Philosophy is the love of wisdom. In her new book, "Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away" (2014) Rebecca Goldstein examines the continuous nature of philosophical questioning through a partly expository partly fictional presentation of the thought of the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato. The twentieth century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead observed that all Western philosophy basically constitutes a series of "footnotes to Plato".
Rebecca Goldstein serves as both author and guide in this latest "footnote to Plato". One can only be humbled by her range of learning and her literary skill. Goldstein, a MacArthur Fellow, has written philosophical studies, including a book about Spinoza, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (Jewish Encounters) and philosophical novels, most recently "36 Arguments for the Existence of God". 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction (Vintage Contemporaries) She combines philosophy, fiction, and much else in this book. It is rare that a thinker can write with such scholarship and insight on diverse, difficult subjects such as ancient philosophy and history, popular culture, Spinoza, and the mathematical philosopher Kurt Godel. Goldstein does so with a breathtaking ease.
Goldstein aims to show how philosophy, in the face of its many detractors, remains of critical importance. There are many ways of approaching the question of the continued value of philosophy, but Goldstein here does so almost exclusively through a detailed consideration of Plato. She argues that Plato, who wrote over 2400 years ago did not have the best or final answers to philosophical questions. She finds Plato important in raising and formulating questions, showing their significance, pointing out directions, and in being open to differing points of view and to changing his mind. Broadly speaking, Goldstein's Plato asks readers and students to consider what makes life important and worth living. Goldstein argues that Plato's approach to this question led to the approach of modern secularism as opposed, most obviously, to the nearly contemporaneous writings of the Hebrew prophets, as well as to the teachings of the Buddha, Confucianism, and Zoroastrianism. Again in a broad sense, Goldstein follows Plato in his emphasis on secularism, mathematics,science, and on thinking in a humanistic way about the value of human life.
There are books and jokes that begin with the line "Plato walks into a bar and ... " which Goldstein trades on to an extent. There is no mistaking, however, the serious, erudite character of this book. The book alternates two kinds of discussions. In the first, Goldstein writes as a philosopher discussing Plato's teachings and his character, in so far as they can be determined, his literary works, his relationship with Socrates. Her discussion is historically informed. When I first studied Plato in the 1960s, little attention was given to putting Plato's writings in the context of ancient Greek history. Philosophical study at the time tended to be markedly ahistorical. It focused almost exclusively on setting out and analyzing arguments. Goldstein, to the contrary, develops her Plato in the context of the Homeric poems, the Persian wars, the rise of Athens, and the war with Sparta. She tries to show how key Platonic concepts, such as that indicated by the difficult word "arete" changed in Plato's development of them from their historic background in Greek thought. Her expositions of Plato manage to be passionate, eloquent, and learned at once. She offers copious footnotes not only to Plato's texts but to a vast range of modern scholarship.
These expository chapters each alternate with a fictitious scene. Plato is brought to life in our contemporary 21st century, speaks English, and engages in discussion with a variety of characters. Instead of walking into a bar, Plato, when the reader first meets him in person walks into the Googleplex where he meets, becomes fascinated with, and masters the use of the Internet. He is at the Googleplex for a book signing. In the process, he has a discussion with a hostess, who questions the value of "elitist" philosophy and a young man. In subsequent chapters, Plato discusses education and child-rearing with a psychotherapist and warrior mom. He assists an Ann Landers-type columnist in responding to letters for help with love problems. He appears on a cable tv news program with an obnoxiously hostile host. Finally Plato has a discussion about the mind and body with a neuroscientist and his young assistant before submitting to a scanning of his brain.
These fictional present-day dialogues are carried out with panache and with a great deal of laugh-aloud humor. The discussions are tough and colloquial and display a surprisingly sure pulse on contemporary habits. Plato receives a convincing portrayal as Goldstein uses and refers to his own dialogues wherever possible. The discussions sometimes get bogged down. But these chapters enhance Goldstein's expository sections. She succeeds in her goal of showing the questions Plato raised about reality, ethics, knowledge, and the nature of a meaningful human life remain embedded in contemporary life and are ignored or brushed aside with peril.
