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What Do We Have To Teach Plato?

In her book “ Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away,” philosopher and writer Rebecca Newberger Goldstein imagines Plato on a U.S. book tour, speaking at Google, on a cable TV show and debating child-rearing at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.

Goldstein told Here & Now’s Robin Young, her idea is borrowed from her love of science fiction, where sometimes the story is built around “one preposterous hypothesis and everything else follows.”

Plato is the most influential thinker in the history of the West, so much so that one of the giants of 20th century philosophy said that the tradition of philosophy in the last 24 centuries, “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

Goldstein brings Plato to life because she wants to demonstrate the continuing relevance of philosophy today, and to show that philosophy has also made slow but certain progress over the centuries.

Goldstein’s Plato finds the debates of our day — about democracy, childrearing and same-sex love — familiar. He has things to add to the debate, but he also has a lot to learn from us, not just science, but also ethics and morality.

Book Excerpt: ‘Plato at the Googleplex’

By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Dramatis Personae

Cheryl, media escort

Marcus, software engineer

Rhonda, narrator and Cheryl’s friend

The other day, I came into the city to meet my friend Cheryl for a drink and—her expression—a little tête-à-tête-ing. Cheryl and I are both New Yorkers transplanted to the West Coast. That’s one of the ties between us. It might be the only tie between us, but somehow we’ve fallen into the habit of being friends. We met at a pricey hotel bar on Nob Hill that’s decorated like an Italian bordello, with heavy red velvet drapery and gilded statuary. But it is—again Cheryl’s expression—quiet as a vault, which means you can hear yourself talk, even though, as usual, Cheryl did most of the talking. You can’t altogether blame her, given the interesting people she’s constantly meeting. She’s my own personal version of Gawker, a way of my getting a glimpse into the lives of the famous, the near-famous, and the willing-to-do-anything-short-of-landing-themselves-on-death-row-in-the-hopes-of-someday-being-famous. She was late, which was my first tip-off that something was up with her. Cheryl is super-organized, which is something you have to be in her line of work. Here’s how organized she is: while she was parking her Lexus, she called me and told me to order her a Long Island Iced Tea, which is a far stronger mixed drink than our usual Chardonnay.* The drinks were just being brought to the table when Cheryl arrived, amid all the jangling of the large silver bangles she was wearing. Cheryl is always in full Tiffany armor.

After she’d made her little joke about the waiters, who all act as if there were stiff entrance requirements enforced to get in here, including letters of recommendation from your high school math and English teachers, she settled down to tell me about her latest adventures escorting authors from one media event to another. Since everybody’s writing books these days, Cheryl gets to meet politicians, movie stars, all sorts of has-beens, alcoholics, and junkies, and even some authors who do nothing but write books. She’s got the knack, she says, so that people open up to her, and if she ever retires and writes a tell-all memoir she’ll need her own media escort as well as a good lawyer.

Boy, did I have an experience today, she launched in with little preamble. My author was a philosopher, which I just figured was going to be awkward and tedious. And he uses just the one name Plato, which struck me as not a little off-putting, as if he were on a par with a Cher or a Madonna. From the start I figured it was going to be one very long day, but I had no idea.

She took a long sip of her drink.

No idea at all, she continued. Plus his event was one of those Authors@Google things and that place always puts me on edge. It’s hard to breathe in the congested self-congratulation up there at the Googleplex. When somebody tells me that they work hard and play just as hard, which I hear every frigging time I go there, then I make it a point to roll my eyes . . . hard.

Cheryl rolled her eyes as she said this. Her coming down so hard on the Googlers for their high self-esteem is funny, in its way. If I had to escort the high-and-mighty the way Cheryl does, I’d be so intimidated I wouldn’t open my mouth unless absolutely necessary. I’m intimidated at one remove, just hearing about Cheryl’s authors. But no matter who Cheryl is escorting, she doesn’t know from awe. On the contrary, if you know what I mean. So it’s funny how irked she is by other people’s little gestures of self-importance.

