Socrates as Mary Sue

by Belle Waring on February 9, 2016

The genuinely Platonic way to discuss The Just City would be to not talk about it at all after the introductory section of the post, and instead use it as the springboard for a discussion about something tangentially related. Additionally, we should go Unfogged style: the post should be short and all the action should take place in the comments, in which I will be kind of a dick to everyone (“how would this be different than the usual?” you ask!) and, more controversially, cut out the content of everyone’s replies and paste in slightly weaker arguments that suit my purposes better. But this doesn’t seem like a very good idea, even if it is a very Platonic idea.

John says, it’s proof that Republic is science fiction! Because what happens when your characters set out to build the city which that one part of Plato’s Republic describes, plausibly only for the purposes of drawing an analogy to the well-ordered soul? You get SF. And maybe you learn something about being a good person? Maybe not, though.

I’m interested in what makes a character a Mary Sue. It’s a useful term (though problematic as I will say below). Some characters really are Mary Sues to the point that the way they effortlessly overcome all obstacles becomes an obstacle to reading. I love Anne McCaffrey, but Dragonsinger, fails as a novel due to the improbably perfect, talented, totally in the right, musical genius Menolly who has NINE fire-lizards. The first book in the trilogy is excellent, making one even more annoyed. On the other hand, every fantasy novel involves wish-fulfilment at some level, or characters who overcome all odds. Harry Potter is a Mary Sue if we put things that way, and yet it’s not a helpful or interesting thing to say about the Harry Potter series. Can Socrates be thought of usefully as a Mary Sue? I would say yes. His many straw enemies make for a lot of unsatisfying triumphs.

The Just City made me consider how various characters or storylines might be or not be wish-fulfilment, and also to question myself as a reader. Am I more willing to read a book about Napoleonic naval battles that one that faces the agony of childbirth and post-partum depression? Having experienced the latter set myself I know it is terrifying, and even if we find Medea’s ‘one child to three battles’ ratio overstated I think we’ll end up with at the very least a one to one ratio of terror and looming death. Is Horatio Hornblower’s strategic genius and physical courage any less an inviting space to be inhabited by a day-dreaming reader than Walton’s Classics scholar freed from the crippling sexism of her day and set loose in the field of politics?

There isn’t an educated woman alive who hasn’t thought about her sisters in the past and then thought about the various life prospects available to them and then felt miserable. It is in all likelihood a personal character failing, combined with having read an excess of 19th-century novels, that inclines me to think of well-read early Victorian women with these pangs of pity rather than, say, lots of actual women alive right now in southern Myanmar, whom I could in principle help. Or I feel sad for Japanese noblewomen who learned poetry through the wall when their brothers were being taught on the other side. Paper walls for the unlikely win! (It’s funny to think how much easier Japanese would be to learn if they had gone all the way using ‘inferior women’s’ syllabary and not left 70% of the written language in Chinese characters. But the only way to do that sort of thing when the weaker sex is associated with phonetics is to have a benevolent despot—a philosopher-king if you will—just sort stuff out.) I realised that I’m inclined to think of the project which is part of constructing the Just City, namely the part in which women and girls are redeemed from the straitened circumstances of the past, as a kind of wish-fulfilment. But is this only because it is a pre-existing wish of mine?

Any wish-fulfilment in SF is often derided as the creation of “Mary Sues.” When this term was coined it was immediately obvious to many readers and writers that this is…strangely gendered at best and suspiciously misogynist at worst. If people throw the word around only in the context of female characters, or with the implicit notion that women in fantasy and SF are the main locus of ‘Mary-Sue-ness’, then something has gone very wrong. The term comes from one Paula Smith, who wrote a story in 1973 as a satire of Star Trek fanfic (maybe life before the internet wasn’t that different after all?!). The wikipedia entry linked above actually does a good job interrogating the notion, and also contains more than a few things liable to induce a rage stroke.

At Clippercon 1987 (a Star Trek fan convention held yearly in Baltimore, Maryland), Smith interviewed a panel of female authors who say they do not include female characters in their stories at all. [the whole panel was composed of such authors? I think not and that this is sloppily redacted—Belle] She quoted one as saying “Every time I’ve tried to put a woman in any story I’ve ever written, everyone immediately says, this is a Mary Sue.” Smith also pointed out that “Participants in a panel discussion in January 1990 noted with growing dismay that any female character created within the community is damned with the term Mary Sue.

