4.02 pm. This week I have received not one, but two copies of Robert Rowland Smith’s book of popular philosophy, Breakfast with Socrates. So I thought I’d better have a look at it. And it occurred to me it might be entertaining to read the opening sections and blog about them in real time. So neat! So contained! I am accompanied here by a cup of white tea with pomegranate and my cat, Hilly, who is performing her usual trick of prowling clumsily in the small amount of space beside me, doing her utmost to dip the tip of her tail in my mug. This practice she varies with rolling on her back, her paws tucked under her chin, to present me with her delectable white tummy. This is a shameless tease, which we both know she has no intention of seeing through.
4.12. Cat momentarily subdued, I turn to the first line of the introduction. It is not promising. ‘Given that Socrates was assassinated by poison, you might think twice before accepting his invitation to breakfast.’ Well, hmmm. You might not want to have breakfast with Socrates’ enemies, if you thought they didn’t like you much either. And you might not want to eat with Socrates if his enemies were there, too. But so long as you didn’t share the contents of his plate, chances are you’d be okay – Socrates was the victim here, after all, and not of poor food hygiene.
4.16. The follow up sentence is no better. ‘Yet what got him killed is exactly what would make him an excellent breakfast companion – his curiosity. He was silenced for asking too many questions, getting up too many people’s noses.’ Now I don’t know about you, but I am not particularly thrilled about being asked a lot of questions at breakfast. My personal idea of an excellent morning companion is someone who maintains a respectful silence and doesn’t clatter the crockery too much. Five lines in and I am in opposition to the author and experiencing a fair amount of sympathy for Socrates’ murderer. Not good.
4.20. A brief pause to consider the implications of reading a book on philosophy by an author whose causality I am already fearing to be screwed. Decide it’s not fair to judge on the opening lines (which are always devils to write) and press on.
4.25. Okay, so the idea is that philosophers per se might be interesting companions to have around because much of their thinking had implications for daily events. Socrates’s line ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’ makes an appearance, as does the pun ‘the same would apply if you were to have a bagel with Hegel or eggs with Bacon.’ Cannot decide whether I like this or find it excruciating.
4.30. ‘Socrates would be just as interested in how much to tip the waiter for serving you the toast and muffins as in whether God exists.’ Feel the urge rising up in me to quibble with this on several counts. Firmly squash it. My inner pedant is clearly out of hand today.
4.32. ‘Jacques Lacan, a psychoanalyst, becomes your personal shopper and, as you gaze into the fitting-room mirror, let’s you in on the perils of narcissism. While you’re at work, Karl Marx whispers in your ear about how to stop being a wage slave.’ This seems to be a prevalent rhetorical device in contemporary books, the ushering in of famous figures in a virtual reality conjured up by reading. Caroline Goyder’s book of a couple of days ago repeatedly said things like, ‘Here’s Ewan Macgregor to tell you how to remove your inhibitions,’ or some such, and every time it took me a couple of moments to get over the disappointment of registering that actually, he wasn’t here removing my inhibitions at all. I draw the line at Karl Marx whispering in my ear though – that BEARD! Sends a cold shudder down my spine at the thought of its scratchy, yicky, tickly-ness.
4.40. Find I have suddenly lost five minutes in checking my emails, which I didn’t even know I had the intention of doing. Fascinatingly, had a letter from a friend as an attachment because his computer isn’t working, and the letter stopped midway through a sentence. This must be due to the computer glitch but I had to read it a couple of times before it registered that there was no more. Why do these things take time to sink it? Why isn’t it immediately apparent? Where’s Socrates to explain this for me? Must get back to this introduction.
4.42. So we get the picture, big, heavy philosophers, not widely known for their accessibility are plundered for the most user-friendly elements of their theories which are then applied to everyday situations with a fair dose of whimsy. This could be a delight or it could be cringingly twee.
4.46. First chapter: ‘Waking up’. Waking up (until we remember what we’ve woken up to) is always a bit of a delightful surprise, Rowland Smith argues. He considers the act in its widest abstract conception as the dawning of consciousness, with its attendant phenomena of thinking, feeling, sensing, choosing, doing, etc. He also raises the classic philosophical problem of how you know you are awake, as opposed to dreaming. And he has a quick trot through Descartes cogito sum – the realization Descartes came to that if you think, you must exist. This is all quite dancingly done, a sort of shuffle and slide over the top of much philosophical thin ice.
