Socrates: A Man for Our Times by Paul Johnson


“I can tell whether someone is a good person by how they react which they accidentally step on a snail.”

We were standing on the sidewalk on South Congress- my photographer friend Christina and I, deep in conversation with a man we had just met. She and I have taken to the streets of Austin several times recently, looking for good pictures and good stories. We’ve made ourselves students of the art of asking questions and listening well, inspired largely by Humans of New York. The trail of inspiration goes back further, however- all the way back to 468 BC and the birth of Socrates.

Philosophy. The love of wisdom. Socrates helped define it for Western civilization and he did it not by writing or ruling, but by walking the streets of Athens, making conversation. I recently finished reading Paul Johnson’s biography, titled simply, Socrates: A Man for Our Times. Johnson is a favourite historian of mine and I had a 50% off coupon at Half Price Books, so that’s the backstory. It’s a small book, but it offers a fascinating glimpse into Athenian culture and the life of one of history’s most revered philosophers. Johnson portrays Socrates as a man immanently alive. “There was about him,” he wrote, “a vigor or animation of mind, a power of cheerfulness, vivacity, and liveliness. Some vital power or energy seemed to flow into and out of him.” After centuries of philosophic thought, going back to Socrates and ancient Greece may seem dull. But to catch a glimpse of the person Socrates was– that jolts me awake.


Socrates was not an intellectual- at least, not as Johnson describes an intellectual: “someone who thinks ideas matter more than people.” Plato was an intellectual when he took his master’s character and wrote him into dialogues that sometimes treat Socrates as a mere mouthpiece for Plato’s own ideas. But Socrates cared very little for proving statements or imparting knowledge to a rapt audience. He repeatedly said that true wisdom is found in the admission of ignorance, as I mentioned in a previous post. When the Oracle of Delphi proclaimed him to be the wisest man in Athens, Socrates, puzzled, concluded that it must be because his wisdom consisted in knowing his own limitations. We are wisest when we are pursuing wisdom, not when we think we have attained it. This truth was echoed later by another wise man in Greece, the Apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 3:18, Paul says, “Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God.”

Instead of insisting on his own superior intellect, Socrates was concerned for people. He spent most of his time asking questions and became an expert interrogator- direct but not imposing. I aspire to this. I doubt he ever had to fill an awkward pause with, “…So, the weather, am I right?” When my conversations lag, I remember how Socrates could linger for hours with a person; going deep and forcing them through questioning to examine their most internally held beliefs. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” he declared. As a philosopher, he worked not to bestow wisdom on people like Athens’ other philosophers, the Sophists, but to draw out any wisdom that already dwelt within. He never formed an academy or published a book, and yet he is one of the most famous and foundational philosophers in the Western tradition. It’s remarkable to me, because my mental picture of a philosopher is more like a bookish Professor Emeritus wearing a turtleneck rather than an extroverted, curious urbanite. But Socrates thought truest philosophy happened in conversation and he would laugh at those who relegate it to books. His philosophy was meant to be lived, not merely mulled over. Plutarch said Socrates was the first to apply philosophy to common life, and he did so in a winsome, engaging manner. He also managed to annoy people sometimes, as his nickname, “the Gadfly of Athens” suggests. Some of his tactics weren’t universally appreciated- for example; he was well versed in irony, which was sometimes misunderstood as mockery or false modesty. A friend of mine pointed out that Socrates was master of the ultimate ancient Greek mic-drop! In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates says to his opponent, “You are laughing? Here we have yet another form of refutation – when a statement is made, to laugh it down, instead of disproving it!” But Socrates knew the rare art of slipping subtly between levity and gravitas– which Johnson calls “the essence of sophisticated communion.”

It was his genuine interest in people that drove Socrates and expanded his influence. Athens was his first love. Even near the end of his life, after the city was wracked by plague and war and the so-called democratic system of the time sentenced him to death for “corrupting the young men of Athens” with his questioning, he refused to seek shelter in exile. To him, leaving his city would be worse than death. There’s a quote I’ve seen floating around Pinterest: “Find what you love and let it kill you.” Socrates did.

I don’t know whether Socrates knew the one true God. Either way, he’s not our ultimate role model. But I believe he set an admirable example of how to converse with and improve people. Saint Augustine, in his City of God, says there is no eternal earthly city, but that Christians are members of the eternal city of God and live out their devotion to him by being the best members of their cities here on earth. In the last chapter of Jonah, God soundly lectures the prophet on the proper way to care for the world. When Jonah, camped morosely outside Nineveh, wakes to find a plant that shaded him has died, he cries out angrily to God who replies, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow…. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left?” We live in a world of cities that can all relate on some level to Nineveh. Socrates made his home in a city like that, a great metropolitan center full of ignorance as well as promise, and he nurtured the minds of its people. In the 21st century, we need Socrates as much as ancient Athens needed him. We need curious philosophers and examiners and lovers of humanity to dig deep and challenge cultural assumptions and aid in the pursuit of Truth. And as Christians, we should be first to run at the task.

