Is the unexamined life worth living?
It is Socrates who first declared, “No, it isn’t.” And after reading Robert Rowland Smith’s new book Breakfast With Socrates: An Extraordinary (Philosophical) Journey Through Your Ordinary Day, you might just agree.
Smith moves from commuting to running errands to working out in the gym – all the commonplace mile markers in a typical day – and then proceeds to unwrap the philosophical implications of our most ordinary activities.
For many readers, the mere mention of philosophy might seem cause enough to hit the snooze button. But that’s why Smith, an Oxford don turned management consultant, wrote this book – to counter the tendency of too many philosophers to keep “big ideas aloft rather than grounding them in everyday experience.”
As we travel through a typical day with Smith, we hear from Thomas Hobbes (who would have applauded the stoplight) to Machiavelli (who explains why parties are about politics and not friendships) to John Stuart Mill (who, “If playing hooky had a patron saint ... might justly be canonized”). But it’s not just names from your basic Philosophy 101 course. Interspersed between Mill and Aristotle, we find George Costanza from “Seinfeld.” And we’re just as likely to discover lines from “The Godfather” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” as to discuss the pages of “The Joy of Sex.” Smith knows no bounds in his pop culture references and succeeds in keeping us on our toes.
But what makes Smith’s book genius isn’t just the ability to lay out an interesting, eloquent, and relevant piece of work – which he admittedly does. No, the kicker for “Breakfast with Socrates” is that it’s just plain funny.
Smith has humor in spades: he uses the song “It’s My Party (And I’ll Cry If I Want To)” to describe the politics of friendships, explains how watching TV might just prove “how smart you are,” compares fictional characters to Schrodinger’s famous cat, and likens commuters traveling to work to brutal savages stopped by the one thing calling them to order – a red light. (The authority of which is more powerful than that of a traffic cop who, Smith explains, is “only one of us, after all.”)
The humor does not dumb down the philosophy Smith interjects. While it’s obvious we will not leave the reading of Smith’s book with a thorough understanding of Karl Marx’s most fundamental beliefs, we still leave knowing a bit more, becoming more aware of our surroundings, and thinking twice about many of the things that have become second nature to us.
If humor is the best part of Smith’s book – and it might just be – then eloquence and neutrality tie for second place. It’s rare to see so many competing ideas on the same page, not just for the sake of summary, but in order to make a point. Smith completely wins us over to one way of thinking – and then turns us on our heads and makes us see things in a completely different light.
It’s a tribute to Smith’s own purpose for writing the book – to get us to think – that it’s impossible to pin down what he himself is thinking. His ability to convince us of the validity of two polar opposites without injecting his own beliefs is commendable. Many controversial topics play out in his book – socialism, idealism, religion, the ethics of food – but we never feel as if we are being chastised. In this way, Smith gains our trust.
As Smith sifts through the 18 chapters of our day, we gain a bit of distance from ourselves and are better able to understand how we operate. As the day, and the book draw to a close, it’s hard not to regret that Smith’s moments of introspection are over. We are now left to our own devices.
But not to worry, says Smith. He assures us, his readers, that, we will file his book away, “both literally,” on our bookshelves, and also “metaphorically, in the possibly more chaotic library” of our minds, where it will mix and mingle with everything else we know and become just one more lens through which we perceive the days of our lives.
Kate Vander Wiede is a staff writer with the South End News in Boston.