PLATO: Everything wants goodness. Everything that has a notion of it hunts for it and desires to get hold of it and secure it for its very own, caring nothing for anything else except for what is connected with the acquisition of some good (Philebus 20d).
McCOY: You’re right. And nobody wants what you’re offering. Ergo what you’re offering isn’t goodness.
PLATO: That was an argument.
McCOY: What, you think you’re the only one who knows his way around a syllogism? I went to Catholic school. Those Jesuits knew a thing or two about tortured logic, God bless their souls.
PLATO: But how do you know you don’t want the unmixed good that I have in mind if you haven’t even let me tell you what I think it is? And I mean here by an unmixed good not only a good that always results in a better life, but also— and these two conditions are connected— one which leads to pleasure that has no admixture of pain in it.
McCOY: I don’t need to hear what you have in mind in your losers’ real world. Whatever it is, I don’t want it. I don’t want anything to replace what I have.
PLATO: Your money, fame, and power.
McCOY: And all the parerga. See, you taught me something.
PLATO: But do you agree that sometimes money, fame, and power lead people to do what’s wrong?
McCOY: Listen, I never said that these things would necessarily make you a good person in the way that the nuns back in school meant for us to be. I meant they’re good things to have. They make a person happy. But that doesn’t mean they necessarily make a person nun-approved good. Maybe the happy person is good, maybe he isn’t. It depends on how he got that money, fame, and power, and what he does with it. Sometimes the virtuous are happy and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes the sinners are happy and sometimes they’re not. That’s why we need heaven and hell to settle up the score.
PLATO: And what if I told you I think being virtuous and being happy can’t be pried apart from each other? The person who does wrong is unhappy, and the person who does the most wrong is the most unhappy.
McCOY: Yeah, once he gets caught. Once he’s Bernie Madoff sitting in his prison cell, his empire toppled around him and everybody hating on him and his family members changing their last names so that they won’t have people hating on them, too.
PLATO: He is far happier then, sitting alone in his prison cell, than he was before when he went unpunished (Gorgias, passim).
McCOY: Okay, this is frankly getting ridiculous. Next thing, you’re going to tell me that you’d rather be the guy ripped off by Bernie Madoff than Bernie Madoff when he was at the top of his game.
PLATO: I would say that.
McCOY: Then you’re an idiot. You’d rather be done wrong than be the perp doing the wrong and getting clean away with it?
PLATO: For my part, I wouldn’t want either, but if it had to be one or the other, I would choose suffering wrong over doing what’s wrong (Gorgias 469b– c).
McCOY: So you wouldn’t want to be a tyrant if you could get away with it?
PLATO: Not for anything in the world. Would you?
McCOY: You better believe it. And so would anybody with an IQ above a chicken’s and who isn’t living in your delusional world.
PLATO: And yet I do not believe that you believe it. For you do not desire your own unhappiness.
McCOY: Look, this is just getting too ridiculous for words, not to speak of unchristian. Not even the nuns would have ever tried to sell us on the crazy idea that being good was going to necessarily make us happy. In fact, they were pretty big on talking up suffering as a kind of moral prosthetic. You a Christian, Plato?
McCOY: I thought not. You’re lacking the whole Christian sense of things, including about suffering. See, here’s the thing about moral struggles. The reason they’re such a struggle is that what makes us good and what makes us happy aren’t the same things. The things we want, which are just the things that I have —
PLATO: Money, fame, and power.
McCOY: — and their parerga, those are the things that make us happy, which is why I’m such a happy guy, and nothing you can say is going to convince me otherwise. What, you’re going to tell me I’m not really happy, that it only seems to me like I’m happy? Well, you know what? I’ll settle for the seeming happy, because I don’t see any difference. What do I care if money, fame, and power are a mixed bag and not everybody who goes after them is necessarily going to be happy, much less virtuous? They’re not a mixed bag for me. When you look at the statistics, and you’re factoring in the guy who’s throwing all the numbers off because his life is so freaking awesome, then that would be me. I’m probably second in power only to the occupant of the Oval Office in terms of my opinions. Do you know how great that feels? Can you begin to imagine what it feels like to have that much influence over what people think?