This book touched me deeply. As a philosophy major in the 1960s, I became enamored of Plato. I studied classical Greek with the intent of understanding him better and reading his works in the original. I pursued a different career and returned often to Plato and to other philosophy, including Spinoza. Goldstein draws many parallels between Plato and Spinoza and has also written about him. In addition to the philosophical discussions, the book brought back memories about why I began to love Plato and philosophy and continue to study.
For all its literary flourishes in the fictional sections, this book is slow and difficult, both in the text and in the detailed notes which are essential for understanding. The readers of this book will likely be those who are already committted to the value of the philosophic endeavor. Such readers, and those new to philosophy but willing to engage with Plato and Goldstein, will find this book inspiring. It made me want to go back and reread Plato again. Books tend to find their own proper readers.
We can thank Rebecca Newberger Goldstein for spending her youth reading hundreds of science fiction novels for coming up for the premise of Plato at the Googleplex. Goldstein says science fiction novels required that you accept one absurd premise and then the rest of the novel had to obey common logic. That’s what she’s done here: She’s plucked Plato from around 400 B.C.E. and placed him in think tank discussions, Google headquarters, and cable TV talking heads debates to show, not only did Plato set the groundwork for rigorous debate, but that he is as relevant today as he ever was.
Goldstein’s book is no gushing iconic portrait of Plato. She makes it clear that he was imperfect, partly for living in a time that was in the dark ages scientifically.
With powerful intellectual rigor, Goldstein explains in the first chapter Plato’s place in history and why Plato’s argument for making the abstract as relevant as the concrete. Then in the next chapter Plato argues with a technophile at a chic bar in San Francisco about how arguments are made. The technophile believes in the democracy of the Internet and crowd-sourcing, using Google as a “rolling plebiscite.” but finds his arguments refuted by Plato. The great philosopher also demarcates the difference between “Google information” and real knowledge.
My favorite passage is Plato describing Internet niche websites in terms of the Myth of the Cave, with a fragmented society only listening to its own points of view. “People are all chained to their own points of view so they can’t share knowledge . . .”
For a book that dissects the folly of talking head TV and radio, the Ethical Answers Search Engine, and ideas of democracy in the technological age, Goldstein has written an ambitious, heady primer. Recommended.
Unless "For Dummies" is all you want out of life.
I've read all of Rebecca Goldstein's previous works; I've attended talks by her; I guess you can call me a fan. However when I heard about this book, I was hesitant. I am not one of those who regards all of philosophy as a commentary on Plato; I think he got some important things VERY wrong, and that the history of philosophy has been something of a twelve-step recovery from his influence. If pressed, I would prefer to divide philosophy into Pre-Hume and Post-Hume.
Rebecca Goldstein has made me rethink my position. And she has done so using a strange, hard-to-pigeonhole work which is deeply scholarly and whimsical at the same time.
Modern Euro-Americans can’t venture outdoors or watch television without encountering some concept which began with Plato. Politics? Plato wrote entire books on public service and leadership. Art? Plato couldn’t restrain himself from voicing opinions on artists’ responsibilities and role. Science? Okay, he didn’t invent experimental technique, but he pioneered ideas in physical cosmology. Yet moderns like us are monumentally resistant to Plato, at least directly. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein wonders why.
Philosophy, as we understand the word, begins with one fundamental question: “Why?” Why do we consider certain ideas obvious and true, rather than their opposite? Why do we do our jobs specific ways? Why do we spend our time on such-and-such? Plato’s mentor, the semi-legendary Socrates, wandered ancient Athens, asking politicians and scholars and tradesman questions. Whatever somebody considered self-evident, whatever certainties left citizens numb, Socrates punctured with simple dialog.
Notwithstanding his foundational position, Plato did not invent philosophy. The process began with nigh-forgotten Ionian scholars ruminating about what we’d now call science. Their speculative cosmology, roughly equal to seven-day creationism, makes Thales and Anaximander mere relics. Plato shifted philosophy’s focus off physical science and onto human spirits. He initiated questions about education, politics, and morals that pay off daily in modern schools, elections, and daily life.
Despite this persistence, not everyone agrees Plato remains relevant. Goldstein quotes people she calls “philosophy jeerers” on why changing times have (putatively) rendered conventional philosophy obsolete. But using their own words, she demonstrates the ultimate circularity of their arguments, and how attempts to discredit classical philosophy are ultimately philosophical. She concedes that not everything Plato records remains relevant. But we can only understand that by performing legitimate Platonic philosophy.
