Friday, June 6, 2014

Plato at the Googleplex: A Review

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away
When confronted with what had some had made of his work Karl Marx declared: I am no Marxist.

The Plato Rebecca Newberger Goldstein resuscitates and plunges headlong into twenty-first century America might well have declared: I am no Platonist.

Plato at the Googleplex is built around the idea of bringing Plato, in the flesh, from 4th century BC Athens into twenty-first century America, where he is plunged into situations calculated to challenge his way of thinking — and our own. If this results, at times, in culture clash — imagine Plato on a talk show with a right wing jock who mocks philosophy and spouts Church teachings — it might be recalled that Plato was no stranger to disputation. His dialogues dramatize debates between Socrates and his contemporaries that end only when Socrates is sentenced to drinking hemlock. Goldstein gives Plato a more gentle exit from America than Athens gave his teacher: When we last see him, Plato is being wheeled into an fMRI machine, eager to find out what, if anything, a brain scan can add to his understanding of the mind.

Goldstein is grounded in philosophy, having written about Baruch Spinoza and Kurt Gödel, and is a practicing novelist, author, most recently, of Thirty-Six Arguments for the Existence of God: (2010). Her erudition coupled to her literary skill makes Plato at the Googleplex inviting and readable without sacrifice of complexity. The book is also often, and here I use a term not often relevant to books of and about philosophy, moving. The author's passion for the material shines through the text, endowing it with humor and tenderness.

Goldstein sees Plato as a kindred spirit of the great Athenian playwrights of his day, though he directed his talent away from comedy and tragedy toward "a new art form, the philosophical drama, which is what his dialogues are." Goldstein's reading of the dialogues runs counter to the notion that they are always harnessed to doctrine, that doctrine being what, over the course of time, has come to be called Platonism. If the Plato Goldstein brings to America had time to read books about his work — she keeps him much too busy for that — he might well have been forced to declare: I am no Platonist.

The Platonic dialogue, for Goldstein, was both a new art form and an end in itself. Some conclusions are consistent over the course of Plato's work — mathematical truth is always key connective tissue, the means of mind-meld between the self and the universe — but many vary, and often there is no conclusion at all. (Socrates did not endear himself to those whose points of view he had just disproven by averring that in the end he knew nothing at all). The constant for Plato is the argument, with others and with oneself. "Greek drama," Goldstein writes, "was, of course, brimming with violence." She sees a sort of violence at work in the dialogues as well — "quiet violence" on philosophy's behalf. "Philosophical thinking that doesn't do violence to one's settled mind is no philosophical thinking at all."

It's no accident that the questions Socrates poses in the dialogues — how should we live? what is a good life? on what basis do we make our choice? — have existential urgency. For Goldstein, as for others, Socrates is the great secular figure of what, following Karl Jaspers, is known as the Axial Age (roughly 800 to 200 BC) when, across a great swathe of cultures, old answers and observances ceased to suffice and reformulation and deepening were called for. Socrates, then, is in the same company as the Buddha, the Hebrew prophets, Lao Tzu and Zoroaster. What sets him apart is his refusal to draw on religion for answers. It wasn't that Athens lacked for piety or ritual, the gods of Olympus having not yet decamped; it was that for Socrates the gods were by definition the wrong source for solutions to human concerns. Reason — not tradition, received opinion, or religion — was his standard.

Socrates' stance, for Goldstein, is that of the Greek hero. He is, in a sense, the descendant of Achilles who, in the Iliad, chooses a course of action — reentering the battlefield after the death of Patroclus — that he knows will result in a short life, albeit an exemplary one, one that will stand out and be celebrated in time to come. Socrates shows Achilles-like resolve in the face of the demand from Athenian judges that he renounce his public questioning. Socrates refused. But his goal was not to follow Achilles into song but to fulfill to the end the practice of philosophy.


Is the Socratic standard too high? Can reason bear the weight Plato and his teacher place upon it? Goldstein leaves room for doubt while making her case for life lived as they conceived it. She does this by way of dialogues, twenty-first century philosophical dramas. Plato drops into dialogue wherever he goes. His first stop is at the Googleplex, headquarters of Google, Inc., where he is scheduled to give a talk on his famous dialogues. His media escort, Cheryl, is at first aghast that Plato goes by just the one name, "as if he were on a par with a Cher or a Madonna." But then she finds herself in passionate argument with him.

Plato concedes at once that in abolishing slavery America improved on Athenian democracy, and likewise, with regard to according women equal rights. He wonders, though, if crowd sourcing philosophical questions about how to live, as one software engineer intends to,  can ever come up with authentic results. Mostly, though, Plato engages, and with such impressive intensity that he can barely be pried away to give his talk. It is not lost on Cheryl that Plato devotes every bit as much attention to her opinions as to the software big shots who've actually read him, and want him all for themselves. It's obvious to Cheryl that conversation was Plato's "his life's blood".

Plato picks up on the Internet quickly and soon becomes inseparable from his laptop. When he Googles for the first time, the word he enters is — you guessed it — "Socrates" — which gets 4,700,000 hits, including images. Plato goes silent at that point, and a look comes over him that chatty Cheryl can't begin to describe.

** Here it's worth stopping to credit Goldstein with taking up the interpretation of the death of Socrates that had been put forward by I. F. Stone in his book, The Trial of Socrates (1988). Stone was an American gadfly, a leading critic, through I.F. Stone's Weekly, of the War in Vietnam. In his later years Stone taught himself Greek to look into the origins of the democratic idea. He concluded that Socrates was sentenced to death by Athens as a traitor, who had sided with Sparta and its ideal of militaristic hierarchy vis a vis Athenian democracy, in the Peloponnesian war.

Classicists mostly ignore Stone, or pat him on the head and move on. Goldstein takes the time to disagree with him. Her view is that Socrates was far less concerned about politics than about moral conduct, and that he was condemned by Athens for rubbing its thin skin raw. This may be, but Goldstein fudges about where the dividing line between the personal and the political should be placed.

This is likely the case. Nevertheless, Goldstein fudges the question of how to distinguish ethics from politics. Stone may have been wrong about Socrates. Was he wrong, therefore, in thinking ethics demanded investigating and opposing the politics behind the War in Vietnam?

What if Goldstein brought Plato back, not to the Googleplex but to the anti-war movement, circa 1968? What would Plato have said to Mario Savio, a few years earlier, or to Mark Rudd or Malcolm X, about hard and fast distinctions between the personal and the political? That, of course, would be another book. The one we have is instructive. Plato should be invited back again.

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