Gods Behaving Badly

by Henry on February 2, 2016


It’s a terrible idea to reduce a novel into an argument. As Francis Spufford said in another Crooked Timber seminar, the great thing about a novel of ideas is that you can have your cake and eat it too; using negative capability to present multiple arguments in serious tension with each other, with many possible interpretations, and never resolve any of it. The tensions between these arguments and interpretations are part of what make it a novel rather than a tract (an interesting question, which I’m hopelessly underqualified to answer, is whether Plato’s dialogues can be interpreted as novels …). So treat the below as not being an attempted answer to the question of What The Thessaly Books Are Really All About, but instead some guesswork about where one particular thread of argument in the two books that have been published to date might be leading.

To be clear, I think the thread is an important one, since it weaves through the books (my guesswork, however, may be mediocre; or worse). It’s the thread about art – and what it means – and how it relates to the gods. Art plays a very important part in the first book, and an even more important part in the second. It’s also very explicitly bound up in the question of what it means to be a god, or more precisely, what the excellence of being a god consists in. Here, my surmise is that this thread is doing two things. It’s challenging Plato – who notoriously sought to banish most forms of art from his ideal city, and was particularly unenthused by art that depicted the various depraved things that the Olympian gods did in their worst moments. It’s also providing the beginnings of an account of what kind of excellence the gods ought pursue – and how that excellence differs from the excellence that human beings ought to have.

First, Plato’s Just City and Walton’s Just City aren’t the same thing at all. The second is not a knockoff of the first, nor even an attempt to realize its ideals given the imperfections of ordinary human beings (and robots!). Walton’s Just City starts from Plato’s description, but ends up chasing after different ideals. Perhaps one might say that the two cities are in a complicated Platonic dialogue with each other. The one city is about philosophy, and thought experiments, and ideal forms and all of that. The other is also about many of these things, but is (I think!) more fundamentally about art. It’s surely not an accident that Walton’s Simmea – whom everyone in the book thinks is really the best thing about the Just City, the demonstration in one woman that there can be a genuinely philosophical person, is very nearly as much a Bronze as she is a Gold. She’s a craftswoman and artist as well as a lover of knowledge, and doesn’t see much of a distinction between these goals.

Plato Would Disagree Strongly With Simmea. Consider Plato’s Socrates when he talks about the arts in the Republic. He acknowledges that they can have a very limited role, but is profoundly skeptical of them – they are a distraction from knowledge rather than a path towards it.

For Plato, the first problem is that the representative arts are a trick – they don’t really represent what they claim to represent. The artist purports to depict a reality that she doesn’t actually understand.

A painter will paint a cobbler, carpenter, or any other artist, though he knows nothing of their arts; and, if he is a good artist, he may deceive children or simple persons, when he shows them his picture of a carpenter from a distance, and they will fancy that they are looking at a real carpenter. And whenever any one informs us that he has found a man knows all the arts, and all things else that anybody knows, and every single thing with a higher degree of accuracy than any other man –whoever tells us this, I think that we can only imagine to be a simple creature who is likely to have been deceived by some wizard or actor whom he met, and whom he thought all-knowing, because he himself was unable to analyse the nature of knowledge and ignorance and imitation.

The second, in consequence of the first, is that they don’t provide any real knowledge about how to order human affairs. Poetry, like painting, is the creature of artifice.

‘Friend Homer,’ then we say to him, ‘if you are only in the second remove from truth in what you say of virtue, and not in the third –not an image maker or imitator –and if you are able to discern what pursuits make men better or worse in private or public life, tell us what State was ever better governed by your help? … is there any war on record which was carried on successfully by him, or aided by his counsels, when he was alive? … is there any invention of his, applicable to the arts or to human life … must we not infer that all these poetical individuals, beginning with Homer, are only imitators; they copy images of virtue and the like, but the truth they never reach? The poet is like a painter who, as we have already observed, will make a likeness of a cobbler though he understands nothing of cobbling; and his picture is good enough for those who know no more than he does, and judge only by colours and figures.

