What might Plato have to say today? What might reinvigorated Platonic methodologies offer both to professionalized and to much more public philosophical conversations? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. This present conversation focuses on Goldstein’s book Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. Goldstein, the author of 10 fiction and nonfiction books, is Professor of Philosophy at the New College of Humanities, in London. In 2015, President Obama awarded Goldstein the National Humanities Medal. She has been named Free-thought Heroine by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association, and a MacArthur Fellow.
ANDY FITCH: To offer one compressed historical timeline for this book: Axial Age Greek city states’ material successes bring about a certain abstraction from “the daily grind of life,” prompt unsettling personal reflections on whether one’s “brief sojourn here” really amounts to anything; amid such existential self-scrutiny an “ethos of the extraordinary” emerges, framing the exceptional life (praised by one’s contemporaries, remembered by one’s descendants) as the life worth living, foregrounding human agency (even while reinforcing a zero-sum outlook in which one’s virtue reflects one’s relative superiority), facilitating one of our first civilizational breaks from incessant appeals to divine authority / intercession; Socrates radically reconfigures the “extraordinary” as something closer to ethical distinction than to social validation, recalibrates the extraordinary life as the examined life; Plato, in turn, carves out “the field of philosophy itself” through dramatizations of Socratic practice, with Plato emerging as “an easy philosopher to love,” though a “deucedly difficult philosopher to get close to”; and then 2400 years later, you yourself seek increased proximity to Plato specifically by writing about, alongside, for, from, to him. Here could you sketch the lived intellectual / artistic timeline that brought you to this particular approach of emulating (perhaps more than analyzing or critiquing) Plato’s own attempts to reckon with “the incomparable benefit” of “exposure to the force of Socrates’ personality”? If Plato “created philosophy as a living monument to Socrates,” what might your 21st-century scenarios help us better grasp about Plato’s own distinctly impersonal method of enacting “inner drama, both terrifying and exhilarating, the likes of which can only be compared to the transformations induced by erotic, religious, or artistic inspiration”? And especially amid a cultural moment that has so thoroughly absorbed Platonic texts’ more abstruse analytic claims (“What was tortuously secured by complex argument becomes widely shared intuition, so obvious that we forget its provenance”), how might reinvigorating Platonic rhetorical methodologies help us to rediscover the concrete contributions that Platonic philosophy has made to civilizational progress — reminding us that when we can’t see this philosophical progress, we might already be seeing “with it”?
REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN: Socrates embodied the dialogic approach to philosophy. He was as serious as it’s possible to be about philosophy, believing philosophy to be the only way to (possibly) achieve a life worth living. But his commitment to the philosophical life didn’t entail a commitment to the writing life. He left behind no written testimony, having never put his ideas to papyrus. In fact, one of his many ploys in provoking others into engaging in the kind of dialectics he judged the essence of philosophy was to claim to possess no substantive ideas of his own — to describe his only talent as helping others to give birth to ideas. Socrates’s mother had been a midwife, and Plato has Socrates comparing himself to her, which would be especially fitting if Socrates’s mother had systematically killed all the newborns she delivered, since that’s how Socrates customarily treated the ideas he delivered from others. His preferred method of termination was the reductio ad absurdum. What he was really trying to kill was the complacency of Athenians in presuming that the kind of superiority that their imperialist city-state conferred on them amounted to moral superiority. Moral complacency being one of the most reason-resistant of attitudes, Socrates practiced a bespoke approach, sizing up the person he was questioning and tailoring his interrogations accordingly.
Philosophy proved a fatal occupation for Socrates. One of the first acts of the restored Athenian democracy, after its final defeat in the drawn-out Peloponnesian Wars, was to charge him with the capital offences of impiety and corrupting the young. He was voted guilty by a jury (501 strong) of his fellow citizens and put to death. But despite this ultimate censure, Socrates considered his attacks on the ideology of Athenian exceptionalism to be his civic duty. Knocking down assumptions that were as groundless as they were commonplace was what he owed the people with whom he daily interacted. So why write, when he wasn’t philosophizing for the sake of posterity, but rather for the sake of his motley companions, the people of the agora? If Athens was going to be a democracy, delivering into the hands of the people crucial issues requiring both knowledge and a sense of justice, then philosophy, too, would have to be democratic. His place of business was the agora, because his task was to create citizen-philosophers.