Of course, there  is  the food there, she was saying. I always make it a point to take my authors to lunch there first. I’ve told you about the food there, right? I mean it’s gorgeous. Yoscha’s Café is my favorite. It’s huge and airy, and they’ve got dozens of food stations with different gourmet food so lovingly prepared you can just imagine the doting caretakers who sent their darlings out into the world. And of course it’s all free, as I explained to Plato. That’s the first thing to know about the food here, I said to him. They get breakfast, lunch, dinner, whatever, absolutely free. It’s feeding on demand.

I’d hate that, I told Cheryl. I’d gain ten pounds in a week.

Yeah, well, apparently that’s a “problem”—she air-quoted—which they complain about in their bragging sort of way. We work hard, play hard,  and  eat hard, which makes us  exercise  hard. Oh, my goodness, can you possibly grasp what a bunch of superior people we are? Cheryl was rolling her eyes again. Anyway, she went on, Plato was listening to me very intently—it’s almost disconcerting how intently he listens—even though I was just rambling on, kind of free-associating, just trying to make conversation because I could tell this guy’s skills at small talk were not the highest. You know, very ivory tower, though with extremely good manners, almost something aristocratic about him. Also he makes eye contact, unlike a lot of these types. In fact, he makes  serious  eye contact. His stare is penetrating to the point of aggravating. Anyway, when I finally stopped to take a breath, he asked me: And what is the second thing to know about the food here? You see, he’s got this very logical mind. If you say to him, here’s the first thing to know about something, then you’ve also got to give him a second thing to know about it. So I said, well, I guess the second thing is that it’s yummy. And of course it’s local and organic and all those other kinds of things that people around here are into.

And he asked me, have you ever heard of the Prytaneum?

No, I answered, what’s that, some hot new restaurant?

He sort of smiled, which he tends to do more with his eyes than his mouth, and said, in a manner of speaking, yes, it is hot. The sacred fire of the city is kept going there at all times, its flame carried to any new colony established by the metropolis.

Well, of course, I had no idea what he was talking about, though I vaguely sensed he was making some kind of a joke. He comes from Athens, I forgot to tell you that, and even though I’d been to Greece on that cruise with Michael before the kids were born, the more Plato spoke, the more I realized that Michael and I hadn’t seen the real Greece. I mean, you have no idea of how different they do things over there, at least to listen to Plato describe it. Anyway, he told me, the Prytaneum also serves free meals.

So I said to him, no kidding! That’s quite a deal. How can they afford to stay in business?

It is run by the city, he answered, and the meals are mainly for those who have rendered extraordinary service to the city.* I had a friend who got into some very unfortunate legal trouble. Socrates was charged on two counts, impiety and corruption of the youth.

Corruption of the youth? That sounds pretty dark. Was he some sort of pedophile? I asked him.

Not in the sense that you are most likely thinking, he said, though he loved youth.

Well, I hope not in the sense that I’m thinking! I said right back at him, which made him kind of wince.

The charge was more a matter of his not accepting the moral values of his society and his encouraging the young to question them as well. And he was right to question them and to get us younger men to question them. As proof of how corrupt the society was, the jury ended up convicting him.

And you should have seen his face when he said that, Rhonda. This was the first inkling I got that there was a lot going on behind his façade. He’s a restrained kind of person—very, I don’t know, formal.

And it’s true that every time Cheryl spoke Plato’s words she took on a formality, speaking slowly and precisely, as if every word had been carefully considered. She’s a natural-born actress who just automatically slips into impersonations.

In fact, the longer the conversation went on, she continued, the more I could see glimmers of genuine human feeling going on behind his marble façade. I could tell from the tightening of his jaw and from the way his voice, which is very soft to begin with,‡ went even softer, how traumatic this whole business with his friend Socrates must have been for him.

So I asked him: How long ago did this happen to your friend?

Oh, it’s ancient history, he said. I was a young man, not yet out of my twenties.

