Monday, February 15, 2016

The Just City and Plato's Metaphysics

Jo Walton
The Just City
Tor Books (2015)
368 pp.

At Crooked Timber they have concluded a symposium on Jo Walton's novel of ideas, The Just City.  

So much to read, so little time. Most mortals won't find the time to read Plato's Republic, followed by Jo Walton's book, followed by the very fascinating series of posts about the book by a group of scholars at CT. Yet, even though we don't find the time to read all of these works, we do live and breathe Platonic ideas: we know Plato like we know water comes out when we turn on the tap. It means we can productively browse through some of the reflections of these scholars even if we just glance at one or two of them. These pieces are like a sip of cold water from an eternal spring of truth on a hot day.

This morning I read Ada Palmer's essay Plato vs. Metaphysics, or How Very Hard it is to Unlearn Freud.  I can't do it justice, but here's a teaser.

The plan for the "just city" sketched by Plato in book V of his Republic has some odd ideas about social relations. Modern students instinctively react to some of these ideas as "evil, impossible, tyrannical, nonsensical, cruel, absurd, dysfunctional, and doomed." Or, in short, stupid. So Palmer reads Walton's novel of ideas in light of her students' reactions to The Republic, and she comments on three areas: (1) historicity (the fact that Plato's ideas look very different from the world of ancient Greece than they do in our post-Enlightenment world), (2) women (the fact that our feminist conceptions of women's equality leads modern readers astray about some of Plato's ideas), and (3) metaphysics (the fact that Plato's ideas about the just city and its treatment of women can only be understood through the lens of Plato's metaphysics). And she draws some interesting conclusions.

1. Historicity: 
[My students'] reaction ... always makes a wave of awe wash over me at the absolute victory of Enlightenment concept of equality. [They]...genuinely and reflexively think of equality and self-determination as the human default. People. Are. Equal. And. Free. (is the thought process), and if Plato’s “ideal” city imposes assigned jobs and class differences, those impositions are tyrannical. This gut reaction completely misses the fact that Plato’s city, which extends equal education to all and then assigns tasks and ranks based on exams and personal disposition, is radically more free than the reality Plato lived in.... Viewed from the point of view of 3 centuries BC ... Plato’s Republic offers mind-blowing levels of equality and self-determination....
[Students] who write ... papers accusing Plato of “totalitarianism” are perfectly aware that the pre-modern world was full of rigid class systems, feudalism, and slavery. They ... know that Plato lived in a culture with far less self-determination than his Republic, but there are different levels of knowing a fact. You can know perfectly well that the water is off in your apartment for plumbing repairs, but, after unthinkingly turning the tap on five occasions, you still find yourself turning it a sixth time, because instinct hasn’t caught up with intellectual knowledge. The tap makes water come out—we know that on a more basic level than we know that repairs will last from 8AM to noon.... 
2. Women:

The key thing about Plato on women is that he thought the souls of women and men were equal. Both men and women could be philosopher kings. Both women and men should be educated equally. After Plato it was a long time before anyone said any such thing again.

But there are also some nutty eugenic musings in Book V of The Repulic including a marriage festival where the "braver and better" are chosen to mate and guardians are appointed to make decisions, and lotteries are rigged against the weak.  Students are typically outraged, says Palmer.
The Just City expands Plato’s progressive-but-bizarre ideas about gender and sexuality, in a way which makes it possible to see them clearly, and to look at what might succeed, and what might fail. ...  We see how the attempt to eliminate families and permanent pair-bonding affects both men and women, similarly and differently. We get a good, long chance to chew on Plato’s plan. And see it explode in everyone’s face.
But outrage is a confused and unhelpful response. Much better to trace the ideas and... inevitably... this leads to the metaphysics.

3. Metaphysics:

By looking at what goes wrong in Plato's Republic, and by having philosophically trained characters discussing why it goes wrong, says Palmer, Walton's novel demonstrates that the ideas in the Republic  are not only not stupid, but not necessarily "wrong." The true statement, says Palmer, is "Plato’s Republic will succeed if and only if Plato was correct about metaphysics.”

So what was this metaphysics? 

It has something to do with an "endpoint to excellence." In Plato's Republic excellence has an endpoint. 
[I]n Plato’s universe ... there is an endpoint to excellence, i.e. there is a thing—The Good (conflated with God in later adaptations)—which is the source of everything, and is the absolute unmixed maximum of all good attributes. This Good is not an anthropomorphic, person-like thing, more of a brilliant metaphysical sun, or a spring constantly overflowing, except that instead of pouring out water it pours out goodness, virtue, knowledge, and existence itself. Everything else is generated by the Good, and all action (especially intellectual action) is moved by the Good. 
Gaining excellence is approaching this Good, getting closer to it, reflecting it better (like a mirror), and becoming filled with it, so the flawed, imperfect and empty parts of yourself become more complete, like a cloth full of holes becoming more and more repaired. Decision-making in this universe means looking at two different options and deciding which seems to point more toward the Good; error comes from making a mistake in that judgment call. Learning in this universe means learning to see the Good more and more clearly, and making fewer bad calls. Choices, in this universe, have a right and a wrong answer, the same way that trying to get to a fixed destination has turns which are correct (getting you closer to the destination) .... Big questions in this universe, including questions like “What is Justice?” and “What is the best form of government?” have one correct answer: the Good contains that answer, it’s there, you just have to get to it. This means the Masters of the Republic constantly agree on everything, and will never experience doubt or dissent. 
Did you miss the jump? Knowledge is peering at the Good (remember our Allegory of the Cave), and the Good contains the correct answer to all problems. People see that answer more and less clearly but it is one thing. ....
In The Just City  the characters reach the contrary conclusion that there is no endpoint to excellence. That, it turns out, makes all the difference. Instead of representing an optimistic statement about the value of continual striving and the possibility of infinite improvement, this conclusion makes everything come undone.

Take a look at this wonderful series of posts, and see for yourself if you shouldn't put The Just City on your reading list. HERE is Brad DeLong's shout out.

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