The third is that poets inspire people to imitate the disorderly passions, indulging themselves, for example, in undignified and womanly displays of grief.

now we may fairly take him and place him by the side of the painter, for he is like him in two ways: first, inasmuch as his creations have an inferior degree of truth –in this, I say, he is like him; and he is also like him in being concerned with an inferior part of the soul; and therefore we shall be right in refusing to admit him into a well-ordered State, because he awakens and nourishes and strengthens the feelings and impairs the reason. As in a city when the evil are permitted to have authority and the good are put out of the way, so in the soul of man, as we maintain, the imitative poet implants an evil constitution, for he indulges the irrational nature which has no discernment of greater and less, but thinks the same thing at one time great and at another small-he is a manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth. … whenever you meet with any of the eulogists of Homer declaring that he has been the educator of Hellas, and that he is profitable for education and for the ordering of human things, and that you should take him up again and again and get to know him and regulate your whole life according to him, we may love and honour those who say these things –they are excellent people, as far as their lights extend; and we are ready to acknowledge that Homer is the greatest of poets and first of tragedy writers; but we must remain firm in our conviction that hymns to the gods and praises of famous men are the only poetry which ought to be admitted into our State.

In an earlier part of the Republic, Plato takes some wallops at Hesiod. His language is a little obscure in ways I can’t adjudicate but as I understand the summaries of those better informed than I, Plato’s Socrates claims that poets should not invent stories about the gods as behaving unjustly, since the gods are good, pretty well by definition.

Walton’s account of the arts is very different indeed. Her city is founded on the ideas of Plato – yet there’s remarkably little debate of Plato’s claims about the inferior nature of the mimetic arts. Perhaps that’s because so many of the inhabitants of her city are from later ages such as the Renaissance, when art flourished and was seen as part of the classical legacy that needed to be reclaimed (the children of the city fall victim to some entertaining confusions about the Renaissance’s commitment to paganism, thanks to Renaissance painters’ fondness for classical themes). Walton’s masters of the city argue about art very nearly as much as they argue about philosophy. They value artistic beauty in its own right, not merely as a means to represent virtue and philosophic truths.

Painting, which Plato uses as his example of the problems of art in truly representing the good, is part of the city’s identity very nearly from its beginning. The masters of the city gather up great works of art from across time that are otherwise likely to be lost to humanity, masterpieces snatched from the Bonfire of the Vanities and elsewhere. They seem somewhat more skeptical about theater, although it is eventually introduced into the city (Simmea’s daughter Arete is preparing for a theatrical performance at the moment when she learns of her mother’s death). When Crocus the Worker (a robot) comes to sentience, it wishes not just to be a philosopher but an artist too. And when the Just City splits up into many different cities in the second book, they go to war with each other over art, raiding each other for masterworks.

At various points, Walton’s Socrates seems to turn Plato’s critique of the artist back on Plato himself.

”Plato didn’t have as much experience of humanity as he needed to write a book like the Republic,” Sokrates said. “Perhaps nobody does.”

Plato, although he purports to be a kind of legislator, who understands how to construct the Just City from first principles, is just as much an imitator of a real law maker, as an artist is of the cobbler whose work he has not himself mastered. Plato doesn’t understand how human institutions work, because he doesn’t really understand human relations very well. History does not relate that he was ever married or had children, and so he doesn’t realize the disastrous consequences of arranged sex festivals and enforced joint raising of children for human beings who naturally form affections for each other, have sex with people they aren’t supposed to under the rules, want to raise their own children and so on. His understanding of the virtues of philosophizing has value (clearly, people like Simmea thrive on it) but his claims about how it is best achieved are riddled with all sorts of weirdness.

