The Just City by Jo Walton

What if people took Plato’s Republic seriously enough to attempt putting it into practice? What if two of those people were the Greek deities Apollo and Athena, who have the power to make Plato’s implausible starting conditions real? Those are the premises underlying The Just City by Jo Walton.

The Olympians, as Walton describes them, can hop about through mortal time, although there are certain limits about being in the same time more than once. They have other divine powers as described in the Greek myths, and mortals can sometimes reach them through prayer. Apollo, for his own reasons, is considering becoming mortal for a while. He approaches Athena to discuss his notion.

“Why, do you have a suggestion?” [asked Apollo].
“Yes. I have the perfect place. Honestly. Perfect.”
“Where?” I was suspicious.
“You don’t know it. It’s … new. It’s an experiment. But it has pillars, and it has art—well, it has very Apollonian art, all light and now darkness.” …
Athene [as Walton spells the name throughout the book] settled back on her elbows. “Well, some people are trying to set up Plato’s Republic.”
“No!” I stared down at her. She looked smug.
“They prayed to me. I’m helping.”
“Where are they doing it?”
“Kallisti.” She gestured towards where Thera was at the moment we were sitting in. “Thera before it erupted.”
“They’re doing it before the Republic was written?”
“I said I was helping.”
“Does Father know?”
“He knows everything. But I haven’t exactly drawn it to his attention. And of course, that side of Kallisti all fell into the sea when it erupted, so there won’t be anything to show long-term.”
She grinned.
“Clever,” I acknowledged. “Also, doing Plato’s Republic on Atlantis is … recursive. In a way that’s very like you.”
She preened. “Like I said, it’s an experiment.”
“It’s supposed to be a thought experiment. Who are these people that are doing it?” I was intrigued.
“Well, one of them is Krito, you know, Sokrates’s friend. And another is Sokrates himself, whom Krito and I dragged out of Athens just before his execution. If Sokrates can’t make it work, who can? And then there are some later philosophers—Platonists, Potinus and so on, and some from Rome, like Cicero and Boethius, and from the Renaissance, Ficino and Pico … and some from even later, actually.” …
“I have to go there,” I said. I wanted to try being a mortal. And this was so fascinating, the most interesting thing I’d heard about in aeons. Plato’s Republic had been discussed over centuries, but it had never actually been tried. “Where are you getting the children?”
“Orphans, slaves, abandoned children. And volunteers,” she said, looking at me. (p. 16–18)

And off they go. Walton tells the story in rotating first-person chapters narrated by Apollo, Simmea, a child taken by slavers from Egypt sometime in the Middle Ages and bought by representatives of the Just City, and Maia, who is born Ethel Beecham, third child and second daughter of Rev. John Beecham, rector of Knaresborough in Yorkshire in 1841. As she says, “A young lady from Queen Victoria’s England does not expect to have her prayers answered, or at least not in such a direct and immediate way, and certainly not by Pallas Athene.” (p. 43)

Maia will be one of the masters of the Just City, charged with raising and educating the ten thousand Greek-speaking children acquired by the masters from the slave markets of the Mediterranean in various centuries, as Athene assists with the time travel. The children, of which Simmea is just one, are all around age ten, and are supposed to forget everything about where they came from while the masters teach them in accordance with Plato’s precepts and prepare them to pursue the good life in the Just City.

Most of the manual labor, certainly at the beginning of the experiment, is handled by robots, acquired from a future beyond the early 21st century. They have enough autonomy to function independently as farmers and builders, enough computing capacity to understand commands in natural language, and are completely under control of the masters.

Everyone, of course, is in for more than they bargained for. The children hadn’t bargained for anything, and that is just one of the thorny moral questions that the masters have to wrestle with, as they go about trying to construct a Just City. Some imagine what life as a slave would have been like, and are grateful for the opportunity they see before them. Others remember their old lives, especially their previous faiths, and refuse to bow to new beliefs. Then they grow into adolescence, and life gets more complicated for everyone.

The masters face their own quandaries. They are all Platonists, but Platonists from different eras, with very different interests, and very different concerns, not least about the role of girls and women in the good life and the Just City. Beyond that, they are people with feelings, desires, ambitions.

Walton depicts all of these briskly and compellingly. She sets up relationships among her narrators that illuminate both their personalities and the overarching questions that they are grappling with. Then, some years into the experiment, she throws Sokrates into the mix.

