Breakfast with Socrates by Robert Rowland Smith

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Breakfast with Socrates by Robert Rowland Smith

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: The thoughts of an eclectic range of philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and novelists applied to everyday tasks may make you examine how you think about things more closely.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: October 2009
Publisher: Profile Books
ISBN: 978-1846682377

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In Breakfast with Socrates, subtitled A Philosophy of Everyday Life, former Oxford Fellow Robert Roland Smith takes various elements of a 'typical' day and provides insight into what an eclectic collection of thinkers might have to offer to make these mundane routines more interesting. After all, as Socrates declared 'the unexamined life is not worth living'.

My first thought was that Roland Smith leads an enviously full life since his typical day includes not only waking up, getting ready, travelling to work, being at work, taking a bath, cooking and eating, watching TV, reading a book and falling asleep, but he also manages to find time to go to the doctor, have lunch with his parents, bunk off, go shopping, head to the gym, book a holiday, go to a party, have an argument with his partner, have sex and book a holiday. It's a wonder he finds time to think at all with all that going on. It's a clever structure for the book though.

Both titles to the book are potentially a bit misleading. Socrates makes very limited appearances (the author suggests that the book may as well have been titled 'Having a Bagel with Hegel' which appealed more to the inner Dr Seuss in me) and Roland Smith does not limit himself to traditional philosophers for inspiration. Here you will also find an eclectic mix of psychoanalysts, sociologists, painters, psychologists, political writers, anthropologists and writers as well as philosophers to offer their thoughts.

There is an old adage that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but with philosophy, a little knowledge can also be very interesting, particularly when you are dealing with philosophers like French Foucault and Derrida whose works I have always failed to understand beyond the first sentence. Roland Smith does his best to simplify and provide snippets of thought that make you see things just a bit differently. To a large extent, Roland Smith is able to lead the casual reader through some of these ideas.

Indeed, he comes over as a very knowledgeable and affable guide. His points of reference range from his academic studies, to Shakespeare, Jaws, The Godfather, Sex in the City and, undoubtedly appealing to readers of The Bookbag, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Lewis Carroll, and Nabokov's Lolita. Perhaps unsurprisingly I most enjoyed his chapter on 'reading a book' and I have to say that his explanation of hermeneutics made me understand John Banville's The Infinities far more than I did when I first read it. But that makes it sound more technically oriented than it is. For the most part, it's largely jargon-free (or at least effective at explaining the jargon used) and infused with amusing asides - although these can make some of the sentences long and difficult to read.

For me, some chapters worked better than others - he is at his best when he is being more playful than when he gets bogged down in some apparently random trains of thought. At his party, he takes his theme from the It's My Party and I'll Cry If I Want To opening and the eloping Johnny and Judy, while on discussing an argument with a partner, he takes the example of George and Martha in Albee's Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf. When he doesn't quite have the same springboard (in the chapters on visiting the doctor or the lunch with parents, for example) it works less well I felt.

Ultimately though, it's hard not to recommend someone who provides you with an argument for not going to the gym, for promoting the power of using the TV remote control and letting your parents pay for lunch!

Many thanks to Profile Books for inviting The Bookbag to review this interesting book.

For more reader-friendly philosophical musings you could try Alain de Botton's A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary or The Secrets of Happiness by Richard Schoch, while, although I didn't realise it at the time, John Banville's The Infinities is exactly what hermeneutics is all about. You might also enjoy You Kant Make it Up!: Strange Ideas from History's Greatest Philosophers by Gary Hayden.

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