I have graded 300 undergraduate papers about why Plato’s Republic is stupid. Not the book itself, but the plan of Plato’s hypothetical city. Even when I offer students four, five, six different essay topics, some instinct almost always compels them to take on the plan of the city and how evil, impossible, tyrannical, nonsensical, cruel, absurd, dysfunctional, and doomed they think it would be if put into practice. So, when I read The Just City and its sequels, I couldn’t stop thinking about that instinct, those papers, and how one of the great wishes these books grant is the wish of anyone who teaches Plato to see a more mature and developed examination of the same question. The tragedy of student papers is that the authors have only a week between first meeting the giant mountain of mind-bending ideas that is Plato’s Republic and having to write about it. Even the best can’t get past the first glance reaction because it is a first glance reaction. Which is why my favorite way of going through The Just City is to review my mental list of the standard undergraduate reactions to the Republic, and look at what Jo Walton, a Plato veteran who has chewed on the same problem for years, can do.
I shall discuss three issues, which flow one into the next: Historicity, then Women, then (the inevitable end of all things Plato) Metaphysics.
“Totalitarianism!” is an accusation that appears in almost every student Plato paper, “Dystopia! Oppression! It would be unendurable! evil! for people to have their jobs dictated to them by the state! Assigned to fixed ranks for their whole lives! With no say in government unless they’re one of these supposed philosopher kings!” It’s a reaction which always makes a wave of awe wash over me at the absolute victory of Enlightenment concept of equality. Because such students 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, in which one’s lot in life was dictated by birth, and elements of inescapable chance far more inhuman than a well-meaning exam. Viewed from the point of view of 3 centuries BC (or even 15 centuries AD) Plato’s Republic offers mind-blowing levels of equality and self-determination.
Now, the students who write these papers accusing Plato of “totalitarianism” are perfectly aware that the pre-modern world was full of rigid class systems, feudalism, and slavery. They can happily recite for you the American foundation myths of overthrowing old world aristocracy, and achieving liberty and equality for all. 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. Just so, human beings have self-determination, and my students know that on a more basic level than they know that legal and social equality are modern innovations. One level of knowing is engrained, reflexive; the other requires conscious awareness. And this is how my students can know intellectually that Plato’s world was full of unfreedom, but still feel instinctively that a Republic which offers universal, equal education to all children, of all parents, all races, and both sexes, then gives you an exam to determine the job that will make you most happy in life, is a step toward totalitarianism. So, well done, Enlightenment, you made a society of young people who really think with freedom and equality as defaults (even if that has the flip side of making it harder for them look past our paper claims of universal equality recognize the real inequalities caused by issues like poverty and race). As for the Republic, the simple conclusion is that a richer analysis of Plato’s alternate society requires keeping in mind which default society Plato is critiquing, but that is only the first step of engaging with the question of historicity.
Here is where the time travel element of The Just City is so essential. It is true that the pre-modern world had a lot more unfreedom, and the modern world has a lot more freedom, but that binary blurs an essential complexity. The pre-modern world had a vast palette of different types of unfreedom, different in different times and places, and different types of unfreedom overlapping in the same moments. Example: recently I was discussing with a friend how Renaissance imitations of Roman comedy had to invent a lot of contrived impediments to make the young lover struggle to win his beloved (impediments like shrewish elder sisters, or riddle-covered caskets, or Her Dad the Scary Sorcerer wants to taunt him first), because in Roman comedy she would have been a slave girl whom the hero couldn’t afford to buy, and that didn’t make sense in the Renaissance. “Didn’t they have slavery and prostitution in the Renaissance?” my friend objected. Indeed they did! And arranged marriages, and all the rest, but they all worked differently. Regulation of brothels was completely different, the kind of slaves that were bought and sold did a more circumscribed set of domestic labors that so associated with sexuality, manumission wasn’t as common in a world where the majority of unfreedoms were familial, feudal, contractual, or patron-client centered instead of chattel-type unfreedom; all the same elements were there, but the origami paper was folded differently so it made a frog instead of a crane. If Plautus has the heir of a young noble family pine for a beautiful slave girl who turns out to be the long-lost (and inexplicably still virginal) heiress of the rich man next door, that’s implausible and contrived the way that Forrest Gump accidentally exposing Watergate is implausible and contrived; set in the Renaissance, a slave girl story like that would have been gibberish in the way it would have been gibberish if Forrest Gump had suddenly turned out to be the rightful King of France and ended the Cold War by defeating Gorbachev in a heroic joust.