Do not…include female characters…at all. Great way to solve the problem! Why not simply create male characters who seem to embody this same problem, with their invulnerability to weapons, panther-like agility, handiness with a nuke-grenade when the bugs come after you, and more! Wait, that’s most every fantasy and SF book ever, already. (“He will know your ways as one born to them.”)

We need a more appropriate monicker. I propose ‘Louis Wu’ in lieu of ‘Gary Stu’ which (along with ‘Marty Stu’) is often proposed as a more useful replacement for Mary Sue. Useful in the sense that it has a wider application. I yield to no woman in my love of Ringworld, but let’s face facts. (And Ringworld spoilers!) Louis Wu bangs his way to freedom with a woman who, though biological, is like Pris in Bladerunner—“your basic pleasure model.” And that’s before he saves everyone by dragging their ship into a hole in the ringworld punched by an errant meteor. The failure of imagination exhibited in so many classic SF novels is of a peculiar kind. You can imagine ringworlds and aliens and nano-weapons that destroy super-conductive materials to bring about the crash of hostile civilizations, but you somehow can’t get all the way to women doing space jobs? We don’t want dudes to be bored on spaceships while they do space jobs. Hmmm. Better include women doing space jobs and also having sex if they feel like it because they have autonomy sex toys! Gnurggh [this is the noise I make when attempting to turn my face inside out in irritation, as John can tell you].

In The Just City, quite a number of my favorite subjects for daydreams get a look in. What would we be able to get if we could rush into the Library of Alexandria a day before the fire? (ALL THE THINGS.) How would ancient scholars of Plato react when confronted in a visceral way with the gender equality proposed in Republic? (NOT WELL. That no one can convince Cicero to change any diapers seems veeeryy realistic to me.) Wait, how would dudes born before 1950 react? Also not well, is how. And within the frame of the story’s would-be-Platonic city, how would people react to the noble lie, or to having their infants torn from their hands as soon as they gave birth? (Honestly I am almost surprised that everyone didn’t revolt right then.)

And this is what I thought when I began to read The Just City: what will be interesting about this is how the disaster comes about. Because attempting to create an actual polis using Plato’s Republic as a guide is pretty much the worst idea ever. I won’t entirely spoil the plot for those of you who haven’t read the book yet. It is fitting that even with many changes, running the experiment “how will those in power react to Socrates’ incessant interrogation?” yields the same results as the one in Athens. Getting stung by gadflies hurts, nor is actually beneficial to those getting stung, pace Plato. (I assume they are exactly like horseflies, no? European readers who have been stung by both, please enlighten us.)

On the whole I think Walton did a very good job with the thought-experiment-cum-novel. I liked the way the multiple narrators allowed us to see things from the children’s perspective and then also from that of the adults. Thus we learned (eventually) that anarchy prevailed for a while as the badly-outnumbered adults tried to tend to an army of ten-year-olds, something that wasn’t apparent to the children. I think Socrates could have done more damage in his final argument than he did. I appreciated the way that the combination of people with varying sexual mores produced a depressing and plausible result: that women might judge it best to keep rape quiet and not rock the boat. One thing which derailed my reading at times was a too-thoroughgoing feminism among the children of the city (John talks about this also). These children were slaves or peasant farmers or whatever before coming to the city, and had plenty of time to imbibe all the sexism in the world. Further, the vast majority of the adults come from times with deeply entrenched sexism. That one or two exceptional girls might ‘get it’ right off the bat seems fine, but that all would seemed strained. The thing which I found most difficult to imagine was the teenage heroine Simmea deciding not to have sex with Apollo. Having chosen to live a life and learn from experience, he is human, but he’s perfect and beautiful and numinous. Simmea’s first pregnancy nearly killed her, so it’s not hard to imagine shying away from the certainty of another pregnancy (since he’s a god she’ll definitely conceive, and be the mother of a hero). The thing is that she’s very likely to get knocked up the following day, on which she’ll be assigned a sex partner by lot (or so she thinks) so that she can fulfil her reproductive duty to the city. Further, she has been in love with Apollo since forever, and she knows that he genuinely loves her for the person she is, and for the mind within her body—- not for her physical self, which she knows to be unprepossessing.

