Would it be possible, I wondered idly a couple of months ago, in a conversation with the philosopher Mark Vernon, to recreate “The School of Athens”, Raphael’s 1509 painting depicting the great Greek philosophers?
And could we, at the same time, teach the people the great philosophical concepts, for free?
Since starting the Idler Academy a few years ago, we have found that our lessons in Stoicism, Plato, Socrates, the Epicureans and the rest have been surprisingly popular, whether at our HQ in Notting Hill or at festivals such as Secret Garden Party and Port Eliot. The ideas are accessible and markedly relevant for the modern era. How do you deal with modern life? Retreat from it, like Epicurus, or develop resilience and self-control, like the Stoics? Treat it all as a meaningless spectacle, like the Cynics, or wander through it with open eyes and an inquisitive nature, like the Sceptics? Or just laugh at it, like Democritus?
The steps of St Paul’s seemed like the perfect place from where to communicate ancient wisdom. Mark contacted the ecclesiastical authorities and they were happy to give us their blessing. We decided to include St Paul among the philosophers as a courtesy to their generosity – Raphael’s philosophers were all pagans, of course. Nick Spencer of the religious think tank Theos, author of Atheists: The Origin of the Species was the man for the job.
We approached public figures rather than university-bound academics. In ancient Athens, philosophy was for the people: Socrates taught for free in the marketplace, and philosophy was not a university degree. It was a science, an everyday part of life: men, women and slaves would wander along to Plato’s Academy, to get a bit of wisdom in the groves.
Two of my favourite amateur thinkers are John Lloyd and John Mitchinson, the founders and writers of QI. QI is all about enjoyable enquiry; it is like a modern Greek academy that anyone can join. The two Johns readily agreed to put on togas, and John Mitchinson already had a generous beard. We had Aristotle, the great generalist, who was interested in absolutely everything, and Democritus, the laughing philosopher.
The place of Plato was taken by Angie Hobbs, a Plato expert, and Socrates was Peter Worley of the Philosophy Foundation, a charity that teaches philosophy in schools. My old friend Alex Bellos, a journalist who has written best-sellers on maths, took the place of Euclid, pointing out that mathematicians and philosophers were the same thing in the ancient world.
Jules Evans, whose book Philosophy for Life and other Dangerous Situations found a huge audience with his practical take on Stoicism, was the perfect choice for Zeno, the founder of the Stoic movement, and I elected to play Epicurus, whose philosophy could be summed up as “less is more”. Patrick Usher, another contemporary Stoic, played the Roman philosopher Cicero.
Mark Vernon was Plotinus, and the education theorist Martin Robinson, who wants to reintroduce the ancient “Trivium” system into education, said yes to being Protagoras, and our musician was Danny Wootton, who teaches ukulele at the Idler Academy, and who doubled for Ptolemy. Our stand-in for Averroes was the gloriously dread-locked sanskrit scholar and ordained saddhu, James Mallinson.
And what about Diogenes the Cynic, who lived in a barrel, and did exactly what he felt like? When asked what sort of wine he liked, Diogenes retorted: “That for which other people pay.” Who better than my old friend, poet Jock Scot, who has somehow managed to live a rich life without ever going near the conventional world, and who has recently been diagnosed with cancer, but has rejected chemotherapy?
We needed lovely coloured togas. Luckily, our staff member Henry’s sister Emerald is a young designer of genius and produced 14 excellent garments. The date was set for yesterday, 20 November, Unesco’s World Philosophy Day. We could do our part for the communication of philosophy as a living, breathing, practical subject.
Amazingly, all the philosophers turned up pretty punctually at 8am. They then immediately started doing what they do best: chatting. Or should I call it philosophising? And laughing. It was nigh on impossible to get their attention and order them around to their places on the steps. Once in position, the only issue was Socrates’ feet: he had taken off his shoes because the real Socrates was famous for going barefoot. But the real Socrates was hanging out in the Mediterranean and not on a crisp November morning in London town. The feet were getting cold.
We took the pictures. The group carried on nattering away and was joined by members of the public. By 11am, the philosophising was in full swing. The thinkers gradually drifted off and I was left with 10 or so members of the public to whom I gave a talk about the early days of philosophy.
Meanwhile, we put video philosophy classes up on our website for free. The whole thing was great fun and we are now hatching plans to philosophise for free at St Paul’s more regularly.
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