In contrast to Socrates, Plato wrote. Not unrelatedly, Plato abandoned the agora for the Academy, which was the first European university and his own creation, to which he gathered the best thinkers throughout the Greek world, thereby transforming philosophy into a highly specialized field far removed from the concerns of non-philosophers. Not unrelatedly, Plato replaced Socrates’s aim of creating citizen-philosophers with his own utopian idea of a philosopher-king, chosen for innate ability and then subjected to the rigorous curriculum he devised for the Academy. The Academy was created for the purpose of producing philosopher-kings.
But although Plato wrote, the Phaedrus and the Seventh Letter suggest that he wrote with misgivings. Revering Socrates, for both the way he had lived and the way he had died, Plato understood Socrates’s reasons for forgoing writing in favor of face-to-face conversations / confrontations. The form of writing Plato devised (the written dialogue, almost a kind of philosophical theater, grounded in particularities, as all art must be) sits astride his internal conflicts, his unease with the ways in which he’d departed from Socrates. Plato’s dialogues allowed him to keep one foot (or maybe the tip of a toe) in the agora, not only because they’re invariably set there, almost always featuring the character of Socrates going about his dialectical business, but also because they were intended to be read by the general populace. The dialogues weren’t written for his fellow academics, who were being schooled in far more esoteric doctrines, which Plato’s Seventh Letter tells us he never committed to writing. So even though Plato’s gaze was so fixed on the abstract and timeless as to provide, for the generations after, the very meaning of “Platonism,” he didn’t completely forget Socrates’s sense of obligation to real people embedded in real time. And despite the endorsement of a meritocracy that runs throughout Plato’s dialogues, the paradox is that he wouldn’t have written dialogues at all had he not felt some pull toward what the Socrates of the agora had represented
Alongside that Platonic trajectory, you ask about my own personal timeline that would lead me to experiment with philosophical dialogues. In some sense, I’m very much a product of academic philosophy. I was trained in analytic philosophy, specializing in philosophy of science and mathematical logic — so the more technical side of an already technical approach to philosophy. I’d come to philosophy by way of math and physics, so an interest in technical problems was natural for me. And I respect analytic philosophy’s insistence on precision. The struggle to say things exactly right indicates a high regard for truth.
But I never have stayed within the confines of the kind of philosophy I was trained in. From the beginning, I’ve also been writing novels and short stories that try to dramatize how the problems of philosophy play out in our lives. Something vital is lost when philosophers bury themselves in the technical, producing philosophy that has no discernable connection to the concerns of non-philosophers. It’s not only the agora that gets impoverished (sometimes dangerously so, since questions of politics almost always have a philosophical dimension), but also philosophy. The further philosophy distances itself from the concerns of non-philosophers, the more it detaches itself from what made it come to life in the first place — which is its continuity with the general human longing to get our bearings in the largest sense possible: to figure out the nature of this reality we find ourselves in, to figure out the nature of what we ourselves are and how we fit into this reality, to figure out how to pursue a life genuinely worthy for us to live, a life that does justice to our longing to matter — not necessarily to matter more than others (though for some this is a requirement), and not necessarily to matter to the universe at large (again for some a requirement).
For the ancient Greeks, these concerns gave rise to philosophy. But concerns like these are shared by almost all humans, at least when circumstances are secure enough to permit them the opportunity to ponder them. There won’t be social justice until every human on Earth is in the position to agonize over whether life is ultimately absurd. Or as Bertolt Brecht put it: first grub, then ethics.