What follows is an excellent example of my poor judgment. One day, when I was eleven, I was wandering in the alley behind my grandmother’s house in Georgetown, in D.C. I remember it quite vividly; hot but not yet oppressively so, and smelling of tar and the clots of mulberries staining the concrete all at one end of the alley. Tempting yet insipid, is really all you can say about mulberries. I would go to the trouble of climbing the chain-link fence by the tree, even though mulberries taste like you’re being haunted by a now-dead blackberry. The sky was very blue, so not summer yet. I thought to myself how I wished the Greek gods were real (fine so far!) but particularly that it would be very satisfying if Apollo were to notice me at that moment. My daughters actually laughed at what a terrible idea this was. And it wasn’t like I hadn’t read enough stories to know what happens to mortals when they get involved with the gods in any fashion, howsoever obliquely! The humans get wrecked up, is what. If you’re lucky you’ll be flayed alive like Marsyas and it’ll be over in a hurry, but you might end up suffering the torments of the damned in a religion where there isn’t even a non-Hell area to advance to after death! But what will children do besides daydream? And that even about sexual power, which we might feel ambivalent about. Certainly adults fantasize all the time, especially about sexual power. Reading this book made me ask myself, am I more willing to read Oh John Ringo, No! write a detailed account of creating a tribal nation than I am an account of how post-partum depression can be dealt with in the ancient world? Do I consider military SF to be non-Louis Wu-ish? If I think that I’m dumb and wrong, clearly. Has internalized sexism made me regard some kinds of imaginary world-building as less legitimate than others, more feminine than others? A book about a philosophical city may not seem a likely place for this to arise, and yet I needed to think about the areas I found less satisfactory and then ask, is this something about the novel, or about me?

I’ll close by noting something I had intended to talk more about. “Socrates” would serve just as well as “Louis Wu,” if you think about it. Socrates is a giant Mary Sue philosopher character for Plato. Lucky in his choice of interlocutors, pleasantly unsurprised when he elicits geometry from slave boys, the object of unreturned sexual affection from the hottest guy in Athens, an initiate into a variety of mysteries he can only allude to because reasons…like I say, he’s a dream come true. A dream Plato can conveniently claim came true in such a way as to validate everything Plato believes? Like many a young philosopher I turned away from philosophy as an undergraduate just because Socrates was so damn annoying. He’s Louis Wu, I’m telling you.



jake the antisoshul soshulist 02.09.16 at 2:33 pm

I have made that claim in another way, that in the Dialogues Socrates is Plato’s sock-puppet.
Semi off topic, but does any “respected” writer have as many Marty Stu’s as Robert Heinlein. The question might be was Heinlein as big of an asshole as Lazerus Long?


oldster 02.09.16 at 3:30 pm

Thanks, Belle. Great stuff.


JoB 02.09.16 at 3:43 pm

It is the Socratic method that should be renamed the “Louis Wu”-method. In classrooms all over the world innocent people get tortured by Teachers asking questions only Teacher knows the exact right answer to. These unfortunate people (aptly called students) are left guessing what’s in The Teacher’s head knowing it will never be quite all right because The Teacher feels in touch with the ultimate wisdom.


delagar 02.09.16 at 4:17 pm

I know most people hate Socrates — the one in Plato’s dialogues — but I love him to bits. Ever since the first time I read him, in the Apology, and then the Meno, I’ve loved his ability to bash people’s wrong arguments to bits, kick them aside, and set up better arguments in their place. It’s so *lovely.*

When I read The Just City for the first time, I literally shouted aloud for joy when Socrates showed up.


Doctor Science 02.09.16 at 4:45 pm

I’m here to register that I am REALLY CRANKY at this whole symposium. The third volume isn’t out yet! Why are you doing this now?!? How can we possibly talk about the series as a whole when we don’t have the series as a whole?!?

Also, my carpal tunnel is doing bad things to me, so I am easily cranked.


Henry 02.09.16 at 5:17 pm

The Socrates of the Thessaly books has a lot in common with the Socrates of Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine, which is a much more attractive depiction than the Socrates of either Plato or Xenophon imo (and everybody, everybody should read this book and the rest of Renault’s work if they haven’t already – just so good).


mjfgates 02.09.16 at 5:18 pm

DS@5: Don’t crank your wrists like that, it’ll make your carpal tunnel worse.

I actually found the post-partum depression cure to be the most implausible thing in The Just City. I mean, sure, time travel, and the existence of Greek gods in general, that’s all old hat, but PPD is *complicated*. It’s like this side effect of a bunch of a whole pile of feedback loops which are actually supposed to be happening. And praying to Asclepius just makes that… go away? WTF? Maybe it’s just that I haven’t got as much practice suspending my disbelief about that particular thing.


