by rebecca newberger goldstein
pantheon, 480 pages, $29.95
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.
The best dialogue in the book is the titular first one, which, like Plato’s own writings is being related after the fact, for the benefit of a new audience. Cheryl, Plato’s media escort for his speaking engagement at Google, is explaining her challenging afternoon to a friend over drinks. As she reenacts the dialogue, Cheryl is still unsettled by the questions that Plato and his interlocutor’s raised, and has managed to get a little of that uncertainty to blossom in her friend.
Cheryl finds herself unsettled by philosophy. Not knowing how to make the correct moral choice is a different kind of ignorance than not knowing how to write computer code. Cheryl finds she can live comfortably with the latter, but not the former. It is of little use to tell Cheryl that she’s merely participating in philosophy, which is still only an instrumental good. Even worse to tell Cheryl that she’s a partner in the process of inquiry, since her questions helped Plato clarify his thought (he picks up some turns of phrase from her to use in subsequent dialogues). She needs personal, immediate knowledge of Agathonthe form of the goodin order to live out the parts of her life that make her most human.
But Goldstein never gets around to introducing her characters to Augustine, who might have recognized Cheryl’s longing. In fact, although Goldstein mentions in the her introduction that she wanted to give Plato a chance to learn from and recognize the value of modern thought, most of Plato’s interlocutors exist more to draw Plato out than to offer anything of value in return.
In addition to a Bill O’Reilly cutout, the reader also gets a bubbly, shallow Amy Chua manqué, along with an aggressive, self-aggrandizing psychoanalyst. After encountering enough of these kinds of interlocutors, this reader longed for a relatively pleasant partner like Euthyphro, who encountered Plato on his way to court to testify against, and thus betray, his father. These speakers are performing, whereas Socrates’s original conversation partners were more often going about their day, consumed with personal matters, until philosophy butted in. In the public dialogues, the sense of intimacy and intrusiveness is reduced.
Goldstein’s book is at its best when the conversations veer personal, and she gets to make use of clever metaphors from ordinary modern life. In the first dialogue, Plato and one of his partners manage to explain why you might defer your judgment to a philosopher on ethical matters by analogizing the rightness of relying on an orthodontist, rather than your own intuitions, to judge the rightness of your teeth. Yet she remains reluctant to tell her readers that something as important as conscience can be fixed by mere recourse to an external expert. She and her mouthpieces struggle to find a way to preserve a little more dignity for humans than we would award to teeth tugged this way and that.
Here, again, Christianity offers a solution to some of Goldstein’s difficulties. Christianity isn’t merely a delegation of moral decision-making. Christian prayer and practice is meant to properly calibrate the will and desires, so that, by relying on God, we become more like him, rather than being an eternal ignoramus. It’s an education through love that Plato and Goldstein might approve of. An example: In one of her dialogues, Goldstein summarizes Plato’s philosophy of education in his Seventh Letter, to explain how it is directed by love:
The teacher can’t transfer his knowledge into the student. . . . The fire for the subject and the fire for the teacher are intermingled in the receptive student. It’s only by proximity to the beloved teacher, himself or herself on fire with love for the subject, that the fire can leap over and be kindled in the student in a self-generating blaze of understanding.
When a student learns math from a human teacher, the fire of love for the teacher is limited by whatever the nature of the relationship is, and the fire of love for the subject may well be limited by intelligence. But when the Christian learns virtue from Christ, the teacher is much less limited than a math professor in his ability to stoke the flames of love.
In the Christian tradition, the Holy Spirit descended explicitly to crown our lives with tongues of flame, and to play the role of moral guide (what Socrates called his daimon) for both Christians and their Church.
The everyday moral quandaries that the original Plato and Goldstein’s invention encounter offer us double lessons in right action and thought. First, we can apply our intellect, such as it is, to the problem, to see what we can deduce. But, second, by bringing the difficulty to God in prayer, and turning to the deposit of faith in the Church, we are applying and expanding our love for our teacher. As we stoke the flames of that love, we may be surprised by what can catch fire in a blaze of understanding on our end.
Apophatically, even moments of uncertainty expand our understanding of God, and thus, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. If nothing else, every discovery of our own Socratic ignorance expands slightly our understanding of God, as the Person who does make sense of this question.
Leah Libresco is an editorial assistant at the American Conservative and blogs about religion at Unequally Yoked.