There are two kinds of philosophers: those who tell you WHAT to think and those who tell you HOW. Socrates was the second. “He was keenly anxious,” says Johnson, “to discover how people think and whether they can be encouraged to think more clearly and usefully.” He looked closely at people and asked questions to find what motivations stirred them, what emotions compelled them, and what ideas latched onto them. He was anxious to help each person think more clearly, efficiently, and ethically. Johnson continues, “For Socrates, ideas existed to serve and illuminate people, not the other way around.” His love for people shaped the entirety of Western thought. It shapes me still: whether I’m casually talking with friends or walking the streets of Austin, looking for stories.



set down the sun gently for me-

roll it west like a word off the tongue.
my best friend and I will sit on the back porch
watching cottonwoods snowing and
ringing their leaves like bells

across the river, the mountains will glow-
flushed with satisfaction at a day lived well.
mountains become lampshades holding the sun:
long after the sun has set, they will carry its burn
like a kiss

Montana in the summer is a cathedral full of vespers

let the sun fall like a curtain-
draping the hour in red.
on the back porch we will talk in hushed voices
watching the river continue its intrepid race and
beginning to reflect the stars.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs


Every Monday night, I take a detour on my way home and drive through the heart of downtown Austin. It lures me like I imagine an anglerfish entices prey in the deep sea depths; a sinister analogy, but oddly applicable to how I feel when I’m drawn to those bright streets. I vary my route each week, watching business-suited pedestrians and party-goers share the night with cars and motorcycles and glittering buildings. It’s a vibrant nightlife that, come morning, will transform into a vibrant workday. It’s the sort of place you want to drive through slowly (or ideally walk)– becoming a participant.

janejacobsThis diverse and energetic city atmosphere is enthusiastically supported by Jane Jacobs in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Since its publication in 1961, it’s become a classic in urban planning and has exhibited impressive influence up to the present day; influencing city planners across the country and such movements as The New Urbanism. I read most of Jacobs’ book on vacation at the Frio River– about as far from city life as you can get, but even there I was struck by its pertinence. Not only is it searingly applicable to our problems as an increasingly urban nation, but Jacobs has masterfully woven personal experience, opinions and second-hand anecdotes together with hard statistics and history in a way that kept me turning pages and underlining passages even in sections dealing with amortization periods of mortgages, which is normally hard to do.

Jane Jacobs loved cities. She loved cities because she loved people and was endlessly captivated by the life of individuals, especially the ways those lives could be shaped and changed by the lives of other individuals or the places that framed them. I’ve thought a lot about the influence of Place recently, especially since traveling to England last year. What makes a place conducive to human flourishing? That question is a bigger one than Jacobs asks in Cities, since she deals primarily with urban centers rather than suburban or rural life. But in those urban centers, she calls first and foremost for diversity. “Without a strong and inclusive central heart,” she writes, “a city tends to become a collection of interests isolated from one another. It falters at producing something greater, socially, culturally, and economically, than the sum of its separated parts.” Because people are always changing- whether by aging or because of fluctuations of income or interest, monotonous areas become permanent way stations. People want to live in places that reflect their own lives, so what multifaceted person would choose to spend his life in a one-dimensional neighborhood?

Diversity is key to lively cities, but cities do not automatically generate diversity. It forms because of various economic pools of use, which draw different sorts of people, who create smaller elements of diversity in an increasing cycle. That cycle of flourishing is a lofty and complex goal, but Jacobs proposes four necessary conditions for diversity that help break the issue into smaller, more attainable parts. (I highly support reading the book since this brief overview is really inadequate.)

First, districts must serve more than one primary function, to draw people into the area at different times of day. Primary uses are ordinarily places of work or residence, or anything that draws people for its own sake, such as a successful theatre.

Second, most blocks must be short to encourage commerce and “intricate pools of cross-use.” Long streets cut people off from other areas. If a city were a quilt, short streets would be like stitching instead of basting in the fabric of diversity.

Third, buildings must vary in age in order to accommodate businesses of varied means. Aesthetically, a street that mingles old and new buildings looks more diverse, and can attract real diversity by offering accommodation to established businesses and small start-ups simultaneously.

