Plato at the Googleplex by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

I guess when all is said and done I might have two claims to the questionable status of bookish hipsterdom: I read George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire back in 1996 (liking it, but have never read further books in the series, and at the moment of writing seen a single episode of the TV adaptation), and I used to like the kind of Ninja Turtles comics where they all had the same color masks (red, though only on the covers, the comics were black and white). A third possible claim, though in a somewhat different category, might be that I bought Rebecca Newberger Goldstein 's excellent Plato at the Googleplex the very day it was published in North America and promptly devoured it. Future will tell, but I think it is a very good read.

Because truly, Plato at the Googleplex is an interesting and relevant book about the role of philosophy today. The subtitle - Why philosophy won't go away - is the thesis, the Googleplex represents the modern world, and Plato, well Plato is the main character in Goldstein's passionate defense and plea for the relevance of philosophy.

Goldstein places Plato (and through him of course Socrates), in different modern situations, at the same time as she is giving a brief history of their philosophy. Every second chapter is a fictionalized dialog where Plato engages with modern people.  Interleaved with these are essays on the value of philosophy and science into the modern world, showing us how both the questions asked in the dawn of western civilization is still with us, and how the values of Ancient Greece are mapped to our modern age keeps them important. The voice is quite different between the fiction and non-fiction parts, skillfully alternating between storytelling and history.

The dialogues are a treat. We follow the almost two and a half millennia old Plato experience today's USA. First at the Googleplex, discussing values with a media escort and a software engineer. Then in a TV debate, in a relationship column, and facing freedom-because-I-say-so crazed people from the US cable news. Finally we leave the old philosopher after he's had a discussion about knowledge with neuroscientists. Goldstein's Plato is humble, very intelligent, and equally curious. A subtle hero, aged and wearing his wisdom neither as a crown nor as a burden. Perhaps, somewhat out of place in the modern world where being young and successful and winning is the model while age and wisdom matters less. But Plato is truly youthful, as eager to explore and learn as a child. Though neither naive nor obstinate. Overall he lacks the competitiveness we seem to value so highly today. For Plato, finding Truth is the important thing, and not necessarily being the one delivering it. To me this is also the message I believe Goldstein is trying to convey, and what makes true Philosophy still important today. As a way to search for and respect the truth. Even if one's viewpoint is on the losing the debate, one have not lost, if in the end the truth is, and was set out to be, found.

The non-fictional chapters concerns the city state of Athens; its history and cultural values, with a slight focus on the people's relationship to Socrates. He was Plato's mentor, is considered one of the fathers of Western Philosophy, was condemned to die for his principles, and is a recurring character in the original dialogues (where Plato himself never speaks). They also discuss the role and history of philosophy and philosophers. Goldstein's essays are a bit more technical than her dialogues, yet entertaining and accessible all the same. I think she does a good job of showing how conflicts we face today were present in Ancient Athens, and how those questions were present at the birth of philosophy, expressed in the life and death of Socrates, and the dialogues of Plato.

The thing is, Goldstein's Plato loves the dialog, not the written text, but the argument around a the seminar table; the method of reaching truth. He has experienced many in his life, and he goes through a few more in the course of the book. It would be easy to think of them as 'battles' (ever noticed how we put everything in war terms these days?) and his wisdom as scars. But that would be a mistake. When I first read the modern dialogues I found myself wanting Plato to show his opponents, to be absolutely right, to win the argument. But he does not, even though some of the people he is talking to is quite disagreeable. Plato sometimes learns, sometimes teaches, and sometimes tries his best to ask questions. But the narrative is never clear cut to show him as right, to make his point. To 'win', or rather to be declared the winner. We are so addicted to that these days. Perhaps we have always been. This is how Goldstein is showing us why Philosophy won't go away: If Plato wins every dialogue due to available facts, or through the dirty tricks of pure rhetoric, then philosophy would be truly gone. Now it is not. The dialog is the point, to listen, to give, to take. Because the only real win is when the truth is found. That is how I interpret Goldstein's message, and it is a relevant one.