The Just City: science fiction and Plato

I am overwhelmed!

  A mug that one of my students gave me.

By unanimous consent, Jo Walton’s The Just City has now been added to my top-ten books list (which already had 12 books on it).

There was no doubt about it.

In a sense, this book is science fiction. In a sense, this is a philosophical novel. In a sense, this is fantasy. In a sense, this is a thought experiment. In a sense, this is a standard utopia.

Or is it a dystopia?

In any case, you can’t put it down — except that you have to pause every few pages to put the book down and think about what you’re reading. As I said, I was overwhelmed.

OK, let’s start with a straightforward description. The ancient Greek gods are real. They live outside time, and therefore can time-travel. Athene decides to recreate the “just city” that Plato describes in the Republiclocating it on the remote Greek island of Thera, a.k.a. Atlantis. She arranges for ten thousand children (“orphans, slaves, abandoned children,…”) to be rescued from wherever they are in time and space and automatically beamed up to the Just City, supervised by Sokrates and several hundred other adults/teachers who have “volunteered” by praying to Athene, transported from their own times and places to be the “guardians.” There are only two criteria: they have to speak ancient Greek, and they must have prayed to Athene. Because the city is outside of time, they can be moved to and from any time period and location. The city is designed to follow Plato’s descriptions and prescriptions — but does it?

(A brief aside: if you have been reading this post carefully, you may have been struck by the spellings of Sokrates and Athene. Walton uses the Greek spellings. You are probably more familiar with the Latinate spellings, Socrates and Athena, but Greek is appropriate here. We’re in Greece, after all, and we’re based on Greek philosophy.)

To inspire the children to love beauty, truth, and excellence, Athene goes around through time and space to rescue various lost works of art and literature, especially ones that are about to be destroyed anyway by the disasters of history. They are strategically located throughout the city.

No one, least of all Jo Walton, expects you to love everything about the city uncritically. As I said, it’s both a utopia and a dystopia, along with being a lot of other things. Questioning is essential. To further the Socratic differences of opinion, there are three different viewpoint characters, narrating successive chapters in turn: one older child, one adult, one god (Apollo). But right away things are even more complex than that, as the child is narrating from her stance as an older teenager and Apollo is narrating from his disguise as her contemporary. So don’t think in terms of categories. As one character says, “There’s nothing less exciting than being thought of as part of a class of beings that are all the same.”

Of course, given Walton’s premise, you are going to expect a lot of themes from ancient Greece — Athens in particular. And you will not be disappointed. It’s worth reading this entire paragraph uttered by Apollo:

We make choices and change everything. There’s Fate and Necessity, but no destiny, no Providence. Fate is a line drawn around the possibilities of a life. You can’t overstep that line, but as long as you stay within the lines you can do anything. You can concentrate on some parts of what’s possible and ignore others. Excellence consists of trying to fill out as much of what’s allotted as you can, but always without being able to see the lines Fate has drawn. Souls choose lives based on what they hope to learn. Say a man has been dismissive to women. He may choose to live as a woman next time, to learn that hard lesson. Or a slave owner might choose the life of a slave, when their eyes are opened. It’s not punishment. It’s a desire to learn and become better. They choose lives based on the hope of learning things. But it’s a hope. Nothing is inevitable. Choices are real all the way along.

So what goes on in this nameless city? (Nameless, except for being the Just City.) Primarily learning. Learning and pursuing excellence. Becoming the best you can be. As the young woman, Simmea, says:

Sokrates has made me see that it’s only the visible manifestation and earthly approximation of what I really love, the city of the mind. No earthly city, even with the direct help of the gods, can ever become that. But we’re doing pretty well here, I think.

If you know me, that short paragraph alone should tell you a couple of reasons why I love this book. Definitely a novel of ideas. And of course based on Plato in particular. So I guess I’d better write a bit about my checkered relationship with Plato, a story in three parts:

  • My first exposure was in tenth grade, when I was learning Greek in a tiny second-year Greek class. (I do mean tiny, as we had nine students sign up for Greek 2, but three of us were also taking Honors Geometry, which was a singleton scheduled for the same time block. The administration’s solution? Split the class into one of three students and one of six!) For those who have never tried to learn ancient Greek, you may be surprised at the rapid progress that is possible, despite the complexities of the language. By the middle of second-year Greek, we were reading genuine unsimplified literature, including three of Plato’s dialogs: the Apologythe Critoand the PhaedoI can’t imagine doing the equivalent in second-year Latin, or French, or German! The debates by and about Sokrates were inspirational, to say the least, especially because this was taking place in the ’60s, a decade of much debate and argument (sort of like today, actually).
  • My second exposure wasn’t so positive. I took a college course in Plato’s Republic, approximately half of which we read in the original Greek and half in English translation. To this day I can’t forget my professor’s lengthy comments on the 20-page paper I wrote about Plato’s views on music: “Plato had a far greater mind than either you or I have. C.” That was it. Apparently disagreeing with Plato was forbidden.
  • My third exposure was iterative and excellent. I decided to incorporate an English translation of Plato’s Cave allegory from the Republic into my honors geometry courses at both B.U. Academy and Weston High School, as one of the big issues in studying geometry is whether we’re really seeing what we think we’re seeing. Although some students couldn’t have cared less, quite a few reflected enthusiastically about this experience, even years later.