Goldstein, a humanist thinker who has written award-winning popular books on Kurt Gödel and Baruch Spinoza, brings exhaustive familiarity with philosophic history to her inquiries. She can correlate Enlightenment-era innovations, such as individual rights, which we consider commonplace, with Plato’s thoughts. The correspondence may surprise us. Plato had remarkably progressive ideas about, say, women’s rights and governance. But he didn’t believe we existed individually; “rights” may have scandalized him thoroughly.
These discrepancies are themselves fascinating. Goldstein imagines Plato wandering modern American settings, encountering public thinkers and social pathfinders, testing contemporary ideas against pure reason. Platonic philosophy allows us wide latitude, Goldstein asserts. Unlike Enlightenment thinkers, Plato brings few presuppositions to his thought. He has principles, but remarkably few ironclad demands. For us to test ideas like Plato, we need only ask one important question: can this idea withstand its opposite?
Plato’s works make for very difficult reading. Even very dedicated audiences struggle with his frequent, densely mystical asides. I personally enjoyed Meno, but found Phaedrus almost unreadable. That makes authors like Goldstein profoundly valuable, translating Plato’s millennia-old ruminations into modern English. Because if Goldstein’s right, and Plato remains relevant to modern life, diverse audiences need a contemporary Virgil to guide us through the dense thicket of his prose.
Some reviewers will certainly misunderstand Goldstein’s intentions. One would-be critic anchored his entire review on one line, around the one-third mark, where Goldstein’s viewpoint character disparages Amazon reviewers (don’t look at me that way). But Goldstein isn’t saying this. Like Plato, Goldstein uses Straw Man arguers who are always wrong. Goldstein, like Plato, requires readers to pay attention, separating intermediate arguments from the final take-home lesson.
Goldstein’s oblique loyalties, combined with her extremely dense style, often make slow, effortful reading. Her chapters average over forty pages apiece, though some are much, much longer, and without natural integrated pause points, her polysyllabic prose is monolithically imposing. This ain’t beach reading, folks. Schedule generous sit-down time before reading, because Goldstein, like Plato, won’t let you consume her ideas with only half a brain.
Worse, Goldstein forbids readers to reach after pat answers. Humans often seek to resolve questions neatly, excluding ambiguity and doubt. But Goldstein, like Plato, often ends debates with key issues still unresolved. We’re more confused, not less, though perhaps confused in more sophisticated, productive ways. This can feel painful; but Goldstein notes early: “Philosophical thinking that doesn’t do violence to one’s settled mind is no philosophical thinking at all.”
Readers willing to honor Goldstein’s stipulations will find, here, an engaging précis of Platonic thought, and a persuasive justification why Plato continue to matter. Her two-pronged concept lets us both understand Plato’s techniques, while also witnessing the mental processes in action. Because Plato’s questions on topics like virtue, education, and good governance remain alive today, Goldstein gives modern readers new opportunities to join this ancient debate.
Reading Plato was by far my favorite part of studying philosophy in college, and it was sheer delight to encounter him again in this book. Author Rebecca Goldstein, both a philosophy professor and a novelist, poses an interesting question: Now that the sciences have advanced so far in explaining the inner and outer worlds of our universe--from the subatomic level, to the farthest galaxies, from the genetic codes for life, to the structures of the brain that support thought, emotion, and morality--is there any role left for philosophy? Some scientists think there is not, but it won't be giving away much to say that Goldstein disagrees. Then there is also the question: Has philosophy since the time of Plato made the same kinds of advances as other fields of knowledge? And: What would Plato make of our modern world--would he have anything to tell us, or, since we're talking about Plato, it might be more accurate to phrase that question what would Plato ask us to think deeply about?
Goldstein approaches these questions with two methods, used in alternate chapters. First there are the expository chapters, well written discourses examining the questions that have been posed, including any new questions that come up along the way, and also providing some fascinating background history. These take a satisfying amount of mind exercise and it felt good to rejoin the philosophical discussion around a theoretical seminar table, but it's the chapters following the expository ones that are the real reward for all that thought work. Because in them Plato is back, here in our modern world, and like Socrates he is engaging everyone he meets in dialogue, allowing them all to take another look at their unexamined assumptions.