What does The Just City give us? The Masters come from many different points in time, different societies which had different kinds of inequality and unfreedom. And each of the Masters read the Republic just as my students read the Republic, reacting to it by comparing it to their own defaults and experiences, and seeing, not the differences between Plato’s Republic and Plato’s Athens, but the differences between Plato’s Republic and Republican Rome, Renaissance Florence, or Victorian England. Each Master’s hopes in wishing to go to the Republic were different, as are their difficulties living in it. For example, Maia has one set of problems adapting from a post-John-Locke society with concepts of rights, Natural Laws, and nominalism. Ficino and Ikaros/Pico have different troubles learning to navigate social tensions without the network of patron-client relationships which, in their Renaissance lives, both made use of a thousand times a day, with virtuosity, and without thinking about it. The moments where this comes up are subtle and probably more visible to me, as an historian, than to most readers, but there are many points where someone comes to Ficino because Ikaros/Pico is causing a problem, and I think “If they were at home, Ficino would solve this by asking Lorenzo do Medici to tell Pico to calm down, but there’s no patronage system here so… flail?”
To many of the Masters (unlike my students), one of the great appeals of this experimental Republic is that it is—from their perspective—so much more free, more equal, more rational, offering the philosophical life to everyone (regardless of race and sex), and putting the government in the hands of people who at least sincerely care about the good of all. These Masters are men who once lived in fear of tyrants, women who once lived in fear of men; none of them feel, as my modern students do, that the Republic has too much unfreedom. If anything it has too little, since Plato’s extremely skeletal sketch of the city’s government does not provide substitutes to solve the problems which these time travelers are used to solving using [insert subtle unfree social relationship here], and Masters from every period would put something different in those brackets. The hunger for missing inequality is most visible in those of the Masters who were wealthy elite males—Cicero for example—who came to the book seeking the philosophical life, not seeking equality, and very comfortably continue to assume privilege over women and juniors. And their assertion of privilege is hard to combat because the female and younger Masters were raised in societies which trained them to defer it. All the Masters are shown in tension with the Republic’s unfamiliar freedoms at some point. They all had different anachronistic wishes they expected the Republic to grant, and find different chunks lacking in the society-building that Plato’s sketch did not spell out.
There is amazing power in the choice to make most of the more modern Masters women, who dreamed of a Republic where gender would not bar them from the philosophical life. And, for me, it is always amazingly powerful reading the passage of the Republic where Plato suggests that male and female souls are fundamentally the same, and that men and women with the same education can do the same things, even lead a state, or practice philosophy. Most powerful, though, is remembering how long it will be, in the Western tradition, before anyone says such a thing again. Nobody says this. Nobody. Pythagoras said this, Plato’s mother Perictione who seems to have been a Pythagorean philosopher presumably said this, other ancient Greek radicals whose works do not survive said this, but nobody says it again for an insanely long time. Hobbes says it in Leviathan (1651, so only 2,031 years to wait), but he says men and women are the same because poison and guile make women just as capable of murder as men are, and, in the war of all against all, murder is the true equalizer. (Thomas Hobbes: always able to make a point you agree with using a justification that makes you wince.)