OK, altogether Plato has been more positive for me than negative, and here we have another resonance with Jo Walton. The characters in her book are also conflicted — more positive than negative again, but definitely with some reservations. Did Plato really understand human beings? Do the gods? in The Just CityApollo incarnated himself because it was the only way to understand humanity. “I have learned more about considering other people’s choices in the eighteen years I have been a mortal than in the whole of my life before. Gods don’t have to think about these things very much.” And Walton’s version of Sokrates says “Plato understood so little about what people are like.” (In case you’ve forgotten, Sokrates was Plato’s teacher. But of course we’re outside of time here.) What would Plato do? What did he understand? What would Apollo and Athene do? What do they understand? Why don’t they all remember what Spiderman taught us: “with great power comes great responsibility”? Simmea (one of the narrators) understands. She says (about Apollo and Athene) “They shouldn’t have that power if they’re not responsible with it.” No comment about the U.S. today.

Would Plato agree? Would Sokrates? If you’ve read any Plato, you know that he almost never accepts responsibility for his own views; he always attributes them to Socrates. So who knows whether they are Plato’s words or Sokrates’s? Here is Walton’s version of this issue, expressed in a conversation between Sokrates and Maia, one of the adults. The first speaker here is Sokrates:

“Nothing in the Republic is anything I ever said, or thought, or dreamed. The Apology is fairly accurate, as is the account of the drinking party after Agathon’s first victory at the DIonysia. But even there Plato was inclined to let his imagination get the better of him”

I wasn’t exactly shocked, because I’d heard it before, though never so directly. “He just used your name when he wanted to express the wisest views.”

“Yes, that’s the kind way of thinking about it. And I was dead and couldn’t be harmed by it.” He sighed. “Not until I came here, anyway.”

“He was trying to write the truth, to discover the truth, even if he put his own words into your mouth,” I said.

Finally, two more important themes. One is that the city follows Plato’s plan to classify teenagers according to their level of excellence; they receive education and vocational training accordingly, as is actually done today in some countries. Athene and the Guardians judge what kind of metal is in each person’s soul, thereby determining where they belong. Remind you of Brave New Worldperhaps? Or Harry Potter and the Sorting Hat? This is not a coincidence. Following Plato, each person’s soul is classified as gold, silver, bronze, or iron — not to be confused with Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin. Or alpha, beta, gamma, delta, and epsilon in Brave New World parlance. One does wonder why two of these systems use four categories and only one uses five. In the sociology course I took taught by David Riesman, we learned that most people naturally divide up the population into five classes when asked to do so without hints; the names differ, but there are generally five. And yet we have four Hogwarts houses and four Platonic souls. Food for thought, or meaningless?

The other important theme — and this is a big one — concerns slavery and artificial intelligence. When creating the Just City, Athene grabs a fair number of robots from the future to do all the hard work of the city, thereby freeing up the humans to be philosophers. It’s obvious from the start that these “workers” represent the slaves that let the ancient Athenian economy function. Of course you’re also thinking about the antebellum south here in the U.S., and Walton doesn’t avoid that parallel. In fact, it forms the major conflict in the novel. Although the workers are made of metal and plastic, not flesh and blood, they might be intelligent and self-aware. Or maybe not. They can’t speak, as they don’t have mouths. But:

“I don’t know how we’d manage without the workers,” Klio said. “They do so much. They let us lead philosophical lives because they’re doing all the hard work — all the farming and building and everything. We’re comfortable because of them.”

“We’re rich because of them,” Ficino said. “We have no poverty here, because of them.”

Not exactly subtle. The workers were clearly inspired by Karl Čapek’s RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots)the source of the English word “robot” (Czech for “worker”). Čapek raised similar issues in 1920. Sokrates conducts something like a Turing Test to determine whether the workers, who can’t speak or sign, are nevertheless intelligent. And if they are, shouldn’t they be well paid instead of being slaves? But how would we know whether they are intelligent, i.e. AIs?

“It’s not necessary to be convinced by one piece of evidence,” Sokrates said. “But it’s indicative that it might be worth further investigation.”

Sokrates unveiled his plan, in which the three of us were to do nothing but go around talking to every worker we saw, in Latin, while he did the same in Greek. “Do any of you know know any other language?”

So one problem is a linguistic one: if the workers understand speech, in what language do they understand it?

There are many pages exploring whether Plato approved of slavery. One of Walton’s characters, Ikaros, says:

What Plato says about slavery is quite clear. He lived in a time when slavery was commonplace. And he believed it was necessary, but that only those people should be slaves whose nature it was to be slaves… [Then] he took the radical step of abolishing slavery altogether — the Noble Lie of the mingling of metals in the soul leads to everyone doing the work for which they are fittest. Plato had the work which was done by slaves in Athens done by free iron-ranked citizens in the Republic, as we have instituted here in the city. The irons are an essential part of our city — and how we agonized over assigning the right class to each child.

And then there’s the question of whether the workers have names. It turns out that they have numbers, but…

“Are they numbered in Latin or Greek?” Sokrates asked, leaning forward, urgently interested.

“Neither,” Kebes said. “They’re numbered in numbers.”

Sokrates looked blank.

“You know, zeroic. Like page numbers in books,” I said. I pulled a book out of the fold of my kiton and showed him.

What food for a two-hour discussion if I were still teaching this material!

Another brief aside, my final one: while taking a break from writing this long post, I happened to be listening to one of my two favorite linguistics podcasts, Lingthusiasm, and what should pop up but a mention of this very book! The linguistic context was that the characters always greet each other by saying “Joy to you!” But I digress…



Categories: Books, Linguistics, Math