Bloix 02.09.16 at 5:22 pm

I don’t think every wish-fulfillment character is a Mary Sue. I think it’s limited to an adolescent character who finds her/himself in a strange and challenging situation, where he/she conquers all adversity and is the object of adoration by all around her.

Horatio Hornblower, for example, is no Mary Sue. He’s poor, skinny, moderately ugly, oddly named, cripplingly shy, lonely, tone-deaf and without rhythm (at a time when dancing was a crucial social skill), prone to seasickness (!), and plagued to the point of agony by class insecurity. But he’s got a physical courage that is a sort of fatalism, mathematical ability (he’s superb at navigation and at cards), strong logical reasoning, and a modesty born of self-doubt that saves him from the tyrannical sadism then common among naval officers.

I suppose nerdy boys might find HH to be a wish-fulfillment character in the sense that he is a man with the flaws of a nerdy boy who eventually succeeds brilliantly. But no one would want to be Horatio Hornblower if they had a choice.

Unlike, say, John Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. You could administer a revealing psychological test by asking, who you would rather be, Aubrey or Maturin?


Carol Lynn 02.09.16 at 5:22 pm

From my recollections, any fanfic authors at a Star Trek convention in 1987 would be very adverse to putting in original female characters. I don’t find that unlikely at all. I’m not implying that there were no authors who wrote original female characters, but that a panel at a con, especially one formulated to discuss MarySue characters, consisted of people who didn’t would not surprise me.

Full disclaimer – I was not at that particular convention but I was heavily involved in fandom at the time.


Gary Othic 02.09.16 at 5:57 pm

Not read The Just City, so avoiding this like the plague for fear of spoilers but thought I’d pick up on:

“Can Socrates be thought of usefully as a Mary Sue? I would say yes. His many straw enemies make for a lot of unsatisfying triumphs.”

This, perhaps ironically, makes Socrates the proto-typical Ayn Rand hero, who triumphs, not due to their brilliance (though we’re assured it is immense) but because their opponents make such awful arguments.


delagar 02.09.16 at 7:00 pm

But do his opponents (all) make such awful arguments?

I mean, some do, surely. In the Apology they do. But it other dialectics, some of the arguments seem good, at least at first. If they were all just awful, what would be the point?


Gary Othic 02.09.16 at 7:20 pm

@delagar (11)

Well I was being a bit tongue in cheek :p

On the serious side, as I recall from the Republic Thrasymacus had the better of most of their engagements, and Socrates only got out of it by ‘plot armour’. After he left Glaucon carried it on but most of it devolved into fairly poor arguments that were easily refuted; or else arguments that were conceded very cheaply. Been a long time since I read it, or anything Plato though, so I might be being retrospectively unfair.


NickS 02.09.16 at 8:16 pm

[Plato’s depiction of] Socrates isn’t a Mary Sue but he is an underhanded debater. I remember noticing that, in The Republic, if you trace the lines of the original argument about the nature of justice Socrates gets on of the people he’s arguing with* to agree that justice in the state is analogous to just in an individual, then goes on a 200 page digression before making getting that person person to agree that a just state has a harmonious balance between it’s different elements and then says, more or less, “aha! I have proven that justice requires harmony and balance!”

Having done some HS and college debate I honestly admired that — it takes a certain kind of competitiveness to spend 200 pages setting up an “aha!” moment which nobody cares about by that point.**

*I’m not going to bother to look up the exact details because I assume there are enough people here who have read The Republic recently who can correct me if I’m wrong.

** You could probably insert Socrates’ name into this humorous advice, ” listen out for the words ‘Let us assume’ or ‘Let’s suppose’ and immediately jump in and say ‘No, let’s not assume that’. The point being that if you give away the starting assumptions, [Socrates]’s reasoning will almost always carry you away to the conclusion he wants to reach with no further opportunities to object, but that if you examine the assumptions carefully, there’s usually one of them which provides the function of a great big rug under which all the points you might want to make have been pre-swept.”


David Moles 02.09.16 at 8:22 pm

Belle—I’ve been regretting the dilution/appropriation/MRAification of “Mary Sue” for a while now, and “Louis Wu” is absolutely the best possible replacement. (So perfect that I can’t help wondering whether Paula Smith might have had old Louie in the back of her mind when she named her precocious Starfleet lieutenant.) You’re a God-damned genius. Thank you.