Becoming a Master, in Athene’s setup, is only open to people who read the Republic in Greek, which means—in terms of Western Europe post-600 AD—only the most educated elite. And the person must have wanted to be taken away from home to the Republic. So, educated elites who wanted out. We have plenty of Renaissance people because living in the Italian Renaissance was terrible (Ficino: “Yes, with the wars, and the invasions, and the plague, and losing one’s beloved students to gout and assassinations, and the average life expectancy dropping to 18, it was pretty terrible, even for me.” Pico: “See? And Ficino wasn’t even murdered!” Hobbes: “I told you so.”) But over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the experience of Europe’s male elite improved a lot (Hobbes: “Well, I was the most hated man in Europe, and they did revise the laws of England several times just to get at me, but I lived past 90 comfortably, and I wouldn’t trade it for the Renaissance, or for some foolish Platonic Republic.”) But the situation was different for those few women elite enough to read Plato in Greek, whose intellectual avenues did not widen much between the Renaissance and nineteenth century, and who hadn’t been quite so badly off in the Renaissance anyway, since being excluded from most military service, dueling and vendetta mobs made women’s life expectancies substantially higher than men’s. (Lukretia/Lucrezia: “I wasn’t murdered at all! And I was a Borgia! We’re always murdered!” Hobbes: “Well done.”)
For me the most touching and powerful part of the books’ treatment of this question comes from Maia. We see in Maia a woman who wanted to come to the Republic precisely to have an intellectual life, and who gets to be one of the architects of a legal system where the letter of the law makes men and women completely equal. But because the Masters all come from periods where that wasn’t true, they struggle against the habit of having men (and elders) assume authority, and women (and younger Masters) slide into quieter, supporting roles. Despite wishing for equality, Maia and her female peers find they can’t quite live it, they have been too thoroughly socialized into accepting subservient, traditional feminine positions, and fall into it unthinkingly, as unthinkingly as Cicero and others fall into the male roles, and as unthinkingly as I reach for the kitchen sink tap yet again, even though I know the water is off. Sometimes I remember the tap is off, and sometimes the male and female Masters succeed in living by the principle of equality, but it takes constant effort and vigilance, and works better for the later generations than for the initiators of the change. It’s an amazing portrait of how the same phenomenon acts on us in real life, where the most committed feminists—male and female—still sometimes catch ourselves taking an action or making an assumption, unconsciously, where the old problems leak through. Social habituation works in deep, perhaps too deep for a single generation to change itself as much as we would wish. But the habituation is still cultural, not natural or biological, so can take different forms, for example how, in the book, working with technology comes to be seen as a lowly occupation, because, when the project began, advanced technologies was mostly understood by women, so tech became ‘women’s work’ and less serious. Despite the letter of the law, and everybody’s best intent.
Time travel also lets the book show us different people, from different periods and social backgrounds, adjusting more or less well to the sudden equality, both gender equality and equality in general. The most ancient philosophers, especially the men, have the hardest time learning to change, because everyone is automatically prepared to defer to them, making it easy for them to casually behave as aristocrats, even without an aristocracy. And people from the same period adjust differently if they came from different social classes. I spend my workday with my head buried in the Renaissance, so I know I pick up on a lot about the Renaissance characters which isn’t so clear from the text itself, but Ficino and Ikaros/Pico, despite having been dear friends back in Florence, are not just different in age and temperament, but radically different in their backgrounds, and their adjustments to the Republic reflect that. Marsilio Ficino was the son of the Medici family doctor, scooped up and educated in the classics by Cosimo de Medici, who wanted a Greek scholar to translate Plato for him, and to educate his grandchildren (a situation not unlike the slave children scooped up and educated by Athene and the Masters). It was a great opportunity for little Marsilio, but he didn’t exactly have a choice; courtiers were not as unfree on paper as servants or peasants, but were bound by patron-client obligations which really were lifelong, and inescapable, at least without grim consequences. Marsilio Ficino loved his patrons, and loved his life of scholarship, but the threat in the subtext never goes away: “Great news, Marsilio! Cosimo has