Plato doesn't do one-sided lectures, of course, and in these back and forths he is learning too--how to avoid using sexist language for instance. People Plato delves into discussion with include a Google software engineer who thinks crowd-sourcing is the most reliable way to attain information which he equates with wisdom, a book tour escort who is sure she knows how best to live her own life, a Fox news host who's proud of his rigid beliefs about religion and morality, a neuroscientist who doesn't believe in conscious free will, and a tiger mom and psychoanalyst who debate with each other and Plato about how best to raise a child. These sections are as substantive as the expository chapters, but they are also sometimes laugh out loud funny. Goldstein has put the fun back into philosophy while making a strong, well reasoned case that it still has relevance in today's world.
on March 22, 2014
This is a tremendous book. The excerpts that have been published various places really don't do it justice. This is NOT "Plato for Dummies", but rather a very serious book explaining Plato's philosophy.
The book includes several "cute" sections where Plato visits Google, helps an advice columnist advise people on problems with their love life, debates a cable news character, shares the stage with a Tiger mother character and a psychoanalyst to discuss child upbringing, and debates free will with a neuroscientist.
These sections are good, and amusing, and extensively use quotes from various dialogues -- most of Plato's speeches are not made up by Goldstein, but are taken from his writings. For example, much of what Plato says to the cable news character is actually taken from the Platonic dialogue called the Gorgias, in which the character Socrates addresses a character who is very similar to some modern cable news personalities. So this chapter actually summarizes and redoes the Gorgias dialogue, which is both enlightening and amusing.
However, most of the content of the book is not these fantasy sections. Most of the chapters of the book are instead a straightforward exposition by Goldstein of what Plato's philosophy is, how it is based in the culture of ancient Greece yet deviated significantly from that culture and modified it for the better, how it is distinct from Judeo-Christian and other religious approaches to the "meaning of life", and how it influenced subsequent philosophy in the Western world, and in particular the liberal philosophies that came out of the Enlightenment.
I believe that this book is perhaps one of the best introductions to Plato for modern readers that I have seen. As far as I can tell, based on my reading both of Plato and of secondary sources on Plato, Goldstein's book is a highly accurate account of Platonic philosophy. It is also a sympathetic account of Plato.
At the same time, Goldstein makes clear that in some respects the philosophies that have developed since Plato HAVE made progress beyond Plato -- which, as she points out, would please Plato very much.
A reader of this book will get a biographical account of Plato's life, as well as summaries of some of the key points of many Platonic dialogues, and extensive quotations from many of these dialogues. It's a good introduction that should inspire many readers to read the original Plato.
I think this book also makes clear why Platonic philosophy can also be considered a RELIGIOUS philosophy, in the sense that it is not just a theoretical exercise, but a call to live a certain way of life.
This book contains a long prologue, 5 essays, and 5 fictional dialogues between Plato and moderns in 5 different 21st century settings. Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher, of course, was Socrates' most famous student and Plato's most famous student was Aristotle.
The prologue and the essays cover a wide variety of topics somewhat related to Plato, but they seem disorganized and are often only distantly related to Plato. They touch on topics such as pre-Socratic philosophers, the Peloponnesian War, Alcibiades, Pericles, several of Plato's dialogs, speculations about Socrates' sex life, and the pseudo-homosexual customs of ancient Athens. If you want background on ancient Athens read a book about that. If you want a history of ancient philosophy, read another book about that. And if you want a discussion of Plato's dialogues, read still another book about that. The hit and miss discussions in these essays are mostly dry and do not give enough information about the topics that interested me.
