Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away by Rebecca Goldstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was the December selection for the Sisters Book Club. Visit our Goodreads group if you’d like to join us in January for The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher.
There are, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein explains, many Platos, and in Plato at the Googleplex, she offers her Plato.
“My Plato,” she writes, “is an impassioned mathematician, a wary poet, an exacting ethicist, a reluctant political theorist. He is, above all, a man keenly aware of the way that assumptions and biases slip into our viewpoints and go unnoticed, and he devised a field devoted to trying to expose these assumptions and biases and to do away with any that conflict with commitments we must make in order to render the world and our lives maximally coherent.”
I heard about Plato at the Googleplex on NPR and decided to read it the same month that I read Plato’s Republic (December 2014). I was going to read them concurrently, but I soon discovered that a bit of background knowledge would make Goldstein’s book more accessible to me. Once I finished Republic, I picked up Plato at the Googleplex again halfway through the second chapter and this time read it with zeal.
This isn’t to say that it’s an easy read. It required my full attention throughout, and I both appreciated this and found it tiring. Reading it required work, and not the repetitious work of doing the dishes or mowing the lawn, but the down-and-dirty work of looking at an idea from multiple angles and figuring out not only how it made sense in each angle but also what I thought about the sense it made (or didn’t make). It was as maddeningly addictive for me as a Rubik’s Cube, and I finished it both relieved and craving more (which is why I added three more books to my to-read list: Plato’s Symposium, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, and Martha Nussbaum’s The Fragility of Goodness).
Also, I sometimes felt a bit dense in the face of Goldstein’s dizzying vocabulary. Although I do, thanks to my perhaps odd for-fun study of Latin, know the meaning of “animadversion,” there were a lot of other words that left me reaching for my worn Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (and that doesn’t even include the Greek words).
The chapters alternate between nonfiction analysis and history of Plato’s work and fictional chapters placing Plato in modern settings—the Googleplex, the 92nd Street Y, assisting an advice columnist. I thought I would enjoy the fictional chapters best, and I was surprised to find that my favorite chapters included one of each. The final chapter, “Plato in the Magnet,” had Plato talking with a neurobiologist in an fMRI lab. After finishing the book, I handed this chapter over to my scientist spouse to read because I really want to talk with him about it (he’s not read it yet, and I’m trying not to stand over him until he does).
My other favorite chapter, “Socrates Must Die,” was about the dialogues Plato wrote about Socrates’ life in the months leading up to his trial and execution. I loved Goldstein’s take on Plato’s relationship with and to Socrates. It helped me understand why Plato wrote his dialogues as he did, with Socrates taking center stage so much of the time. It seemed that, in the dialogues, Socrates really was the embodiment of Plato’s philosopher, living outside of society because he’s seen truth, but going back into the cave to help others find truth for themselves. This section included a description of immortality that was new to me:
“We are immortal only to the extent that we lose ourselves in the knowledge of reality, letting its sublimeness overtake us. We are immortal only to the extent that we allow our own selves to be rationalized by the sublime ontological rationality, ordering our own process of thinking, desiring and acting in accordance with the perfect proportions realized in the cosmos. We are then, while in this life, living sub specie aeternitatus, as Spinoza was to put it, expanding our finitude to encapture as much of infinity as we are able.” (317)
This rings of mindfulness and flow and the idea that we can capture immortality in those moments in which we exist outside of time. That is, of course, if I’m understanding “allow[ing] our own selves to be rationalized by the sublime ontological reality” correctly.
The only chapter that left me actively annoyed was the one with Plato on the cable news show. I cannot stand cable news shows (rudeness and people talking over one another makes me feel physically ill), and even just reading the host’s comments and not having to hear his voice gave me a headache. When Goldstein asserted that Plato was an INTJ, I felt a little flutter because I’m an INTJ, but if talking to the likes of “Roy McCoy” is part of the job description for a philosopher, I’m even more glad than before that I’m a (so-called) stay-at-home parent. I just kept thinking, “Why would Plato waste his time with this character?” But of course Plato wouldn’t think of it as wasting his time, and if I’m being honest, time-wasting isn’t really the reason I’d not want to talk with McCoy myself. The real reason is that I would be incapable of moving beyond the rudeness and getting to the meat of what McCoy was saying. I still prefer to stay outside of the cave (assuming I’ve actually left the cave to start with, of which I’m not at all certain).