Enter Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Her book, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away, provides an introductory source for learning about Plato, the pre-emminent philosopher whose works sparked an entire Western tradition that stands strong to this day. As Alfred North Whitehead, a famous early 20th-century logician and mathematician puts it, "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." Who is Plato?...
Who was Plato?
Anyone with an iota of education in the humanities has likely heard of Plato. If the humanities student hasn't heard about the theory of the forms, then she knows about The Republic, within which Plato provides a valiant attempt at establishing the best state possible. Getting to know Plato and the ideas he explored is the primary goal of Plato at the Googleplex. Goldstein doesn't stop with just a biography, though. She uses Plato's work to establish the importance of philosophy outside of the college classroom and thrusts it into the everyday questions of everyday people. How should I raise my children? Who would be the best leaders? How do I live a good life? Goldstein, through Plato, tackles these questions and several more.
The Space Between Dialogue and History
The dialogues help provide an easier exploration of Plato's ideas than reading Plato's original work, but that it not to say it always runs smoothly. Some of the characters with which Plato interacts feel artificial, or self-serving to the author's overall goals. Given that these dialogues are meant to be philosophy and not short stories, the transition between ideas or the interaction between characters are often abrupt. Once you get used to this flow, the dialogues become easy to read. Plato converses with teachers, techies, parents, lovers, talk show hosts, and even goes through an MRI machine in the very last chapter.
At first glance, some of these characters appear to simply be 'yes men.' Plato has several characters in his original work whose sole purpose is to say "Yes Socrates, that is correct." Goldstein also gives several of her characters an almost scholarly familiarity with Plato's texts, which leads to these characters not having a consistent image or narrative within themselves. This assumed knowledge of most of Plato's work is hard to overlook, but over the course of the dialogues, Goldstein allows these characters to articulate important objections to Plato's ideas and arguments.
The chapters alternate between context and dialogue for the rest of the book. The change of pace helps speed up the flow, especially after one switches from the more dense historical and philosophical chapters to a dialogical chapter. As a student of philosophy, I like the meaty history and laying out of ideas given in the context chapters more than the dialogues, but there is value in both.
Who should read this?
Even the Plato scholar can get a fun, light-hearted insight into the kinds of conversations Plato might have if transported to the 21st century. If you are lay person interested in ancient philosophy, ancient history, or ancient Greek culture, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away should be on your shelf.