Peter Kreeft, a philosopher at Boston College, has written a series of "Socrates Meets..." books in which Socrates talks with later philosophers or with 20th century students and these are quite entertaining and educational. I was hoping that this book would be similar using Plato instead of Socrates as the interlocutor. But I only really enjoyed "Plato at the Gooleplex", a discussion about whether we should allow philosophers to tell us how to live a meaningful life. And "Plato at the 92d street Y" was a somewhat interesting discussion on how to raise children. But if you want a more entertaining fictional philosophical dialogue, try Kreeft's The Best Things in Life in which Socrates visits a modern university.
on March 3, 2014
In this book Goldstein brings Plato into the present - possibly presumptuously since she is not a philosophical genius. She is, however, an excellent novelist of ideas who holds a PhD in philosophy and is well-equipped to put Plato into modern situations and write dialogues in the Platonic tradition - with a novelist's skill in illustrating character through conversation and a philosopher's skill in illuminating important questions through dialogue. There is a well-founded tradition of writing philosophical dialogues in imitation of Plato - Douglas Hofstetter being one of the most prominent modern exponents in Godel, Escher, Bach. Perhaps Goldstein isn't quite at Hofstetter's level in proposing original philosophical ideals, but what she has written is very nearly as interesting and entertaing as what he produced.
I am perhaps one of the ideal readers of this book. As an undergrad I read and studied ⅔ of the Platonic dialogues, and eventually got a degree in philosophy and mathematics. In the 40 years since I have never stopped thinking about the fundamental questions Plato posed and the other great philosophers of the Western tradition continued to mull or react against. I have no problem with the idea that the rest of philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. Some of those footnotes are very long, and have run away with the book and the topic, but never mind. I'm also a novelist, albeit unpublished.
Evidently scientists think they have overtaken the issues that philosophy took as its province. Perhaps this is so for certain small areas of metaphysics and such. And just possibly cognitive science will eventually answer the central questions about what makes humans human and thus define the soul (or some replacement term). I still don't see how any kind of science can replace ethics.
In this book Goldstein alternates chapters discussing Plato with more fanciful accounts of Plato encountering the modern world - the Googleplex, TV talk shows, and even some thoroughly Platonic dialogues - with Plato rather than Socrates as the protagonist. She constructs and exposes characters in these dialogues with a novelist's skill, and guides our attention to philosophical questions and toward the conclusion that Plato's questions are still unanswered and very much worth thinking about.
There's some humor here, and a great deal of skill. I don't know whether Goldstein's book will convince scientists that they have not quite displaced philosophers as yet, though it definitely won't disabuse them of the idea that philosophy is irrelevant. For those of us who enjoy philosophical entertainment and want a chance to think over those eternal questions again, the book is a huge and profound treat.
And, yes, I would gladly have spent my own money on the book.
on October 13, 2014
As a young man in my early twenties I had the great fortune of meeting a Professor Paul Mabry. I was in the Air Force reserves assigned as his chaplain's assistant. I had then no more than a high school education, and had recently suffered a religious experience that was to change the direction of my entire life. One quiet Saturday morning of our monthly meetings, the Major was patiently enduring my earnest explication of the fundamentalists' interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus. At one point he gave a sanguine smile that arrested me in mid-rant. He then began to gently tell me that I had no idea what I was talking about, that I was using words and notions I had no clue as to their meaning and origin, and was near totally ignorant of the history of those ideas. He then began to explain, and within little more than an hour he had taken me, systematically, through the three levels of reality in Plato's metaphysics. At the conclusion of this he could see my jaw had dropped by the mere whisper of comprehension. He then said that I had just received free what his students paid $300.00 a credit hour for, and that I should for a time set my Bible aside, read Paul Tillich, then come back to my Bible and report what I saw.
I eventually did just that, but not before reading some Plato on my own, particularly The Republic. I recall sitting all alone on the front porch of grandma's house totally engulfed in the effort to follow the carefully crafted argument of that dialogue. When I reached the point where Plato has Socrates explain the idea of The Good, that which is the ground of all things, I could viscerally feel a seismic shift in my mind that I was never able to explain or describe, but it was my first dazzling taste of the sublime where my perspective was, for a fleeting moment, lifted beyond the daily bonds of self-absorption, and I would never again be the same. This book, "Plato at the GooglePlex", helped me understand why. It has helped me clarify some what I have been struggling with ever since, and what everyone who has been infected with the power of philosophy struggles with; that proverbial "examined life".
