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Jo Walton’s The Just City

Someone — now I can’t remember who and I wish I could because I want to talk to someone else who has read this novel — recommended this story to me about an effort to put Plato’s Kallipolis into practice. The premise is that Athena is curious about whether it would work and Apollo is curious about what it would be like to be mortal, so Athena establishes the city on the lost city of Atlantis. Ten-year-old children from every place and time are kidnapped. Anyone who ever prayed to Athena at any place or time is transported to the island to become one of the masters. Then they try to put it to work.

I’m here for modern adaptations of myth and tragedy, and for modern adaptations of Platonic dialogues. (See my review of Badiou’s retelling of Plato’s Republic.) The only completely just and true retelling would have to reproduce the original with no changes, like Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. Any retelling, like any translation, will necessarily carry with it the author’s interpretation of the original. Moreover, I think that exercises like this can, like Socrates tried to do in the Republic, magnify what we see only in small print.

And yet, this novel bugs the bejeezus out of me. I started off thinking that was its failure. But I’m starting to wonder if that is its very Socratic success. One of the things that is strange about the novel is that it brings famous philosophers together with would-be philosophers from every time and place, so that they come with their assumptions and their historical situatedness. What this does is take the original Kallipolis out of its time and place, where it looked very similar to Spartan education, which would be very meaningful to Spartan oligarchic sympathizers like Glaucon. The novel often references the notion that the Kallipolis was meant to be a thought experiment by Plato and so the people involved are aware that they might be going against Plato’s wishes. But the further point is that it tears the Kallipolis out of the context of the Republic and of the context in which the dialogue is written and set. And indeed, wasn’t that exactly what Plato has Socrates do — tear everyone out of their context in a strange experiment that seems farfetched and maybe impossible?

Sometimes it seems that everyone involved agrees that Plato thought this would be the best way to see justice in the city, but many commentators disagree that the Kallipolis does achieve that, I’m thinking of Drew Hyland’s recent essay in Epoché on Plato’s view of democracy, but also Jacob Howland and Jill Frank‘s respective monographs that call into question the extent to which the dialogue is straight-forwardly supporting the Kallipolis and the recommendations within it. Sometimes the novel suggests that things Socrates says in the Platonic dialogues are obviously Plato’s position–discussions of soul taking the description of the soul from Phaedrus as Plato’s earnest position rather than a story, for example, but the dialogue structure complicates that approach and leaves us with the question of whether Plato is ever presenting his position. But it strikes me that my response to the novel is not unlike the responses readers have to the dialogue itself: provoking further thought.

One thing the novel attempts to do is to depict how difficult it would be to make the Kallipolis work in light of human nature. What Plato describes is a community of children that are held in common, sexual relations that are organized to produce the best offspring while still trying to avoid jealousies over lovers. Both children and women then are understood to be held in common. Setting up the scenerio is hard though. Children have to be taken from their parents at 10 years old to get the project started. But of course, those first children would remember their pasts. And in the novel, the kidnapped children do remember their pasts. Mothers want to recognize their own children. People have more desire for some than others. People have affairs in the woods. Some guardians or masters, as Walton calls them, (they’re the people organizing the city) rape other guardians and deny that it is rape.

In this sense, Walton does a good job of showing the problems the Kallipolis would face. The initial violence of setting up the Kallipolis within a community where others would know of it — unlike this one that has been set even before the Trojan War — raises questions about what it means that Glaucon — with whom Socrates is “founding” this “city in speech” — is excited about trying to make this city happen in all of its absurdities. What would those families whose children had been kidnapped think of this being the best city? What about those children who really miss their families? I think these questions are part of what Plato wants us to think about. And to the extent that Walton captures that, she is being very Platonic, revealing the totalitarian spirit of those who might respond with eagerness to a regime that attempts to erase historical circumstance and ignore memory and desire.

One aspect of this dehistoricization or otherwise historicization that doesn’t sit well with me is that it results in Augustinizing Plato. The love for the beautiful instead of being understood as erotic is called “agape,” stripping out the sense of eros from Plato to purify the love. Augustine interprets Plato’s love for the beautiful as agape to make him compatible with Christianity. But whether it is remains highly contentious and seems to sanitize Plato’s work of its erotic themes. Desire and shaping desires for political ends is a fraught business, and Plato seems intent on thinking this rather than replacing that desire (the way that Freud thinks of civilization as dependent on replacing erotic desire with love of thy neighbor).

I appreciate that there had to be some way to set up the city and the gods are a nice mechanism as is their wont. But this telling makes the existence of something external to political life — gods — a settled question in ways that seem importantly not settled in the Platonic corpus. Relatedly, the novel tries to make the Greek gods compatible with the Christian God, which is strange. Ancient Greeks have long been used to support Christian projects, but many scholars think that both Christianity and Ancient thinking became distorted in the process. It seems to do more to serve Christian efforts of legitimacy than it does justice to ancient religion to make this case, even though Christians destroyed and desacralized (ie., desecrated) many of the pagan temples in the centuries following Constantine.

One really clever aspect of the novel is that Socrates shows up and starts asking questions. One of his questions is whether the robots that have been built to do the work of the city can communicate and whether they enjoy their work. I think in this way, Walton suggests that our relation to today’s robots are akin to ancient philosophers’ relation to ancient slaves. It turns out the robots can communicate and they are not happy. So a crisis develops about what can be done. And that crisis is really about what is at the heart of the questions of the Kallipolis and modern economic life: Can and should some have to work for the well-being of others? How do we determine who to include in political life?

This morning, Thi Nguyen published a Manifesto for Public Philosophy. One of the points he makes struck me as particularly important: we need to allow for accessible treatments of philosophy that are accessible for being simplifications. We need to allow others engaged in philosophy in public to make their case the way one might talk to another philosopher in front of an introduction to philosophy course. In some ways Walton really captures the sense in which the point of philosophy is to engage in a life of questioning and examining and dialectically following the conversation where it leads. There are insights into Plato and into philosophy to be found here. It isn’t a substitute for reading Plato’s Republic, but perhaps the novel–like good public philosophy–could be an on-ramp.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Benjamin A Rider #

    I actually really enjoyed this book. I think that, in reading it as a Plato scholar, you have to keep in mind that Walton is not a Plato scholar–she’s a novelist with interest in philosophy. She hasn’t spent years immersed in all of the literature on Plato and the Republic. Even so, I think she does a good job of grappling with the text in her own way. And in the end, I think it’s the Socratic spirit that (in this case literally) has the last word. It’s a good on-ramp to reading the Republic itself, but it’s also in its own right an interesting take on the ideas and legacy of Plato that specialists like us can get something from.

    March 18, 2021

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