Socrates Salon, rooted in millenniums of history, marks 30th anniversary

Socrates Salon, rooted in millenniums of history, marks 30th anniversary
Socrates Salon founder Ron Gross. The Great Neck Library's Socrates Salon will celebrate its 30th anniversary in April. (Photo courtesy of Ron Gross)

For 30 years, individuals have been gathering to participate in the Great Neck Library’s Socrates Salon, a group that meets to discuss a range of topics. While the group’s immediate history encompasses three decades, the salon is rooted in a tradition that stretches across millenniums and brings a classical approach into the 21st century.

The Socrates Salon was established by Ron Gross, co-chair of the University Seminar on Innovation at Columbia University and founder of Conversations New York, in 1994 through the Great Neck Library. The salon was the result of an initiative he described as “un-shushing” libraries through active engagement.

Gross, who wrote the book “Socrates’ Way: Seven Master Keys to Using Your Mind to the Utmost,” said he became hooked on the Greek philosopher who lived from 470-399 BCE through his studies.

“He set a certain tone in starting the Western intellectual tradition of conversation as the best way to spend your leisure time,” Gross said.

Socrates, a man who died centuries before the common era, became a model for Gross to develop his own classical-inspired gatherings.

Topics range from meeting to meeting, like friendship, luck, compassion and leadership, but Gross said they all concern a subject in which everyone is an expert in their own way.

“Topics like that that everybody has got an opinion on even if they’ve never had a chance to express it or didn’t realize that they felt strongly about it in one way or another,” Gross said.

Meeting discussions are held in a group format, with participants invited to speak on the subject and respond to others to carry out an active discussion.

Hattie Abbey, a retired special education teacher in Great Neck, joined the salon after her friends encouraged her when she retired in 2012.

“I look forward to it each month,” Abbey said.

Abbey is the group’s resident poet, who writes a poem based on the discussion topic to be read at the start of each meeting. She said her language of poetry is something she’s spoken her whole life, often finding herself responding to people in poems.

While the group traditionally met in person, like every other gathering it was forced to assume a virtual format at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But while in-person gatherings have resumed for years now, Gross said the salon plans to continue its virtual format to draw in and engage an international collection of members.

Participants come from far and wide – with a regular attendee Zooming in from Pakistan – and Gross said keeping a virtual format helps them reach a wider array of people who may otherwise not be able to attend in person for a variety of reasons.

While Abbey was hesitant about the Zoom format, she has grown to love it due to the broad range of people who can now join.

“It’s become so personal because everybody’s very at ease when they speak,” Abbey said. “It’s fabulous getting opinions from all over the world. It’s just amazing. I love it. I may beg us to not go back to the library.”

But salons are typically something associated with the past, like the Parisian salons during the Enlightenment or the Roman forums, and rarely thought of in modern times. Even if their historical context, they were often exclusive spaces.

“Throughout history…salons have been a very important feature of cultural life and artistic life,” Gross said. “The only trouble was they were only for the very privileged. There was no way that other people could get in even if they wanted to, even if they knew about them.

But Gross said the desire for stimulating conversations did not die out with these historical salons and forums as people still ache for their offerings. He said this has been exacerbated even more with the digital age.

“This is a perennial impulse that people have,” Gross said.

Wrapping up three decades of its gatherings but culminating after millenniums of history, the library’s salon will celebrate its 30th anniversary at its next meeting on April 9 to discuss the topic “Saving democracy: what do we need to do?”

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  1. As a participant in the Socrates Conversations,
    I appreciate Ron’s efforts to strengthen
    Our Civil discourse, and in bringing out the best in our shared Society. Ron is a leader for tolerance and mutual respect in our community.

    Ronald Brinn
    Great Neck


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