a new grandson! Lorenzo! You’re going to be the baby’s tutor, and serve him faithfully for the rest of your life, and if you don’t, you’ll die alone in a gutter, and small children will laugh while they mutilate your corpse.” Contrast this with Pico, a rich, handsome genius, raised to be Count of Mirandola and lord of all he surveyed. While Pico was in Florence, he genuinely tried to live as a humble scholar, submitting himself to the direction of mentors who weren’t properly allowed to talk to him without bowing and scraping, but that tension too never goes away: Pico: “Hey, guys! During today’s Plato reading group, let’s play a fun game where we pretend I don’t have enough power to have you all tortured to death for kicks if I wanted to. Feel free to criticize my use of the ablative!” “Yes, Your Excellency, that… doesn’t sound… awkward… at all…” Transplant these two men to the Just City and, despite their equal hypothetical commitments to the project, Ficino the courtier has a much easier time caring for children, letting others exert power, and listening and deferring to women and people younger than himself, as he deferred to little Lorenzo and Giovanni de Medici, and their formidable mom Lucrezia Tornabuoni. The different directions the story takes Ficino and Ikaros/Pico shows how living by new principles is not only hard, but hard in different ways for different people. Especially when people are accustomed to exerting or deferring to unconsciously-exerted power: the power Cicero doesn’t think about when he assumes young people and women will obey his suggestions, or the power the real historical Pico della Mirandola would have exerted every day but never thought about, just by being a Count, which makes everyone in Florence be extra special nice to you:
“Hey, guys, there’s a Count in town, the Count of Mirandola.”
“I didn’t see a parade.”
“He came in secret, to visit the Medici.”
“Is he plotting to conquer Florence?”
“I hear he’s trying to translate the magical teachings of Pythagoras.”
“Sounds dangerous. Does he have an army?”
“He must left it at home.”
“Well, just make sure nobody makes him angry enough to bring it here!”
Now, the surreal part: student papers on how Plato treats women. I have read some great ones, but I have also read paper after paper in which students talk about how horrible the marriage festival system is. And The Just City indeed made that a major and well-developed theme. But the student papers talk about how unfair and cruel it is for the male guardians to dictate who women can sleep with, and for the male guardians to force women to do these festivals, and for the male guardians to have groups of wives, and use the women like a harem. Which isn’t at all what the Republic says. But it is genuinely what a lot of students believe it says. They look at the sex festivals and assume the guardians are all men, using these festivals to force the women to serve them like a harem. Even though it says very clearly that guardians are both sexes. And it says clearly that men and women are lotteried the same. (And we discussed it in class!) Students over and over read it and come away genuinely believing that what Plato is describing is a giant, shared harem ordered by all-male guardians. And I think the reason for the mistake comes back again to the difference between knowing something instinctively, and knowing it intellectually. My students know there will be mistreatment of women here. Any government-regulated sexuality will be another Handmaid’s Tale, and must be run by men, and cruel toward women. Both male and female students expect this. They also know that a historical text like this will oppress women. All women were oppressed in the past, right? The students know that in their guts, as engrainedly as they know that equality and self-determination are the natural state of humans. In a fascinating contrast, at the same time that these students haven’t internalized that inequality and unfreedom were historical norms, they have over-internalized (and oversimplified) the idea that all women were always being oppressed everywhere. Expectation makes them sure that nothing written before 20th century feminism except for Mary Wollstonecraft can possibly be even speculating about gender equality, so they don’t recognize it even when it’s there on the page. Just as the Enlightenment has won a strange victory—producing young people who genuinely believe that equality and self-determination are the default human condition—feminism has won a similarly strange victory—making students so keenly on the alert to spot sexism that they can’t recognize the opposite if it crops up around an unexpected page turn.
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 clearly see the boys and girls both be lotteried, and how that generates sexual pressure and complex levels of consent and non-consent, affecting both boys and girls, though differently, because of different personalities, circumstances, social pressures, and the consequences of pregnancy. 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.
