If philosophy's main goal is to figure out what makes life worth living, it is also, by extension, a preparation for dying. Plato knew this and took it to heart. And now we can listen to him again, and learn something useful. The man who gave us philosophy as we know it is back, walking among us, going to TV talk shows, visiting Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., having his brain examined by a naïve reductionist neuroscientist, engaging with our current struggles.
For this we must thank Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's inventiveness and intellectual courage. Her book, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away, has just been published to rave reviews by people such as philosopher Colin McGinn. Goldstein's goal is clear: to show to the "philosophy-jeerers" — those who claim philosophy has no value whatsoever — how absurdly wrong (and mostly ignorant) they are. In a time when philosophical discourse has been abused by an excess of misplaced scientism, from claims related to the origin of the universe (we can explain it!) to the meaning of mind and the nature of consciousness (we can explain it!), such an approach is most welcome and much needed.
To the seafaring Greeks, one of the greatest fears was to perish, without a trace, under the sea. Life must matter; you must make sure it does. This is what Goldstein aptly calls the "ethos of the extraordinary," the need to carve your permanence in this life so that it survives after your death. Blending Plato and Dylan Thomas, the message would go like this: rage, rage against the ordinariness of sameness. "It is, in the end, the only kind of immortality for which we may hope," Goldstein writes.
Plato clearly succeeded. His philosophical legacy, celebrated by many, torn to pieces by others, enigmatic, inspiring, is very much part of our concerns, even if we often are not aware of its pervasiveness. We can all benefit from using reason as a tool to carve meaning out of existence, as a guide to live a life well-lived, to examine the nature of reality and truth, to make our lives matter. It is no coincidence that in his dialogue Apology, dedicated to Socrates' trial, Plato has his mentor declare that an unexamined life is not worth living.
Goldstein is the first to admit that there is an elitist trend in Plato's ideas, typical of an aristocrat who didn't have to work for a living. However, his teachings carry their meaning to modern times, where they need to be understood within their original context and not ours. That so much of Plato can be easily transported to TV talk shows and Mountain View serves to show how prescient and timeless he was.
Philosophy has changed much since Plato, as it should. After all, its purview is precisely to examine and re-examine itself as a precondition to growth. No advance would be possible without this openness to criticism. (Incidentally, and not surprisingly, this is also how science functions. Plasticity is an essential property of any evolving knowledge system.) Goldstein's brilliantly constructed narrative, combining Plato's original texts with current-day events, shows how timely the central questions of philosophy remain, as the answers multiply.
Answers are never final, or, if they seem to be, they shouldn't be interpreted as such. Yet, while in science it is easy to identify progress, in philosophy the task is harder. As Goldstein reflects upon Plato's legacy, she offers a portrait of the shifting nature of our philosophical inquiries and our search for meaning:
Philosophical progress is invisible because it is incorporated into our points of view. What was tortuously secured by complex argument becomes widely shared by intuition, so obvious that we forget its provenance. We don't see it, because we see with it.
Philosophy provides the goggles with which we make sense of reality.