Well in terms of grounding your own musings in meticulous particularity, I love, for instance, how you embed timely / untimely reflections on technologically instrumentalized human agency (“If we don’t understand our tools, then there is a danger that we will become the tools of our tools”) within the narrative of a cordial Nob Hill happy-hour outing. I appreciate your Cheryl character’s “trick” of coaxing forth copious truth-telling by posing “the question just to the side of the one…I really want to ask.” And I value, by extension, how these polyphonic scenes both reflect and perhaps reach beyond a recent vein of scholarship critiquing any assumption of a “Platonic mouthpiece” (such as a Socrates character) speaking directly for Plato — even as you further refine subtle formal distinctions between fictional individuation and philosophical coordination (with Platonic characters “created to serve the dialogue, rather than…the dialogue being created to serve the characters”). So could you describe some of the more far-reaching insights and implications at which Plato at the Googleplex arrives less through any particular figure’s explicit speech than through intricate vectors of dialogic composition? What did sitting down to sketch Plato (the character) speaking to others with a soft voice, gradually learning to discard a chauvinistic idiom, adroitly incorporating Enlightenment concepts into his repertoire, selecting his first Google search term, teach you about Plato (the author’s) thinking — that more conventional academic argumentation or interpretive scrutiny perhaps never could? When did you find yourself tapping some goofy, absurdist, sexy side of Platonic dialogue you perhaps hadn’t detected before? And then as multiple dialogues came together for this book, how did you find yourself further incorporating Plato’s “view of the normativity of reality…that we are morally improved by knowing what is what…merging together fields that we keep resolutely apart…. Big questions require answers to other big questions, and the resulting dialogues are not master classes for brevity”? And / or, for a couple much smaller questions on how fictional characterization and philosophical practice dovetail here: why does Plato care so much about deadlines (out of collaborative courtesy)? Or perhaps most puzzlingly, why does Plato, taking the Myers-Briggs Psychometric Questionnaire, posed proposition 51 (“The process of searching for a solution is more important to you than the solution itself”), respond “NO”?
I’ll start with your last question. Putting to the side, for the moment, the goofiness of having Plato take the Myers-Briggs Psychometric Questionnaire (and a sincere thank you for using that word “goofy”), the reason I have him answering NO to proposition 51 is precisely because he believes in the normativity of reality. He believes that the only thing sufficiently powerful to cure us of the pettiness of our self-absorption is reality itself, which exists because it deserves to exist. Why is there something rather than nothing? Because, answers Plato, the something that exists achieves its existence by virtue of its intrinsic worth, by the way in which it intertwines Truth and Beauty and Goodness. Coming to know reality as it actually is is what gives you the pay-off: the kind of ecstatic expansiveness (intertwining within us knowledge and wellbeing and virtue) that comes from loving what’s truly deserving, which is reality itself. In other words, it’s the solution (the true nature of reality) that delivers the goods for Plato. Reality achieves its existence by its intrinsic excellence, and we achieve excellence (arête) by coming to know the Truth-Beauty-Goodness of reality. If any position held firm for Plato throughout his life, I think it’s this one of the correspondence between reality’s achieving an excellence that explains its existence, and our achieving an excellence that makes our life worth living (and by the way, I disagree with the presumption, a very Greek presumption, that we have to achieve excellence in order to have a life worth pursuing — excellence is excellent, but unexcellent humans are still humans, as my own Plato character comes to grapple with).
More broadly, for coming to construct this Plato character, in some sense I was guided by what I take to be the best of the spirit of philosophy — this best often at great odds with what one actually observes in the behavior of real live philosophers, who aren’t necessarily paragons of virtue (Plato would counter that these non-paragons can’t really be philosophers). But I did want to make this Plato character consistent with certain features of the historical Plato that can be inferred from the dialogues themselves — in fact, from the very fact that he chose to write in dialogue form. Like Socrates, Plato took philosophy as seriously as it’s possible to take philosophy, but (and this might be another of his homages to Socrates) there’s a playfulness manifest both in the form and content of the Platonic dialogues. Philosophy (like art and science) is hard, but it’s also (like art and science) a lot of fun. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s a kind of serious play, and keeping the playfulness upfront is a way of ensuring that the seriousness with which you take philosophical issues doesn’t become the seriousness with which you take yourself. Philosophers who take themselves seriously ascend to the heights of ridiculousness.
Anyway, those dialogues that I interspersed between the expository chapters of the book are supposed to do justice to the playfulness of Plato, the playfulness of philosophy. They’re supposed to be fun and, yes, occasionally goofy. The whole idea of setting Plato in the midst of the 21st century, running around in a chiton and toting a laptop, is pretty goofy.
Another salient feature of Plato that emerges from his dialogues — and one which I also think characterizes the best of the philosophical personality — is his capacity for self-criticism. From dialogue to dialogue, he changes his mind. He subjects to trenchant criticism ideas that he had once passionately espoused (even the Theory of Forms), and if he thinks the criticisms are convincing enough, he abandons his position. There’s an open-mindedness to Plato. I wanted to do justice to that part of his character. Just like too much self-seriousness, too much commitment to one’s own ideas because they’re one’s own ideas indicates that a philosopher is bringing too much ego to his game. So yes, the Plato of my dialogues is quite willing to have his views criticized and to change his mind in light of the criticisms, even if brought forth by a non-philosopher like Cheryl, his media escort. Plato created a field that he hoped would not only make progress but help the world to make progress, so it’s a sign of his success that Cheryl can teach him a thing or two about virtue.