Back to the starting thesis “Plato’s Republic is stupid.” This is not the thesis of The Just City, even though the book concludes that such a Platonic experiment would have deep, crippling flaws, and fall apart, with a diverse and long-term mix of consequences. And many student criticisms mimic ones the book makes (Maia: “Did Plato ever meet a ten-year-old?”). But the itch the book scratches for me, by sticking it through and giving us, not only a window on what goes wrong, but philosophically-trained characters discussing why it goes wrong, is recognizing that “Plato’s Republic is stupid” is not a true statement. More important, “Plato’s Republic would never succeed,” is not a true statement. The true statement is “Plato’s Republic will succeed if and only if Plato was correct about metaphysics.”
Zoom with me into the Republic in Plato’s book, keeping in mind that we are entering an alien universe, with alien physics, and alien psychology, which is neither our universe nor the universe in which The Just City takes place. If you have read The Just City you have already seen some of the characters’ conclusions which are clear disproofs of Plato, including the critical conclusion: “there is no endpoint to excellence.” That conclusion is more than an optimistic message about the value of striving and the possibility of infinite achievement. If you had showed me that sentence before I’d read a word of The Just City, I could instantly tell you a long list of things which would explode in Athene’s experimental republic.
So, in Plato’s universe (not Jo Walton’s) 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) and incorrect (now Bugs Bunny is in Tasmania again). A few turns may present two genuinely equally good choices (it’s about 20 minutes either way…), but the vast majority have an absolute right and wrong. 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. Disputes over the nature of Justice, for example, are like disputes if two nearsighted people without glasses look at the same eyechart, and debate whether the first letter of line 3 is a G or a Q. If you have ten nearsighted people they will all add their opinions, but they’re all looking at the same thing, so will agree that it’s either G or Q or maybe O, but it certainly isn’t I or T. Just so, ten philosophers trying to figure out the true nature of Justice will converge on agreement. Bringing in more naturally philosophical souls is the equivalent of bringing in people with better vision; educating people is the equivalent of giving them glasses. In the end, the more people study the more clearly they’ll see, and eventually everyone will recognize that it’s really a Q. Especially since the system of separating people into Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron is in fact a process of giving everyone an eye exam, and handing rule of the city to the people whose vision is closest to 20/20. This is not true in the universe of The Just City, but in a hypothetical Plato universe it in which it is true, distributing the government among a bunch of rotating philosopher kings works perfectly. Everyone always agrees, and when Golds come back from their time off doing philosophy, they instantly see and understand what the others were doing and how to continue it.
But if “there is no endpoint to excellence” this all goes out the window. The improvement of souls does not have a single unified destination, and there is no source which has the final answer to questions. The Masters will not automatically agree, and different equally reasonable directions for the City will pull it apart. This, by the way, is also why the real historical Ficino and Pico believed that they could hybridize all philosophies into one, because they believed all philosophers had been providing imperfect portraits of the same Truth (peering at the same eyechart), and that if you looked carefully through philosophical works and removed the differences, the things everyone agreed on would be the One Right Answer all philosophy has always sought. The Ikaros/Pico in the Thessaly books is still trying to create this universal system.
Plato’s psychology is as (A) wacky, granted, but (B) bound to his metaphysics. Plato thinks people in his philosophical city will have no interest in marriage/pair-bonding. We disagree, based on our experience of human nature, our biological research, and the examples given in The Just City. But in a Platonic universe it’s true, people in the Republic will not pair off. Why? Because in a imaginary Platonic universe there are (A) no hormones, (B) no such a thing as the unconscious (Bye-bye, Freud), and ( C) love is a very strange and specific thing. In Plato’s universe, all thinking things are driven naturally to desire the Good, which is literally the source that makes desire possible—without it, there is no desire, and virtually no thought at all (as there is no seeing in the dark). When we desire something (a lover, political office, cake) it is because we see the Good reflected in that object. We see the Good, we want the Good, and we think that getting this thing will get us toward the Good. Sometimes we’re right (hooray!) and sometimes we’re wrong (Tasmania again?!). Now, because souls are more solid and more real than the ghostly, shadowy material objects we see around us (yes, we’re still in that cave), souls are by far a better mirror for reflecting the Good than sticks, or landscapes, or even Botticelli paintings. Love happens when someone looks at a fellow human being and catches the soul at just the right angle, so it reflects a brilliant ray of the Good. Think of looking at a sequin dress, where every surface is reflective, but one sequin in particular happens to catch the light. This is why love seems to strike randomly, just as it is chance which sequin catches the light at any given instant. Having spotted the Good, the lover becomes excited by the beloved, seeking to find the Good through them. And a virtuous, philosophically enlightened beloved is a better reflector and shows more of the Good. But if the lover is also a student of philosophy, in time the lover will realize that the beloved is the sequin, not the light, and will start paying attention to the Good itself instead of the lover. The pair-bonding instinct will then fade away.