Fourth, the population must be sufficiently dense (density is determined by dwellings per acre, not to be confused with overcrowding which is determined by people per dwelling). In areas where people are spread thin, only businesses supported by the majority can turn a sustainable profit. Only dense areas can meet the demands of the minority. At a lecture on urban design last week, I met a developer who chose the following quote from Jane Jacobs as a motto for his real estate consultant firm: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Further in her book, Jacobs delves deep into the nature of cities and issues such as the self-destruction of diversity, border vacuums, the role of automobiles, and various tactics to improve the functioning of everything from subsidized housing to city government. Particularly because I’ve experienced European cities and older American ones that were built around the pedestrian or horse and carriage rather than the car, I was fascinated by Jacobs’ diagnosis and prescribed cures for the (in my opinion) inferior urban planning movements after World War II. The sentiment is shared by the authors of Suburban Nation, another book on urban planning I finished recently, as evidenced by the choice of quote here:


Since Jacobs published it in 1961, the logic and sentiments behind her work have taken root in many city development departments and produced improvements that I hope would encourage her today. They certainly encourage me. But there’s still a long way to go. When I drive through downtown Austin, I’m thrilled by all the diversity I see in action. But a few miles out, the suburban neighborhoods are populated with bleak business parks and wide highways that speak of an environment built for machines instead of bodies. As ever more Americans (especially millennials) flock to urban centers, it is ever more important that we build them well. At the beginning of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, there’s a note about illustrations that has stuck with me: “The scenes that illustrate this book are all about us. For illustrations, please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger and think about what you see.”

A Little Manual for Knowing by E.L. Meek


How do you know?

How do you know that you know?

How do you know that you know that you know?

The bemusing yet essential questions of epistemology have been around for thousands of years. In her book, A Little Manual for Knowing, Esther Lightcap Meek addresses those questions gently and accessibly. Meant to be a guidebook for those embarking on “knowing ventures”, each short chapter culminates in a series of introspective questions to assist thought and application.

What does it mean to gain knowledge? For most of us in this age of information, knowledge is simply an accumulation of facts, but Meek spends the 100 pages of A Little Manual debunking this assumption. Although she agrees that knowledge often involves amassing information, she goes deeper into the reality of human knowing with the intention of convincing us that there is more to knowledge than data. Ultimately, she claims that knowing requires love, commitment, and creaturely gratitude in order to come full circle and bear fruit. While information-driven knowledge is about control, love-driven knowledge invites and receives reality as it is. “We must be willing to have it change us,” she urges. Unless there is an element of trust and commitment to the yet-to-be-known, we’ll miss the reality of the thing– gaining a mere cursory idea of it or projecting our own expectations onto it. We’ll be the proper hearers of T.S. Eliot’s question: “Where is the life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

Meek borrows heavily from the philosophy of 20th century polymath Michael Polanyi, especially his theory of tacit knowing. Like Polanyi, she claims that much of our focal concentration is rooted in subsidiary awareness. Subsidiary-focal integration, or SFI, encompasses the core of a knowing endeavor. Skills like playing the piano exemplify SFI: you can’t play well if you focus entirely on your finger movements, for instance. Your fingers are part of your subsidiary awareness. When you begin to learn piano, your fingers are at the forefront of your concentration, but as you learn to control them, they take on the habit of correct posture and movement and allow you to shift your focus to the music. Similarly, as we learn in other ways, we integrate the focal and the subsidiary in a way that drives us closer to the heart of a subject. What begins as focal knowledge passes to subsidiary, where we can “indwell” it like our own bodies. Once-foreign concepts become presuppositions. “Coming to know proves to be a process of moving from looking at to looking from, in order to look beyond,” writes Meek.

She’s currently a successful writer, professor of philosophy in Pennsylvania, and Visiting Professor of Apologetics at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, but Meek remembers being in middle school and wondering how we can know when we’ve achieved knowledge. It’s a question that has plagued epistemologists for centuries, and maybe those epistemologists all started out as confused middle-schoolers. Meek’s explanation of how we know when we’re in contact with reality involves a complex term: Independent Future Manifestations; which just means a sense of unfolding possibility. “When you learn to ride a bike,” she told Ken Myers in an interview for the Mars Hill Audio Journal, “the world opens up to you in bikish ways.” When reality points you to more reality, that’s how you know it’s real. That moment of epiphany is empowering. Meek goes beyond that first connection, though. She encourages knowers to retain the wonder of epiphany throughout life as we continue to pursue understanding.

The necessity of retaining wonder requires us to see knowing as an exercise of love and invitation of the yet-to-be-known instead of a harvest of empirical facts. The first method is a pursuit of peace and living along-side; the latter is about power. And when we’re seekers of power, we are unwilling to allow our contact with reality to transform us. We take but do not give. Meek compares healthy learning to a dance: a give-and-take relationship between knower and known. We cannot strive for dominance or we’ll never achieve virtuosity. As creatures, we live inside a reality that has much to teach us, and often our most useful tool is acknowledgement of our own ignorance. 1 Corinthians 8:2-3 points this out: “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.” The proper focus is always on being known, rather than knowing; on approach rather than arrival. Meek speaks of reality in these terms when she says, “Rather than fitting into our sense of what makes sense, it fits us into its sense of what makes sense.”

