I’m over at First Things today, reviewing Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex, in which she writes new dialogues for Plato, in modern contests, answering modern questions. Here’s a teaser:
When scientists like Laurence Krauss and Neil deGrasse Tyson call philosophers to answer for their crimes today, the lovers of wisdom aren’t accused of anything as exciting as corrupting the youth.
In Rebecca Goldstein’s telling, Plato’s greatest danger is his elitism. She’s less worried about the political dominance of a philosopher king than moral merit being strictly tied to intellect. “The unexamined life is not worth living” sounds “pitiless” to her since it implicitly writes off as worthless the people who aren’t capable of examining their lives.
In her essays that introduce each dialogue and in the questions of the speakers cast in her dialogues, Goldstein pushes against this idea. If the philosopher has an extraordinary role to play, it as a gadfly. As long as we’re all unsettled and curious, isn’t that enough?
When one of her speakers attacks Plato’s Republic as calcified, “paternalistic utopianism,” Plato’s foil argues, “Humanity should never be frozen into a vision of the best. A creative society must be willing to tolerate some degree of instability because creativity is inherently unstable.” Even if not everyone can study and contemplate the Good, the people who remain in the Cave can’t be written off as benighted or useless, since they might, through a kind of intellectual Brownian motion, jostle the philosophers and other thinkers into new insights. By these kinds of arguments, Goldstein gets to praise philosophy as worthwhile while fending off any dictatorship of the well-educated and informed.
And, in a bit of bonus content for you blogreaders, here’s the paragraph I was saddest to cut from my original draft of the review:
It might have made more sense to end with Goldstein’s “xxxPlato” were it not for the fact that her chapter on love is the least dialogue-like. In this section, Goldstein casts Plato as a guest author in a romance-focused advice column. He offers his advice to the Mr. and Miss Lonelyhearts writing in, and then the column’s regular author critiques his reply. With no back and forth, this discussion is the philosophical equivalent of a one night stand; there’s no chance of a deeper connection.
I’m on day 7 of a Norbertine novena, in honor of my friend Michael Hannon, who just entered the abbey. Please feel free to pray along.