© 2024 KGOU
Photo of Lake Murray State Park showing Tucker Tower and the marina in the background
News and Music for Oklahoma
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Truth Is, Philosophy Rules Your World

A 2012 installation in the small Italian village of Corigliano d'Otranto celebrates the philosophies of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and their search for a better way of life.
Carlo Hermann
AFP/Getty Images
A 2012 installation in the small Italian village of Corigliano d'Otranto celebrates the philosophies of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and their search for a better way of life.

If philosophy's main goal is to figure out what makes life worth living, it is also, by extension, a preparation for dying. Plato knew this and took it to heart. And now we can listen to him again, and learn something useful. The man who gave us philosophy as we know it is back, walking among us, going to TV talk shows, visiting Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., having his brain examined by a naïve reductionist neuroscientist, engaging with our current struggles.

For this we must thank Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's inventiveness and intellectual courage. Her book, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away, has just been published to rave reviews by people such as philosopher Colin McGinn. Goldstein's goal is clear: to show to the "philosophy-jeerers" — those who claim philosophy has no value whatsoever — how absurdly wrong (and mostly ignorant) they are. In a time when philosophical discourse has been abused by an excess of misplaced scientism, from claims related to the origin of the universe (we can explain it!) to the meaning of mind and the nature of consciousness (we can explain it!), such an approach is most welcome and much needed.

To the seafaring Greeks, one of the greatest fears was to perish, without a trace, under the sea. Life must matter; you must make sure it does. This is what Goldstein aptly calls the "ethos of the extraordinary," the need to carve your permanence in this life so that it survives after your death. Blending Plato and Dylan Thomas, the message would go like this: rage, rage against the ordinariness of sameness. "It is, in the end, the only kind of immortality for which we may hope," Goldstein writes.

Plato clearly succeeded. His philosophical legacy, celebrated by many, torn to pieces by others, enigmatic, inspiring, is very much part of our concerns, even if we often are not aware of its pervasiveness. We can all benefit from using reason as a tool to carve meaning out of existence, as a guide to live a life well-lived, to examine the nature of reality and truth, to make our lives matter. It is no coincidence that in his dialogue Apology, dedicated to Socrates' trial, Plato has his mentor declare that an unexamined life is not worth living.

Goldstein is the first to admit that there is an elitist trend in Plato's ideas, typical of an aristocrat who didn't have to work for a living. However, his teachings carry their meaning to modern times, where they need to be understood within their original context and not ours. That so much of Plato can be easily transported to TV talk shows and Mountain View serves to show how prescient and timeless he was.

Philosophy has changed much since Plato, as it should. After all, its purview is precisely to examine and re-examine itself as a precondition to growth. No advance would be possible without this openness to criticism. (Incidentally, and not surprisingly, this is also how science functions. Plasticity is an essential property of any evolving knowledge system.) Goldstein's brilliantly constructed narrative, combining Plato's original texts with current-day events, shows how timely the central questions of philosophy remain, as the answers multiply.

Answers are never final, or, if they seem to be, they shouldn't be interpreted as such. Yet, while in science it is easy to identify progress, in philosophy the task is harder. As Goldstein reflects upon Plato's legacy, she offers a portrait of the shifting nature of our philosophical inquiries and our search for meaning:

Philosophy provides the goggles with which we make sense of reality.

You can keep up with more of what Marcelo is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marcelo Gleiser is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. He is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.
More News
Support nonprofit, public service journalism you trust. Give now.