Teenagers Should Learn Philosophy, Even Though It's Dangerous

British author Lucy Eyre on when and how she thinks children should be exposed to philosophy.

Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection

“Philosophers really did have a talent for stating the obvious. And then making it not obvious after all.”

– “If Minds Had Toes” (2007)

As Ben Warner, the protagonist of the novel “If Minds Had Toes,” is on the way home from a soccer game with friends, an elderly man waves to him on the street. One of Ben’s friends draws his attention to the “old tramp,” as he calls him, and Ben moves away from the group to talk to the man – who turns out to be none other than Socrates. Not long before this, Ben had visited the World of Ideas and met the Greek philosopher along with a few other of the greatest thinkers in the history of the world. But the unexpected encounter on the street embarrasses him.

“Philosophy hasn’t made me very popular,” he complains to Socrates. “Tell me about it!” retorts Socrates, who was condemned to death in Athens of the 4th century B.C.E., in the wake of the philosophical arguments he would launch into with everyone he chanced to meet. He was convicted of impiety and of corrupting the minds of Athenian youth, but at least according to “If Minds Had Toes,” by British writer Lucy Eyre, even in the early 21st century, he has not forsaken philosophical dialogues or his efforts to get to the heart of ideas and concepts.

The novel, originally published in English in 2007 and now appearing in Hebrew (under the title “Ben and Lila Meet Socrates,” Ahuzat Bayit Press), seeks to introduce young people to the workings of philosophy by counterpoising the routine of life led by Ben, an American high-school student who has a summer job in a fish-’n-chips place, to the ideas he encounters in the World of Ideas – an alternative universe where all the inhabitants are dead philosophers or pursuers of philosophy. Ben is lured into this realm by a mysterious and charming young woman named Lila.

If philosophy doesn’t upgrade Ben’s social life in the real world, in the World of Ideas he becomes an attraction and is at the center of a wager – over whether philosophy can make one happier – between Socrates and the great 20th-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein; the two are in competition for control of the alternate universe.

After more than 2,000 years, during which Socrates was the uncontested president of the World of Ideas, Wittgenstein has challenged his leadership. The two agree to find an ordinary person who has no affinity for philosophy or prior acquaintance with the field and to bring him to their world for a visit. Thus, Ben becomes involved in the conflict between the two thinkers, without knowing they have already decided that if an encounter with philosophy improves Ben’s life, Socrates will continue to hold the reins of power in the World of Ideas; if not, they will pass to Wittgenstein.

Clash of ideas

In an email interview, Eyre told me she wrote the novel in order “to communicate my love for the ideas that make up the core of the book. Questions such as: How do we really perceive the world? Do we have free will? How can we do the right thing?”

Eyre explains that, “although I actually wrote the book almost 10 years after I had started studying philosophy at university, I could still remember that excitement I felt when I first started to think really hard about such ideas. I couldn’t bear it that people were going about their lives without having been exposed to these ideas. I wanted to share that excitement with others, but without them having to make the effort of doing a philosophy course.”

She adds: “Most of the introductory books that I had come across at that point took you through the history of philosophy man by man (and it was almost always men), with a chronological theme. I wanted the ideas to be central, and that’s why I chose to present the philosophy in my book through dialogues. A 17th-century argument will be fighting a 20th-century argument in the mouths of my characters. David, in the chapter on what makes you a person, may be loosely based on David Hume, but he’s free to use arguments that were first advanced long after Hume stopped being whatever sort of person he believed he was.”

The stormy debate between Socrates and Wittgenstein allows Eyre to expound two contradictory approaches to philosophy. In the view of the former, philosophy itself can be popular and can also be helpful to everyone – whereas Wittgenstein considers philosophy to be a subject for experts only, and rejects vehemently the attempts by Socrates and other philosophers to make this complex form of thought accessible to the general public.

“Do you really think people need this kind of philosophy in their lives?” Wittgenstein challenges Socrates in the book. “Do you think normal people worry about the metaphysical problem of free will? No, they worry about how to pay off their debt. How to live the good life? No, they care about their sex life. The true nature of reality? No, they just want a promotion. How the mind works? Absolutely not! At most, they ponder what car to buy. It’s all they’re good for.”

According to Eyre, “Wittgenstein, in real life, was such an extraordinary character ... He was particular and eccentric, tough-minded with himself and others. He was brilliant and, in some ways, I’ve been a bit hard on him. But I don’t think he’d have been easy to be with, he was scathing about ‘traditional’ philosophy and methods, and definitely thought there was no point in everyone ‘having a go’ at it.

“Socrates, in my caricature of him,” she continues, “is a fierce advocate of the value of questioning – questioning everything. I’ve based him on the star of Plato’s dialogues, who would accost people in the Agora of Athens and force them to justify what they unthinkingly believed. They both act, in my book, as useful counterparts, each representing one side of the debate. I think opposition – dialogue – is the key to making progress in philosophy.”

Girls or metaphysics

Lucy Eyre, born in London in 1975, is the only child of well-known parents. Her father is Sir Richard Eyre, a highly influential theater and film director, and her mother, Sue Birtwistle, is a senior television producer for the BBC (her credits include the 1995 series “Pride and Prejudice,” starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle). Eyre attended New College at Oxford, obtaining an undergraduate degree in its philosophy, political science and economics program. She worked as a lifeguard, a BBC radio researcher and as an economist – a profession she continues to practice today, alongside writing. Eyre is married and the mother of two young daughters. (“At the moment they are little scientists and explorers, and I hope soon they will become little philosophers,” she says.)

