In this exchange, Plato and fictional cable TV host Roy McCoy go head-to-head on the perils and benefits of telling people what they want to hear.
Roy McCoy: Okay, so they tell me you’re a big deal in philosophy, Plato. I’m going to tell you up front — because that’s the kind of guy I am, up front — that I don’t think much of philosophers.
Plato: Many don’t. The term attracts a wide range of reaction, from admiration to amusement to animadversion. Some people think philosophers are worthless, and others that they are worth everything in the world. Sometimes they take on the appearance of statesmen, and sometimes of sophists. Sometimes, too, they might give the impression that they’re completely insane (Sophist 216c-d).
McCoy, laughing: Well, I’m going with that last one, just as long as you add that it’s the kind of insane that makes right-thinking Americans the world over want to smack you upside the head.
Plato: It comes sometimes to reactions even more violent. My friend, the best of men, was charged with the crime of doing nothing more than practicing philosophy as best as he knew how. He was found guilty and executed.
McCoy: Where was that, Texas?
Plato: No. It was in Greece, though many years ago.
McCoy: I’m sorry to hear about your friend’s ordeal, but I have to ask you a question: What was he doing to tick people off so much?
Plato: It is a good question.
McCoy: Since you apparently don’t know me, you don’t know that I only ask the one kind of question, and that kind is good. So unless your friend was prosecuted under that military junta you Greeks had going on back there in the late sixties, early seventies —
Plato: He was brought to trial by our democracy. And in fact it was by popular vote that he was condemned to die, even though the Delphic oracle had declared that there was no person who was wiser.
McCoy: Yeah, well, I have two Peabodys. Listen, not to disrespect the memory of your friend, but there’s got to be more to the story than what you’re saying. You’re spinning, and I’m calling you on it. We don’t call this the No Bull Bin for nothing. See, democracies don’t go around bumping people off just for being annoying types who think they know better than everybody else, which, from what I can gather, is what you philosophers specialize in. In fact, I have to say, Plato, I haven’t spoken to you two minutes and you’re already beginning to irk me. But we live in a democracy that protects everyone’s right to be a royal pain.
Plato: Progress has been made.
Plato: I am impressed by the progress.
McCoy: Then maybe your initial expectations were too low.
Plato: Maybe they were…
McCoy: You make a pretty speech, Plato, you’re a regular rhetorician, but I think you’re just playing with words again. You may say that you aren’t personally trying to influence anybody, just trying to get them to “surrender to the truth,” but really it amounts to the same thing. Whether you want to deny that you want clout or not, you’re still going after unanimity, trying to trample out differing points of view in the name of your one and only truth. You said it yourself just a little while ago: my way or the highway.
Plato: I said that?
McCoy: We’ve got it on tape and can play it back to you if you deny it. “This is the right way, this is the upbringing, these are the studies.” If you could have your own No Bull Bin the way I do, where I get to decide when people are playing hard and fast with the truth and, if need be, tell them to shut up or I’ll cut off their mic, you’d jump at the chance.
Plato: Only if I wished myself the greatest harm. I couldn’t help feeling some grief for Aristotle, a talented student of mine, who at a certain point in time suffered the misfortune of becoming the authority for a powerful institution, whose members simply took to referring to him as “the philosopher,” as if there had never been nor would ever be another philosopher, and converted all his opinions into dogma.
McCoy: I know all about Aristotle from my high school. He was the pagan of choice. Thomas Aquinas loved him, and we loved Thomas Aquinas. You’re telling me it doesn’t gall you to have your own student so outshine you that he was called “the philosopher” as if you didn’t count for anything? He totally eclipsed your sun, and you’re telling me you didn’t resent it? You’re telling me you don’t wish that you had the clout he had or that I have now with my fan base?
Plato: For my part, I think it’s better to have my lyre or a chorus that I might lead out of tune and dissonant, and have the vast majority disagree with me and contradict me, than to be out of harmony with myself, though I’m only one person (Gorgias 482a).
McCoy: Again with the flowery speeches! Look, pal, I’m not out of harmony with myself just because I’m in perfect harmony with my fan base.
Plato: You speak to the people who are like you in character, so that you can give expression to what they delight to hear.
McCoy: You bet I do. And I have the ratings to prove it.
Plato: You mutually gratify one another. What you say gives them pleasure, and their pleasure in you gives you pleasure.
McCoy: Okay, you can put it like that, even though it’s a little bit creepy.
Plato: Each group of people takes delight in speeches that are given in its character and resents those given in an alien manner (Gorgias513c).
McCoy: Well, obviously. That’s why I have to tell the pinheads to shut up. And my audience loves me for it. It’s just the way they want the pinheads to be treated.
Plato: So when you, who share the character of your audience, say what they themselves would like to say, you gratify them. You gratify them so much that they will never go to listen to anyone who offers reasons to question what they would like themselves to say. The pleasure of hearing you is so great because the harmony is so great.
McCoy: I’m getting pleasure just hearing you describing the situation.
Plato: Orators who have much to gain by gratifying the people will be careful in what they say, treating the people like children, not speaking to them of anything which will cause them the pain of doubt. If there is something the people would need to hear in order to get the whole picture but which would cause them pain, such orators choose to leave it out, even if justice would demand it be included. They are to justice what pastry makers are to health (Gorgias465c).
McCoy: Pastry makers! Did I just hear you say “pastry makers”? Or was it hasty wasters, as in haste makes waste? Or are you talking about those pasties that strippers wear? You know, with you it could be anything.
