Hot Dogs, Plato, and Community: April Fool’s Day at St. John’s Annapolis
April 9, 2020 | By Les Poling
On Monday, March 30, Annapolis Johnnies received an unexpected email.
“In these trying times, we are pleased to announce some world-historically good news,” tutor Ron Haflidson wrote. “Members of the college have recently discovered a long-lost Platonic dialogue, Glaucon. Mentioned twice (and glowingly) by Aristotle in his largely neglected treatise On Parties, scholars have long thought this dialogue was lost to the ravages of history. We will spare you the long story of its rediscovery (it involves Ms. Brann finally cleaning out her basement) and instead focus on our plans to share it with you.”
Mr. Haflidson concluded his email with a tantalizing declaration: “We don’t want to over-hype this, but we feel confident in saying that this dialogue will drastically and definitively change all of your opinions about: Plato, Socrates, metaphysics, ethics, ontology, zoology, and meat.” The stage was set: On April 1, a dramatic reading of Glaucon took place (via Microsoft Teams) for the Annapolis community. As dozens followed along online, Mr. Haflidson read for Glaucon, while President Pano Kanelos took on the responsibility of reading for Socrates.
Of course, Glaucon doesn’t exist. Or rather, it exists—but not as a rediscovered vestige of Ancient Greece. Instead, it’s a spoof dialogue written by Bryan Heystee, a Canadian scholar and longtime friend of Mr. Haflidson. In Glaucon, readers—or, in this case, watchers and listeners—find Socrates and Glaucon considering the urgent philosophical question: What is the best food for a party?
Heystee originally wrote the dialogue several years ago, during the composition of his master’s thesis on Plato. “I had spent a long, solitary year reading Plato and Platonic scholarship,” he recalls, “and things were not progressing as smoothly as I would have hoped. In a fit of frustration, I felt the need to vent and to poke a little fun at the object of my study.” Inspired by his scholarship—and a dining hall meal box with an image of Socrates exclaiming “more hot dogs!”—Heystee began applying some of Plato’s trademark techniques to the matter of party foods. “When you spend the better part of a year reading Platonic dialogues, you end up internalizing some of the tropes and techniques that Plato uses,” he says. “The curious and characteristic turns of phrase become a second language!” Heystee is quick to describe his Glaucon as a “pale imitation,” but nevertheless, he notes, “even something as simple as hot dogs is receptive to Plato’s genius!”
Mr. Haflidson had been considering a St. John’s reading of Glaucon for years, ever since he first saw the dialogue performed in Nova Scotia. “I found it really funny—and so did the audience I was watching it with—and I appreciated how it cleverly spoofed some key features of Platonic dialogues,” he says. He began taking the idea of a St. John’s performance more seriously in the fall of 2019, even soliciting the “enthusiastic” support of Ms. Eva Brann. But the everyday demands of being a tutor temporarily pushed Glaucon to the back of his mind.
Then, the coronavirus pandemic disrupted everything, and suddenly, “I felt like I needed some cheering up,” Haflidson says. “It seemed like a very happy coincidence that our first week of online classes included April 1st.” With the help of Awss Al-Janabi in IT and President Kanelos—who, Haflidson notes, is “up for just about anything if he thinks it will be good for the college”—the plan was put in place.
And so, on April 1, more than 70 students, faculty, and staff joined together to watch, enthralled, as two eminent thinkers of Ancient Greece—featuring President Kanelos wearing a toga—concluded that there can only be one choice for the best party food: hot dogs. As Haflidson explains, “unlike other meats, the hot dog involves all of the parts of a pig, so—in a feat of true Socratic reasoning—with hot dogs, the whole of the pig is present in a part.”
Whether or not everyone who watched the April Fool’s dialogue agrees will remain a mystery. But one can assume, Johnnies being Johnnies, that it at least led to more dialogue—a triumph in the time of social distancing. Not to mention, Haflidson says, Glaucon fits right in with the St. John’s Program.
“One of the qualities I have come to love about this community is that there is a real sense of playfulness—even, not infrequently, silliness—in our classrooms,” he remarks. “Coming from outside, you might read about St. John’s and check out our reading list and think we’re serious and intense—and we are (are we ever!)—but I also think, at our best, we are engaged in ‘serious play,’ to quote Ms. Brann.”
He continues: “I think learning through conversation—the fundamental activity of the college—depends on people’s willingness to let themselves be perplexed and share that perplexity with others. And perhaps laughter—the right kind of laughter—can free us up to take ourselves less seriously and admit when we’re perplexed.”