Not The Prometheans: The Just City Part 2

(Sorry for the lack of posting at the moment — I never have much time to write over Xmas.)

So, before we get on to talking about The Just City in more detail… why Plato’s Republic? What, exactly, is that and why is it an appropriate topic for an SF novel?

The Republic is widely regarded as Plato’s most important piece of work — it’s a Socratic dialogue, in which Socrates discusses ideas of ethics and justice with various other characters, who, as in all the Socratic dialogues that I know of, are basically set up as foils to say stupid things to make Socrates look clever. A principal theme of the book is to show that a just city is happier than an unjust city, and by analogy that a just person is happier than an unjust person — but Plato’s idea of justice is far removed from most of the things we would call just today; his ideal city-state is one ruled by a benevolent philosopher-king, and run on extreme authoritarian lines.

That said, the Republic described in the book is being described primarily as a thought-experiment about what kind of polity would produce good people, and almost as a byproduct of the central discussion of what those people would be like, though at the same time it does seem to stand as a critique of both the Athenian system of democracy (which was something like having a series of referendums in which only rich men could vote, with all the problems that are obvious to us now) and of the Spartan system, contrasting the two major Greek societies of the time and using that contrast to find the flaws in both.

So the Republic doesn’t describe a serious attempt at an ideal society — rather it might be the earliest known example of a utopia in literature (and certainly the most influential upon the whole genre). And it’s important to remember that the word “utopia” literally means “nowhere” or “no-place” — utopias, pretty much by definition, can’t exist in reality, and the attempt to create one will always break. That can be predicted exactly — the only thing that can’t be predicted is in what precise way it will break.

But if you’re going to try anyone’s, Plato’s would make sense. Plato himself is a figure whose importance to the history of Western thought can’t be overstated — his philosophical works are essentially the foundation for all of Western philosophy, and I’ve seen the whole of academic philosophy described, without too much oversimplification, as essentially a set of notes in the margin of Plato’s work. And this is true of realms of thought other than philosophy too — almost all of Christian theology (and a surprising chunk of Muslim theology, from what little I understand of it) takes as its starting point an attempt to reconcile the worldview Plato espoused with that of the Abrahamic religions. Science and logic, in the Western traditions, descend ultimately from Aristotle, who was Plato’s pupil — and while Aristotle differed from Plato in important ways, Aristotle’s work was fundamentally an argument with Plato, and so still influenced by him.

So an attempt to see how well Plato’s vision of society would work, and what aspects of it would break, and in what ways, is a fundamentally more interesting idea than trying to implement, say, Thomas More’s Utopia in reality. The latter would show up the limitations of Thomas More, while the former might actually show up previously-unseen limitations of the whole of Western civilisation.

(Of course, Walton’s book is a novel, not a record of an actual attempt to implement Plato’s suggestions, and as such it is a fundamentally different kind of thing — it’s how Walton’s mind engages with Plato, rather than how reality engages with Plato. But that in itself gets at one of the more interesting things about Plato’s work — the way in which his work mixes questions of what exists in reality and what exists in the human mind. There are boobytraps about that stuff that follow from having thousands of years of culture implicitly or explicitly accepting Plato’s assumptions about the world as a description of reality, to the point that I think that many of the most interesting intellectual questions posed by science and philosophy today — things like the simulation hypothesis, the question of which interpretation of quantum mechanics if any is correct and what that would mean for the world, the mathematical universe proposals of Max Tegmark and so forth — will probably be resolved by rooting out unexamined assumptions that are guiding those arguments, and which probably date back to Plato..)

Walton has written, previously, about reading Plato originally as a child in much the same way she read science fiction and fantasy, and about how she came to Plato through reading Mary Renault and C.S. Lewis, rather than through what might seem like the more normal path of learning classics or philosophy, and this affects her approach to the material — she’s treating it as, essentially, a worldbuilding exercise, at least as far as the most superficial reading of the book goes. In this most superficial reading of the book, it can be taken as the same kind of “what if this fictional world were real” thought experiment that leads to things like grimungritty comics — though with the difference that since Walton is an excellent writer, the book never descends into being about “badass” characters or any of that nonsense.

But her characters are a different matter. While several are fairly “normal” people, including the principal viewpoint character, Maia, a nineteenth-century Yorkshire woman who made her way to the Republic not because of any great love for Plato’s ideas generally, but specifically because the Republic is described as having equality between men and women (“Then, in Book Five, I found the passage where he talks about the education of women, indeed about the equality of women. I read it over and over again. I could hardly believe it. Plato would have allowed me into the conversation from which my sex excluded me. He would have let me be a guardian, limited only by my own ability to achieve excellence.”), many of the characters — and almost all of those based on real-world historical personages — are Neoplatonists. Boethius and Plotinus and Pico della Mirandola all feature heavily as characters, and their concerns are subtly different from those of the women.

And it is this disjunct — between the men who read Plato and saw in his work a justification for the restrictive social structures in which they lived, and the women who read Plato and saw in his work a message of liberation and a call for the revolutionary overthrowing of those structures in favour of true equality between the sexes — that powers much of the actual plot, and which we will talk about in the next essay.

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1 Response to Not The Prometheans: The Just City Part 2

  1. plok says:

    At least in Athens, if the electorate was tricked by a demagogue, they executed the demagogue…

    Looking forward to this! Nothing but good ever came of asking how much of our science and philosophy has got its foot caught in some Platonic assumption! And our religion, of course. Something I think about quite a lot is how much Ancient Egypt’s religion is to blame for modern Western biases, buried teleological convictions that got into Judaism and then Christianity and then Isaac Newton and then EVERY UNIVERSITY, masquerading as the history of the scientific method…

    But I probably think of this at the expense of thinking about Plato, so I’m glad you’re covering that shortfall!

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