Plato: It was the pastry makers of whom I was speaking. Who is it that can better tell you what is good for the body, the pastry maker or the doctor?
McCoy: What kind of dumb question is that? Don’t you dare condescend to me.
Plato: Because it is so obvious that the doctor can better treat the body, understanding how to promote its health, whereas the pastry maker simply delights the body, knowing how to give it pleasure without thought as to what is best for it. Pastry making has put on the mask of medicine, and pretends to know the foods that are best for the body, so that if a pastry maker and a doctor had to compete in front of an audience of children, or in front of people just as foolish as children, who were to determine which of the two, the doctor or the pastry maker, had expert knowledge of good food and bad, the doctor would die of starvation. And so it is that the orator is like the pastry maker, both knowing well the knack of gratifying. And what is this knack? With the lure of what’s most pleasant at the moment, it sniffs out folly and hoodwinks it, so that it gives the impression of being most deserving. I call this flattery, and I say that such a thing is shameful because it guesses at what’s pleasant with no consideration for what’s best (Gorgias 464d-645a, though scrambled).
McCoy: Yeah, only here’s the justice in the situation that makes it not shameful at all. The guys on the other side are doing exactly the same thing. They’ve got their audiences who they gratify by serving up exactly the pastry that their audiences find finger-licking good. That’s the way it works, you’ve got pastry makers on both sides, with pastry eaters on both sides gobbling it up and patting their tummies with pleasure. So maybe some people like their cinnabons and others their mousses or tiramisu. It’s a free country and you’re free to go get your goodies from whoever you like. And yeah, it mainly all works on the free-enterprise system, which goes hand in hand with democracy. The two of them go marching down the aisle together far more naturally than your virtue and happiness do, which is just plain unnatural. So yeah, there’s going to be a profit to be gained in gratifying your audience — I get to live the way I do because I gratify a certain sweet tooth in a whole bunch of people — but that’s okay because both sides are doing it, and it’s all out there in the great American mall, cinnabons and tiramisu, cream puffs and whoopee pies, and people can go gratify themselves however they see fit. That’s democracy, pal, the kind of democracy we taught the world to love.
Plato: But even if it’s all out there in the great mall, people are only going to the stalls that serve them their favorites. The one who likes cinnabons will go there, and the one who likes tiramisu goes there.
McCoy: As I said, it’s a free country. And by the way, the same goes for that Internet of yours that you’re so in love with.
Plato: I am very sorry to learn that. I’d hoped that so much information being made available demonstrated a great desire not only for information but maybe even for knowledge.
McCoy: Just because all that information is out there doesn’t mean that anybody’s going to access it all. I mean, how could they? It’s overwhelming. So you got your nothing-better-than-apple-pie types going to our site or to the Drudge Report, your caramelized froufrou fritters going to Moveon.org or the Huffïngton Post.
Plato: So it becomes a fight to get attention.
McCoy: Exactly. Attention is the resource everybody’s after, and sometimes there are huge sums of cash that are connected with that attention —
Plato: But even when there aren’t the huge sums, the attention alone is motive enough.
McCoy: Right you are. Attention is power. So you’ve got all the specializing pastry makers out there on the Internet, baking up a storm. Anybody with a blog is a pastry maker.
Plato: I am sorry to hear it.
McCoy: There’s nothing wrong with putting more pastry makers out there, all of them perfecting their own particular confection. Like I said, that’s democracy. You’ve got a problem with it, then you’ve got a problem with democracy.
Plato: And to me the situation seems precisely the opposite, for if the situation is as you describe it, I wonder how your democracy can continue to function.
McCoy: What, you want government regulations sticking their big noses in so that only your they-may-taste-like-dirt-but-boy-are-they-good-for-you desserts are going to be forced on us whether we want them or not? Or are you for taking all our yummies away from us altogether? Or maybe your idea is to let the masses feast until their eyes glaze over on Dunkin’ Donuts while you and your kind just run the show. Which is it, Plato?
Plato: None of those. For if we stop the pastry makers from deciding for us what is good for us, we don’t thereby necessarily deprive ourselves of pleasure.
McCoy: Okay, what kind of awful-tasting pleasure are you going to try to sell me on? One of those stinky French cheeses that proves what a sophisticated palate you have?
Plato: It is the kind of pleasure that one can only attain if one isn’t going after pleasure in the first place. For this is one of the great paradoxes of pleasure: if pleasure is one’s goal, then it eludes you, like a shimmering feather you are chasing, the wind that you generate in your chase hastening the prize from your grasp. It is only when you cease to chase after it that the feather may drift down and settle onto your lap.
McCoy: And does that precious pleasure that you can’t chase have anything to do with that precious knowledge that you can’t use?
Plato: Everything. As it has also everything to do with the unmixed pleasure that you were certain you didn’t want.
McCoy: And I’m still certain that I don’t want it. And what’s more, I’m pretty certain you don’t want me to have it, either.
Plato: Oh, no, you are quite wrong. I would wish, were that but possible, for all to have it. And for you, with your vast influence, I would wish it most of all.
McCoy: Believe me, I start going after your useless knowledge and I’m not going to have my vast influence.
Plato: And so you would not want it.
McCoy: But meanwhile I do. I want it and I have it, and I’m going to use it right now to say that I may not want to eat your taste-like-dirt desserts, Plato, or chase after your bird feathers, but you do have to give me kudos for not turning off your mic. It’s been a real experience — for me and I hope for all of you out there who have been watching The Real McCoy.
Excerpted from Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. © 2014 Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.