Do the 1 percent contribute more to society than they take from it? Is the scientific idea of human nature more accurate than the humanist one? And what's the difference, really, between a boy who likes you, and a boy who "likes" you on Facebook?
Today's existential dilemmas sound different than yesteryear's, but they're made of the same stuff. Or so argues Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. In this book, the philosopher is literally dropped into the 21st century to demonstrate his relevance, debating Google engineers and talk-show hosts.
Goldstein is a novelist and philosopher herself, and the book's chapters mostly alternate between those two occupations. On the one hand, we get fictional dialogues, where Plato grapples with the hot topics and talking heads of contemporary America. Then there are chapters where Goldstein explores Plato's writings, life, and times.
Since Plato wrote in dialogues, the first form seems apt. Goldstein transports our philosopher from ancient Greece to wherever today's intellectuals — if not pseudo-intellectuals — are found. For example, Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. There Plato learns about the Internet, and gets warned against sexist language. Or the 92nd Street Y in New York City, where he debates a tiger mom on stage about the best ways to raise good citizens. Even television, where he hits the airwaves to argue with a political talk show host, demonstrating the intellectual emptiness of the so-called news.
It's a terrific concept. Unfortunately, it only works half the time. Goldstein is highly persuasive with Plato's voice, adapting his arguments for our current debates. She even has him consult for a lonely-hearts column. But the stagings quickly become stale. Not due to Plato, but the other characters. Their dialogue and descriptions are often wooden or cliché. To the point that Plato comes across as contemporary and clued-in; Goldstein, unfortunately, less so.
Thankfully, the chapters in between, about were Plato's life and works, and those of his contemporaries, are much better. Goldstein cites both ancient and current philosophers to unpack Plato's ideas and dialogues — The Republic, the Allegory of the Cave. And she uses her own insights to connect the bigger philosophical questions to the muddle of our everyday lives.
Goldstein writes, "Down through the ages there have been many Platos, and there still are." Her Plato, the truth-seeker with a laptop, is definitely one worth listening to — especially when his creator gets out of the way and lets him speak.