Among the Intellectualoids

Plato’s Stepchildren

Do philosophers have a monopoly on philosophy?

By 5.1.14

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Here’s a puzzle: Rebecca Newberg Goldstein has released a very solid and well-received book, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. Half-dialogue, half-explanatory essay, practically every page has a citation that goes to one Platonic dialogue or another. And yet, the further I read, the more I missed Plato. Sure, there was a Plato on the page. But I didn’t recognize him—or the Greeks, for that matter, who seem reduced to a set of ideological stereotypes.

Whose fault that is, is, of course, hard to say. (Goldstein’s MacArthur Genius Grant would seem to say: mine.) The curious thing is, it doesn’t matter. The book isn’t a case for Plato, but rather a case for separating philosophy from the humanities and placing it on an equal footing with the sciences. It proposes a model of philosophical progress: philosophy is the working out of incoherency over time, leaving behind its origins as it reaches universal conclusions. Therefore, philosophy progresses just like the sciences. Therefore, philosophy is worthwhile. Therefore, it won’t go away. Q.E.D.

Part of this progress involves detaching philosophy from human inwardness and from particular persons. The book can focus on Plato and still argue this—because its Plato wanted to show the same thing, and he did it by focusing on Socrates. Whether or not you recognize Plato is irrelevant, because Plato himself only matters insofar as he helps the narrative.

This position finds its first expression in Goldstein’s interpretation of Plato’s Symposium. There Socrates gives an account of how to abstract from each particular attraction to some universal itself—leaving those particulars behind in the process. Drunken, wretched Alcibiades—in love with Socrates, rejected by him, left behind—is a warning to the would-be philosopher: loving Socrates as Socrates is a fatal mistake. So is missing Plato. And if you get hung up on that reading of the Symposium—as I did—you’ll get left behind, too.

Dogging my reading of Plato at the Googleplex was another book, a kind of shadow. It’s a slim book from the late nineties that also was made up of a funny mixture of Platonic dialogues and speculations about the past and the nature of philosophy. Called The Plato Papers, and written by the English man of letters Peter Ackroyd, it falls well below the rigorous standards of Plato at the Googleplex. It’s not nearly as good a book. Actually, it’s not even a good book. And yet, somehow it’s a better one.

The Plato Papers takes place in what seems to be post-apocalyptic London—though it becomes apparent that this London is in fact something weirder than that (there are angels; it sits outside of a sea of time). Plato, the city orator, lectures on the fragments of the past that resurface for study. He constructs his own theories of the benighted past (which is our present). These theories are inaccurate, but in a pointed kind of way. (Much is made of the phrase “consumer society” and of our obsession with time.)

But Plato is increasingly unsatisfied with his orations.  He begins to discuss these affairs with his soul, convinced that it—being immortal—knows more than it’s letting on. As in the Republic, breaking free of illusions involves a cave, though this Plato descends into it rather than climbing out. And once Plato, for speaking of what he found in the cave, is charged by the city’s guardians with corrupting the young, this story begins to become familiar.

At this point the book is somewhat undone by its own ambition, because the other level of this story—which it simply relies on you to know—is that this future London is also modeled after Plato’s Republic. But in this city, there is no passion. The citizens sleep and dream until they die. They are secure in the knowledge that the past was wrong and that they have arrived at the end of a long working-out of wrong ideas, and so they do nothing. Future London shares with Plato at the Googleplex a confidence in progress and a willingness to reduce the past to a convenient story; it’s just also an entirely inert place.

The Plato Papers remains a satire, but its target has shifted from the present to—not the Republic, exactly, but rather to the kind of thinking that might give rise to this version of it. Plato’s increasingly desperate appeals to the people of London take a form that the real Plato probably would not endorse (“I wanted to find the truth that was true for me alone,” he says at one point). But the idea, difficult to follow as it is, seems to go something like this: that Plato has given rise to a mistake that only Plato can destroy.

Unlike Plato at the Googleplex, The Plato Papers got mixed reviews, understandably so. It demands a lot from the reader—in particular, familiarity with Plato—without giving back much in return. Instead of neatly laying out its philosophy, it spins a confusing and somewhat self-contradictory story whose satirical target is constantly shifting. That is not much like most bestsellers. But it is a lot like—Plato. Or more like Plato, anyway.

In an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Is Philosophy Obsolete?,” Goldstein attacks the way philosophy and literature have ended up as academic bedfellows. They are quite different, she insists. Of one description of the humanities, she comments that it “sounds like a course-catalog description of the shadow studies in which the prisoners of Plato’s cave are involuntarily enrolled. The man who banished the poets from his utopia would hardly acquiesce in a view of philosophy that rendered it a species of literature…. Plato would shudder.”

But Plato himself was a bit of a trickster. He wrote stories himself. They are elaborately crafted secondhand stories told by one person to another. They contain stories told in turn by Socrates. These stories resist easy reduction to one position or another. Plato pursued the truth—but he told it sideways.

Maybe this sideways-method, like the person of Plato himself, doesn’t matter much. But if Plato has heirs—if he began something that won’t go away—perhaps it is a mistake to look for it in philosophy, if Goldstein understands philosophy rightly. Perhaps Plato’s heirs are best sought amongst the novelists.

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About the Author

B. D. McClay is the associate editor of the Hedgehog Review.