Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Philosophy and wisdom
condensed on a T-shirt
in the Plaka in Athens

A quick tutorial in philosophy in Athens on T-shirts on sale in the Plaka at the weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017

Patrick Comerford

Some years ago, I spotted and photographed a T-short in the Plaka in Athens with the slogan:

To do is to be – Socrates

To be is to do – Plato

Do be do be do – Sinatra


I photographed it and used it as a humorous illustration in Liturgy lectures to open discussions about ministry and whether ordained ministry is about being and doing, and also used it in Church History modules as I introduced students to the concept of history being as much about ideas as it is about great persons and dates. Sometimes I have even used it to illustrate sermons.

But I sometimes regretted that I did not have the foresight to buy that T-shirt that night in the Plaka back in 2006.

Of course, I know Plato and Socrates never said such things or put their views so succinctly. The quotes attributed to them are simplistic and fanciful, if not facile. But they are good ways of getting students to think too about making the necessary connections between philosophy and theology, and between popular culture and theology.

The quotation from Frank Sinatra comes from his song Strangers in the Night. It was a No 1 hit in 1966 – his first since 1955 – and it was the title track for his most successful album, Strangers in the Night, for which he received three Grammy Awards 50 years ago in 1967.

In other words, this catchy slogan can only be 50 years old at the most.

These ‘quotes’ are not only variations on a tune but variations on a theme too.

The earliest version of this piece of philosophical wisdom appeared in the Dallas Morning News in Texas in January 1968. According to the columnist Paul Crume, it began as the work of three different people working in a warehouse in Richardson, Texas:

The way to do is to be – Lao-tzu, Chinese philosopher

The way to be is to do – Dale Carnegie

Do be, do be, do – Frank Sinatra


Joe Griffith, a real-estate agent, placed an advertisement in a South Carolina newspaper in 1969 that changed the order and switched one of the attributions from Lao-tzu to Socrates:

To be is to do – Dale Carnegie

To do is to be – Socrates

Do be do be do – Frank Sinatra


A columnist in The Times in London claimed in January 1973 that a version of the slogan was first spotted by a reader in the men’s loo in Cambridge University Library. A few days later it said an earlier version had been found in the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

A decade later, in his novel Deadeye Dick (1982), Kurt Vonnegut Jr offered a different version and variation:

To be is to do – Socrates

To do is to be – Sartre

Do Be Do Be Do – Sinatra


But the order of the slogans changes over the last half century, and the attributions change too, drawing in a variety of philosophers, including Dale Carnegie, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, William James, William Shakespeare and Bertrand Russell. But the punchline continued to be ascribed to Frank Sinatra.

Of course, on T-shirts in Athens the three great Greek philosophers – Plato, Socrates and Aristotle – squeeze out all their competitors. However, Artistotle has more letters in his name and costs more to print, which probably explains why he loses out to other two on Greek T-shirts.

But even Frank Sinatra’s words are open to questioning.

When you listen to his hit song, is he singing ‘Do Be Do Be Do’? Perhaps he is singing ‘Do De Do Be Do.’ Or perhaps he is singing ‘Scoo be doo be doo.’

It’s a 50-year-old conundrum, and it’s one that leads to late-night questions all over Ireland when the ubiquitous inebriated uncle gets up to sing at weddings.

All of us have been there. But I have bought the T-shirt. I bought it in the Plaka when I was in Athens last weekend.

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