I once watched a philosophy professor throw a class into turmoil by agreeing with Socrates that a person who knows what is virtuous cannot do evil. Once knowledge of virtue is achieved, the instructor explained, it is no longer a question of choosing to do good; it becomes impossible to do otherwise.

The bovine faces of the students suddenly erupted with emotion. They sneered at this notion and argued fiercely with the instructor. Knowledge is a hopelessly weak tool for enforcing moral behavior, they said. People need laws to keep them in line, and their obedience is a product of fear. Only the threat of punishment prevents people from running amok and doing whatever they please.

I didn’t believe that. I knew that knowledge kept me from cooperating with the war in Vietnam, for example–so Socrates made a lot of sense to me. Of course, the catch is that knowledge is not easy to come by. Without ruthless self-scrutiny, which Socrates fostered with his incessant questions, self-deception is inevitable, and once our thoughts take a wrong turn, there’s no telling where we’ll end up.

Wally Shawn knows this. So, like Socrates, he tries to stimulate self-awareness by planting difficult and disturbing questions in his plays.

I got my first inkling of what Shawn is up to when I saw My Dinner With Andre, the film he created from tape-recorded conversations with his friend, director Andre Gregory. In the film, the two of them have dinner in a nice restaurant, and Gregory does most of the talking, but I perked up when Shawn, in his bumbling, unpretentious way, offered this observation:

“If I were actually to confront the fact that I’m sort of sharing this stage with the starving person in Africa somewhere, well then I wouldn’t feel so great about myself. So naturally I blot those people out of my perception. So of course I’m ignoring a whole section of the real world. You know, Hannah Arendt was always writing about the fact that the more involved you are in corruption or evil, and the more areas of your own existence there are that you therefore don’t want to think about . . . the more distorted your perception of reality will be in general.”

The comment whisked by, but in that instant Shawn expressed a theme that keeps surfacing in his plays–moral behavior is a function of the way we think, and the way we think is easily tricked by the desire to feel good about ourselves.

Then I came across his play Aunt Dan & Lemon, in which Lemon, in her sweet, innocent way, argues with chilling clarity that Nazi atrocities were a mere amplification of what we are all prepared to do: “We’re enjoying a certain way of life–and we’re actually living–due to the existence of certain other people who are willing to take the job of killing on their own backs.”

So when I heard that the Steppenwolf Theatre Company was going to stage Aunt Dan & Lemon (scheduled to run through July 26), I set out to interview Shawn.

During a trip to New York, I pestered Shawn’s press agent. I wanted to meet this Socratic gadfly who had pricked the public’s conscience with his questions, and who seemed to believe that the most reliable source of morality was scrupulous self-knowledge, not smarmy religious sentiments or a harsh penal system. I held several conversations with Shawn’s answering machine. Finally I talked to Shawn himself, and he agreed to meet me at the Castle and the Elephant, his favorite restaurant in Greenwich Village.

He arrived a few minutes after I did, and peered through the window. I knew what he looked like. He played Diane Keaton’s exhusband in Manhattan, the one Woody Allen referred to as “that homunculus.” He had parts in The Hotel New Hampshire, Radio Days, and the recently released Prick Up Your Ears. And of course, he played himself in My Dinner With Andre. I knew he was short, bald, and a little overweight, but I still wasn’t prepared for the nebbish who presented himself. He was wearing a blue knit hat pulled down to his eyebrows, and glasses with tortoiseshell frames that rested high on his nose, so they always tilted to one side or the other. I waved to him, and he smiled. When he came into the restaurant and took off his coat, I thought he was wearing gloves with no fingers, but it was just the sleeves to his sweater–they were too long, and instead of folding them up, he let them hang below his knuckles.

I wondered if his appearance was a deliberate distortion of his true persona. After all, this guy is the son of former New Yorker editor William Shawn, and the product of a very privileged upbringing. He was educated at the prestigious Dalton School in New York, Putney prep school in Vermont, and Harvard. (At Harvard, Shawn roomed with Jonathan Schell, who went on to write the passionate and profound treatise on nuclear war The Fate of the Earth.) Shawn also earned two degrees at Oxford University, where he began writing his powerful, provocative little plays.

And this guy can’t keep his sleeves out of his food?

With a tape recorder running,Shawn speaks with excruciating precision, allowing long silences to accumulate . . . between . . . words. He cheerfully admitted he dislikes interviews. “The last time I did this, I talked to the guy for hours and hours and hours, and it turned out his tape recorder wasn’t working,” he said, the annoyance lingering in his voice.

Shawn said he came up with the idea for Aunt Dan & Lemon while reading books about the Nazis, such as Into That Darkness, by Gitta Sereny, and Art Spiegelman’s comic book Maus, which chronicles the experiences of the cartoonist’s parents, who survived the death camps.

“When you read about those times, you certainly wonder how people were capable of doing the things they did,” Shawn said. “You have to find a way to think of it. I mean, the people who did these things were people, and you’re a person, and so you sort of think, well, to what extent am I like them, and if I’m not like them, why not? And if I am . . . I mean, that period of history poses the most alarming questions.”

Shawn concluded that the Nazis were merely trying to relieve the economic and political problems of the Weimar Republic. However, in that pursuit, they began to ignore the moral implications of their actions. The extermination of the Jews was just a nasty but necessary task needed to achieve racial purity, which Hitler believed was essential for overcoming greed, dishonesty, and other destructive values introduced by non-Aryan races. Many Germans gleefully accepted this task, much as Aunt Dan accepts Henry Kissinger’s ruthless foreign policies based solely on the best interests of the United States.

