A place for the meaning of life Philosophy: In a Parisian cafe, weekly discussions about the Big Picture keep alive the intellectual tradition of Sartre and Camus.

June 01, 1996|By Bruce Dorminey | Bruce Dorminey,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PARIS -- This city was once famous for the writers and intellectuals who gathered at its cafes to sip coffee and argue about life. Though the existential afternoons of Sartre and Camus are mostly a thing of the past, their romance lingers on for the Parisians who gather every Sunday at a stuffy cafe near the Bastille to argue life's profundities.

Their guru of the hour is Marc Sautet, author of "Un cafe pour Socrate" (A Coffee for Socrates), the best-selling French tome on philosophy's role in everyday life. Waiters here at Cafe des Phares sport shirts with the title of Sautet's book inscribed above an etching of Socrates lifting a demitasse of espresso.

With his longish blond hair and laid-back manner, the 52-year-old philosopher looks more like he should be recording a comeback album for an aging rock band than leading a discussion on the meaning of life. But his audience hangs on every word, with at least half taking notes.

Microphone in hand, Sautet fields possible discussion topics like an experienced game-show host. They include: Napoleon's remark about imagination governing the world, whether the laws of God are impenetrable and a misogynistic jab by one fellow who wants to know why women are so mischievous.

They settle on Jean de la Fontaine's fable, "The Frog who Wanted to be as Big as a Steer." Loosely told, the frog huffs, puffs and sucks in so much air that he finally explodes. The moral of the story is clear: Be true to thyself, avoid ambition to the point of self-destruction and accept what fate has given. But that's not good enough for the 60 or so would-be philosophers gathered here today.

They argue every imaginable contemporary consequence of the frog's erratic behavior. Someone figures that in this age of job insecurity bigger frogs might have a leg up, while another suggested that such amphibian agitation could have been triggered by Hollywood violence. One man said simply that in light of the Mad Cow crisis, any right-minded frog would hardly be eager to emulate a bovine. "The frog envies the steer because the steer can never be tormented by sexual or sentimental problems," said Jean Coryn, a 52-year-old banker who's writing a book on the weekly topics. "I like the large variety in both the ideas and level of debate. Some arguments are rudimentary, while others are well-constructed, original and sophisticated."

The crowd looks prosperous. The majority seem to be a middle-age mix of lawyers, doctors, professors and other professionals either out for a new angle or just bored.

"This doesn't change any problem of mine nor change anything for me personally," said Jamain Joel, a 35-year-old office worker. "I've been coming off and on for two years and find it amusing. But there are some people who come every time and speak every time who I think have other problems."

Even so, the majority seem to view the two-hour discussions as either research for other aspects of their lives, like the 40-year-old philosophy teacher who comes to reap inspiration for making the subject accessible in the classroom. Or the 38-year-old who sees it as something beyond his daily routine of work, sleep and riding the Metro.

"People who come here are more open to hearing what others have to say," said Coryn. "They have some life experience, in work, in love, in a social sense. They have the need to reflect on their successes and failures in a cultural or intellectual context."

began the weekly discussions four years ago as a free community service. "I don't know if the level of debate was so high today," he said afterward, "but it reflected the cosmopolitan nature of a French cafe. Four continents were represented here today, and they all contributed to the discussion. So, each week I get a new point of view."

Sautet has found a natural ally in Gunter Gorhan, a 50-year-old University of Paris law professor. Gorhan is president of "Philos," the association that sponsors 15 such philosophy debates at cafes throughout the French capital. And not only is the trend spreading throughout France, but these discussions are being organized for cafes in New York, Tokyo and the cradle of all Socratic thought -- Athens.

"It's a choice of philosophic values," said Gorhan. "What is man? What is society? What is life? When I come here I understand my place in the world. Citizens become philosophers."

Pub Date: 6/01/96

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