A Little Manual for Knowing delves deep without drowning the reader. Only a centimeter thick, it’s essentially the layman’s version of Meek’s opus, Loving to Know. In that substantial work, the concepts of A Little Manual are detailed more thoroughly. But for those who don’t have time or fortitude for over 500 pages of epistemic philosophy, this thin manual delivers the core ideas. It is passionate and enthusiastic: highly unusual qualities in this field! Sometimes Meek waxes too eloquent and becomes gushy, and there are too few citations even for laymen, but I enjoyed Meek’s crash course in loving epistemology and I recommend it or Loving to Know for anyone interested in expanding his understanding of understanding.

For further reading on wisdom, tacit knowledge, and Michael Polanyi, try this post.


miles and miles of rainy road
roll before me like Venetian canals

I have nothing but choices:
how to steer, how to think in the clouds.

laudate, how to praise.

highway medians and swollen plains
lie bunched and spongy, receiving all that falls.
I pause- – – to teach myself trust

in the green-soaked evening
I make my own happiness

and I become the blackbird at rest
sitting in a tree with closed wings,
dripping wet songs

receiving all that falls.

damp pines

slow climb

yellow grass curls and straggles its way to the sky
as do I.
in a way, I long to follow the hawk lifting on borrowed air
but I do not know where he is going
and I care; I have to walk very straight and narrow
because no one is flying there.

one way trail


when barren twigs erupt
into newness of light green life
I cannot forget this tenderness.
I cannot forget (I am forgetting)
the analysis of twilight deer
when I perched in a tree like a human owl
and was an altogether new thing to their baffled eyes.
and the Scottish sea blooming into froth and foam
under cliffs that held my train;
I cannot forget this wilderness.
I cannot even forget what I am forgetting:
the air strikes I did not see
the hands holding only fear and memory
the free-falling red dust

every foreign spring comes home to me; I cannot forget.
I am forgetting.



the wind also sings
out of my register
it flings me to second chair
with a worship beyond world
like an armed vanguard
it heaves a mighty word upon us
with the insistent roar of a highway
Coming! Come.   .   . ing!
weaving the trees
thatching a banquet hall
sweeping it clean
the wind also sings.

make room in me for new things,
February wind
for I cling hard to the thin trees of winter
and the mint taste of cold air.


ducks, compared to me

ducks, compared to me, are much more organized
they pattern themselves
submitting for miles to wing-beats in front
faces watch tail feathers and eyes never meet
friendship forgotten in the circle of sky, the same of wings, the

above scrawny oaks and the grope of mistletoe, I hear duck voices

no, I do not know what it means
do they hate or love the regimen?
I see only this: they get where they mean to go.


my year in books – 2014


It was not a year of quantity regarding books. But some of these stand out to me like boulders that made my path clear. As always, this is not a list of book endorsements. I do not necessarily recommend all of the following.

The Ballad of the White Horse by G.K. Chesterton*
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling*
Magic by G.K. Chesterton
Defiant Joy (The Remarkable Life and Impact of G.K. Chesterton) by Kevin Belmonte
The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak (a boulder-book; a thing of beauty)
Tales from Watership Down by Richard Adams
The Song of Roland translated by Leonard Bacon
Master of the World by Jules Verne
The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley*
What’s Wrong With the World by G.K. Chesterton
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams
The Long, Dark Teatime of the Soul by Douglas Adams
The Poets Laureate Anthology compiled by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt (a boulder-book; a collection of fire and ash)
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (almost a boulder; this small story spoke to me of humanity and communication)
The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
Dune by Frank Herbert
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
Julius Caesar by Shakespeare
Star Trek: Federation by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens
King Lear by Shakespeare
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
A Window in Thrums by J.M. Barrie
Mathematics in Western Culture by Morris Kline
The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy
A Continuous Harmony by Wendell Berry (a boulder-book; this was my first time reading Wendell Berry and it tied together some important loose ends of my life)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling*
84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey
Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams
Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
The Catbird’s Song by Richard Wilbur
Q’s Legacy by Helene Hanff
A War of Gifts by Orson Scott Card
Songmaster by Orson Scott Card
Christianity for Modern Pagans (Pascal’s Pensees) by Peter Kreeft (a boulder-book; a work of apologetics infused with love and honesty)
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Persuasion by Jane Austen*
Station Island by Seamus Heaney

*denotes previously read


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