This goes together with a different account of art and of the gods than Walton’s. For Plato, the arts are dangerous except when they are paeans to a divine that is innately good, or the praise of virtuous men. Yet the divine of Walton’s books is not innately good in the ways that Plato understands. Walton’s readers know from the first few sentences of the first book that the gods are not necessarily good, either by the standards of the twenty-first century (Apollo simply can’t understand why a nymph would not want to be pursued and raped by him) or by their own. When Walton’s Socrates appears on the scene, he explicitly announces that he was quite mistaken in the belief that the gods were good. He then deliberately provokes Athene into behaving badly by beating her at her own game of logic and argument with a demonstration that Athena’s Just City is fundamentally unjust. If Apollo’s musical battle in the second book is a relatively straight retelling of the flaying of Marsyas, Socrates’ rhetorical battle with Athena in the first remakes the story of Arachne, into a battle where the punishment for revealing the gods’ disreputable behavior is to be transformed into a gadfly rather than a spider.

This starts to bring us to some speculations, and an interesting, and tricky question, that I’m not sure I know Walton’s answer to (if she has an answer; she might not, or might think the question silly, trivial or a misunderstanding). If the gods are imperfect, they can try to improve themselves. It is difficult for Apollo, as for the other gods, to understand others as important and valuable in themselves; hence his decision to incarnate himself as an ordinary mortal in the Just City. Apollo becomes human in order to understand what it is like to become human – to pursue, in a sense, his best self. Yet what exactly is the best self of a god?

Simmea largely agrees with Plato in thinking that the best self she wishes to develop is a philosophic self. There may be other goals consistent with human potential in the Just City (we don’t really see the City from the perspective of the irons; it would be interesting to know what they make of it). But if I’m reading Walton right, the best self of a god in her books is by no means necessarily a philosophic self. Apollo’s goal is surely a kind of self-actualization – in his words, “being a god means being myself for ever, and that means knowing myself as well as I can.” Apollo is mistaken for a philosopher king by the other inhabitants of the Just City. But he isn’t, really. His excellence lies elsewhere.

Walton really brings this home when she describes Apollo’s grief after Simmea’s death. I can’t help but think that this is another way of arguing with Plato over art. Plato’s Socrates argues that a good man bears the losses of those who are most dear to him with greater equanimity than others, moderating his sorrow, and refraining from indulging in the womanly evils of emotional self-indulgence, since no human thing is fundamentally important. This, again, is part of his indictment against tragedians such as Homer, who invite their audience to sympathize with the hero when he makes long speeches about his dismal fate and beats his breast.

Walton is having none of this. Arete notes that Apollo’s extravagant and extraordinary grief is exactly not what Plato recommended. And it isn’t. Apollo isn’t even faintly inclined to be philosophical, or to greet Simmea’s death with equanimity. He knows that her soul will transmigrate, but this offers him no comfort for a kind of loss that is quite ordinary to human beings, but that he has never experienced before. This grief turns into a violent passion for revenge against Matthias, whom he has never liked, and blames wrongly for Simmea’s death and rightly for her rape. By any philosophic standards, he starts by behaving badly, and ends by behaving worse.

Yet this bad behavior isn’t necessarily bad behavior for a god. Even if the gods aren’t good as such, they are plausibly good for something. Walton says in an epigraph that Apollo and Athene “come straight out of Homer.” I don’t think that’s quite right. Walton’s gods are not the gods that Homer depicts so much as they are Homer’s depiction given flesh and thought and the understanding that their depiction is an important part of whom they are. Put less obliquely, they are not (or not just) divinities with specific domains, nor only vain, quarrelsome and jealous. They are also (or, at least, Apollo is) fully aware of themselves as the matter of story. They’re like the characters in At Swim-Two-Birds, except that instead of rebelling against their creator, they accept their fate (which is perhaps not surprising – it’s a pretty good one, and they have some discretion within the bounds of Necessity to shape it). As Apollo describes it:

Gods may or may not make art, but they can’t come to the end of themselves. Not ever. And we are art. Our lives are subjects for art. Everything we are, everything we do, it all comes to art, our own, or other people’s. Mortals can forget and be forgotten. We can’t. Everything we do has to be seen in that light. There’s no anonymity. If you’re a god, your deeds will be sung. Even the ones you would prefer to forget about.

