movements like the Stoics and Socrates to Christianity?
RW I think you have to weave a thread between the movements. In a way it’s something that’s already recognised in the second Christian century – that Socrates was a forerunner.
TH That early?
RW Oh yes, very clearly. Because you have Christians trying to establish their credentials in the intellectual world they say: “Some of this might sound new, but you’ve heard it before, whether it’s Socrates, or Stoics, or Cynics.” What you count as success – stop and think about it. It’s not what you believe. If that costs you, it costs you, but it’ll cost you a lot more not to go down that road. So that’s a continuity established. Again, in the Second Century you have one Christian writer who’s obviously aware of Buddhism. He’s an Alexandrian, so he knows the trade routes, his teacher had been in India, and he says that this teacher came back to tell us about these extraordinary “naked sages”. So there’s a long tradition of making that connection.
TH Which of those ancient Athenian philosophical schools would you feel most drawn to? The Cynics are quite wild, like punk rockers.
RW The Cynics are amazing, aren’t they? They are really off the wall. But I suppose it was Socrates who I would most like to have been in the company of. Of course we only have Plato’s version, but you have this bright, quizzical tilt of the head with Socrates. You’re not being bludgeoned. He’d nod and say, “Well that’s interesting, keep going,” and take you off the edge of the cliff, so to speak. I once had a student who was in many ways the most brilliant student I’ve ever had, and he had a very Socratic way of tilting his head and saying: “So why do we think that?”
TH But doesn’t Socrates have a plan? Isn’t he leading you to a certain conclusion? Is knowledge really inside us, as he says?
RW My hunch is that he’d give a very Zen answer to that. He’d say: “What do you think?” Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. What difference does it make if it’s “in” you or not? He’s got that Zen quality of making you ask why you want to know what you want to know, so that you can “unclench” something inside you. One of my friends, Nigel Tubbs, has written a couple of really exceptional books on the philosophy of teaching. He writes about how a good teacher helps you to recognise the power of the teacher, not to rebel or to accept passively, but to see it. Nigel created a course called “Modern Liberal Arts” at the University of Winchester which is a really Socratic programme of immersion in serious texts with lots of dialogue, lots of interaction. Even at a modern university it’s possible to have a course like that!
TH I think that Plato’s Symposium should be a text that everyone learns at school.
RW Yes, and the Phaedrus as well. It has its problems in translatability for a modern audience, but it’s about the power of words and what happens to their power when we stop asking: “What for?” or: “Who from?” and get completely captured by the task of manipulation of words. If that doesn’t speak to the world today, I don’t know what does. It’s about the gulf between rhetoric for its own sake, winning arguments, and philosophy, the rather tough job of self-questioning transformation.
TH That makes me think of Noam Chomsky who says he delivers his lectures in a purposefully boring style so that he can’t be accused of performing oratorical tricks on the audience.
RW That’s a point that St Paul makes too, interestingly. Writing to the Corinthians he says: “At least nobody could claim that I won you over through eloquence.” He knows that he’s a terrible speaker. He says: “If that was the case you would’ve become followers of Paul and I don’t want you to become followers of Paul, I want you to become followers of Christ.”