Students of philosophy certainly know the old chestnut that “all of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato.” And the venerable sage who lived in Athens around the turn of the fourth century B.C. is without question the most famous philosopher who ever lived, a man who venerated Socrates as his mentor, and witnessed the immortal sage’s death at the hands of a wicked democratic tyranny that accused Socrates of subverting the youth of Athens and denying its gods. In fact, philosophy to this day is a kind of subversive activity, always denying somebody or other’s gods and leading young people on what’s usually called a wild goose chase by concerned, conservative elders.
Rebecca Goldstein certainly possesses outstanding credentials with which to bring general readers into a close relationship with Plato’s thought. She holds a doctorate from Princeton, is the author of a number of prize-winning books, has been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called “genius grant”). She’s a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her ambitious new book, “Plato at the Googleplex,” sets out to insert Plato into modern tableaux, where he will engage in spirited debates, dialogues and colloquies with an assortment of 21st century intellectual and social types, all for the purpose of highlighting why Plato’s ancient wisdom is still fresh, despite the awesome accomplishments of modern science, engineering, medicine and technology.
Goldstein is good at expositing Plato’s astonishingly influential ideas and showing how the questions he raised more than 2,000 years ago still dominate our human consciousness. Questions like: What is knowledge, and how do we come by it? What is the good life, and how can we become virtuous people? Do we have souls and is there life after death? What is justice, and how can we make it come to pass in human societies? Goldstein is good at creating a vivid context in which to understand why the life of Socrates, and his death by poison in 399 B.C., has vital historical importance for each of us today. In fact, some of her historical, religious, political and social descriptions of Athenian life in the Axial Age (that time of ferment 2,000 years ago when men were freeing themselves from whimsical gods and goddesses) are very good indeed.
But Goldstein is not so good at fulfilling her promise to place Plato into modern situations, imagining conversations he might have with technicians, software managers, psychologists, ninja moms at the 92nd Street Y in New York, cable pundits from Fox News, and a group of philosophy students in a university seminar. Several of these chapters fall flat in terms of dramatic drive, and a couple are positively dreadful, particularly a chapter titled “XXX Margo,” a supposed letters-to-the-lovelorn section, and “Plato at the Googleplex,” which invites readers to investigate the difference between information and knowledge (surely of contemporary import), a chapter so lacking in narrative punch that the reader might fall asleep partway through.
On the other hand, chapters like “In the Shadow of the Acropolis,” “Socrates Must Die” and “Plato in the Magnet” (which takes on neuroscience, decision-making, and the nature of thought) are very good. In fact, the idea of contrasting Plato’s doctrines of virtue, knowledge, and immortality to the discoveries of modern evolutionary biology, brain-scan science, and psychology could have been a dynamic and thought-provoking project. It didn’t happen. Sadly, too, the book is burdened with extensive footnotes which, while informative, too often interrupt the flow of things, and would have been better left to notes at the end.
Plato is important because he invited us to think for ourselves, to use our reason unfettered by appeals to higher authority or invisible gods. Those wishing to investigate Plato should take up Benjamin Jowett’s classic translation of “The Republic,” and read the philosopher in his own right.