Alan Johnson's Reviews > Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away

Plato at the Googleplex by Rebecca Goldstein
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bookshelves: philosophy-scholars, history-ancient

I have given this interesting book a five-star rating, because it is an excellent introduction to Plato, philosophy generally, and ancient Greek history. In explaining Plato's historical context, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein consciously—and I think successfully—attempts to find a golden mean between historicism (assuming that a writer's thought is merely a product of his/her time) and what she calls "philosophical insularity" (pp. 161-62). One might add that a golden mean also exists between historicism and anachronism/presentism (interpreting an earlier author solely from the current reader's own historical-cultural-ideological perspective, a characteristic defect of postmodernism as well as historical triumphalism). By resurrecting Plato from the dead and placing him in our own time, Goldstein shows how our philosophical ideas have progressed—and often not progressed—from Plato's deep understanding. She uses Plato's own dialogue format (and other literary devices) to situate him in contemporary circumstances. Goldstein's dialogues are masterpieces of art, wit, and philosophical insight. Like Plato, Goldstein has a literary bent that is in service to her love of wisdom, and, like Plato, she does not hesitate to satirize contemporary popular culture when appropriate. I found myself literally laughing out loud at many of her depictions of twenty-first-century characters. And her dialogues are interspersed with helpful nonfictional expositions regarding Plato, philosophy, and history. Several of these are outstanding.

I do not, however, agree with all of Goldstein's statements and interpretations. The following are two examples of such disagreement.

First, in discussing Plato's test in The Republic for young people to be advanced to the educational track of philosophers and eventual guardians/rulers, Goldstein has her fictional Plato state the following (pp. 198-99): "What I proposed was having our children be told glorious tales to stir their imaginations, very much stressing all the time that these tales were true, and then seeing which among the children can resist them, can see the logical inconsistencies within these tales, and see all their inconsistencies with other truths that they have been told (Republic 413c-414a)."

What Plato actually wrote at this precise location of The Republic was the following ("Socrates" is the narrator; paragraph breaks are omitted, and the entire quotation is not indented due to the technical limitations of the present format):

[413C] “And I imagine that you too would claim that people are bewitched who change their opinions when they’re either entranced by pleasure or in dread of something frightening.” “Yes,” he said, “it’s likely that everything that fools people is bewitching.” “Then as I was just saying, one needs to find out which of them are the best guardians of the way of thinking they have at their sides, that the thing they always need to do is to do what seems to them to be best for the city. So they need to be observed right from childhood by people who set tasks for them in which someone would be most likely to forget such a thing or be fooled out of it; anyone who remembers it and [413D] is hard to fool is to be chosen and anyone who doesn’t is to be rejected. Isn’t that so?” “Yes.” “And laborious jobs, painful sufferings, and competitions also need to be set up for them in which these same things are to be observed.” “That’s right,” he said. “Thus a contest needs to be made,” I said, “for the third form as well, that of bewitchment, and it needs to be watched. The same way people check out whether colts are frightened when they lead them into noisy commotions, the guardians, when young, need to be taken into some terrifying situations and then quickly shifted [413E] into pleasant ones, so as to test them much more than gold is tested in a fire. If someone shows himself hard to bewitch and composed in everything, a good guardian of himself and of the musical style that he learned, keeping himself to a rhythm and harmony well-suited to all these situations, then he’s just the sort of person who’d be most valuable both to himself and to a city. And that one among the children and the youths and the men who is tested and always [414A] comes through unscathed is to be appointed as ruler of the city as well as guardian, and honors are to be given to him while he’s living and upon his death, when he’s allotted the most prized of tombs and other memorials. Anyone not of that sort is to be rejected. It seems to me, Glaucon,” I said, “that the selection and appointment of rulers and guardians is something like that, described in outline, not with precision.” “It looks to me too like it would be done some such way,” he said.

Plato, Republic, trans. and ed. Joe Sachs (Newburyport, MA: Focus, 2007), Kindle ed., Kindle loc. 2651-70.

