Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away by Rebecca Goldstein, Pantheon, March 4, 2014, 480 pages
I heard of this book from my brother-in-law, Jim, who broke into my weekly phone call with my sister, excited to tell me about it. He read the NY Times Sunday Book Review by Anthony Gottlieb, and ordered the book. Jim’s endorsements have never failed, so I bought one too. Through the miracle of e-book technology I was reading my own copy before lunch. Full disclosure — I suffered a virulent case of philosophy in college and emerged ten years later with a PhD (maybe you read my dissertation, Hupotithesthai: the Platonic Concept and Its Background in Literature and Medicine; maybe not) and no job. This book may not be for everyone, but for me it was a sweet return to interests long dormant in frosty fields. Nip to a cat! What a treat!
The book braids together three cords:
(1) Philosophical analysis of Plato’s thinking through many of its reformulations and reconsiderations. This cord showcases Plato’s grand theory binding Truth, Beauty, and Good (the other three cords) into a unified, intelligible, cosmos. Reading this cord was like listening to a record album that molded my formative years, e.g. Simon and Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.
(2) Historical analysis of circumstances leading up to the execution of Socrates in 399 BC and the world Plato lived in through his long life. This cord answers the question, why did the Athenians slay that lovable old man?
(3) Projection of Plato into modern-day forums: book tour takes him to Googleplex; advice columnist calls on him for support; Bill O’Reilly surrogate probes, critiques, misrepresents and misunderstands. This thread amounts to new dialogs that take up modern issues, which turn out to be ancient issues in modern garb.
Segments in the first cord are insightful, thorough, well grounded and documented. This isn’t surprising; Goldstein earned a PhD in philosophy from Princeton, where she studied with Thomas Nagel and wrote a Nagelian dissertation, Reduction, Realism and the Mind. When mining the Platonic corpus for gold, Goldstein taps veins from an eclectic set of philosophers, including Spinoza, Kant, Russel, the list goes on. She focuses light from the broad history of western philosophy onto the title’s question.
The second cord consists of insights about the history and culture of ancient Greece blended into the philosophic expositions of the first cord. Together the first and second chords make up the contents of one set of chapters, but I couldn’t help separating the philosophy from the history, an old academic predisposition, I suppose. Here I found nuggets (all well documented to ancient sources) that filled in gaps in my understanding. Goldstein presents an insightful, sensible answer to the question why did the Athenian democracy execute their best philosopher? See below for her answer.
The third thread reveals how questions troubling us today, questions that show up in letters to advice columnists and on the lips of talk-show hosts, are modern reflections in ancient mirrors. This, of course, is part of Goldstein’s case that philosophy matters in the way it has always mattered, by addressing life’s persistent questions (using Guy Noir’s phrase).
Braided together these cords make up the major rope that binds this book together. It goes something like this: Humans feel the need to matter (or to have at least the potential to matter) in the universe. This is true of Homeric humans, Athenian humans, contemporary humans, all humans. Homer, singing the world view of people long dead and a culture in remission for centuries, posits that only a human who, like Achilles, lives a life worthy of storytelling matters. Post-Pericles Athenians retained this mythology, but forged a new answer to the matters question. Athenians matter because Athens is exceptional among Greek city-states and Greek city-states are exceptional in the world (the universe?) So, these 5th and 4th century BC Greeks have an answer they can feel good about, until along comes Socrates. He continually shows Athenian experts (in politics, religion and other stuff that matters) to be bereft of knowledge, let alone virtue. They are all bullshitters (Goldstein highlights this bit of philosophy’s technical jargon). When Socrates pokes them in the eye, he pokes the Athenian raison d’être in the eye and destroys Athenian exceptionalism. In truth, he is quite dangerous culturally and must be stopped. Ergo the indictment, trial and execution.
How does this address the question suggested in the post semicolon portion of the book’s title? In short, Philosophy deals with the perennially relevant question why do I matter?, sometimes how can I matter?, sometimes do I matter? When I was an undergraduate and Existentialism was all the rage we asked what is the meaning of life?, but Monty Python lampooned that whale and carried it home on the car roof. Many answers have popped up over the years. Plato’s golden braid is one. If you want to matter, lead yourself out of the cave and into the light of the sun. As we saw, Homer and the Athenians had different answers, both with modern aficionados, celebrities and celebrity followers for the first and American exceptionalists (or Russian, or British, or Chinese, or whatever) for the second. Take note, Sarah Palin and Tom Cruz, you’re spouting a not-so-exceptional answer to an age-old question. In this book a stylized but lovingly portrayed Plato engages other answers.
Philosophy won’t go away because this question, in all its variations and corollaries, won’t go away and frankly who wants it to? Plato at the Googleplex is a richly textured, well researched and documented, generously portioned, insightful pleasure to read.