In a universe in which Plato is 100% correct about how love works, a society of super-educated philosopher adolescents would indeed cut straight past being confused by sequins to staring at the brilliant, delightful Good, and would come to consider sex as a mere civic necessity akin to Jury Duty. For such adolescents, Plato’s lottery system would be perfectly satisfying. In the universe most of my college students believe in—whose dominant romance narratives are sitcoms and Disney—Plato’s lottery system would make everybody miserable, and papers cite causes from “hormones” to “human nature” to “family values” to “true love.” In the patient and thoroughly universe of Thessaly—where souls are more real than bodies in the Platonic sense but “there is no endpoint to excellence” so no distant Good which souls are all reflecting—the system works sometimes. Which is the part that made me cheer. For some characters it’s a disaster. For others it’s a welcome relief. For other characters it’s successful in some ways but not others, resulting some great relationships, and some horrible traumas, and some mixed moments, infinite variety. A deeply refreshing infinite variety, which explores how the humanity we observe is a broad gradient, not only of sexual orientations, but also of sexual appetites. Asexuals, people who want lots of sex, people who want occasional sex, people for whom sex and life-partnering are strongly linked, people for whom they aren’t linked, people with strong affinities for one partner, people who tend toward many partners, they all exist, and are real, and are matches, mismatches, and partial matches for Plato’s festival system, just as people are matches, mismatches and partial matches for our own system of sexuality, romance and marriage, and have been matches, mismatches or partial matches for the different systems humanity has tried out over human history.
As the Thessaly books unfold, different details of their metaphysics become clearer, and the differences between their universe and Plato’s theory make clear why things work for Plato but not them. The books, as I read them, are not attempting to present the “real” world in a debunking sense, or even a “modern” metaphysics juxtaposed to Plato’s ancient one. Rather the books seem to me to strive to have many elements of Platonism (and the fun and wacky hybrid Neoplatonism) be real, but only as many as would plausibly result in people who think and act akin to the people we experience in real life. It is as Platonic as it could be but still feel real, and still result in the real world Earth history that the time travelers come from. It’s a metaphysics which, for example, thoroughly rejects nominalism and John Locke (Hobbes: “Ha!”) and also Hobbes (Hobbes: “Fair play, I suppose.”) but keeps unconscious urges, and a totally modern psychology.
One of my favorite quotations from the entire history of thought (and the moment when I say you can draw a line and say “here lies modernity”) is when Galileo said “If Aristotle were here today, he would change his mind.” This is more than just a denunciation of Aristotle. Plato’s suggestion that all wise people are aiming toward the same Good penetrated deeply into European thought, and remained a dominant force in it until 1600, governing, not just how people thought, but how people thought thought worked. Intellectual endeavor was, in this echo-of-Plato view, a process of approaching a single, distant but stable Correctness. Great, wise authorities—in the view this birthed—were right, the truths they described stable and unchanging, and the process of knowledge-acquisition was one of further clarifying what great luminaries had already known. The projects of Ficino and Pico/Ikaros were born of this model of knowledge, Ficino’s in particular, since he saw his innovative intellectual endeavors not as a process of forward motion or discovery, but as a process of backward motion returning to the correct knowledge which great sages had had at the beginning of philosophy, but which had been cluttered since by accumulated error. Ficino, in fact, believed that Plato had learned his philosophy from a tradition of earlier sages including Pythagoras, Hermes Trismegistus, Orpheus, and Moses, and Ficino’s own work was an attempt to reconstruct that original philosophy, from which a degenerating history had strayed. Because there was an endpoint to excellence, in Ficino’s understanding, an endpoint which was also the starting point, and was both Good and God.
