PLATO AT THE GOOGLEPLEX
Why Philosophy Won't Go Away
by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
Pantheon Books, 2014
459 pp.; $29.95
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's ode to philosophy, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away, imagines a collision of worlds: What would happen if Plato, the famous philosopher, suddenly appeared in the twenty-first century? In the ensuing dramas, staged in the dialogue form that Plato himself created, Goldstein has Plato discussing the possibility of crowdsourcing ethics with a Google employee, debating a psychoanalyst and a self-proclaimed "warrior mother" on how to raise children, helping an advice columnist sort out her readers' romantic conundrums, and much more. These anachronistic set-ups, which freely explore Plato's thought, alternate with more straightforward expository chapters on Plato and the society he lived in. The end result is a book that simultaneously gives a fair exposition of a formidable ancient thinker whilst exploring his relevance to modern life.
Goldstein, a novelist and philosopher, pulls off what could have easily veered into the corny or preachy with tact, humor, and, most importantly, a fairness that delves into Plato's ideas without specifically condoning any conclusions, a skill that Plato himself perfected in his dialogues. These dialogues make Plato's ideas accessible to a general audience while also keeping him fresh and exciting for those who study or have a background in philosophy.
Take, for example, the eponymous chapter of Plato at the Googleplex, which finds Plato about to give a talk at the famous search company's headquarters. Accompanying him is his snarky media escort Cheryl and a software engineer named Marcus. One can see Goldstein's talents as a novelist shine through; these characters are not merely empty mouthpieces for ideas, but fully realized people who imbue the ensuing philosophical conversation with their vivid personalities.
This dialogue explores the nature of moral expertise, with Plato arguing his classical position that only experts who have devoted their lives to the study of morality should be trusted on the matter. Other people, Plato argues, have no chance of living a good life. Goldstein supplements Plato's playful but accurately imagined dialogue with direct quotes from his writings, making sure his positions never stray from the ones he took 2,400 years ago. Cheryl, voicing the outrage at his insistence on a moral aristocracy that I'm sure many...