Rob Barrett 02.09.16 at 8:23 pm

Menolly isn’t a Mary Sue, either. She is too tall for a girl, gangly, and the constant verbal and emotional abuse she’s received from her parents has left her depressed and unable to speak for herself.


Donald Johnson 02.09.16 at 9:01 pm

Probably not going to read the series–some of the harsher Amazon reviews sounded pretty convincing and I lost interest. So spoil away.

But what’s that about unfogged? Haven’t visited in maybe a decade and don’t remember it being that weird. Maybe I didn’t visit it enough or wasn’t paying attention.


Neville Morley 02.09.16 at 9:24 pm

Wonderful stuff, and clearly wish-fulfillment is a major element in the Just City narrative (they aren’t my dreams, but I can see the attraction in theory). But I’m not sure about this reading of Socrates; isn’t the idea of the wish-fulfillment character that we want to be them and get to experience triumph over adversity, recognition of our exceptional but previously hidden qualities etc through them? My reading, of Walton, Plato, Xenophon and Renault, is that the wish-fulfillment is to be acknowledged as a close companion, to get to discuss philosophy with Socrates rather than to be Socrates, to be allowed to travel with him. Socrates is actually Gandalf.


Kiwanda 02.09.16 at 11:21 pm

Speaking of fan fiction, I wonder if there has been a Mary Sue/Louis Wu analysis of Fifty Shades of Gray, a book that sounds in general as though it’s male wish fulfillment, but whose huge fanbase seems to be entirely female.


jgtheok 02.09.16 at 11:42 pm

Suspension of disbelief is an odd thing; readers may be fine with dragons and time travel, but not with a character with multiple superhuman talents who keeps serving up soapbox advice to the thunderous applause of their supporting cast.

Regrettably sexist terminology, but I’d like to keep it – I take perverse satisfaction in labeling the hero of whichever bad military SF novel (the virile, steely-eyed philosopher/autodidact/entrepreneur/general) as “the Mary Sue.”

Socrates as Mary Sue may be a stretch. (Perhaps Plato’s sock-puppet annoyed too many people, but meeting a bad end somehow feels like an integral part of the package…)


Yankee 02.10.16 at 12:33 am

Propose Mary Sue/Louis Wu both as the yin “feminine”, whereas the yang “masculine” is the character who achieves victory entirely by persevering in great suffering, a thirsty scarecrow crawling across the desert. James Bond. Travis McGee. Jesus, in some interpretations, although others think he is a more complex character than that.


mdc 02.10.16 at 12:36 am

“His many straw enemies make for a lot of unsatisfying triumphs.”

There are non-straw enemies (NSEs) who handily defeat him, like Parmenides; there are NSEs who fight him to a draw, like Protagoras, or Aristophanes; There are NSE’s who he beats only in some respects, like Gorgias, or Agathon; even many of the ‘defeated’ enemies are way to smart or vivid to count as “straw”, such as Callicles or Thrasymachus.

Also wanted to point out that the best city in the Republic is wish-fulfillment for his particular interlocutors more than anyone else.


Henry 02.10.16 at 4:06 am

My reading, of Walton, Plato, Xenophon and Renault, is that the wish-fulfillment is to be acknowledged as a close companion, to get to discuss philosophy with Socrates rather than to be Socrates, to be allowed to travel with him. Socrates is actually Gandalf.

That’s pretty good.


Lawrence Stuart 02.10.16 at 6:01 am

I’d frame things this way: Sci Fi and Fantasy are sub genres of Romance, and Romance is a direct relative of the Folktale. In the genre of the Folktale the hero has a very specific role: he slays the dragon and marries the princess. He, moreover, is very much the expected gender of the hero. She, OTOH, is expected to be the object of his quest. We, meanwhile, are conditioned to expect Louis Wu-ism from male romantic heroes; he is the every hero, and so unremarked and generally unmocked. A female romantic hero goes against the grain of this expectation, and so casts the expected qualities of the male hero into the shadow of a very much gendered jolt of high voltage awareness of our own credulity. What we accept as commonplace hero stuff from a Louis Wu are the same seemingly outlandish qualities of a Mary Sue. In both cases these qualities are necessary to the plot. Dragon slaying and princess (or prince) wedding are heroic tasks. So making male and female heroes equally subject to mockery misses the point. The genre runs on heroes. That can’t be changed without making the genre something else. But the enormous baggage of cultural expectation regarding the gender of the hero is something that certainly can and should be challenged. The more Mary Sues the better, I say.

