Most people are too tired to be philosophers. Unless you are living on investments or your job requires certain kinds of intellectual activity — teaching at a university, say, or writing about books for a newspaper — you’re probably too busy to spend much time reflecting on the nature of the good, the true and the beautiful. Work, family, children, household chores, friends, exercise, bills and the myriad obligations of life take up the day and much of the evening. By bedtime, even the best of today’s Achaeans — to borrow a description of the Greek hero Achilles — has only enough energy to watch a bit of mindless television before slipping exhausted into restless sleep.
This is why the subtitle for Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s enthralling “Plato at the Googleplex” isn’t really accurate: Philosophy does, in fact, go away for most people for most of their lives. The young, in college dormitories, will speculate into the wee hours about the existence of God, and seniors approaching the end of life will wonder about the meaning of it all, but between the ages of 25 and 75, who has time for such airy trifling? Only a few hippie free spirits and the privileged elite. For the rest of humankind, there’s too much else to be getting on with. So we take the world as we find it, reflexively conforming to the beliefs of those around us.
Plato wouldn’t disagree that philosophy is, in fact, a way of life attractive to, and perhaps available only to, the happy few. Running throughout Goldstein’s long and highly original book are various arguments about what she calls “the Ethos of the Extraordinary.” Do some of us matter while others of us don’t? To the early Greeks, the achievement of “kleos,” meaning glory or renown, was the chief aim of life. To be talked about, honored and remembered — this was the only immortality to be had.
By the time of Plato (fourth century B.C.), this cult of celebrity had been transformed and deepened, indeed interiorized through the notion of “arete,” usually translated as virtue. Arete essentially is the health of the soul. As Goldstein explains, each time you lie, even if you’re not caught, you “become a little more of this ugly thing: a liar. Character is always in the making, with each morally valanced action, whether right or wrong, affecting our characters, the people who we are. You become the person who could commit such an act, and how you are known in the world is irrelevant to this state of being.” In the end, who we are inside matters more than what others think of us.
Have I got this right? It’s hard to say. Plato himself, as Goldstein reminds us, never laid out in treatise form any of his convictions. Instead, he actually staged the free play of ideas as plays, his “Dialogues” spotlighting the snub-nosed and ugly Socrates, but sometimes introducing such notable co-stars as the award-winning dramatist Aristophanes and Athenian bad boy and major heartthrob Alcibiades. In Plato’s work, these real-life characters, and many others, elegantly argue about everything from the nature of love (“Symposium” and “Phaedrus”) to the nature of good government (“The Republic”).
A novelist as a well as a philosopher, Goldstein pays homage to that ancient dramatic tradition by introducing Plato into several modern-day dialogues. Be warned: Readers expecting a sober presentation of ancient philosophy may be in for a shock when Plato, on book tour, visits the headquarters of Google, then later participates in a debate about child-rearing at New York’s 92nd Street Y, assists a modern-day advice columnist as she answers questions about fraught relationships and is interviewed on a cable news program. Do these scenarios sound cutesy and even slightly condescending? I thought so at first, but Goldstein brings them off with panache, especially “Plato at the 92nd Street Y.”
The setup is this: Facetious newspaper columnist Zachary Burns is moderating a discussion on “How to Raise an Exceptional Child” with three bestselling writers: Mitzi Munitz, author of “Esteeming Your Child: How the Best-Intentioned Parents Violate, Mutilate and Desecrate Their Children”; Sophie Zee, author of “The Warrior Mother’s Guide to Producing Off-the-Charts Children”; and Plato, author of “The Republic.” After clarifying that his last panelist prefers not to be called doctor or professor, Burns proceeds with his introduction:
“Plato it is then! Plato has long been hailed as one of the most creative and influential thinkers in the history of Western thought. Indeed, some have argued that all of philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato, which is high praise indeed. He was born in Athens, Greece, a city where he has spent the bulk of his life and where he informally studied as a young man under the famous philosopher Socrates. . . .”
In the free-for-all debate that follows, Munitz argues that the young should be encouraged to follow their own bent and to become who they truly are. To the psychoanalyst, Zee’s desire to “raise an exceptional child is a desire to sacrifice the integrity of the child,” to transform human beings into “monkeys” trained to please their parents. Zee quickly counters that strict discipline, with rewards and punishments, ultimately leads to a child’s “empowerment,” and to a better, richer adult life later on.
And what is Plato’s view? Here, Goldstein presents in miniature — largely using the philosopher’s own words — parts of the educational system laid out in “The Republic.” Plato recognizes that children possess varying capabilities and temperaments. “A teacher is charged with bringing his or her student into contact with the beauty that answers to that student’s type of character and mind.” He notes that his “guardians” — the ascetic elite whose lives are devoted to overseeing the ideal state — must exhibit as children, besides intelligence, Zee’s spiritedness and Munitz’s love of truth.
Throughout the fierce give-and-take, all the participants come off surprisingly well (Zach Burns not so much). Indeed, I’m not sure that Munitz doesn’t outsoar the Greek philosopher. But then this whole chapter possesses the sparkle and vivacity of a Bernard Shaw play. As Plato says, “The best thinking is always playful.”
That said, Goldstein does offer solid, more straightforward chapters about various aspects of Platonic philosophy. She analyzes love in a section that retells the complicated relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades; discusses the opposing claims of reason and intuition in our understanding of the world; provides several different interpretations of Plato’s parable of the cave; and, finally, speculates about whether Plato actually believed in immortality. In this last instance, she emphasizes that a kind of transhuman transcendence is possible by identifying one’s whole self with the harmony and timeless, mathematical beauty of the cosmos. This rather Spinozist pantheism should come as no surprise since Goldstein has written an earlier book on Spinoza, to many the greatest philosophical mind since Plato.
In “Plato at the Googleplex,” Rebecca Newberger Goldstein set out to showcase, in sometimes startling ways, the continuing relevance of a classic philosopher. But what’s remarkable is that she actually brings off this tour de force with both madcap brilliance and commanding authority.
Dirda reviews for Book World every Thursday.
PLATO AT THE GOOGLEPLEX
Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away
By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
Pantheon. 459 pp. $29.95