Soon, well before the summer, I [Simmea] perceived a problem. Before the new year, anyone whom Sokrates befriended was clearly destined to become a gold [the Just City’s top caste, future philosopher kings], and we were all duly awarded our gold pins. After that, Sokrates continued to befriend people, but now their status was fixed. Only golds were supposed to study philosophy and rhetoric. But the masters couldn’t very well stop Sokrates from going up to people and asking them about their work. They couldn’t stop him from inviting whomever he chose to come back to Thessaly for conversation. Sokrates was famous. All of the masters revered him practically by definition—they were here specifically because they revered Sokrates, after all. They didn’t want to stop him behaving the way he had always behaved. They had loved to read in the Apology about how he was a gadfly sent by the gods to Athens. Now he was their gadfly, and they weren’t as happy about that. He was upsetting their neat system, and he knew it. He would laugh about it. (p. 139)

Is that all? Of course not.

“Are you a master?” Kebes [one of the children who will not forget his origins] asked.
“What an interesting question,” Sokrates said, patting Kebes’s hand. “What is a master, in this city?”
“The masters came here from all over time, drawn by their shared wish to found the Just City,” Kebes recited. It was what we had been taught. [Simmea narrates this chapter.]
“They did this with the aid of Pallas Athene,” Pytheas [Apollo’s mortal guise] added, in the manner of somebody politely adding a footnote, but Kebes frowned at him. Sokrates nodded to himself. “So it would seem that I am not a master, as I did not read Plato’s Republic nor pray to Athene to bring me here to work at setting it up.”
“But you are not a child,” Kebes said.
“I’m seventy years old, I’m certainly not a child. Nor am I a youth, and still less a maiden. But perhaps I am wrong about this. Perhaps in this city I am a child. Is there nobody here but masters and children?”
“Unless you count the workers,” I said. “They are mechanical, but they seem to have purpose.”
“They’re just devices,” Pytheas said. “They don’t will what they do.”
“Do you know that?” Sokrates asked. (p. 117)

Nor is everyone content to learn philosophy and strive to be their best self. What does Kebes value more highly than that, Sokrates asks.

“Revenge,” Kebes said. “Slavers killed my family and enslaved me and the masters bought me and brought me here against my will. I can’t possibly ever be my best self. That’s out of reach. My best self would have had parents and sisters. My best self would have lived in his own time. All I can be is the slave self they made me, and my slave self wants revenge.” (p. 143)

Even the philosophical asides are a terrific mix of thought and earthy humor. Here’s Apollo trying to figure out why Plato was always going on about agape.

What I can’t see is why Plato’s so obsessed with feeling eros and suppressing it. What’s wrong with agape when you’re passionate about the other person and they don’t move you that way? Or when you’re both passionate together about some shared obsession? Can’t that be agape? And what’s wrong with a relationship where you’re passionate about the other person and they want you and sex is all part of it? What’s the problem with adding sex to agape, in other words? What’s the benefit of abstinence?
Well, according to Plato, it makes your soul grow wings, and cuts down on your necessary reincarnations. But that’s nonsense. Take it from me: it doesn’t. You’re going to be steadily reincarnated throughout time no matter what you do. You’ll choose lives where you can learn to increase your excellence, and that’s how things gradually improve for everyone everywhere. There’s no endpoint to time, it just keeps on unscrolling. It doesn’t stop. (p. 227)

Eventually, the cracks pointed out by Sokrates but known to the masters and the growing children can’t be plastered over. Experience breaks in, testing the Just City.

The novel is the first in a trilogy. The Philosopher Kings is already in print; Necessity will be published in the summer of 2016.

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3 pings

  1. […] The Just City asked what would happen if people tried to put Plato’s Republic into practice, with a little help from the Olympian gods and goddesses. It was Athene’s experiment, and Apollo joined in because he wanted to learn what it was like to be incarnate, to see if there were things that he could only know from having experienced a full mortal life from beginning to end. The Philosopher Kings begins twenty years after the final scenes of The Just City, when Sokrates had demonstrated that the Workers, robots on which the city relied for manual labor, were sentient, Athena had departed in a huff taking all but two of the Workers with her, and some 150 citizens had stolen a ship and left the island under the leadership of Kebes, a child of the city who had never forgotten his Christian origins. […]

  2. […] Read Doug’s review here. […]

  3. […] Marsilio Ficino, a Platonist and scholar in the Medici orbit, and also a Walton favorite from her Thessaly books — he is dying in a state of grace. “Not old, middle-aged only, but certainly dying. […]

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