We can say some things for sure: Plato was very concerned with what truth was and how to reach it. He clearly believed that appearances were deceptive and that answers were not easy to come by. We need to educate ourselves—and Plato also obsessed over how we should educate ourselves—because we do not naturally possess the knowledge of what the world is really like, nor of how to conduct our lives in the best manner: in love, with friends and family, in politics, and when facing death.
Outside of religion, which is not always the best place to find carefully reasoned answers, we rarely see these questions confronted directly today. Instead, books and articles take the form of “advice,” smuggling philosophical assumptions into their prescriptions for “self-help.” For Plato, this is backward, as self-improvement is what serves the search for truth, not the other way around. I agree. It’s baffling that these books should tell us how to better ourselves and be happy without putting forth a cogent theory of why what they propose is such an improvement. (I would rather read Why Chicken Soup for the Soul Is Chicken Soup for the Soul.) When people are debating whether Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is good or bad advice for women, they are really asking whether Sandberg’s conception of the good life is valid, not whether Sandberg is too privileged or insensitive. You can destroy Amy Chua’s book with statistics, but her provocation comes not in her thesis but with the underlying assumption that a certain sort of achievement is all that matters in life. Chua’s books wouldn’t cause such grief, and would surely just be ignored, if people felt already confident of their own accounts of success, self-esteem, and excellence. By merely being reactive to the unstated assumptions in such books, readers never get reach stable ground so that they can confidently say, “Amy, you’re missing the big picture,” which is precisely what Plato does when debating Goldstein’s version of her.
“Would it not be better,” Goldstein has anti-authoritarian psychoanalyst Mitzi Munitz challenge Plato at the 92nd Street Y, “to try and rear all citizens so that they can assume full power over their own lives as fully functioning grown-ups, according them the dignity and autonomy of responsible human beings, instead of putting them under the guardianship of those who would think and act for them?” Plato’s answer: “Thinking is very hard.” The bar of reason is very high indeed.
This fault line emerges poignantly in the section entitled “xxxPlato,” where Plato advises Slate’s own Prudence (in the form of previous Dear Prudence columnist Margo Howard). In advising a frustrated Ph.D. student to seek knowledge for its own sake and not for prestige, Plato comes off as impractical. The Ph.D. student is so consumed with making ends meet and having a job that she lacks the luxury to sacrifice her well-being for philosophical ideals. Plato was a rich aristocrat set for life, but most budding philosophers are not so lucky. Is philosophy either a bourgeois affectation (for those well-off) or a pathological ailment (for those who are not)? Even worse, if philosophical thought really is required to figure out how to lead a good and fulfilling life, what does it mean that most people are too burdened to have the time to consider it?
Goldstein makes a compelling case that philosophy’s methods are useful to all, but that Plato’s high-mindedness will not satisfy those caught in the gears of making ends meet, or even raising a family. Yet you can read this as an imperative: If philosophy genuinely is required for people to reflect sufficiently on their lives and actions, society should put a priority on encouraging the development of critical thinking skills—not in the direct service of a vocation, but in service to people becoming better human beings. It is an ideal worth maintaining even for those of us far too busy to live the life of the mind.
Reading Plato can be challenging—maddening, in fact, as arguments multiply and no genuine resolution ever seems to be at hand. This is, alas, the challenge of serious thinking. Goldstein covers a tremendous amount of territory in her fantasia on Plato, and I’m neglecting her keen insights into the scientific process, political discourse, and the work of love. Not all of her conceits work, but the sheer rigor and intelligence on display here elevate Plato at the Googleplex far above the slippery anecdotal approach of a Malcolm Gladwell book. Goldstein is comprehensive in her knowledge of Plato and draws on the most thoughtful traditions of Platonic scholarship in the last decades (scholars such as Gregory Vlastos, Myles Burnyeat, and Debra Nails), and she presents a comprehensive overview of a philosopher whose only serious rival for influence in the secular world is Confucius. She presents Plato at his best and most relevant—the Plato most deserving of our attention.
Consequently Plato at the Googleplex merits comparison to two of the best books of its kind in recent years, Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, but Goldstein’s is, in my opinion, the best of the lot, not because it necessarily has more facts or science, but because it hits more deeply and broadly at the faults of our societal discourse and makes us (well, me at least) feel embarrassed over it. Plato’s ultimate teaching, in her words, is a difficult one to follow:
Above all, my Plato is the philosopher who teaches us that we should never rest assured that our view, no matter how well argued and reasoned, amounts to the final word on any matter. And that includes our view of Plato.
When he visits Google, Goldstein’s Plato questions an engineer’s suggestion that ethics could be crowdsourced. I was reminded not of any philosopher, but of hacker/activist Aaron Swartz. Many years before his persecution on trumped-up charges by the government and subsequent suicide, he wrote a scathing review of James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, which concludes: “Surowiecki's book fails because of a lack of dissent. Nothing goes against the grain, he doesn't justify his positions, and he has clearly prejudged the question.” There was a true heir to Socrates and Plato.
Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Pantheon.