Book review: Breakfast With Socrates, by Robert Rowland Smith

The ancient philosophers - and the author - bring meaning to your day, says Mark Vernon.

by Mark Vernon
Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

What has philosophy to do with work? What could Kant's transcendentalism, Hegel's dialectic or even Marx's materialism have to say about the daily grind? Well, this book demonstrates that the wisdom of the sages reveals much.

I should confess that I know Robert Rowland Smith, so I have already delighted in the insights and asides he packs into Breakfast With Socrates. It begins with waking up, the words 'being awake' invariably regarded positively. We 'wake up to the truth', if we dare. Our 'eyes are opened', if we're lucky. At work, we may well be commanded to 'wake up and smell the coffee'. The idea of waking up is linked to a religious conception of enlightenment. The Buddha was said to have been 'awake'. The resurrection of Jesus is a final awakening after the sleep of death.

The metaphor persists in the workplace, but with shifted values. In fact, the author argues that the world suffers from a 'global productive insomnia': the tyranny of 24/7. Further, being caught waking up has become shameful; the demands of the modern work ethic require that we don't really sleep but keep ourselves on standby, like a computer. Waking up is something we do secretly, curtains shut.

The next task of the day is getting ready for work. In donning a suit or other form of attire, we're engaged in another game, this time of presentation. The point is that clothes don't just cover us up; they also reveal something of ourselves. Dressing is a balancing act. On the one hand, we choose our clothes as a means of self-expression; on the other, we dress within strictly defined limits - men don't zip up skirts, women don't knot ties - and clothes carefully contain our bodiliness, our sexuality. 'Depending on whether you're dressing for work or a date, you'll adjust the dials according,' Smith writes.

Waking and dressing: you've done so much and not even left the house! Breakfast With Socrates walks you through the rest of the day. At work, you're engaged in what Hegel called the master-slave relationship. I'll leave it to you to decide which role you believe you play, but don't be fooled: masters are masters only because they are recognised as such by slaves. History is littered with moments when workers realise they 'have nothing to lose but their chains'.

Now it's lunch, and you decide to go to the gym. Surely that's a free act, lifting weights in 'me-time'? Perhaps. Or maybe you're engaged in another form of management of yourself: instead of the boss telling you what to do, your inner boss instructs you. Keeping yourself trim enables your optimal functioning, for the economic wellbeing of the state. Have you never wondered why companies buy corporate membership at a fitness club?

The afternoon drifts on and you decide to book some time off. But, ask the philosophers, what are holidays? The word 'travel' is close to the French 'travail' - that is, work. Heathrow airport makes the link explicit. And as Emerson put it: 'Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.'

Other pleasures await at the end of the day - watching TV, going to a party, arguing with your partner or having sex. The book ends where it began, with falling asleep.

Breakfast With Socrates is a work of philosophy, albeit one that draws widely on psychoanalysis, sociology and theology. The author's aim is to write clearly, not just so that it can be enjoyed by people without any training in the technical language of academic philosophy, but also because that same technical language runs the risk of becoming disconnected from human life. That's important since, as Keynes noted in relation to economics - a discipline that is arguably paying the price for becoming too disconnected - the best thoughts must be revealing, but they should also resonate with regular human intuitions.

It's a spirit the ancient Greek philosophers endorsed. 'Our discussion is on no ordinary matter, but on the right way to conduct our lives,' averred Plato. They did not shy from speculation; they loved a good theory. However, they did seek to test wisdom against experience. Their famous injunction was: 'Know thyself!' The unexamined life was not worth living, because not to know yourself was to remain asleep, was never to open your eyes. You would not even make it to the breakfast to which Socrates and his successors invite you.

Breakfast With Socrates: The philosophy of everyday life
Robert Rowland Smith
Profile Books £12.99

- Writer Mark Vernon's latest book is Plato's Podcasts: The ancients' guide to modern living (Oneworld).

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