I also really played up Plato’s love for Socrates. I’d never really thought much about that aspect of Plato until writing these dialogues and trying to humanize his character. But again I think that this love is consistent with what can be gleaned from Plato’s dialogues. Socrates is present in 25 of the 26 dialogues that Plato wrote. Only in the last of his works, Laws, written when Plato was about 80, is Socrates entirely absent. It’s as if Plato wanted to bring Socrates along with him as he made philosophical progress over the course of his long life, uncovering more philosophical questions than Socrates had ever considered, but placing discussions of them in the mouth of this Socrates character. The love and devotion that Plato (a young man when Socrates died) continues to feel, even as he creates the Academy and professionalizes philosophy, is important, at least to me, adding not only complexity to Plato’s character but also pathos. In addition to Plato’s seriousness and playfulness, this reveals a tragic dimension to him — which I think is also an essential aspect of the spirit of philosophy.
Sure, and reading this book-length account of you trying to get close to Plato, I couldn’t help recalling Alcibiades trying to get closer to Socrates (with Plato of course triangulating himself into that prolonged seduction scene). Alcibiades’s unprecedented experience as agitated desirer, rather than as object of desire, acquaints him with “unquenchable longings…the mournful sense of unfulfillment as we try to merge ourselves with the beloved…wrenching and frustrating and also absurd…because erotic longing is meant…to merge with something far larger and more constant and more worthy than a mere person.” Alcibiades here lacks the composure of, say, a Platonic guardian class trained to harmonize the galvanizing forces of eros and thymos with the sustaining graces of rationality and austerity. Yet Plato’s dialogues do seem to demand something similar from their reader: first luring us, placing live bodies before us, but then providing just enough of an ethical prompt to push beyond infatuated fixation on any charismatic individual, outlining just enough of a philosophical prism through which we might glimpse, and might allow ourselves to be overtaken by, the reality of “Truth-Beauty-Goodness.” Or that would be my gloss on how Plato’s dialogic scenes, with their impersonal / allover vantage point, might help readers to become natural by becoming rational, and how such a “state of ecstatic estrangement” (“our lives infused with infinity, our finitudes ‘infinitized’ by the vastness of being outside ourselves, allowing our love for it to overtake and dim even our love for ourselves”) might more broadly enhance our politics. But how about for you, and for your own ensnarement in the Sublime Braid (“truth, beauty, and goodness…all bound up with one another”)? How might the distinct types of knowledge that reading dialogues provides not only reveal the good, but make us good? And how, from a civic-minded perspective, might you further flesh out the notion that a reader’s “appropriate reaction to the beauty of the Sublime Braid can only be love”?
Yes, I agree with you that Plato’s dialogues try to perform the difficult task of doing justice to both the personal and the impersonal. It’s to the latter category that Truth-Beauty-Goodness belongs — and the best life, according to Plato, is one in which our finitude is infinitized by our intuiting the Sublime Braid. And yet. The personal can’t be entirely forsaken either. We can’t entirely lose our hold on the personal, in all its finitude and particularity. Plato’s love and devotion to Socrates, in all his particularity (which Plato’s art makes vividly real for us, reminding us that to love somebody is to love a very particular person and not a set of abstractions), is one of the features of the dialogues that reminds us, again and again, of that “And yet.”
You reference the Symposium, the dialogue in which Alcibiades (mad, bad, and dangerous to know) makes his disruptive appearance in an absolutely unforgettable scene. The Symposium is one of the dialogues in which Plato discusses what role erotic love ought to have in the philosophical life. Erotic attraction is obviously a very strong force in our psyche, having the power to wonderfully focus our attention. Is this good or bad? Well, anything that can focus our attention on an aspect of the world that isn’t ourselves is good, according to Plato. But in the Symposium he has Socrates argue that what we have to do is educate our erotic longing — which is, at its heart, a love to merge with what’s beautiful. We have to educate this erotic longing so that, by degrees, it’s transformed from a longing to merge with beautiful young things into a longing to merge with Truth-Beauty-Goodness.
