This book inevitably invites comparison with Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World: both were written initially with teenage readers in mind; each novel is a about a young adolescent - this time a boy - who has a magical encounter which transports him into a world in which he learns about philosophy. In Gaarder's book philosophical problems are presented in chronological form - we start with the Ancient Greeks and go through to the Romantics. In Eyre's the approach is thematic. Sophie had (to my mind) an irritatingly pert character; Ben has hardly any character at all.
In both books the serious part is quite demanding and well set out; but both books are condescending in tone, with a large dose of whimsy, as if you can't involve an adolescent reader in questions of philosophy without sprinkling the serious part of your text with vulgarisms. Socrates uses phrases like `easy peasy' and calls Wittgenstein a `pedantic git', to which Wittgenstein responds by calling Socrates `a pompous old fart'; they occasionally use words which Amazon would not allow me to quote in this review; philosophers heckle and pelt each other with bread rolls during an unruly Symposium; others eat messily and spill yoghurt all over their clothes; one picks his nose and flicks away the bogey. The wit in the early part of the book gives way to this kind of coarseness, which, when it is not quite as vulgar as these examples, is still tedious and unfunny. I would imagine that a teenager (let alone an adult) who is sufficiently interested to follow the serious arguments will not be amused by such silliness and may resent being patronized in this manner.
The novel has dead philosophers living in the World of Ideas, where they continue to argue with their fellow professionals. In particular Socrates, who is President of the World of Ideas, and Wittgenstein are constantly sparring. Socrates wants to teach everyone the eternal truths of how to live; Wittgenstein thinks this is airy-fairy and that philosophy consists of hard questions about logic and language. Socrates maintains that it is possible to make the lives of ordinary people better through philosophy and to make them love it; Wittgenstein thought real philosophy was much too difficult to be loved by ordinary people: indeed it was likely to ruin their lives. They make a bet: an ordinary young person with no previous knowledge of philosophy, should be transported from the world of the living into the World of Ideas, and there he should be taught to love philosophy as something that makes his life better. If this failed, Socrates would resign; if it succeeded, Wittgenstein should publicly admit that he was wrong - apparently as severe a sacrifice for him as the abdication from the Presidency would be for Socrates. Socrates' secretary, an attractive young woman `in her early twenties' called Lila who had died some 30 years earlier in the middle of doing a Ph.D. in philosophy, is despatched to find a suitably ordinary young man and to act as a guide for him.
So Ben is brought (yes, through a cupboard) from a life where he serves fish and chips in a shop called Cod Almighty, on the first of a number of visits to the World of Ideas. He is bright enough to be intrigued by the discussion he attends on that occasion, which is between a proponent and a critic of Solipsism. Oddly, Lucy Eyre doesn't make the contestants, in this debate and in the ones that follow, recognizable dead philosophers. Here, for example, the Hume character is called Max Salter and his sparring partner Polly Cromwell. Apart from Socrates and Wittgenstein, the `real' dead philosophers - Descartes, Pythagoras, Kant, Plato - have mere walk-on parts (in the case of Plato, for no reason, it's a drive-on part in a sports car) and don't engage in discussion or debate. These are almost all in dialogue form, in which (unlike in many Platonic dialogues) both contestants are given more or less equal weight.
On subsequent visits, Ben listens to debates about the relevance of death to life; the mind-body question; the nature of Time; the incommunicability of inner experience; happiness; the nature and continuity of the Self; absolute, relative, and situational and utilitarian ethics; whether we need words to have concepts (Ben's dog, who can suddenly talk, thinks not!); what is Beauty; Free Will and Determinism.
Ben, who initially had been hooked more by the attraction of Lila than by that of philosophy, becomes increasingly nerdy in the real life episodes between his visits to the World of Ideas, and disconcerts his football-playing friends and his family by trying his new insights out on them.
So of course Socrates wins the bet: Ben has started to think like a philosopher, and has come to the conclusion that the unexamined life isn't worth living. The only consolation Wittgenstein has is that, while Socrates had won with Ben, there was no reason for thinking that everyone could be taught to love philosophy: `One white swan does not prove that all swans are white. One black swan, however, proves that they are not.'
When Wittgenstein had realized that he might be losing his bet, he had, on Machiavelli's advice, tried, unsuccessfully, to sabotage the terms of the bet. Lucy Eyre may not like Wittgenstein's approach to philosophy - that is her good right - but to make this fiercely honest man into a cheat is really quite a travesty.