And Socrates? Ultimately isn’t he a tragic hero? But if I were to think of his role in folkloric terms I’d cast him as Propp’s ‘sender,’ a combo midwife, wizard, teacher, and trickster. Dumbledor (or Gandalf) is very much his type.


ZM 02.10.16 at 7:37 am

“In the genre of the Folktale the hero has a very specific role: he slays the dragon and marries the princess. He, moreover, is very much the expected gender of the hero.”

There has been quite a bit of work that shows that the published folk tales by collectors in the 19th C were unrepresentative of the actual folk tales collected, which were less constrained by 19th C middle class gender norms and good manners etc. Although lots of them were unsuitable for children as they were originally told so they had to get bowdlerised to be children’s books like they were turned into. There are quite a number of articles on this, e.g:

“Schönwerth’s tales have a compositional fierceness and energy rarely seen in stories gathered by the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault, collectors who gave us relatively tame versions of “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” and “Rapunzel.”

Schönwerth gives us a harsher dose of reality than most collections.

His Cinderella is a woodcutter’s daughter who uses golden slippers to recover her beloved from beyond the moon and the sun. His miller’s daughter wields an ax and uses it to disenchant a prince by chopping off the tail of a gigantic black cat.

The stories remain untouched by literary sensibilities. No throat-clearing for Schönwerth, who begins in medias res, with “A princess was ill” or “A prince was lost in the woods,” rather than “Once upon a time…”
Our own culture, under the spell of Grimm and Perrault, has favored fairy tales starring girls rather than boys, princesses rather than princes. But Schönwerth’s stories show us that once upon a time, Cinderfellas evidently suffered right alongside Cinderellas, and handsome young men fell into slumbers nearly as deep as Briar Rose’s hundred-year nap.”


ZM 02.10.16 at 7:53 am


“hot but not yet oppressively so, and smelling of tar and the clots of mulberries staining the concrete all at one end of the alley. Tempting yet insipid, is really all you can say about mulberries. I would go to the trouble of climbing the chain-link fence by the tree, even though mulberries taste like you’re being haunted by a now-dead blackberry. “

But mulberries are delicious, the only bad thing about them is you get mulberry juice everywhere. They don’t make the best jam as they lose flavour when cooked, but they make a perfect sorbet straining the juice and mixing it uncooked with a sugar syrup. Maybe you had the wrong sort of mulberries growing.

I stopped reading the book because it was too violent, but I imagined a conversation with Apollo and the robots, he could have had a self-driving chariot drive the sun along and got himself a lot of spare time through mechanisation.


Niall McAuley 02.10.16 at 10:45 am

Bloix @ #8 writes: You could administer a revealing psychological test by asking, who you would rather be, Aubrey or Maturin?

Wow, it literally never occurred to me that anyone might answer Aubrey. That’d be like admitting you’d quite like to be Boris Johnson.


etv13 02.10.16 at 11:15 am

@NiallMcAuley: Heretofore, I’d always come across the Aubrey-Maturin choice as who you’d prefer as a lover, and there, for me, it’s Aubrey hands down, if only because Jack’s standards of personal hygiene are rather better than Stephen’s. (Also, my taste runs to blonds.) But thinking now about who I’d rather be, I think maybe that’s Aubrey, too. He has a First Folio in his family library, he’s the better musician, he’s a natural optimist, he has a much nicer wife (although of course she comes with some baggage in the form of the world’s worst mother-in-law), he isn’t addicted to any thing (except possibly sex), and he’s not the cold-blooded killer and dissector Stephen is. Also, again, the standards of personal hygiene. Not to mention, he’s the lord of the manor and Stephen isn’t. (On the other hand, Stephen ends up fantastically rich.) On the whole, and not without reservation, I think I’d rather be Aubrey.


Niall McAuley 02.10.16 at 12:29 pm

To be myself in Aubrey’s shoes, perhaps, but then I would be dead several times over and so would everyone else on board. But to actually be Jack Aubrey instead of myself? An appalling vista.