That’s interesting, I said, breaking into Cheryl’s narrative, which she doesn’t exactly encourage. It’s rare for a man to care so much for a friend, I said. Are you sure that Socrates was just a friend and not something, you know, more?

Well, of course the thought occurred to me, too, Cheryl said. But you don’t just come out and ask someone about that, especially not someone like Plato. You know, my trick to getting my authors to tell me so much? It’s asking the question just to the side of the one that I really want to ask. So I just said, what a terrible story. Didn’t he have a good lawyer?

Lawyers, said Plato and smiled. I have heard of such people.

Well, of  course  you have, I said to him, again wondering if this was an example of some kind of humor, you know a  lawyer  joke, especially since he said it with a slight smile. He has a pretty stiff face, with very strong bone structure, kind of broad around the forehead, and he doesn’t make any sudden motions, facial or otherwise. You can see what a powerful physique he must have had when he was younger, and he still holds himself ramrod straight.

We have no such people in Athens, Plato said. Accusers accuse and defendants defend. Everybody acts as his own lawyer. Those who can afford to usually hire a logographer to write their speeches.

No lawyers, I interrupted Cheryl. He’s got to be putting you on. Whoever heard of Greece having no lawyers?

No, that’s what I meant about Greece being so unbelievably different, Rhonda. It’s kind of mind-boggling.

Are you sure this Plato isn’t one of your fiction writers? I asked her.

Well, if he is, he’s more convincing than any of them. I’ll never hear the word “gravitas” again without thinking of him. This guy is like  hewn  from gravitas. The procedure in our city, he said, is that if you are found guilty you get to propose the penalty that you think would be fair. Then the accusers pose another penalty, harsher of course, and then the jury votes on the penalty, often aiming for the mean. This procedure worked to Socrates’ detriment. My friend was famous for his irony, and he was not inclined to abandon it, not even with his life hanging in the balance. I should say  especially  when his life hung in the balance, since to cower before death, showing a readiness to do anything, throw overboard any principle, in order to stave off death just a few moments longer—for it is only a few moments from the standpoint of eternity—is unmanly.

That’s an interesting perspective you’ve got there on death, I told him, but just one helpful hint. I’d avoid the use of adjectives like “unmanly.” They can come off sounding sexist, as if you think maybe men are superior to women.

How’d he take that? I asked Cheryl.

Surprisingly well, Cheryl said, especially for someone so old-school. He thanked me for my advice, promising that he’d try to remember to avoid sexist words in the future. I have not failed to notice, he said, how differently women are regarded in your society compared to mine. It had always struck me as an unreasonable waste of human resources to keep talented women secluded in their homes, which is what our practice is.* Yours is a much more rational way of utilizing human potential. So let me amend my last statement and say rather that Socrates held it to be  ignoble  for a person to undertake an action with the only aim of postponing death, especially since the proposition that death is an evil turns out to be non-trivial to justify.† During his sentencing, Socrates made a point of mentioning Achilles, who is considered throughout Greece to have been the greatest legendary hero. Achilles had been given the choice of either a brief but glorious life or a prolonged but less exceptional life. Of course, Achilles made the heroic choice, and so did Socrates, though I should mention that my friend had already reached his seventieth year, so the option of a short life was foreclosed.* Nevertheless, he would not succumb to the indignity of acting only to eschew imminent death, especially when doing so required violation of the principles on which he had lived out his life. So when asked to propose a penalty that would accurately reflect his culpability Socrates responded that since he had performed an invaluable service to his city, trying to wake its citizenry from its sleep of complacency, and had never asked for any recompense for his services, the city, if it truly wished to show justice toward him, should vote him free meals for life at the Prytaneum. That was the penalty he proposed after he’d already been voted guilty of a capital offense ( Apology  36c– d).

That’s some chutzpah your friend had there, I said to him.

Chutzpah? he asked me. This word I do not know.

Excerpted from PLATO AT THE GOOGLEPLEX by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Copyright © 2014 by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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