Goldstein's Plato did not, therefore, accurately quote or summarize what the historical Plato actually wrote in the referenced discussion of The Republic. Goldstein may be getting at a meaning of the historical Plato that is deeply concealed in what he actually said. However, that interpretation of Plato, albeit quite interesting, would be highly speculative. More likely, Goldstein has her resurrected "Plato" provide an updated account of what he wrote millennia ago. Although this verges on the presentist fallacy, it is nevertheless interesting. The updated test would be a clever way to identify philosophic minds in our present culture, with its long history of scriptural traditions. For example, the writings of Professor Bart Ehrman (who began life as an evangelical Christian) are recent specimens of a centuries-long rational/historical critique of the Christian New Testament. Similar critiques of the Jewish scriptures go back at least to Spinoza. It is possible that an individual growing up in a religious milieu might be able to detect such contradictions even before becoming aware of the modern scholarship, and this may well have been Goldstein's own personal experience (it was certainly mine). Her updated test would, however, be less obviously applicable in ancient Athens. Plato elsewhere disposed of the gods of Greek mythology on mostly ethical grounds. Their antics were so ridiculous that the sophisticated method devised by Goldstein would probably not have been necessary for any thinking Athenian to reject the pagan gods outright (though not publicly). Accordingly, I don't object to Goldstein modernizing Plato in this manner, but, literal textualist that I am, I would have preferred that she mention her procedure in a note (as she did so well in other instances).

Second, in discussing the character of Thrasymachus in The Republic, Goldstein states (p. 155): "Thrasymachus speaks for an unregenerate Ethos of the Extraordinary that licenses unmitigated individualism. He’s an Athenian Ayn Rand." However, Thrasymachus argued that justice is the advantage of the stronger, specifically, the advantage of those who hold ruling political power. (Republic 338b, 339a). This was virtually the opposite of Ayn Rand's political philosophy. It happens that I have read most of Rand's writings—some of them (for example, Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, and Anthem, along with many of her essays) several times. Rand's bedrock principle was the rule of noninitiation of force, a position that Thrasymachus would vehemently have rejected. Rand applied this principle universally, especially to government. Thus, for Rand, taxation and some other governmental laws and regulations violate the principle of noninitiation of force. Rand's problem is not that she is like Thrasymachus. In fact, she emphatically rejected Thrasymachean ethics and politics. Rand's problem is that she failed to recognize that it is simply impossible to apply the principle of noninitiation of force to all governmental activities without dismantling all government, which would result, as Hobbes put it, in the war of all against all. Murray Rothbard, whom Rand expelled from her inner circle, took Rand's political theory to its logical conclusion, anarchocapitalism. Rothbard's radical libertarian approach (with competing armed private insurance companies replacing governmental police and military forces) would inevitably result in rival militias fighting for control, as in many areas of the Middle East and Africa today. Rothbard would apparently have welcomed what we now call "failed states." Rand, who accepted limited government, ridiculed anarchocapitalism and wrote that libertarianism, having no ethical principles, was destined to become a hippie movement. If she were alive today, Rand might have been surprised to see that libertarianism has degenerated not into a hippie movement but into a right-wing tea-party movement. Elitist that she was, she probably would not like what she would see. She routinely denounced the Republican Party of her day and said, in reference to Ronald Reagan, that anyone who did not believe in the right to an abortion did not believe in any individual rights at all. Unlike many tea partiers, she was a proud and public atheist. But Rand repeatedly condemned the distinction between theory and practice (she rigorously opposed the dictum that something may be true in theory but not in practice). Once upon a time, the formulation of "pure" but impractical ideologies was a preserve of the Left. For example, Marxism was applied by Lenin, Stalin, and Mao to create totalitarian states. The attempt to apply theoretically pure principles, without regard to practical consequences, now seems to be a preserve of the Right. What has been lost is the practical wisdom of Aristotle and the American Founders. As James Madison said in the Constitutional Convention on June 26, 1787, "In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we shd. not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce." The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, ed. Max Farrand (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 1:422.

But, like Plato (see Plato at the Googleplex, p. 44), I digress. Notwithstanding my disagreements with some of Goldstein's statements and interpretations, her book is an original and important contribution that should be read by all those interested in philosophical inquiry. One of the many themes of the book is the present-day rivalry between science and philosophy, with some scientists arguing that there is no need or use for philosophy. Goldstein's final chapter is a thoughtfully constructed dialogue between a neuroscientist and Plato on this issue, with the neuroscientist's graduate assistant, Agatha, supporting Plato with excellent arguments. Plato and Agatha make a rational and convincing case for philosophy as a pursuit that is not invalidated by science. Indeed, philosophy will never die as long as it has such eloquent and knowledgeable advocates as Rebecca Newberger Goldstein.

(Originally posted June 10, 2014; italics added October 11, 2014; accidentally resaved without any changes on December 14, 2015.)
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Reading Progress

May 23, 2014 – Shelved
May 23, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
May 28, 2014 – Started Reading
June 10, 2014 – Shelved as: philosophy-scholars
June 10, 2014 – Shelved as: philosophy-scholars-partial-list
June 10, 2014 – Finished Reading
October 26, 2014 – Shelved as: history-ancient

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