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Why Plato Is Still Relevant in the 21st Century

03/04/2014 09:25 am ET | Updated May 04, 2014

I encountered Plato the first time when I was eleven or twelve and picked up a book that was lying around the house, Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy. I think my mother got it from Book-of-The-Month Club. The only chapter I remember was the one called "Plato." Most of it was incomprehensible to me. I remember Durant using the word "phantasmagoria," and I couldn't even find it in my pocket dictionary. But the little glimmer that came through got me so worked up that, at a certain point, I had to lay the book down and raid the refrigerator, because my mind was racing so fast. There was something about Plato's vision of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness lying beyond all the confusion. Confusion was one of my most common experiences. After all, I'd spent all of my life up to that point as a child.

So it's strange that I had to publish nine books before it dawned on me to tackle Plato. Or perhaps it's not so strange. Plato's gotten his share of attention in the 2,400 years since he lived. His student Aristotle got straight to work analyzing Plato's ideas with the aim of discrediting them: what else are graduate students for? So do we really need another book about Plato? That was the bad writer's voice that I heard in my head, the one that's always eagerly on hand to offer discouragement. What I tried to tell blasted BWV was that I intended to write about Plato in a way that hadn't been tried yet, in a way that would do justice to my belief that he and the field that he had almost singlehandedly created, philosophy, are still relevant even in this world of blogs and neuroimaging, smart phones and quantum mechanics.

In fact, I wanted to use Plato to argue something even more paradoxical, which is that philosophy makes progress. I wanted to use Plato both to show his relevance but also to show how far we've come since him, not only scientifically but also philosophically, and in ways that make a palpable difference to our lives, both morally and politically. For example, were Plato to come back he would be shocked by our ever-expanding notion of human rights, a battle we're still much in the throes of fighting. The idea of individual rights never occurred to him or to any ancient Greek. It's such a cliché that philosophy, unlike science, makes no progress. But cliché or not, it's wrong.

But there was also a more personal piece to my desire to write this book, as there always has be a personal piece if there's any hope at all of silencing BWV. I wanted to get closer to Plato. He's so maddeningly remote and not just because he lived 2,400 years ago. I'd be willing to wager that he kept himself remote from his contemporaries as well, even from those the most intimate with him. I pity any who were in love with him. But in any case, his writings intensify the sense of his remoteness. He didn't give us his ideas in treatises or essays, but rather in dialogues, almost all of which feature the character of Socrates, the real-life model of which was already dead when Plato put his ink-dipped kalamos to papyrus. His dialogues allow us to draw a little bit closer to many of his contemporaries, most especially to Socrates, while Plato holds himself aloof. That's tantalizing, isn't it? Some readers make the mistake of interpreting the character of Socrates, who usually gets the most lines, as a mere sock puppet for Plato, but that's as naïve as interpreting Plato as a mere note-taker for Socrates.

We know precious little about Plato as a man, but this I think we do know: Plato had loved Socrates, the eccentric who used to wander the agora in a not terribly clean chiton and pester people with his peculiar questions concerning the life worth living, which pestering activity he called epimeleia heautou, or care of the self. Plato only decided to take up philosophy after the Athenian democracy executed Socrates, having found him guilty of the charges of impiety and corrupting the young. And because Plato had loved Socrates, part of Plato's reasons for choosing the dialogue form was perhaps to keep Socrates close to him, even if he had to reinvent him as a character in order to do so. Perhaps that was the personal piece for Plato. Plato wrote in a form that allowed him to continue to hear in his mind's ear the beloved voice. It allowed him to take Socrates forward into his own development as a philosopher of genius by including Socrates so centrally in its exposition.

I was trained as a professional philosopher, but I've long moonlighted as a novelist. And one of the essential techniques of being a novelist is imagining characters so vividly that you can hear their voices. It's not like taking dictation, at least not for me, though I know at least one novelist who describes it that way for (lucky) her. For me, it's halfway between taking dictation and totally making up words to put into their mouths. As a novelist, you know the kinds of things your characters would say, the kinds of things they wouldn't, their diction, turns of phrase, ellipses. You can even interpret their silences, knowing their implications (while the silences of real people drive you crazy with their indecipherability.) And though they maintain their distinctness from you, the author, there's nobody with whom you're on more intimate terms than your characters. Part of the desolation of finishing the writing of a novel, at least for me, is letting go of that intimacy. I'm never lonely when, as a result of the space of possibilities I provide for them, I can hear their voices.

And so when it came to trying to draw closer to Plato I decided to use the same literary form that Plato himself had long ago devised. I decided to write dialogues in which I could hear Plato speaking to us about issues that still concern and vex us. The conceit is that Plato is on a book tour. His first stop is the headquarters of Google, the Googleplex, in Mountain View CA, where he gives a talk at Authors@Google. But first he gets into a dialogue with a software engineer over whether ethics can be crowd-sourced, and he also gets himself a Chromebook so that he can be brought up to speed on what's going on around him. Needless to say, he's a quick study (and he simply loves the internet). I have him on a cable news show, something like The O'Reilly Factor (I call it The Real McCoy), where he talks about problems with American democracy, some of which are flamboyantly displayed on The Real McCoy. I have him at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, on a panel of child-rearing experts--one a Tiger Mom and the other a psychoanalyst--discussing how to raise an exceptional child. He gets a brain scan and discusses with two neuroscientists whether neuroscience has answered the question of free will once and for all and in the negative. He helps an advice columnist answer readers' questions about love and sex. Example: I'm a grad student in a job-drained humanities field and my professor has offered to be my "professor with benefits." If I sleep with him, he helps me professionally. Believe it or not, Plato addresses an analogous question in one of his dialogues, the Phaedrus. Whenever I can I weave passages from his own dialogues into our contemporary dialogues. But I also do that thing halfway between taking dictation and putting words into his mouth. And to do that I had to recreate him as a character, the way he had recreated Socrates.

And what is he like, my Plato, besides being constantly edified by the moral truths we now take for granted but which had to be philosophically argued for and politically fought for in the interim since he thought? (What, no slaves?) He's earnest and yet playful; respectful of others' views and yet persistent in his probing of them; no stranger to sadness but still full of hope and insatiable curiosity. Those are characteristics that I think can be gleaned from Plato's own writings (along with some less desirable ones). But more importantly, I think they're the characteristics that belong to the field that he created, at least at its best.

And yes it was wonderful for me to have a recreated Plato whose words I could hear running through me. In fact, when I'd finished the book I felt so destitute that I couldn't quite bring myself to let him go, and so ever since have been tweeting as him @platobooktour. Plato, it turns out, loves tweeting.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's most recent work, Plato at the Googleplex, was released from Pantheon in March of 2014.