Plato at the Googleplex

What makes life worth living? When was the last time you heard this question? When was the last time you thought about it? Perhaps you don’t think it’s a question worth thinking about. Or, that it’s one of those perennial, unanswerable philosophical questions that only philosophers mull over.

Rebecca Goldstein ponders the question a great deal in her new book, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away.

Like Plato, she says that we really have to exert ourselves to make a life worth living. And the way to do so is to pursue philosophy in the way Plato viewed it. That means considering the questions of morality that we are confronted with almost each day—namely, what makes the specific actions and choices we make right or wrong?

The process of reasoning about these questions is distinctly philosophical. Such a life is exhausting, uncommon, and easily ignored. We don’t learn how to do this as young students or even in college unless you take a course in moral philosophy or read some of the Platonic dialogues. And even if you do, its relevance to ordinary life isn’t always clear. Goldstein writes:

The thing about Plato is that he rarely presented himself as giving us the final answers. What he insisted upon was the recalcitrance of the questions in the face of shallow attempts to make them go away. His genius for formulating counter-reductive arguments is at one with the genius that allowed him to raise up the field of philosophy as we know it.

Few people think that a life of reasoning in that distinctly philosophical way constitutes a life worth living. Some, like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer claim there really isn’t anything that does. Others believe that religion is the only place where they find meaning in life. I suppose the majority believe that finding happiness is the true measure of a life worth living. And there are those who believe being generous and charitable to others is the only kind of life worth living.

I know that a person’s answer to this question is a highly individual matter. In my case, when I think back on my long life, I know that I would never had been satisfied had I not been able to live a life of reasoning in the way Goldstein describes Plato’s life. It was a stroke of luck that I enrolled in a course on Plato as a sophomore in college. More than anything it open my eyes for the very first time to the path I wanted to pursue for the rest of my life.

When I think about all this I am always reminded of some remarks of an English historian, Keith Thomas, that he delivered in 2001 on the occasion of Fifth British Academy Lecture:

Finally, the life of learning still has an exemplary morality to offer. Where else, save in other forms of academic inquiry, can we find the same scrupulous concern for truth, the same requirement that all propositions which are not self-evidently true should be documented, the same conviction that getting things right is more important than a quick fix, the same acceptance of the complexity of things and the same refusal to contemplate any dumbing down? And where else is hard-won knowledge freely imparted, without hope of financial recompense? So long as these qualities remain in evidence, those who follow the life of learning have no reason to be ashamed of their calling.