Like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Jo Walton’s Thessaly novels offer both a celebration and a critique of philhellenism, the love of ancient Greek culture, by staging it and letting the consequences play out. From the beginning, we are presented with the attractions and seductions of the classical tradition. The classical is idealised self-consciously by the generation of Masters, who are plucked out of their lives in later centuries because of their declared allegiance to the wisdom of the Greeks – contrasted with the values of their own times, whether the extremes of religious intolerance or the oppression of women. The return to the classical represents for them liberation, the rule of wisdom and reason, and the exciting possibility of realising an ideal world that had seemed beyond reach in the face of the unyielding structures of medieval belief, the chaotic violence of Renaissance Italy, or strait-laced Victorian values. They are all highly educated people who have found in ancient Greece everything lacking from their own times, and so have yearned for it all their lives.
For the vast majority of the Children, taken out of slavery at the age of ten (in theory, at least) and in most cases having experienced only poverty and the limited horizons of pre-modern rural society before that, the contrast is still more striking: the recreated classical becomes their entire world. In the Just City they are educated in art, beauty, virtue, craftwork, science and philosophy; they live the benefits of a simple yet healthy diet and regular physical exercise; they learn comradeship and communal loyalty; above all, they experience an upbringing that is dedicated simultaneously to them as individuals and to the collective good, a classless world in which everyone can find their proper place in serving the city. Simmea was, we can surmise, fated for a short life of sexual exploitation and drudgery; instead she can become a philosopher, an athlete and an artist, finding inexpressible joy in art, debate and the friendship of equals.
Even twenty-first century readers, the vast majority of whom are likely to be sceptical of the enterprise of recreating Plato’s Republic – it’s scarcely a coincidence that Athene finds so few volunteers for her project from the modern era – can empathise with the fervent adherence of Maia and Simmea to the values of the Just City. We know things are likely to go wrong – how could they not? If only because that would remove any drama from the narrative… – and the main question, as Socrates expresses it to Athene in the Last Debate, is how the city will fail. But, even as we spot the hints that all is not entirely well, in the nervous debates of the Masters about how to identify the true qualities of the Children in sorting them into different metals, or in Simmea’s guileless questioning of the logic of some of the City’s rules, we feel not only a sense of satisfaction that we are not so naïve and idealistic as to fall for this nonsense, but also concern for the impact of eventual disillusionment on these true believers. The ideal is clearly appealing, even if we lack their commitment to it; indeed, even their ability to commit themselves to the ideals of the City, to set the community above their individual or factional interests, is attractive up to a point.
The Impossible Community
It was a convention of late 18th– and early 19th century political and philosophical commentary to contrast the ‘organic’ communities of the ancients with the fragmented, alienated, mechanistic societies of the present – Gemeinschaft as opposed to Gesellschaft, in the analysis of Ferdinand Tönnies. To quote Friedrich Schiller: “That polypoid character of the Greek states, in which every individual enjoyed an independent existence but could, when need arose, grow into the whole organism, now made way for an ingenious clock-work, in which, out of the piecing together of innumerable but lifeless parts, a mechanical kind of collective life ensued.” The unified nature of the Greek polis did not involve the absolute subordination of the individual to the stultifying collective that could supposedly be seen in other past societies; it was an environment in which individuals could develop to their full potential – rather than being held back by their background, race, gender or poverty – yet without losing their connection to the rest of the community. Further, this was the political culture that had nurtured such astonishing feats of artistic and intellectual brilliance; the Greek achievement went hand in hand with its social and political forms.
There is a far greater sense today not only of the impossibility of recreating the Greek polis, or its idealised philosophical derivative, but also of the undesirability of such a project. In part, one might say, the idea suffers from guilt by association. The appropriation of the classical ideals of physical strength and beauty, purity, and exclusion, and the adoption of the corresponding artistic and architectural forms, by Fascism and Nazism, and the incorporation of ancient Greece into a History of Western Civilisation as a purely white European tradition by the various imperial powers, has tended to taint philhellenism. (In the UK, at least, its continuing association with class privilege doesn’t help either). The Just City is clearly intended to be free from racism, or any other principle of discrimination besides that of excellence – but even that has problematic overtones for a modern reader (any description of ancient Greek athletic competition raises for me uncomfortable echoes of Georges Perec’s nightmarish island of W in W ou le souvenir d’enfance). By the opening of The Philosopher Kings, the products of this system of education have become willing to kill for art – a telling case of the over-valuation of the classical.
