A flame-haired friend who had seen my review of “Red: A History of the Redhead” pinged me to ask what I was reading now. When I told her “Plato at the Googleplex,” her reply was understandable: “What???”
Guess I can’t blame her. This book, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, isn’t your usual summer reading fare. I also told my friend that I was catching up to my kids. One of them is a fan of Plato. Another majored in philosophy…and she once aced a paper by incorporating the deep philosophical musings from a column by Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City.”
I heard Professor Goldstein speak at an authors’ night at BPL several months ago. I bought the book then and put it aside. It’s summer, and the back porch beckoned. It was now or never. So what the hell. In I plunged.
Issues and Questions: A Sample
This book’s subtitle is “Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away.” In the opening chapter, Goldstein tells why:
“When we wonder how we teach the difference between right and wrong to our children, whether it is through storytelling or reason or threats or love, then there is Plato.
“When we argue over whether ethical truths are inextricably tied to religious truths, then there is Plato.
“When we worry about the susceptibility of voters to demagoguery and the dangers of mixing entertainment values with politics, then there is Plato.
“When we argue over what the role of the state is, whether it is there to perfect us or protect us, then there is Plato.
“When we ponder the nature of romantic love and whether there is something redemptive or rather wasteful about the amount of attention and energy we’re prepared to sacrifice to it, then there is Plato.
And many more intriguing issues that good friends like to ponder together. Okay, so perhaps philosophy doesn’t go away.
Just Read It, Man. You Can Handle It.
I plunged in despite my misgivings about having paid very little attention in the required philosophy courses in college. Sure, I remember some provocative dialogues in freshman year when the professor told us that the philosophy of baseball was to “Kill the Ball.”
I also remember the Hegelian Dialectic and its “Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis.” Why? Football. The Wishbone Offense (thesis) was unstoppable in those days. Then coaching staffs figured out how to defend against it (antithesis). So teams revamped their offenses to include more passing again (synthesis, which became the new thesis). And pass defenses evolved to stop them (the new antithesis). And so on, ad infinitum.
So maybe I wasn’t all that unprepared after all. As I read along, memories of other types of preparation for these mental gymnastics came wafting back over the decades, preparation that I didn’t appreciate at the time. When I was an adolescent, I used to lie on my back under the stars and wondering what if I didn’t exist…what if this world didn’t exist. What would there be? Such musings can prepare one for Plato’s “ability of the soul to soar up to heaven to behold beauty, wisdom, goodness and the like…”
Late in teenage years, I had some deep and often discomfiting religious and metaphysical discussions with a friend and grade-school classmate whose sophistication and worldly wisdom were downright intimidating. I had always gotten good marks in school; but with her questions and rejoinders, she’d always win the arguments. I was the guy in Plato’s Cave. She dragged reluctant me upwards towards the sunlight.
So even though I was more ready to read this book than I thought, it’s not an easy one to get through. It is slow going for a lay person. At least it was for me. I had to re-read passages two or three times to figure out what was going on. But I think it was worth it.
The book is as much about Socrates as it is about Plato. Socrates is Plato’s philosophical godfather. Most of what Plato eventually wrote consisted of dialogues in which Socrates is the main character.In this book, we observe several discussions and conversations involving Plato and various characters who are familiar to us today.
In the eponymous chapter, Plato goes to an authors’ day at Google headquarters and strikes up a spirited discussion with an engineer. Along the way we learn how Google’s algorithms assemble and impose order on all that information out there. The pair of them go at it on information versus knowledge, one of philosophy’s recurring themes.
In another chapter, Plato takes part in a panel discussion on raising children. His counterparts are a Tiger Mom and a touchy-feely, self-esteem promoting child psychologist. He also goes on a radio show with a bombastic, never-wrong host. (Take your pick about whom I’m talking here!)
Then he serves as a consultant to Margo Howard, daughter of Ann Landers, who dispenses moral, ethical, and sexual advice in her column. He debates the nature of brain functioning before undergoing a Magnetic Resonance Imaging session inside the noisy MRI tunnel.
Exceptionalism Athenian and American
I’d say that the author does a good job of making the life and works of a man who lived about 2,400 years ago relevant to today. Here’s another way she does that – in raising the topic of exceptionalism. Want to start a philosophical food fight? Speak glowingly of “American Exceptionalism.” You’ll come close to revisiting the Athens of Socrates’ day.
Goldstein spends a good deal of time telling us why the Athenians condemned Socrates to death. Supposedly, he corrupted the youth of the city. The real reason was that he pissed off the guys in the power structure. He showed them how they were in no way exceptional – at least not in the way they esteemed themselves.
In her chapter on Socrates’ death and in several other places, Goldstein speaks of “arete,” which can be interpreted as excellence or virtue. She also talks of “kleos,” which is glory or fame. These were high on the priority list for Athenians, many of whom thought they had those qualities, especially arete, simply because they lived in Athens. They couldn’t countenance Socrates and his maddening questions and ripostes. He easily made fools out of his interlocutors, and he further confounded them with his insistence that the unexamined life is not a life worth living. And so they did away with him.
Those who are not receptive to the nature of American exceptionalism think the same way as those tunnel-visioned men of Athens. It’s not that we’re better than anyone else, as people, simply because we happen to live in America.
For most of recorded history, the vast majority of humanity has lived under tyranny and oppression. In America, and in other parts of the Anglosphere, it’s different. We do live in an exceptional system. It’s not jingoistic yahoo-talk to celebrate and appreciate it. But you’d never know that if you say “American exceptionalism” at a cocktail party.
So What About Philosophy and This Plato Guy? Summing It Up.
I do agree that we don’t so much study philosophy as experience it, on our own or one-on-one. That’s what I did when I lay under the stars and when I sparred with my brilliant friend from grammar school. That’s what Socrates did every day on the streets of Athens. This book can serve as either an introduction or a refresher to that process.
Professor Goldstein puts Plato in context when she quotes the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who wrote, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” I’ll take her at her word there.
I also don’t think that I am giving away the store to quote her own opinions of Plato. She writes: “My Plato is an impassioned mathematician, a wary poet, an exacting ethicist, a reluctant political theorist. He is, above all, a man keenly aware of the way that assumptions and biases slip into our viewpoints and go unnoticed, and he devised a field devoted to trying to expose these assumptions and biases and to do away with any conflicts with commitments we must make in order to render the world and our lives maximally coherent…
“Above all, my Plato is a philosopher who teaches us that we should never rest assured that our view, no matter how well argued and reasoned, amounts to the final word on any matter. And that includes our view of Plato.”