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

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.

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