“The play raises the question of the connection between the agreeable life we all have and the crimes that may be committed in order to keep that life pleasant,” Shawn explained. “In the years ahead, there’s a possibility that our comforts will be increasingly threatened, because the economy is not necessarily going to be performing as well as it did in the past, so how are we going to react to that? When our domination of the world is challenged, how will we react?”

Shawn believes the moral blindness of so many Germans during Hitler’s reign is almost inevitable when people find themselves engaged in reprehensible acts.

“I think self-deception goes along with committing crimes,” he said. “Almost no one thinks of himself as a criminal. It isn’t self-awareness alone that’s needed to prevent crimes, however. It’s also an awareness that tells you, ‘Yes, quite a lot of other people are doing this, it benefits me to do it myself, it would harm me not to do it, but it’s wrong.’ That’s a very specific kind of awareness that’s very hard to define, and there’s no way to convince another person that they should care about the fate of other human beings. You might be able to show them that if they did certain things, it would be harmful to other human beings, but if they don’t care, it’s not possible to make them care.”

Americans, Shawn believes, are insulated from the moral consequences of their behavior, so they tend not to think about their culpability.

“I don’t think I would be able to preserve my psychological stability and health if I were to reach a point where I could say to myself, ‘I don’t really care what happens to other people as a result of my actions.’ I think that would so violate my conception of why life is valuable, why life is worth living, that I wouldn’t be able to stand it. Yet, it’s so hard for Americans to think about things of this kind because our lives are so trivial. Our trivial thoughts may lead to people being tortured in prisons in Chile. Our trivial thoughts may lead to the entire world being blown up, but in our daily lives, we don’t seem to be facing any moral crisis.”

Shawn admits that only recently did he begin to understand that he faces such moral dilemmas.

“I used to assume that there were certain people whose path in life crossed the plane of history,” he said. “Someone would come up to those people and say, for example, ‘We’re the Gestapo, and we want you to tell us the names of all the Jews and communists who live in your neighborhood.’ Then you’d be faced with a serious moral decision. I always thought I would want to be a good person in such a situation, but there never seemed to be anything I could do in my own life besides be nice to my friends. Clearly, I thought, those agonizing moral dilemmas were posed for Poles and Germans, but not for us; but now I’ve begun to see that’s a kind of self-deception, and a comfortable illusion.”

After Shawn finished Aunt Dan & Lemon, he clarified the play’s theme in an essay appended to the script. In it, Shawn laments his strong sense of morality, which “functions rather like a dog whose barking never stops. . . . It is a perpetual irritation.” He confesses the urge to tear that moral training out of his heart “so that I can finally begin to enjoy the life that is spread out before me like a feast,” and he notes that as soon as people do exactly that, “they begin to blossom, to flower, because they are no longer hiding, from themselves or anyone else, the true facts about their own lives.” But as soon as he begins to admire these self-confident people, “I always think of the marvelous self-confidence of Hitler. . . . Hitler’s boundless self-confidence enabled him to live each day as a tireless murderer. . . . And so, I ask myself, will I become like him? . . . If I gave up morality, what would prevent me from murdering everyone?” Shawn, the Socratic, recognizes that “the difference between a perfectly decent person and a monster is just a few thoughts,” and that “false arguments, rapidly expressed, confuse us, seduce us, corrupt us.”

The appendix suggests that Shawn lives by the Socratic dictum that knowledge is virtue. Most people, however, seem to accept Dostoyevski’s assertion: “Without God, everything is permitted.” In other words, they either live by some external set of laws, or they live by nothing at all. The notion that we are each responsible for generating our own moral awareness seems utterly foreign to them.

Yet Shawn seems preoccupied by that very notion. When I asked him if he had read Socrates, a sheepish grin crept across his face. “I don’t like to commercialize my own childhood, but when you turn off that machine, I’ll answer that particular question.”

With the tape recorder off, Shawn described how, in the fifth grade, a teacher came up to him and said, “You’re really a very silly boy. Take these books home and read them, and then write a play about what you’ve read.” Among the books was Phaedo, Plato’s account of the death of Socrates, who was forced to drink hemlock after being found guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens; Shawn was so moved by the story that he wrote a play about Socrates and played the philosopher himself.

Three strands of Shawn’s life can be traced back to that fifth-grade play–his Socratic conception of moral behavior, his interest in acting, and his impulse to write plays–and all three come together again in Aunt Dan & Lemon. (Shawn acted in the New York production.)

Aunt Dan dramatizes the relationship between right thinking and virtue. Like Socrates, Aunt Dan is a corrupter of youth, but unlike him, she really does corrupt them. Her sophistic arguments and forceful personality transform Lemon into an amoral monster, whose soul sickness is reflected in all the pills and other medications she must take.

I glanced out the window of the restaurant. It was dark outside, and Shawn said he had to be going. Before he left, I asked him if he had found a way to resist his own complicity in the evils perpetrated by our government.

“I have probably seen my own play more than anybody has, and I must admit that I think the question it poses is really alarming,” he said. “The more I see it, the more I feel my response has been inadequate. I have absolutely no respect for myself at all. However, I really only have begun to think about this clearly in the last few years, and I think if you were to meet me in five years, and I was still exactly the same, burdened with guilt, and saying, yeah, isn’t it awful, but in every other way unchanged, my contempt for myself would increase to a degree you can’t even imagine.”

I walked with him down Greenwich Avenue to the subway, wishing I could pick this little man up, tuck him under my arm like a teddy bear, and take him home with me. We live in a world where college students consider greed a virtue, the president of the United States compares a band of terrorists in Nicaragua to our founding fathers, and prisoners are executed so often that we barely notice anymore. In a world like that, it would be comforting to have around, always, a little man wise enough to look at these corruptions and say, “Yes, but they’re wrong.”