Breakfast With Socrates

(Article first published as Book Review: Breakfast With Socrates by Robert Rowland Smith on Blogcritics.)

I have an excuse for reading an English-to-Finnish translation despite the fact they tend to cause aggravation. I picked Breakfast With Socrates – The Philosophy For Everyday Life by Robert Rowland Smith up as I was visiting my boyfriend. It was in the pile of books he’d loaned from the library… That is the story, and I’m sticking to it.

As someone obsessed with words and language, I really, really hate translations which do not work, or where the original sentence or idiom or expression simply isn’t translatable at all. Breakfast With Socrates– or rather, Aamiaisella Sokrateen kanssa”, – was filled with these. This isn’t really an argument against the author or the book, but it did affect my reading experience. If I’m overly critical, I blame the above.

I rather felt like Polgara the Sorceress while reading Breakfast With Socrates: at times I wanted to tell Rowland Smith to get on with it and stick to the matter at hand. I was particularly annoyed with the Christian-isms in the beginning of the book. Even if the nature of Christian God can be a subject of philosophic debate, and if the fall of Adam and Eve should be discussed in a philosophic context, I felt this book was not the place for them. Perhaps if Rowland Smith had included a chapter for “Going To Church”, my atheist sensibility would have been less irritated.

Of course, it is possible I’m just being silly, and he was merely using popular language to illustrate difficult concepts.

That said, I read Breakfast With Socrates in one sitting (it’s a thin book, and I’m a fast reader). Robert Rowland Smith is, according to the title sleeve, an accomplished academic, and the book does indicate he is both knowledgeable and able to transfer knowledge to a reader. The book is subtitled “The Philosophy for Everyday Life”, and he has divided it in chapters starting from waking up and ending in sex (which, you could argue, isn’t a bad accomplishment for a day); his topics range from how going to a gym is against Marxian values, and how to arrange a party like Machiavelli. Rowland Smith writes well and even manages funny at places (the kind of dry funny you would expect from a hardcore academic).

Socrates makes very scarce appearances in the book; Robert Rowland Smith has written more a guidebook to keywords of different philosophers than a concise book on philosophy of everyday life. The ”everyday” in the subtitle of the Breakfast With Socrates is really just a tool to divide the book into chapters rather than some sort of instructions on how to use philosophy in real life. This is not to say the book is not educational or even entertaining. For someone who always thought herself as particularly ignorant on philosophy, it came as a surprise that somewhere atop the ninety percent line, the ideas and theories in the book were already familiar to me. Granted, I’m an avid and varied reader, but I think this is more an indication that Breakfast With Socrates is one of those “popular science” titles which give you enough information to appear knowledgeable in any company, but not enough to survive an actual debate.

The book is easy to read and to understand. Rowland Smith’s attitude isn’t too high-brow, and he does explain the ideas so that even the most inexperienced aspiring philosopher can glean some learning from the book. In fact, Breakfast With Socrates is probably best served in the hands of a reader who has no prior understanding of philosophy but is willing to have a wee think every now and then. For someone who would rather learn how to philosophise or to learn about philosophers, I suggest picking up a heftier volume, probably without a fried egg Socrates on the cover.

Socrates, you will remember, asked all the important questions – but he never answered any of them”
(Dickinson Richards)


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June 2011
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