But the Symposium is only one of two dialogues Plato wrote on this theme of erotic love, and, more particularly, on the question of whether the personal element in eros should be forsaken for a total surrender to the impersonal. The other dialogue is, of course, the Phaedrus, and in the Phaedrus Plato reverses his position, arguing quite passionately that personal love, even given its potential for chaos, is a necessary element of the philosophical life. It’s impossible to reconcile what Plato says in the Symposium with what he says in the Phaedrus — which, to my mind, again doesn’t make him any less of a philosopher, but rather more of a philosopher.
I think that there’s an inherent contradiction (and perhaps Plato is partly getting at this in the Phaedrus) in thinking that impersonal love for Truth-Beauty-Goodness can accomplish, all on its own, a person’s ethical transformation. After all, in desiring your own person to be ethically worthy (and a person indifferent to this goal is well-nigh irredeemable), you’re necessarily violating the rigorously impersonal stance. The very devotion to your own ethical progress violates the rigorously impersonal stance, which shows that the rigorously impersonal stance can’t in fact be an ethical stance. We are situated beings, and even our love for the impersonal is situated. And once one sees this (sees the ethical sterility of the rigorously impersonal viewpoint), then many other implications follow — many concerning the importance of other persons, and one’s obligations to them.
There’s an aspect of the allegory of the cave, the most famous passage in Plato’s Republic, that people tend to forget. This allegory doesn’t end with the escaped prisoner at last contemplating the all-illuminating sight that yields the state of ecstatic estrangement, our finitude infinitized. It ends instead with the escaped prisoner turning around and going back down into the cave, to do what she can for others. The escape isn’t complete until she returns, bringing her vision from above with her, no matter the risks of ridicule or even worse (like no tenure).
So perhaps in terms of tenure tracks, one peculiar feature of philosophical inquiry, you tell us, involves “how eager people are to offer solutions that miss the point of the questions.” And here, from a broader socio-philosophical vantage, I do note the irony that impersonal / ethical care of the soul gets its most sustained consideration at present amid the oft-vainglorious, zero-sum, credential-prioritizing domain of professional academia — so that even “Plato at the 92nd Street Y’s” genial host would feel so much better if we could just bestow the legitimizing honorific “Doctor” onto Plato. When and where, in your lived experience, does contemporary academic practice best facilitate cultivating Socratic and Platonic virtue? And as you challenge mainstream philosophy’s persistent tendency to dismiss rigorous historicizing, as you resist more recent presumptions of a sweeping social determinism precluding creative authorial agency, how has assembling this particular Janus-faced scholarly / creative text (or maybe Aristophanes’s wheel-like conjoined figures in the Symposium come to mind) helped you to re-envision what an ideal Academy might look like — with true scholars at least sometimes needing to become a bit more like novelists, a bit more like charming ethical / civic / erotic (in the Platonic sense) emissaries than solitary introverts or discipline-policing tyrants?
If the Platonic dialogue can draw on all the most expansive capacities of human nature (the artist’s love for beauty, the scientist’s and the philosopher’s love for truth, the love for one another that prompts the work of social justice and the relief of suffering); if the Platonic dialogue can seduce us into falling in love with truth precisely because it’s true, while also helping us to situate ourselves within the truth; if it can bring the deep insights of talented thinkers out into the open to enlighten us all; if it can tame the professional thinker’s conceit by presenting more questions than anyone can answer (gracefully accepting the inevitability of aporia, because really who are any of us not to be stumped, and what is philosophy good for if not demonstrating this?); if the Platonic dialogue can make itself accessible (not cloaking itself in intimidating jargon in order to show who’s in and who’s out) to everyone who has a longing to live a life truly worthy of the dignity of being human, which is the longing of every single one of us; if it can render the violence to complacency of Socrates’s in-your-face dialectics, while getting us beyond the despair of seeing our self-gratifying presumptions shattered; if the Platonic dialogue can get us to appreciate that we’re all of us in this together (none of us escaping the tragedy and the goofiness of being human); if it can open us up to the vastness of what isn’t us (while validating that we nevertheless, each of us, matters as much as the next person); if it can strive to reconcile us to our irreconcilable differences; if it can (to echo Marx) not only interpret the world but aim to improve it — then yes, the Janus-faced scholarly / creative text that Plato first devised is exactly what we need at this moment in time.