Now, if Plato were in the universe of The Just City, he would change his mind, just as Simmea, Maia, Ficino, Ikaros/Pico, all the good students of Platonism in Athene’s petri dish do over the course of the books. They neither reject nor accept Platonism wholesale, but discover over time what holds up and what doesn’t, developing new and better systems. And Plato too would change his mind, not changing the political plan because the city fell apart, but changing his entire metaphysics because the fact that the political plan fell apart proves that he was wrong about the nature of the soul, how thought works, how love works, how time works, how the composition of objects works, everything. Plato would not need to talk to Apollo or Athene to see that his system was wrong—he would observe the consequences of his thought experiment and deduce his error from how badly it went wrong. Platonism without an endpoint to excellence must start again, as completely as astronomy did when Galileo showed that the Earth was not the center of a spherical cosmos. And it is thus that the time travelers of The Just City present to us, distilled into a lifetime, the process which the history of thought went through, accepting Plato, testing Plato, finding that some bits of Plato really didn’t work, and adapting Plato, keeping the valuable parts and substituting others.
Our current real world Earth western metaphysics his a lot of range and disagreement, but there is still a ton of Plato in it—questions of material vs. immaterial, ideal vs. image, tensions between different parts of the mind/soul—Platonism modified, adapted, and wedded to new ideas, including the innovative post-1600 concepts of progress, cultural relativism, coexistence of multiple respectable different interpretations of the same thing, and the possibility that accumulation of knowledge is infinite rather than finite. The pioneers of these new ideas, Descartes, Francis Bacon, Locke, Hobbes (“I’m back!”) and the other innovators of the seventeenth century, developed them in reaction to Renaissance humanism and High Medieval Aristotelian scholasticism. Which is to say, in reaction to a real historical attempt that had been made in Europe between 1250 and 1550 to suddenly enact and live by Platonism, and other two-thousand-year-old philosophies and practices. And these Medieval and Renaissance revivals didn’t even have pure Platonism or Aristotelianism to work with, just struggling successors trying their best to guess what Plato and Aristotle meant. Sound familiar? The Thessaly series presents, condensed into a few decades, the intellectual evolution Europe went through between the High Middle Ages and 1600. Europe threw its all into trying to do this ancient philosophy thing, it seemed to go really well for a while, then it all fell apart, degenerated into conflict, and left a war-torn land to rebuild and find new ways to use those fragments of antiquity which were still useful. In Europe, this process had many good consequences (liberal arts education!), and many bad (Pico: “Say, Ficino, you outlived me; what happened in Florence after I… wait, come back! It can’t be… that… bad?”). And the modern concepts of progress and cultural relativism were born from the aftermath, concepts very akin to the motto “there is no endpoint to excellence.”
By bringing people and problems from different times together and letting them put the maximum pressure on Plato’s system, Thessaly shows us Europe’s intellectual development on fast forward, compressing into the lifespan of incarnate Pythias the growing pains of Europe between 1250 to 1800, or at least one extremely central thread of them. The problems with Platonism, and with syncretism, are exposed more quickly with Athene’s city-sized petri dish than they were when the petri dish was Europe and the experiments diffused over many regions, many different attempts, and a political stage of such mind-blowing complexity that we train Ph.Ds just so we have someone around who can tell us what the heck happened during the War of the League of Cambrai. (Pico: “The war of what?” Lukretia/Lucrezia: “You see, Ikaros, when an ambitious family and a papal tiara love each other very much…”) Thessaly gives us that intellectual process without the mire of times and places, the historicity without the history, and gives me—the eager but weary reader of 300 Plato papers—a fully developed version of my students’ reflexive reaction “Plato’s Republic is doomed to fail!” Yes, yes it is doomed to fail, but, as with any petri dish, the value is what we learn from the process.