The most obvious problem with the project for modern readers, at least since the first volume of Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies if not much earlier (e.g. in Constant’s discussions of ancient and modern freedom), is the potential conflict between individual and community. Walton is clearly concerned with such issues in The Just City, culminating in Socrates’ accusations against Athene in the Last Debate: How far had the human rights of the Children been trampled upon in order to set up the city? How far did Plato’s system rest upon suppressing or ignoring ‘natural’ human instincts? The rejection of traditional family structures in favour of random sexual pairing and the collective raising of children is one of the most radical of Plato’s proposals – and, though we are offered brief intellectual justifications for the practice by some of the Masters, perhaps a stronger, more emotive case might have been made for it in the back story of one of the characters. The case against is made powerfully by the painful experiences of both Simmea and (to a much lesser degree) Pytheas at the Festivals of Hera, and by Simmea’s grief at having to give up her baby. The fact that Simmea forces herself to accept this suffering because of her belief in the wisdom of the Masters and the values of the Just City simply emphasises their injustice; so too the willingness of a humane person like Maia to expose a baby in the interests of abstract excellence. In The Philosopher Kings, the different cities (especially those founded by Kebes/Matthias and the crew of the Goodness) are taken to show the dangers of political degeneration, with aristocracy falling into timarchy and thence into oligarchy – but without a clear recognition of how far the original form is itself always potentially problematic.
Inventing the Classical
My assumption is that these issues are most likely to be taken up in detail by other contributors, so for the rest of this discussion I want to focus on two other aspects of the classical tradition and philhellenism, where Walton’s books offer – perhaps inadvertently – a measure of critique. The first is the tradition’s incoherence and fictive nature. The ‘classical world’ that beguiles its receivers, and invites a return or a recreation, is largely the construction of successive generations of philhellenes from the Renaissance onwards, that draws its power from the belief that it was once a real world. The idea of a full integration of society and culture, devoted to a single set of values, depends on ignoring or excluding everything that doesn’t fit – an issue that is dramatized in The Philosopher Kings, where the inhabitants of Kallisti find the pre-hellenic world of Thucydides’ Archaeology almost incomprehensible because of its lack of figurative sculpture and architectural columns. The most telling detail is their revulsion at the fact that statues are painted – whereas it is only a modern idea that the statues of classical Greece were gleaming white marble. Athene claims at the end of the book, justifying her experiment to Zeus, that “They [those who became Masters] loved our world, and their own worlds held too little to fulfil their souls.” But this world, the world of the Olympian deities, of the timelessly classical, bears only a partial and problematic resemblance to any historical reality. Indeed, one might question Athene’s laying claim to it; it is largely a human construction, put together from surviving fragments and then treated as a real, pre-existing object of veneration.
The Just City is, at best, a kind of pick’n’mix Plato that believes itself to be the realisation of the true essence of the Republic. The narrative admits, but largely skirts over, the extent to which different interpretations of this theory are produced in every generation; we are largely left to imagine the Masters’ debates over what exactly Plato meant by almost everything, excepting a few of the most critical issues. Disputes over the interpretation of the original dialogue have to be resolved either by ex cathedra statements from Athene or by voting – and perhaps the establishment of any sort of Just City depended on the simple fact that more sceptical readers of Plato had by definition been excluded from the debate because they would never have prayed to Athene for the opportunity to put his ideas into practice in the first place. Is it thus implied that the only true reading of Plato is one that leads to a fervent commitment to his ideals, however those are understood? Or is Athene’s purpose rather to see how things will fail, if a group of fervent Platonists is given the opportunity to put their (inevitably different) readings of Plato into practice? This does of course create a space for the No True Platonic City argument – exactly as happens after the fragmentation of the original Just City. Plato’s ideas, like any text, are open to multiple interpretations, each of which must always claim to be the true interpretation if they are to draw on his authority and inspire commitment from others.