Saggit 02.10.16 at 12:31 pm

For the record, I always hated Plato’s Socrates, for much the same reason as I hated Shaw’s Andrew Undershaft: because they spewed bad arguments that were only acceptable since their opponents were deliberately armed with worse ones. Which means I thought still less of Plato and Shaw as debaters, unwilling to truly face their glib, flat, third rate characters with honest challenges. That Socrates and Undershaft were Mary Sues goes without saying–or rather, was said in the circles I frequented generations ago. We just didn’t use that term. We called them cardboard stand-ins for their authors, and we tossed metaphysical rotten tomatoes at them.


burritoboy 02.10.16 at 10:53 pm

for the love of Socrates I propose to make myself the target of a lot of resulting ire:

What this discussion shows is that Plato has a different conception of philosophy than analytic philosophers do. Worse, the analytic philosophers don’t understand that they are themselves making a lot of assumptions about what philosophy is. Many of the respondents here don’t seem to realize what your assumptions are, and are faulting Plato (more broadly, you guys are in truth faulting all of, or much of, of classical philosophy) without working to understand what philosophic dialogues might be up to.

Plato was writing something new: the dialogues are something like plays, but at the same time they are not plays. (We should not forget that the first literary depiction of Socrates is within Aristophanes’ Clouds, and it is a fairly negative depiction by one of the greatest comic poets of history.) That is, Plato’s dialogues (and the rest of the dialogue writers of the early Socratic circle like Xenophon and Aeschines of Sphettus) inhabit some sort of genre we still really don’t have a conception for. What we can perhaps intimate is that Plato is dubious about writing – the famous discussion of writing in the Phaedrus, for one example. The actual Socrates seems to have shared this opinion, bolstered by the fact that he himself wrote nothing.

What this seems to indicate is that how a Platonic dialogue operates is – intentionally – entirely different from how a treatise or essay operates. That most (but not all) of Socrates’ interlocutors advance mediocre to bad arguments isn’t Plato loading the deck for Socrates. Much of the time Socrates doesn’t “win” anything, and only sometimes offers a concrete conclusion of his own. We often don’t read back into the dialogues that the early Socratic circle generally produced works that show Socrates’ trial, which he loses and then is executed (Xenophon and Plato both write Apologies, and Aeschines of Sphettus seems to be arguing against the charges that Socrates is executed for). Socrates is, at the end, not some Louis Wu – he gets executed in a jail cell (the archetypal Louis Wu or Mary Sue wins, of course). And we note that his pupils worked hard to avoid the same fate (some left Athens, others wrote things that are difficult to understand, others simply fell silent).

The intellectual weakness of many of Socrates’ interlocutors isn’t, I think, a stacking of the deck against them. Their intellectual weakness usually points to problems or flaws within their own psychologies and characters that prevent them from being stronger adversaries. The point of many of the dialogues seems much less to convince us of some particular conclusion but rather to guide us into doing the work of philosophy ourselves alongside of the written work. Lots of people have made this point before, but: the dialogue form forces the reader to think in ways that are different than the treatise or essay.

Further, the dialogues of Socrates’ students can be viewed as a sort of reinactment of Socrates’ life, perhaps to achieve catharsis for Socrates’ pupils after his traumatic death. (Both Plato’s and Xenophon’s Socratic dialogues can viewed as a tragic dramatic cycle that end in Socrates’ death.) And this in turn means that a primary purpose of the dialogue is less to argue for advanced particular philosophic conclusions than to have the readers re-experience or re-live what being around Socrates was like. That, in turn, means focusing on how philosophy or philosophers interact with non-philosophers, as most of the citizens of Athens were. Dialogues where two philosophers (or let’s just say, two extremely adept thinkers) converse would be beside the point of what dialogues are supposed to do under that interpretation, because dialogues like that wouldn’t move us toward the dramatic endpoint of the cycle (philosophers presumably wouldn’t try to use public opinion to murder each other).


burritoboy 02.10.16 at 11:50 pm

No, Socrates isn’t Gandalf. Gandalf is a knower – he knows things that he doesn’t share with his comrades, and there’s no suggestion that his comrades ever even could try to know the bulk what Gandalf knows. Nor does he engage in dialectic with his comrades. He tells them facts that he thinks they need at the moment, but he doesn’t really guide their intellectual development. (He does perhaps guide the development of their virtues or personalities, but notice he rarely gives any of the other characters much theoretical knowledge even though he’s known some of them for many decades. He usually gives out knowledge only when he is forced to. )


Joseph Brenner 02.11.16 at 12:23 am

When I read Plato, I tend to imagine it as performed by Monty Python. When someone takes the bait and objects to something Socrates says, everyone in the room standing behind him is rolling their eyes, and John Cleese is mutely shaking his head, staring at the questioner in panic. Then Socrates’ opponent catches the drift, and goes into the “Why of *course* Socrates, it’s so obvious once you explain it” routine.