Apollo’s grief and his indulgence of it, like the grief of Achilles which Plato is surely referring to, becomes the matter of art. By being transformed into art, it has redeeming consequences. When Apollo comes through his grief, and is truly able to understand the limitations of mortality and mortal love, he is able to write music that helps reconcile the different versions of Plato’s city to each other. They aren’t united by philosophy (indeed it divides them), but by the transformation of emotions into something that speaks to universal human experience. If Apollo were excellent as a philosopher king, restraining his emotions and his actions to that which is just and measured by the standards of philosophy, he would not be capable of achieving his excellence as a god. His notions of justice aren’t the ones of humans in the twenty-first century (or, as I understand them, classical Greece) – he flays Matthias so cruelly because of his artistic dishonesty as much as because of his human misdeeds.

The story of the just city is one of gods learning as well as humans. Yet Apollo’s education seems to me to be a sentimental education rather than a philosophical one. He learns to treat others as beings with their own wants, needs and desires. This leads him to care about some of them in a far more profound way than he had previously been capable of, and to learn what it means to really lose someone. This does not make him more philosophic, but it does transform his art into something that is less an individual display of virtuosity than something rooted in commonality, a way of expressing feelings about the mortal limitations that we all face, and the grief and despair that they provoke. It’s not surprising that his ode to Simmea is a choral composition. The way in which Apollo develops morally, while not becoming more philosophic as such, is a rejoinder to Plato.

So that’s the skein I want to trace – a thread of argument and character and incident that seems to me to provide a defense of art as part of any ideal city that is really worth caring about. Again, even if I’m roughly on the right track, it’s not the only thread, nor the only interpretation of that thread. Nor is it without its own ambiguities. Apollo is the only god whose interior thoughts we have access to. What story would Athena tell, did she choose to speak? Would it be one of godliness as a form of art and leap to insight, or of the patient cumulation of logic and evidence? Or of her own efforts to understand love through intellection? (the Just City, it turns out, has in part been constructed as a rather hapless gift to an unknowing beloved). Would her understanding of the proper role of the gods be different? What does the excellence of being Athena consist in? Or of the possible third god who may have interfered in the experiment to help Matthias? Or other gods? I hesitate to imagine what Ares’ appropriate notion of godly excellence might be, but suspect it would be best appreciated from a safe place at a considerable distance. I don’t know whether Walton has answers to these questions. I don’t even know if she should have, and I certainly hope that if she does have them, that the answers have their own ambiguities. Still, thinking about these questions and others is part of what made the books engaging for me.



geo 02.02.16 at 5:37 pm

OP: you can have your cake and eat it too

Of course you can. In fact, you can hardly eat it without having had it. What you can’t do is have it having eaten it.

John Simon on “You can’t eat your cake and have it too” vs. “You can’t have your cake and eat it too”:

“The first form makes sense: once you’ve eaten the damned thing, you can no longer have it. Not so the later, corrupt form: you can have your cake — enjoy looking at it, or keep it in the freezer, or have it set aside for you at the bakery — and then, at the proper moment, eat it too. But some dolt somewhere along the line reversed the order, and it stuck.”


Mdc 02.02.16 at 11:39 pm

“Plato truly gave to all future generations a new art form, the novel”

Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy


Neville Morley 02.03.16 at 6:15 am

“And not in the good way.”


William Timberman 02.03.16 at 7:08 am

Is this an argument about the limits of language, and by extension the limits of rationality in the truncated form that literacy has bequeathed to us? (And isn’t it something of a tragedy that what Blake or Rimbaud came to understand about such arcane matters is so much more easily demonstrated by the simplest of the plastic arts, or by music…or by carpentry or child care, for that matter?)

Philosophers have it as rough as the gods ever did, surely, and considering the mortal nature of the tools they’ve been given to work with, it’s to their credit that they’ve done as well at untangling things as they have. We should probably have more respect for them.

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