The Masters – aided and abetted by Athene, helping them to travel through time – water down Platonism in part because of their love of classical culture more generally. The most obvious example of this is the way that they have the texts of Attic drama in their library, because of their devotion to everything classical, but because of Plato’s disapproval of the form they insist that it should only be read, not performed. But they go further, in claiming as part of their cultural heritage not only the genuinely ancient but also later products, supposedly inspired by the classical. The Just City is full of non-classical fragments, conceived as part of a unified classical tradition: the names of later cities, the art of Botticelli and other Renaissance artists. The Masters happily treat one culture as open to dismemberment – so that the ‘classical’ elements can be painlessly extracted without any trace of contamination from the non-classical – in the name of another, supposedly indissoluble, culture. As Maia notes, “we wanted the Renaissance re-imagining of the classical world, not what Lysias described as the ‘medieval remnants’ of Christianity” – and so Simmea could grow up thinking of Botticelli as a properly classical pagan who later converted and started painting Madonnas instead of goddesses. Maia does come to recognise her error, at least in the specific case of imagining Ikaros as a man of the noble and wonderful Renaissance without thinking about all the different aspects of that time. In brief, Walton’s novels reveal the classical to be myth rather than history or reality – but a myth that has tremendous power to shape behaviour.
The Revenge of History
This goes hand in hand with a remarkable degree of ahistoricism in the Just City, and even hostility to the study of the past, which then regularly leads to tension between theory and practice; at times, the narrative feels rather as if Friedrich Nietzsche was staging a confrontation between his Monumental and Critical conceptions of history. From the perspective of a historian, this feels entirely understandable. At least since the late 19th century, it has been the task of historiography to ask questions about the past and about received notions of the past – which leads to a fair degree of scepticism about the heroic and inspiring but largely fictional metanarratives of The Classical Tradition – and to emphasise the importance of detail and historical context rather than transcendental claims about universal principles. It’s precisely for this reason that thinkers like Leo Strauss see history as the enemy of philosophy, echoing the concern of Marx and Nietzsche that too much consciousness of the past could be an impediment to action and change. Perhaps the shortage of true Platonists from the 19th century and later, and hence their absence from the Just City, is less a reaction to the 20th-century political appropriation of the classics, as discussed above, and more the result of widespread historical education, so that the historian’s kneejerk “yes, but it’s actually a bit more complicated than that” response to grand metahistorical claims and to the idealisation of the classical has become habitual for many.
There is little mention of any historical dimension to the education of the Children, except when its absence is noted; when Socrates begins to investigate the Workers and wonders from what time they had come, the response is “the boring part of history when nothing happened except people inventing things” – to which he responds, “Aha, the part they don’t want us to know about.” The picture is filled out slightly in The Philosopher Kings, where Arete develops an interest in history but clearly is not reading anything post-classical – she is not even familiar with the rise of Christianity in late antiquity, and is amazed (having been reading Tacitus) that the Germans should have any philosophers. While the Masters had developed their original obsession with the classical by comparing past and present and finding the latter wanting, in the spirit of Nietzsche’s ‘untimely’ readings, the later generations are deprived of the opportunity to make any such comparison between their own world and other times or cultures; they are to know only the classical world, with no other point of reference. Moreover, the idea of history as a critical study of events, even recent events, appears to be absent: Thucydides’ analysis of politics would be, one might surmise, too obviously incompatible with Plato’s idealism (precisely as Nietzsche interpreted him, as a relief from, and even a cure for, Platonism). Indeed, politics is presented explicitly as the opposite of philosophy when Pytheas, Arete and the others encounter the cities founded by the Goodness, as something which is alien to their experience and opposed to their values. The founding wisdom of the Just City is assumed to be universal and eternal, not anchored in any limiting historical context or ensnared in messy politics; the city is to be timeless (in multiple senses).
The limitations of such an approach are made clear to the reader from the beginning; Plato’s plans for the Just City are shown to be all too embedded in a specific period and culture, taking the presence of slaves entirely for granted. The dependence of classical culture on slavery, something which most philhellenes have traditionally managed to ignore or lightly pass over, is made manifest; the city can be founded only because Athene cheats, providing the necessary heavy labour by introducing robots from the future. This simply replicates, rather than replaces, slavery; the Masters take these Workers entirely for granted, as mindless obedient others, worthy of notice only when they fail to perform. This convenient system comes to an end only when Socrates takes the trouble to try to communicate with the Workers and establishes their sentience; and, to their credit, it is then only those Masters who came from the Roman era who seem willing to maintain the fully Platonic position of arguing that the glories of classical culture can therefore justify slavery.
