“I read Plato way too young for which I’d like to thank Mary Renault,” writes Jo Walton, a Welsh-Canadian science fiction writer who has won the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the Tiptree Award, the Locus Award, and the Mythopoeic award. Later, she read Plato as a classics major at the University of Lancaster.
In Walton’s brilliant, if very strange, philosophical novel, The Just City, the bookish Athene, goddess of war and wisdom, decides to found a city based on Plato’s Republic. Her brother, Apollo, bemused by the nymph Daphne’s dramatic rejection of his sexual advances (she prayed to Artemis for help and was turned into a tree), decides to participate in the experiment, because he, too, has read Plato, and he wants to be reborn as a mortal to understand the human condition.
The city is still in the planning stages, but Athena has already time-traveled through the ages to rescue any person of either sex who has read The Republic in Greek and prayed to be transported there. Some very famous philosophers are working to set up the city, among them Krito, Cicero, Plotinus, and Boethius. They will buy ten thousand child slaves to be educated by the masters. Robots will do the manual work of the city.
The narrative is told from three viewpoints, that of Apollo, reborn as a farmer’s son,Pytheas, and brought in slavery to the city; Simmea, one of the most brilliant of the children, an artisan, athlete, and philosopher; and Maia, a nineteenth-century woman who studied Greek and Latin with her father when it became clear she was doing her brother’s work for him. Maia is fascinated byThe Republic , particularly Plato’s belief in the equality and education of women.
Like everyone who reads Plato, I longed to stop Socrates and put in my own arguments. Even without being able to do that, reading Plato felt like being a part of the conversation for which I had been so starved. I rad the Symposium and the Protaogoras, and then I began The Republic. The Republic is about Plato’s ideas of justice–not in terms of criminal law, bur rather how to maximize happiness by living a life that is just both internally and externally. He talks about both a city and a soul, comparing the two, setting out his idea of both human nature and how people should live, with the soul a microcosm of the city. His ideal city, as with the ideal soul, balanced the three parts of human nature: reason, passion, and appetites. By arranging the city justly, it would also maximize justice within the souls of the inhabitants.
It is Maia’s discovery of Book Five, when he talks about the education of women, that leads her the next day in a church to pray:
“Oh Pallas Athene, please take me away from this, let me live in Plato’s Republic, let me work to find a way to make it real.”
Are there problems? Yes. When Sokrates is snatched against his will from the hemlock cup and brought to the city, he reveals that the city was certainly not his idea–and that he does not want to be here. He challenges the wisdom of giving money to slavers, even though the children are educated, and talks to the robot workers, whom he suspects are sentient. Not everyone is best pleased with his investigations.
One of the things that amuses me most is that characters converse in Socratic dialogues. I love Socratic dialogues. And yet they sound natural.
This is the first of a trilogy and, despite a slow start as Walton fills us in on the background, it is one of the most original novels I’ve read this year.
I, too, am a fan of Plato. I was one of those sweet young women who wanted to maximize the graduate school experience and concentrate on as many language and literature classes as I could, even if it meant adding an independent study. After my Greek philosophy seminar I convinced my advisor I needed to read yet more Plato, so he graciously offered to do an independent study with me. I have always associated the Protagoras with rattling my teacup as I nervously tried to balance the text, my notebook, and the cup and saucer. There was no coffee table in the sparsely furnished living room. I finally stood up and carried it into the kitchen.