Breakfast With Socrates by Robert Rowland Smith | Book review

Musings of the nature of existence soon descend to drivel, says Theodore Dalrymple

For a long time, Anglo-American philosophy was reproached for its detachment from life. It was said to be excessively concerned with the metaphysics of morals, that is the form and logic of moral judgments rather than their substance. I am not sure this was entirely justified, because, as Pascal reminds us, the two are not easily disentangled: "Let us labour, then, to think clearly, for such is the beginning of morality." But there is no doubt that these days philosophers concern themselves more than they once did with the hurly-burly of ordinary life.

Breakfast With Socrates is an attempt to illuminate daily life by means of philosophy and philosophy by means of daily life. I do not think it is at all successful. The first problem is style. The author, a British philosopher and management consultant, evidently feels it necessary sometimes to descend to demotic jocularity, no doubt for fear of losing his audience, and his vocabulary and tone are of the mid-Atlantic.

Then there is the structure. The first four chapters – "Waking up", "Getting ready", "Travelling to work", "Being at work" – lead us to suppose that the book will be a series of philosophical reflections on a normal day. But the next four chapters are "Going to the doctor", "Having lunch with your parents", "Bunking off" and "Shopping", as if the original organising principle were insufficiently strong to sustain a book and so arbitrary choice has been resorted to.

Then there are the errors, omissions and evasions. The book's first sentence does not inspire confidence: "Given that Socrates was assassinated by poison, you might think twice before accepting his invitation to breakfast." But is "assassination" the right word? Socrates took hemlock after being sentenced to death at his trial, refusing the opportunity to escape. Even if one accepts that this was assassination, Socrates did not know for most of his life that he was to be assassinated and neither would we. We would therefore have had no reason to turn down his invitation.

In a brief discussion of Hegel, Rowland Smith writes: "It would be far easier to mock Hegel's interpretation of history if it hadn't… provided grist to the Nazi mill." When he writes of Nietzsche, however, he fails to mention that he was the Nazis' favourite philosopher, perhaps because one of his own intellectual heroes, Foucault, was a Nietzschean; nor does he mention that Hegel was much more an intellectual progenitor of Marxism than of Nazism.

He writes approvingly of the true Nietzschean, happily shorn of supposedly bogus ethical idealism: "You'll be free to become yourself in all your nonconformist individuality – jagged, singular, wayward, defiant, eccentric, bold, unorthodox and original." I confess here that the figure of Dennis Nilsen, the serial killer who watched television with the corpses of his victims and disposed of them by flushing them down the drains, came to my mind. If anybody ever was jagged, bold, defiant and unorthodox...

A strong vein of intellectualised humbug runs through this book. For example, in "Going to the doctor", the author writes: "If love is a kind of illness, illness is a kind of love, on the grounds that it 'flies in the night', unpredictable and blind like the winged Cupid or a contagion you can't see coming…" Not to put too fine a point on it, this is drivel, by a man who sounds like he has very little experience, or even expectation, of real illness.

No thought is too banal for Rowland Smith; unfortunately, his banality is perfectly compatible with error. He rarely loses an opportunity to suppress what is true and suggest what is false. But the book has one redeeming feature: it proves how right Pascal was.

Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Second Opinion (Monday Books)

Theodore Dalrymple

The GuardianTramp

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