The recent economic downturn has engendered countless debates on the value of a liberal arts education. Some say students show “foresight and responsibility” by pursuing practical fields, as was argued by the Harvard Crimson editorial, “Let Them Eat Code.” Liberal arts advocates in turn argue for the ineffable benefits of the humanities – that which makes us human.
As an English professor, I tend to keep my mouth shut when those arguments fall short, or on days when I envy friends who took the road to the techie/corporate world where it’s easier to make ends meet.
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away makes a compelling case, not just for why undergraduates should take humanities courses, but for the value of a life of genuine introspection over one devoted to the pursuit of material gain. Neither point is her stated goal but the book is full of all sorts of sneaky arguments and implications, much in the spirit of Plato (or, arguably, his inspiration and mentor, Socrates) that resonate with his most provocative statement, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Let me back up.
What would Plato do? Or rather – since what Plato mostly did was teach and write dialogues – what would Plato say?
This question lies at the heart of this oddly appealing book, in which Goldstein, a philosophy scholar and MacArthur “genius” fellow, combats the derision of “philosophy-jeerers” (mostly those well-funded STEM folks) by imagining Plato’s transmigration to the 21st-century US to learn about our culture and give a book-tour.
It’s kind of a preposterous premise, but it works.
By putting Plato on a panel at the 92nd Street Y, adding his two cents to an advice column full of romantic quandaries, giving him a guest appearance on a cable news program, and, yes, depositing him at Google’s storied corporate center, Goldstein works Plato into the contemporary conversation about subjects ranging from childrearing to politics to love (platonic and otherwise) to biological determinism.
These chapters are interspersed with more traditional ones explaining aspects of Plato’s philosophy and historical context, which, while informative, are far less fun than the dialogues Goldstein creates, which serve as both homages to Plato’s own dialogues and parodies of our current culture. (By contrast, I entered the non-dialogic chapters reluctantly, bracing myself for a barrage of footnotes.)
It’s genuinely amusing and intellectually engaging to watch Plato spar, in his own gentle way, with Sophie Zee, a thinly-veiled parody of Tiger Mom Amy Chua, or to push his wonderfully shallow media escort Cheryl beyond the range of her usual superficiality, such that she loses track of time and in Plato’s words, “walk[s] like a free person and not a slave ... [who] doesn’t own his or her own time, and so ... can always be known on the street by ... rushing” – making this reader pause to question the pace of her own life.
While persuading us of Plato’s importance, Goldstein also comments on the state of American culture and politics, taking to task influential commentators like Bill O’Reilly with her fictional Roy McCoy, an uber-conservative commentator who attacks Plato for his secular intellectualism. Here, I especially enjoyed Goldstein’s application of philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s term “bullsh**,” defined as the practice of someone who professes to “care about the truth when he does not,” a remarkably useful concept in our age of personality-driven politics.
Despite these comical moments, there’s something moving, if also faintly depressing, about reading Plato inserted into 21st-century Western culture. It brings to light the gap between what might have been and what is – and what we appear to be moving toward. Consider, for instance, Plato’s musing, “I do not think that rulers should be able to own substantive private property, for substantive property will immediately make them citizens of the city of the rich, with its own special interests to protect.” It doesn’t take much imagination to deduce what Plato would have to say about PACs.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment is Goldstein’s crafting of Plato as a three-dimensional figure, speaking softly to his students, clutching the laptop he acquired at the Googleplex and perpetually googling around for knowledge. He emerges as a believable public intellectual and kind of a mensch – a man whose genuine curiosity and openness towards all overshadows any ego or attachment to one particular doctrine. A man more interested in asking questions than accruing power or dispensing answers.
We could use more of those.
More funding for the philosophy majors, anyone?
Elizabeth Toohey is an Assistant Professor of English at Queensborough Community College (CUNY).