Review

The Right Mistake: The Further Philosophical Investigations of Socrates Fortlow

by Walter Mosley

Many would argue that philosophy has gone south since the
Greeks. As subsequent thinkers became muddled with questions of
categorical imperatives, moral relativisms and systematized ethics,
they lost the almost childlike simplicity of the discipline’s
original questions: What is good? How can I act right? More
importantly, in a discourse of prosaic academic papers and windbag
treatises, the act of gathering strangers around a table to discuss
issues face to face has been deemed quaint --- so much for Socratic
ideals.

Mosley’s reincarnation of the philosopher is surprisingly
faithful to the original: he is old, fat, poor, wise and highly
aware of his limitations. He is put on trial for his ideas and
defends himself superbly. Granted, he lives. And granted, he has
raped and murdered women. Most damningly, he lacks most of
Socrates’s characteristic arrogance. But these are things we
can let slide, especially since Mosley is out to create a new
character, not a second coming. As a modern-day street-wise
philosopher, Socrates Fortlow, ex-con and all, is a fictional and
philosophical hero well worth rallying around, and his story of
engaging others into questioning right action speaks to the very
soul of what philosophy is about.

Newly out of prison, Fortlow opens the Big Nickel, an old house
in the LA ghetto that opens its doors on a weekly basis to everyone
interested in discussing moral problems of the day (the free gumbo
also helps). The Thinkers, as they come to be known, are mostly
from the bad parts of town, but that doesn’t stop them from
jumping right in to high-stakes moral debates about violence and
compassion for other men, all under the common goal of bettering
themselves. As the Big Nickel grows in renown, it sparks public
interest in the goal of self-betterment, as well as attracts police
spies suspicious of potentially seditious activity. Fortlow opens
the Nickel as a site for peace talks between gang leaders;
predictably enough, the bulk of people, too ignorant to conceive of
such a hopeful establishment, just assume it’s another crime
den. While Fortlow is eventually put on trial for suspected murder,
it’s his honest moral activities that seem to be on
trial.

Mosley deftly brings Fortlow to life as a modern man, a murderer
with unknowable guilt and a Socratic figurehead. He is equal parts
wise and humble, and while he’s certainly inspirational as
Socrates, he’s most powerful as a troubled man looking for
any salvation left to him. While Mosley goes a little overboard in
referencing Fortlow’s ubiquitous shame for his crimes,
there’s an honesty in the character that’s hard not to
admire.

The novel’s other characters are nowhere near as well
drawn, but considering the book’s subtitle, “The
Further Philosophical Investigations of Socrates Fortlow,”
they aren’t expected to be. THE RIGHT MISTAKE is half-novel,
half-philosophical dialogue in the style of Plato. But shockingly,
it works. Mosley’s tale is completely unpretentious,
single-handedly sucking the wind out of academics everywhere. And
at the same time, it’s an engaging novel.

THE RIGHT MISTAKE presents a superb populist vision of
philosophy as something anyone can do to better themselves. But it
could have benefited from some more actual philosophizing. There is
some narrative time devoted to the discussions at the Big Nickel,
but it’s mostly summary. Fortlow and his friends do apply
their ever-questioning mindset and ideas on moral right to their
everyday lives in many chapters, but these too are a little
subdued. As a philosophical work THE RIGHT MISTAKE is lacking some
meat, but this is a side issue. Mosley --- not too heavily ---
forces us to consider what we know, and more importantly, what we
think we know that isn’t the case. Fortlow inspires not just
his contemporaries but his reader as well. Mosley has reclaimed
philosophy for those who need it most: people in the world, of the
world, and far too often victims of it.

Reviewed by Max Falkowitz on January 23, 2011

The Right Mistake: The Further Philosophical Investigations of Socrates Fortlow
by Walter Mosley

  • Publication Date: October 7, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Civitas Books
  • ISBN-10: 046500525X
  • ISBN-13: 9780465005253