PLATO: I am almost afraid to imagine it, so pitiful does it seem to me.
McCOY: Pitiful? Is that what you just said, pal? Are you frigging kidding me? You think it’s pitiful to have so much power over people’s minds? That’s got to rank up there as the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. You keep outdoing yourself, Plato. Only a guy who goes in for showing off how smart he is would ever say anything so obviously stupid.
PLATO: I always regarded having influence over the opinions of others as one of the greatest misfortunes a person could suffer.
McCOY, laughing: Will you listen to this guy? Okay, this has got to be some kind of shtick to sell books. And by the way, if you want to have so little influence over people, why do you even write your books?
PLATO: I think a writer can only hope, at the very best, to provide reminders for those who already know (Phaedrus 278a).
McCOY: Wait a minute, here. You’re a guy from the Academy who’s actually confessing that he’s never learned anything from a book? What kind of syllabuses do you give your classes?
PLATO: You understand that I’m speaking of knowledge and not information. Knowledge can’t be passed from one person to another as information can.
McCOY: Knowledge, information. I don’t see the difference. What is this, semantics? Aren’t you ashamed, at your great age, to quibble over words? (Gorgias 489b). Anyway, I don’t think you should lose any sleep worrying over any undue influence you may have. I don’t think you’re ever going to have that problem.
PLATO: Nevertheless, undue influence was always a concern of mine. My position as head of the Academy made me worry that some would simply take my position there as sufficient reason to agree with me, using me as an authority to ground their positions.
McCOY: Frankly, I don’t see that happening. Nobody listening right now to this show— and the following is huge, the largest on cable — is going to be swayed by anything you say, including your claiming that it’s a misfortune to have a huge following. You should only be so unfortunate!
PLATO: I hope not, for then any mistakes I made would be compounded many times over, blighting not only my own point of view but that of all the others over whom I have influence. And were my influence so great, it would then only increase the likelihood of my thinking erroneously, for it would stifle both my own and others’ abilities to assess what I am saying. I would be like the person who makes a great voyage in order to see the world but travels with the windows of his carriage draped over with images of the view from his own bedroom window.
McCOY: Your carriage? We’re getting really high-tech here.
PLATO: I meant only that the person of great influence lacks access to views that challenge his own.
McCOY: Oh, there isn’t any shortage of views clamoring to challenge my own. That’s what we call the viewpoints of the pinheads, and fortunately nothing forces me to pay any attention to them.
PLATO: Except your own self-interest.
McCOY, laughing: This just keeps getting better. I’m supposed to pay attention to the pinheads out of my own self-interest?
PLATO: Otherwise you must do all the hard work of challenging your own positions all by yourself. Isn’t it better to get some help with so difficult a task? And wouldn’t you call those who help you out your friends?
McCOY: Why should I challenge my own positions? That’s the job of my enemies, who it’s my job to vilify.
PLATO: I would have thought it the job of your most valued friends.
McCOY: I can’t tell whether you’re putting me on or not. Is this some kind of Ali G or Borat scam you’re trying to pull here? Just answer me that. Are you putting me on? Have my stupid staff screwed up again and let in some Sacha Baron Cohen operative?
PLATO: I am sincere.
McCOY: So I’m actually supposed to believe that you think friends are the ones who try to refute you?
PLATO: Certainly, when what I say is wrong; and I can’t be certain it’s not wrong unless I hear the best of the refutations that can be offered. And I hope that I am a good enough friend to return the favor.
McCOY: But obviously you’d rather refute than be refuted.
PLATO: I wouldn’t be any less pleased to be refuted than to refute. For I count being refuted a greater good, insofar as it is a greater good for oneself to be delivered from something bad than to deliver someone else from it (Gorgias 458b).
McCOY: Well, then let me become your BFF by ripping everything you’ve said to shreds. I’m afraid you’re going to drop down on one knee and propose marriage to me by the time I get done.
Excerpted from “Plato at the Googleplex” by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Copyright © 2014 by Rebecca Goldstein. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.