Likely this is perfectly obvious to others, but I really did not understand till reading this book that at the heart of the examined life is the demand that reality explain itself, why it is, what it is. And though, as Ms. Goldstein suggests, such questions are now for the most part pursued by the likes of theoretical physicists, the power of philosophy to change a mind and a life by being opened to such questions is not, as Ms. Goldstein also tells us, dependent on any special cognitive equipment of that magnitude. It is a "path", she says, that is in principle open to anyone. And there is no question, to my mind, at least, that this is a path, a life lived under the compelling burden or lure of questions that first emerged during what Karl Jaspers called the "Axial Age", questions about the nature of the world and what it means to human within it, what Tillich called matters of ultimate concern.
But it was not long before I learned what Ms. Goldstein makes perfectly clear, that this is "an activity best done with others". Philosophy is an enduring conversation among what Ms. Goldstein calls "collaborators". For me, it was the realization that a sudden need for a certain kind and caliber of conversation can be just about the most isolating experience one can have. One's whole social environment begins to change as one looks for people willing and able to support and advance a life that includes such concerns. This is what drove me eventually back to school, to college, and on to graduate school, institutions where people pay, or are paid to be collaborators, colleagues and professors. No source of knowledge, insight, or information, from religion and theology to the arts and sciences, can be excluded from this conversation. All of them have something interesting and important to say. And though one or more of these sources may on occasion and under certain circumstances be on the ascendancy, none of them have the whole story, so none are immune to the spirit of criticism that Ms. Goldstein establishes to be the very nature of philosophy.
It is fair to say, and Ms. Goldstein suggests as much, that this ideal has been at the heart of our Western intellectual heritage, and the engine of scientific and political progress, at least since the Renaissance. But as the subtitle of this book suggests, this is an ideal that seems all but lost to us now, which is perhaps part of Ms. Goldstein's reasons for writing this book. And it is not just those within the scientific community that would prefer that philosophy just go away, but the religious community as well, as even a cursory familiarity with our culture wars more than adequately establishes. To the extent the participants to the kind of dialogue philosophy demands remain true to this heritage, the less likely it is that the effort to understand ourselves and our world will devolve into a contest of ideologies, which spells the end of any dialogue, and that is clearly the situation in which we now find ourselves. This is echoed in a quote from a recent interview with Stephen Hawking, who said in response to a question that "mankind's greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking." It doesn't have to be like this," he said. "Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking." Philosophy in this view is all we have to counter our natural inclination toward the dominance of ideological warfare.
It is along these lines that Ms. Goldstein makes what I regard as her most important moral point. The demand that reality account for itself may lead, and in terms of philosophy for Ms. Goldstein does lead, to the realization that reality does not take the human point of view, and it cannot be expected to. Plato makes this point in the Laws, arguing that while any mason will tell you that the big stones are not well laid without the judicious placement of small stones, the small parts of reality exist for sake of the Whole, and not the Whole for the sake of parts. A somewhat more severe version in modern times comes again from Stephen Hawking. "The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet", he says, "orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies. We are so insignificant that I can't believe the whole universe exists for our benefit. That would be like saying that you would disappear if I closed my eyes."
Ms. Goldstein tells us that this perspective was for centuries obscured by Christian theologians who, adopting Platonism, made what she describes as a "user-friendly substitution at the top of the explanatory chain". The Good moved out and God moved in, and the new tenant was reputed to be nearly as interested in us as we are in ourselves. It is this idea, this vast over evaluation of the human point of view, that Ms. Goldstein says is itself an ideology, maybe the one ideology that lies at the heart of all ideologies. That reality shows no tilt toward human welfare may sound cold, she says, but we are nonetheless morally improved by the contemplation of it because it requires us "to overcome the deformities of our natures, the over privileging of our own identities, and to dismantle whatever ideology imprisons us, almost always because it flatters our own sense of self-importance".
This is an echo of what A.N. Whitehead meant when he defined philosophy as the self-correction by consciousness of its own initial excess of subjectivity. It is a vision or experience that Ms. Goldstein says is itself a moral achievement because it induces an awe that places our self-centered concerns into the widest possible perspective, altering our sense of proportion and thereby eroding any inclinations to superiority or entitlement. "Anyone with a proper appreciation of proportion, she says, can't fail to appreciate that one's own self shouldn't be in disproportion relative to everyone else." What's more, this sense of proper proportion relative to others has an equally important impact on ourselves. Once one grasps and accepts that the world is not about one's own life, a certain equanimity sets in that works toward a kind of letting go, which is itself a shift in a person's moral psychology. "The harmony and proportionality that structure reality itself", writes Ms. Goldstein, "settle over a person's own psychic reality and transforms for the good. This is what the just person is: someone whose inner reality is congruent with outer reality." Pg 391. This is why philosophy will not, and frankly cannot, just go away, nor should we be wanting it to.