“If Minds Had Toes” is her first book. Her partner’s job – involving international development for the British government – landed them in Ethiopia in 2005, where they lived for three years. Based on her experiences there, Eyre wrote a novel about diplomatic life in Addis Ababa, on which she is now putting the finishing touches. She relates that at the same time she is also working on another novel, “which is loosely inspired by a story I came across while we were living in Ethiopia.”

The remote philosophical continent to which she transports Ben in her first novel captivated readers and critics alike in Britain and elsewhere – it has been translated into 11 languages. Some critics have likened it to the worldwide best seller “Sophie’s World,” from 1991, by the Norwegian writer Jostein Gaarder. That novel, too, offers a swiftly paced, adventure-filled journey into the world of philosophy from the perspective of young people.

Writing in the Observer, popular British philosopher Alain de Botton noted that Eyre is “intellectually rigorous, but refuses to let high ideals get in the way of writing a book that will be fun and charming for the young adult audience to which it seems aimed … Most of the book is given over to the philosophy lessons that poor, befuddled Ben receives, which enables Eyre to introduce us gently to some of the great questions of philosophy. The pill is beautifully sugared.”

The book’s chapters, de Botton points out, “include discussions of such themes as: Does time speed up when your heart beats faster? Does the evidence of our eyes really tell us about the nature of the world? And what is the judicious balance between free will and determinism? Ben is a lazy pupil, always keener to think about girls than metaphysics, but this enables Eyre to do her best to keep us entertained, which she does with plenty of good jokes.”

Children are often said to be like philosophers, inasmuch they ask questions about the essence of the world and human existence. Yet there are some adults who believe that philosophy is dangerous for children and adolescents. I asked Eyre about when and how she thinks youngsters should be exposed to the ideas of philosophy and whether she believes it can be harmful to them. “Children should start ‘studying’ philosophy whenever they start asking the kinds of questions that form part of it,” she replied. “And the form of this studying should be being pushed to think through their ideas, in a similar way to Ben in the book.

“I think age 15, as Ben is in the book, is perhaps quite late to think about these things. I made him 15 because, in my opinion, most of us are 15 when it comes to philosophy. That is, close to adulthood but with very unformed thoughts and often hopeless at articulating them. I also think it’s an interesting age. Ben is working out who to be and how to fit into the wider world.

“As for whether philosophy can be dangerous for young people,” she added, “I’d say – surprisingly – it can. Without wishing to take myself or my small book too seriously, I think it can be destabilizing to think about the ‘big’ ideas for the first time. To try and grasp that your identity as a person, or the world that you experience, isn’t quite as you had always assumed it was. These thoughts can be difficult for adults too. Which is why people who force others to think – such as Socrates – can often be unpopular. So philosophy can be dangerous for adolescents in two ways: because it can complicate your existing way of thinking, and because it can annoy others when you say things like ‘But why do you believe that?’”

Tips from Machiavelli

In the course of his visit to the World of Ideas, Ben gradually acquires a range of intellectual tools that help him crystallize and hone his concepts. When he returns to the real world, however, he finds that it’s far from simple to reveal the philosophical light to other people, too, just as in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. That famous Platonic tale, from “The Republic,” is mentioned in Eyre’s book, along with an array of other images, concepts and arguments from the history of philosophy. But even if the novel explains what philosophers mean by terms such as “idealist,” “materialist,” “dualist,” “reductionist,” “contingent,” “paradox” and “Occam’s Razor,” Eyre makes sure not to overload the reader with jargon: The crux of the book is the process undergone by Ben.

In addition to Socrates and Wittgenstein, a host of splendid supporting thinkers from various period people the book. They include Hegel (whose task is to update the denizens of the World of Ideas about the news and historical transformations being played out in the real world); Karl Marx (who does not call for a communist revolution but works as the operator of a shooting gallery in a fair, though even there he manages to disseminate his social vision: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”); Simone de Beauvoir (who spends her time playing backgammon with Aristotle); and even Jacques Derrida (who died in 2004, and whom the inhabitants of the World of Ideas are preparing to co-opt into their ranks).

Some philosophers take an active part in the struggle between Socrates and Wittgenstein. One is Niccolo Machiavelli, who offers Wittgenstein a few useful tips in practical politics. In contrast, the philosopher Immanuel Kant objects vigorously to the wager, arguing that the philosophers are exploiting Ben for their purposes. In line with his moral philosophy, Kant explains to them that one “should always treat people as ends in themselves, not as means to an end.”

I asked Eyre whether she shares Socrates’ view that philosophy can improve people’s lives. “If we consider philosophy as being a way to think, then it could improve the life of everyone. By this I mean being able to explain why you hold a belief, understand which other beliefs may be inconsistent with this belief, grasp what that belief entails in terms of other beliefs or actions,” she replied.

“The issues at the heart of some philosophy are, however, crucial: the value of happiness, right and wrong, the point of punishment, how much is a life worth? I think the world would be a better place if people – and particularly people with influence – habitually thought ‘philosophically’ in this sense.”

Besides Socrates and Wittgenstein, is there any other philosopher who might be suitable to be president of the World of Ideas?

“I can’t recommend anyone. Any decent philosopher will be hopeless at management. The World of Ideas will always be in trouble.”

Bloomsbury Publis