4.53. ‘you become aware of traffic outside your window: perhaps a pneumatic drill decides to join the chorus, or the recycling truck comes by and the clash of broken glass keeps shattering the peace. You curse the noise and sink back into your pillows.’ There’s an awful lot of second person singular in this narrative. You do this…. You do that…. It’s an odd device and one that demands a lot of imaginative compliance on the part of the reader. Whole academic books have been written about it, and I know this because one of my PhD authors, Marguerite Duras, wrote a slim little volume entirely in the second person singular. That book, however, was rather clever because it detailed a dark and sleazy sexual encounter in which ‘you’, the reader, played one of the main protagonists. So one becomes acutely aware of the device, the lure it holds out and one’s internal resistance. Oh no, please, I’m not doing that, the reader thinks. Followed by, oh gosh, well I seem to be doing it, regardless. Whatever will I do next?
5.01. Rowland Smith’s point here, with the traffic noise and all, is to demonstrate Kant’s distrust (Kant is sitting on the end of your bed, by the way) of collective consciousness. Which is to say, just because everybody thinks a thing, it doesn’t mean it’s so. It’s a good point, when group mind is used so heavily nowadays as a tool for decision-making. He cites Copernicus and his theoretical work that suggested the earth went round the sun, which absolutely no one had thought of before. What, not even a tiny inkling in an astute, mathematically-minded Greek shepherd or two?
5.09. From here we go into a lengthy passage on Christianity and the resurrection. Including a description of Stanley Spencer’s picture of an English village, in which the inhabitants are getting out of their graves in their nightclothes, as if just waking. Good image choice there. My cat returns at this point, surprising me, as I had not realized she’d gone away. She indulges herself in a little cat yoga, then, lost to some mental game, charges off as if ferociously pursued. If I had to make deductions from appearances, I’d say that cats have remarkably little distinction between waking and dreaming, fantasy and reality, and it is nothing to be proud of.
5.16. My attention is wandering somewhat. Rowlands Smith moves from Christianity to Hegel and makes a sophisticated analogy between the three steps of Jesus’s transformation into Christ (alive, dead, reborn) and Hegel’s three-step dialectic (thesis, antithesis, synthesis, only he doesn’t use these terms) to show how the ‘truth’ is most compelling if it comes in three steps and represents a return to something thought lost. It’s well done in its way, but this is all huge blocks of thought and the pedantic part of me wonders what he’s doing with them. But, then again, this is just history of ideas and for most people, they will be ideas they’ve never come into contact with before. It strikes me that all the thinkers and theories referred to so far have been familiar to me, which is both magnificent and sort of tragic. How many hours, weeks, years, have I spent reading in order to reach this point? Best not to calculate it. I bumped into my neighbour yesterday, who has just started an MA in the history of print. She said she was struggling with an uber-theoretical lecturer who was wearying her mind with talk of works of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. ‘Oh, Walter Benjamin,’ I said, recognizing the theory. ‘I never liked him much.’ Benjamin is one of those theorists whose writing is always two steps to the left of intelligibility. ‘I might have known you’d know him,’ my neighbour said. ‘But frankly, the lecturer is the kind of man who could be reading Bob The Builder to me and still make it go over my head.’ That made us both laugh.
5.26. I finish the chapter and decide to call it a day. The last point was actually a very good one. Rowlands Smith suggests that the world we live in has become one that never really sleeps because of two new deities – economic growth and technological innovation. But he surprised me by pointing out how the motivation for this was not just financial, but moral, too. The Protestant work ethic, that insists we be awake and industrious rather than asleep and lazy, does much good but has what he calls ‘unintended consequences’ which he’ll be going on to discuss. Well, that’s a good hook and it will certainly bring me back for another chapter. Given the amount of synthesis that he’s having to do, I’m gently impressed with the book. It’s an easy read, despite the weightiness of the ideas, and the format (whilst a little whimsical for my tastes) provides an unusual take on philosophy and one that promises a bit of fun and interest whatever your level of theoretical knowledge. Real-time blogging is fun, too, although does nothing for my concision. And now I need tea! Snacks! Litlove’s cogito sum: I think, therefore I am constantly distracted by implausible hunger.
(Must acknowledge that I was inspired in part by Jenny’s hilarious post to write this!)