Colin McGinn reviews Rebecca Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex in the Wall Street Journal. It’s a pity they chose Colin McGinn of all people, but oh well.
Plato is brought marvelously to life, and, as a welcome corollary, philosophy is vindicated against what Ms. Goldstein aptly labels the “philosophy-jeerers”—those who rashly claim that philosophy has no intellectual substance or future in this scientific era.
Philosophy-jeerers should read some Rebecca Goldstein. Seriously.
“Plato at the Googleplex” consists of chapters of scholarly discussion followed by fictional accounts of Plato appearing in various contemporary venues. Thus we see Plato at Google headquarters on a book tour, Plato in a panel discussion at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, Plato as a consultant to an advice columnist, Plato interviewed on cable news and Plato’s brain being examined in a neuroscience laboratory. Here Ms. Goldstein employs her novelistic skills to sparkling effect by weaving abstract concepts into concrete modern narratives. At a cable news station, he is grilled by one Roy McCoy, who is not a bit intimidated by his distinguished Greek guest: “Okay, so they tell me you’re a big deal in philosophy, Plato. I’m going to tell you up front—because that’s the kind of guy I am, up-front—that I don’t think much of philosophers.”
Well Anthony Grayling has actually been on the Colbert Report, twice, so it all makes sense.
Goldstein also outlines religious and secular responses to the existential questions of the so-called Axial Age, the period (circa 500 B.C.) when the key questions of human civilization began to be crystallized. When people began seriously to wonder what makes human life worthwhile, one group (represented by the Hebrews) conceived the idea of a single God to whom all human life matters, while another group (the Greeks) conceived of human life having meaning on terms internal to itself. As Ms. Goldstein observes, this fundamental choice is still being played out today: Do the Abrahamic religions have the right view of the good life for human beings or were the Greeks onto something better?
The Greeks were onto something better.