Plato takes on Bill O’Reilly! The great philosopher, dead for 2,400 years, argues with Amy Chua! And Daniel Dennett! And Google! This is philosopher-novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s hook in her audacious new book Plato at the Googleplex, a hybrid of a careful overview of Plato and a series of imagined dialogues between Plato and contemporary interlocutors. “Plato at the 92nd Street Y” pits him against the Chua-ish “Warrior Mother” Sophie Zee, discussing Republic’s hypothetical “city of pigs” and testing out in the Myers-Briggs typology as an INTJ (just like yours truly); “Plato on Cable News” has him exchanging blows with a bloviating Bill O’Reilly clone named Roy McCoy. And yes, here is Plato at the Googleplex, debating an engineer over the possibility of crowdsourcing ethics, as well as wryly comparing its communal environment to the training of young philosopher-kings in the Republic. (I used to work for Google, and believe me, we had it way better than Plato’s ascetic Guardians.)
By alternating between these new “Platonic dialogues” and a serious chronicle of Plato’s life and philosophy, Goldstein makes a plea for the continuing importance of philosophy as Plato (427–347 B.C.) conceived it, and for the enduring relevance of Plato’s contributions. And she retells what clearly was a formative event in Plato’s life: how Plato’s mentor Socrates, through speech alone, came to be seen as so dangerous to Athenian society that he was put to death.
What are Plato’s contributions? Plato’s own views are elusive because he never wrote in his own voice, only through characters speaking in dialogue. But just as we do not look to Shakespeare or Goethe for a well-defined political worldview, Goldstein suggests that the value lies not in Plato’s particular proposals but in his questions and methodologies, the process in the dialogues by which ideas are considered, debated, and often rejected.
The dominant character in almost all of Plato’s dialogues is Socrates. He is hardly portrayed consistently across the dialogues, but we have several sources on the real Socrates, 40 years Plato’s senior, whom Plato knew and clearly esteemed. Goldstein tells his story well, culminating in a moving and dramatic chapter, “Socrates Must Die.” Socrates, born in 469 B.C., was a self-declared “gadfly” in Athens while incessant wars between city-states were causing Greek society to self-destruct. Socrates acquired a vivid public reputation as a masterful debater who could poke holes in anyone’s beliefs, while maintaining that he himself was sure of nothing but his own ignorance. After the temporary downfall of Athenian democracy and a takeover by the so-called Thirty Tyrants, the restored democracy put Socrates on trial in 399 B.C. for what may or may not have been trumped-up charges: disrespecting the gods and corrupting the youth. The jury found him guilty and sentenced him to death, and Socrates drank the hemlock that killed him.
Plato chronicles Socrates’ trial and death in a series of dialogues (the Apology, Crito, and Phaedo), but can they be trusted? I think it safe to say that Plato despised Athens for executing such a brilliant mind, and Plato’s Socrates is meant at least partly as hagiography. It’s easy to get behind Plato’s Socrates as he demolishes the confused, empty piety of Euthyphro, or as he makes a noble case for virtue being its own reward. It might have been less easy to get behind the real Socrates, who encouraged some seriously troubled characters such as Alcibiades (who was also one of Socrates’ lovers) and the tyrant Critias. Goldstein does not shirk from that question and spends quite a bit of time on bad boy Alcibiades, who seems to have combined the worst excesses of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and George S. Patton in helping to drive Athens to ruin. Yet Goldstein argues that Socrates was ultimately executed because he deferred to no one’s authority and tore down Athens’ idealized image of itself. In the claustrophobic public life of Athens, Socrates was tolerated (barely) when times were good, but condemned as a dangerous nuisance when things took a turn for the worse. When Leslie Gelb, reflecting on the rush to war in Iraq, spoke of the media and foreign policy experts’ “disposition and incentives to support wars to retain political and professional credibility,” he explained exactly why Socrates (who, like Plato, never took payment from students) was so irritating to the chattering classes of Athens: He ruined their credibility. His message, paraphrased by Goldstein as “Don’t be so hasty in donning yourselves with laurels,” fits America all too well today.
Plato, then, took Socrates’ critical attitude and generalized it beyond morality and politics to the search for truth in all its forms. Plato may lack the scientific trappings of Aristotle, such as they were, but he possessed one keen insight that Aristotle ignored, and, one that eventually proved crucial to the scientific mentality: Our senses lie. It is not just enough to question our received cultural ideas and our intuitions; the most self-evident truths around us may prove to be nothing of the kind. The classic example is, of course, that the Earth goes around the sun and not the other way around, something we now take for granted but which still goes counter to every bit of visual evidence we possess. The rediscovery of Plato in the Renaissance heralded the scientific revolution; perhaps a coincidence, perhaps not.
And since the more general revival of interest in Greek culture in the 19th century, Plato has been taken as many things. The great 19th-century English radical George Grote, who wrote an enormous tome on Plato, deemed him a liberal before his time, the champion of free thought. Philosopher of science Karl Popper declared Plato the founder of totalitarianism, while radical journalist I.F. Stone found that Socrates really had been an enemy of the people. The followers of political philosopher Leo Strauss believed that Plato revealed his real thought only to those in the know (i.e., Leo Strauss), creating a sadly influential “cult [for] neoconservative yuppies,” in the words of the great Plato scholar Gregory Vlastos.
What to make of these conflicting views? Better to listen to Platonic scholar and philologist Holger Thesleff: “Too often, over the centuries, have Plato's thought experiments been understood as his convictions or as revelations of profound truths.” Many of the dialogues are quite inconclusive, such as the dark Gorgias, which clearly served as Goldstein’s inspiration for Plato’s visit to Fox News. Just as “Roy McCoy” puts up invincible ignorance to everything Plato says, Callicles in the Gorgias refuses to be convinced by any of Socrates’ ethical arguments, preferring to advocate for the brutal “law of nature.” E.R. Dodds wrote that the Gorgias is Plato’s most modern dialogue: “The twin problems which it exposes—how to control the power of propaganda in a democracy, how to re-establish moral standards in a world whose traditional standards have disintegrated—these are also the central problems of the twentieth century.” And the answers are still not forthcoming, only the questions, and the process of searching.