But this brings me to something that I found to be a bit of a shortcoming in Prof. Goldstein's book. The sense of proportionality that the experience of this vision opens us to is the beginning of a long term conversation that is required for its moral development, and the term "collaborators" is to me a wholly inadequate term for the kind of sustained dialogue that approaches anything like the "examined life". For this, only friendship will do. This is something that does not receive a great deal of mention by Prof. Goldstein. But perhaps that is because it is a topic unto itself, a topic that helps explain why friendship is at the heart of three of Plato's dialogues, at the center of Aristotle's Ethics, and at the center of what Cicero regards as the good life.
Goldstein has given us a quirky, brilliant, ambitious, timely--and occasionally goofy--defense of philosophy. It's a fun read, and sheds more light on classical thought (and some aspects of contemporary thought) than anything else I can remember. She embodies many of the best elements of Socratic argument, like stating the opposing view as strongly as possible before tearing it to shreds. I've never seen a detractor of philosophy, including one with roots in contemporary neuroscience, state the anti-philosophy arguments as well as Goldstein does. Which, of course, reinforces her credibility during the ensuing demolition.
She brings to bear the force of her academic background without writing like an academic. With an apology to the philosophers of the ivory tower, she abandons their requirement that ideas speak for themselves, without help (often dubious) from personal and historical back-stories. She goes as far as possible in the other direction, painting a vivid picture of Plato the man, Socrates the man, their contemporary Athenian culture, and the Homeric Greek culture that preceded it. She invites you into the world of those ideas, and in doing so makes them vital and real. The human element doesn't substitute for the underlying arguments; it just works to make them inviting.
The writing is accessible to non-academics, but she doesn't shy away from complexities and ambiguities. She returns often to controversies surrounding interpretation of Plato's ideas (is he utopian or anti-utopian? Does he believe rationalism has limits or not?) and in a central, sly rhetorical move, demonstrates that the bugs in his ideas are really features: if Plato had gotten everything right, then indeed, we'd have no more use for philosophy. As Goldstein frames it, Plato got a lot wrong, and left a lot unfinished. So there's work to be done.
Plato discovered the important questions. He laid foundations that made the ensuing 2400 years of philosophy (and gasp--of science) possible. Goldstein says, and I paraphrase, "relax, wise men and women of physics and Neuroscience. We're all on the same team here."
The most interesting of Goldstein's strategies is also the most problematic. She's created her own dramatic dialogs, all involving 2400 year-old plato traipsing through the 21st Century. I like the conceit of the toga-clad old man discovering the internet, bringing himself up to speed on pop psychology and molecular neurobiology, lecturing at the Googleplex, debating child-rearing on stage in NYC, subjected to a republican talk show host, and matching wits with a scientist before getting his brain scanned.
The trouble is that Goldstein the dramatist is not in the same league as Goldstein the essayist. The dialogs feel contrived, way beyond the necessary contrivance of Plato being alive in the first place. Unlike in the essays, where the anti-philosophy arguments are stated intelligently, in the dialogs she puts them in the mouths of flat and unlikeable characters. Other characters are written with such a self-conscious reach for hipness that they're hard to stomach. Imagine an after-school special in the language of Sex and the City. With Plato.
The dialogs aren't all bad. They have their moments, with some arguments laid out imaginatively, and with some moments of real humor. They just don't hold up in the context of the essay sections, which I can't say enough good things about. All of this screams: Fiction Editor--get one! I like the idea of these dialogs. If only their manifestations could approach the ideal forms ...
But please don't be dissuaded. I recommend this book to anyone new to classical philosophy, or to anyone revisiting it, or to anyone sincerely curious about the point of the whole philosophical endeavor. I suspect it would be useful to teachers looking for a way to make the big ideas both relevant and accessible.