In the second book, the revenge of history is twofold. Firstly, it is the impact of another of Plato’s culturally-specific ideas that leads to the death of Simmea and everything that follows from that: the assumption, perfectly reasonable for classical Greece but more problematic for a state that is supposed to be both perfect and isolated, that war is a constant threat and so social structures must be orientated towards military preparedness. A pessimistic Thucydidean might have pointed to the risks of faction even within a united city, but the fragmentation of the original community into different cities with different beliefs and identities made conflict inevitable, given that all their inhabitants had received such training for war. In the circumstances, it is surprising that the skirmishes between the different cities are so minor, and orientated towards stealing art objects rather than towards more concrete forms of dominance. Pytheas’ quest for revenge then reveals that the timelessness of Athene’s project was equally an illusion; Kebes had not been the tabula rasa that the City’s system of education had assumed, but had seized the opportunity to revive not only the Christianity of his youth but also other elements, like money, poverty and class. Confronted at last with an alternative to their own taken-for-granted values, the members of the Just City reaffirm their allegiance to them and fight – and in the process become ever more ensnared in complex political realities, that can be resolved satisfactorily only through the use of superhuman powers. Once again, the timeless Just City and its universal founding principles are revealed to be all too embedded in specific contexts, sustainable only through external intervention.
What exactly is the aim of Athene’s experiment? Gods are, of course, inscrutable at the best of times, and certainly not inclined to explain themselves. At the beginning of The Just City, she presents the project to Apollo as well as to the assembled Masters as a serious attempt to try out Plato in practice – but immediately she ignores elements of the blueprint and bends the rules, clearly undermining the validity of whatever results might be obtained (rather like the supercomputer, often mistaken for a planet, that gets contaminated by a bunch of telephone sanitisers and insurance brokers). In the Last Debate, Athene is accused by Socrates of doing it all as a whim or a game, and it’s not clear, either before or after he’s turned into a gadfly, that he’s wrong. Arete may see Athene’s action as “an irresponsible way for a god to behave”, but Socrates (and any genuine ancient Greek, as opposed to these naïve, idealising philhellenes) would respond that this is exactly how the gods tend to behave. At the end of The Philosopher Kings, the suggestion is that this is a gift to Athene’s votaries from across time, and especially her favourite Ikaros, allowing them to live out their fantasies of living in a classical utopia, however confused or contradictory or fictional their conceptions of it might be.
The original plan, given that gods are (on their own admission) constrained in their interventions in historical time by Fate and Necessity, had been for the Just City to exist in a bubble. It would survive only as an echo in the myth of Atlantis to inspire Plato’s Republic (with the satisfying circularity that a flawed blueprint for utopia would be the basis for a flawed experiment that would in turn inspire a flawed blueprint for utopia…). A recurring theme in the books – one that I hope other contributors will be discussing – is the nature of historical change and the implied counterfactuals; the possibility that this manipulation of the proper order of things might lead the thread to unravel – as Athene (in disguise) put it, no fall of Constantinople, no Renaissance, and by implication no classical tradition to inspire the experiment that led to a change in history’s course. Indeed, the gods appear to be as confused about such things as the humans, accepting constraints without exploring them (or at least without explaining them to mortals). It seems possible that Zeus’ decision to save the City from oblivion, and to move it and its progeny to a time when it can legitimately have an influence on others, may itself be an experiment, in understanding the nature of historical time and necessity.
The Just City, like the classical tradition that inspired its inhabitants, is at best a hotchpotch, founded on a myth. But even hotchpotches have value, such that people may be willing to die for them, and are closer to reality, developed through practical experience and deliberation rather than abstract, pseudo-universal principles, than any philosophical utopia; and myth, as Nietzsche observed, is essential for culture and for life. And so, once again, like Antaeus (as Max Weber observed), despite all its manifest flaws, inconsistencies and proven capacity to cause harm, the classical tradition renews its power.