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Book review

‘Plato at the Googleplex’ by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Woodcut from “Hellas, The land and people of the ancient Greeks”

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein writes books with clever titles like “36 Arguments For the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction.” She has also written books about Austrian mathematician Kurt Godel and the philosopher Baruch Spinoza. She is into big thinkers and big ideas. She is a playful, buoyant, witty stylist who parses intractably difficult philosophical and religious ideas with breathtaking ease. A recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant” and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, she is also smarter than me, you, and most people on earth.

Her new book, “Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away,” turns on a perfectly silly but crafty conceit: What if Plato could, by some miraculous trick, be transported to our own time and embark on a speaking tour cum debate series? Fun! Yes, he visits Google headquarters out in Mountain View, Calif.; shows up at the 92nd Street Y in New York for a panel discussion on child-rearing; gamely parries a Bill O’Reilly type blowhard named Roy McCoy (“I’m going to tell you up front — because that’s the type of guy I am, up-front — that I don’t think much of philosophers.” on a Fox-News-like cable network; advises a Dear-Abby-like columnist; and is subjected to a brain scan by a neuroscientist.

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Riffing on Plato’s own style in his philosophical writings, which are built around dialogues, Goldstein constructs these lively chapters as a series of the encounters between fictional characters as they interact with the ancient Greek philosopher. The technique wears thin at times; but Goldstein blows up the model of standard-issue philosophical treatises with her imaginative approach.

Plato has a lot thrown at him by his interlocutors. At Google, Marcus, a software engineer, touts his Ethical Answers Search Engine, and why crowd sourcing is better than any philosophical expert telling us how to live. The neuroscientist, Dr. David Shoket, dismisses the authority of philosophers; science, he says, has all the answers. “Philosophers hold down the fort until the cavalry, who are the scientists, arrive. That’s a useful and maybe even heroic thing to do, to hold down the fort, but it’s only when the cavalry gets there that anything gets done.”

This is all pretty amusing, and Goldstein’s ventriloquism allows Plato to serve as a foil for the preoccupations of the 21st century, as well as address tensions between science and the humanities. (See, for example, the exchange between Leon Wieseltier and Steven Pinker--who is Goldstein’s husband-- in The New Republic last fall). But for me, the strongest sections of the book are when we can hear Goldstein herself loud and clear.

Interspersed between Plato’s imaginary encounters are Goldstein’s dazzling expositions of ancient Greek thought. Here, she lays her cards on the table. For her, Plato’s thought acts as a fillip to shake us out of complacent habits of mind: “My Plato is an impassioned mathematician, a wary poet, an exacting ethicist, a reluctant political theorist, “ she writes. “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.” Virtually all of our debates — about the role of the state, about inequality, about religion, about the difference between knowledge and information, about ethics, about right and wrong, good and evil — were anticipated by Plato 2,400 years ago.

Part of me wishes she had dispensed with her fictional chapters, because Goldstein as Goldstein is an exhilarating guide to philosophy. Plato grappled with perhaps the fundamental question of existence: “What is it — if it’s anything — that makes an individual human life matter? What must one be or do in order to achieve a life that matters?” Such questions animate Goldstein’s philosophical tour. She delineates how Socrates, and his pupil Plato, refined the notion of what it means to be extraordinary, nudging the conception of excellence closer to what we understand now as virtue and justice. The author demands a lot of readers — keep those old college copies of Plato’s writings handy — but philosophy won’t go away as long as Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is around to remind us of its enduring relevance.

Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at mprice68@gmail.com.
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