Sunday, September 2, 2012

Breakfast with Socrates

“Given that Socrates was effectively assassinated by poison, you might think twice before accepting his invitation to breakfast”. This is how Robert Rowland Smith opened his book, Breakfast with Socrates.

People know I'm a slow reader. It takes me ages to read a book. Slow enough to get bored of books I am reading and leave them before finishing them. But this one was interesting enough that I couldn't but finish it. The thing about this book, not only that it introduced me to names like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva and Jacques Derrida, and reintroduced me to others such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Max Weber and René Descartes, whom I rediscovered his most famous phrase "Cogito ergo sum" here. But also - just like other philosophy books - it makes you discover new meanings and interpenetration for your everyday life.

We wake up everyday, but it's nice to know how "waking up" and "discovering the truth" are related: “The associations get only richer and more intense when you realise that the very concept of truth - the cornerstone of philosophy and religion alike, let alone law - also rests heavily on the meaning of waking up. And you don't need a philosopher to appreciate it, because there are clues to its dependency in everyday phrases such as 'waking up to the truth', 'my eyes were opened' and even 'wake up and smell the coffee'. If such phrases hint that waking up and truth are bedfellows of some sort, you need only go back to the ancient Greek for corroboration. There you'll find that the word truth is 'aletheia', from which in English we get the word for 'lethargy'. But see how the Greek word is 'a-letheia' rather than letheia - that is truth is the opposite of lethargy. And what is opposite of lethargy, if not waking up?”

After waking up, you put on your clothes and make yourself ready to go to work. But don't we all feel too lazy to go to work most of the time? May be Freud has interpretation for this: “Getting ready is that point in the day when the rivalry between the two needs is likely to peak, because we are making transition from being at home and pleasing ourselves (ego) to going out and having to conform to a series of norms an conventions (superego). We become less ego and more superego with each button we fasten”.

How come on the one hand we cover our pubic with clothes, yet on the other hand, we want to attract the opposite sex? “Clothes exist to hide the pubic from the public and therefore make you socially acceptable. The irony is that, precisely because they are a prerequisite for social inclusion, wearing clothes has become almost more natural than being naked ... To that established irony, we can add a more subtle one. As anyone who has been on a date well knows, clothes aren't just about covering you up: while you need them to hide your sex, you want them to show your sexuality”.

Smith later discusses lots of things, such as shopping. “Let's remember you can still go shopping without buying, because where buying is a matter of need, shopping is a question of want”. As well as credit cards. With money you buy things using the money you earned from work you have done in the past, but with credit card you are buying things for work yet to be done in the future. “Credit' comes from the Latin 'credere', 'to believe', for credit is the belief that the money you're borrowing will someday be returned, a belief that needs the future to function in”.

The write also discusses languages, and reading, and how words in a book needs reader as well as the writer to put meanings to them. “[Roland] Barthes turned the thable on the author, saying no only the a book needs a reader to wake it into life, but that in so doing the reader becomes nothing less that the author, who reveals in the book's hermeneutic possibilities, releases them and so becomes its own creator.”

The book consists of 18 chapters, each discussion one single detail of your day, from waking up to travelling to work, to bunking off, to going to the gym, to watching TV, to having sex, to sleeping. And since it serves as an introduction to philosophy, the author recommends a list of books to read after you finish this one, such as:

  • The Discourse on the Method, René Descartes
  • The Last Days of Socrates, Plato
  • Basic Writings of Nietzsche, Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Points...: Interviews, 1974-1994, Jacques Derrida
  • The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud
  • Memories, Dreams and Reflections, Carl Jung
  • A Barthes Reader, Roland Barthes
  • Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre
  • The Foucault Reader, Michel Foucault
  • From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, Max Weber
  • Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Walter Benjamin
  • The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a Science of Mythology, Claude Levi-Strauss
  • Capital: An Abridged Edition, Karl Marx
  • The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli
And let me add:
  • The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin
  • Rhetoric, Aristotle
  • The Nature of Things, Lucretius

"Philosophy is about recognising the ambiguity of life as it is lived", Breakfast with Socrates.

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