Neville Morley 02.11.16 at 6:05 am

I don’t mean to suggest that Socrates is Gandalf in every respect, but simply in terms of his function within the narrative; that is, the reader does not wish to be him (unlike the Louis Wu character) but to be with him.


Nathanael 02.11.16 at 8:29 am

“I’m interested in what makes a character a Mary Sue. It’s a useful term (though problematic as I will say below).”

Let’s start with an attempt to define Mary Sue. There are a few competing definitions:
(1) Audience insertion character designed to have broad appeal. A character who is deliberately designed as a bit of a generic blank slate, undercharacterized, but with characteristics designed to seem attractive to most of the audience so that the audience wants to BE her. (This is my preferred definition.)

Example: every single companion ever on Doctor Who, including the robot dog.

Extreme example of a Mary Sue: main character in a traditional computer adventure game like Zork or a Choose Your Own Adventure Book — the completely uncharacterized “generic adventurer”, referred to occasionally as the Ageless, Faceless, Gender Neutral, Culturally Ambiguous Adventure Person or AFGNCAAP.

(2) Author insertion character. Unless it’s very subtle, this tends to annoy every single audience member other than the author, which is why it’s considered a bad idea. (It’s easy for a bad author to try to do #1 but slip into #2 by assuming his own idiosyncrasies and biases are universal. Sorry, Larry Niven, you did this. Sorry, Plato, you did this.)

(3) Character who is given more-awesome-than-really-plausible powers, luck, abilities, etc. — wish-fulfillment. This tends to be an automatic side-effect of #1 or #2, for obvious reasons. The audience often wants to identify with a character who is a “better version of themselves” and fulfills their wishes, and authors often have inflated self-images.

This is not a good use of the term because if the character is neither author insertion nor audience insertion, this definition includes characters like Superman — or God in the Bible — who few people think of as Mary Sues, because nobody expects to identify with them. Superman is pure wish-fulfillment of a very simplistic variety, but it’s the wish that someone else will come save you (from whatever), so nobody identifies with him.

Also, I’d argue that a deliberately blank, undercharacterized character who is exceptionally and consistently incompetent or unlucky but designed as an audience identification character (for depressed people) should be counted as a Mary Sue. Targeted at Goths or emo types. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

(4) Arbitrary term of abuse against strong female characters. You can spot when some misogynist is doing this.

Mary Sue was originally a derogatory term because it arose in the context of Star Trek fandom. And Star Trek, structurally, *has no audience insertion characters*; you’re not supposed to identify with any of the characters in that generic, undercharacterized manner. It’s a very “you’re watching from the outside” show. Star Trek as a whole also has a weak and inconsistent authorship and no author insertion characters. So Mary Sues in Star Trek fan fiction are *inappropriate*. Star Trek actually has lots of wish-fulfillment, but it’s *societal* wish-fulfillment, not personal.

Nobody has to my knowledge ever complained about Mary Sues in Doctor Who fan fiction (unless they’re just using it as a term of arbitrary abuse, and that happens very rarely). This lack of “Mary Sue criticism” is unusual for a sci-fi fandom. Why is this the case? Because Doctor Who’s format *requires* such an undercharacterized audience insertion character. Writing a story with a brand new companion who is Earth Human with a few hobbies who gets picked up and goes on fabulous adventures saving entire planets by being awesome… that’s the *format*. If there isn’t a Mary Sue, it isn’t proper Doctor Who. And the canon Sues are mostly female.

Socrates is an author-insertion character (#2), not an audience-insertion character (#1).

Of course being a huge Doctor Who fan *and* a fan of classic computer games and Choose Your Own Adventure books, I personally *like* the undercharacterized Mary Sue protagonist. In the original Mary Sue story, which I’ve read, it’s funny how inappropriate it is for Star Trek, but honestly I think she’s still likeable.

I don’t consider a character a Mary Sue if she’s sufficiently well-characterized to make large portions of the audience go “ick” (typical of author-insertion characters like Louis Wu or Socrates) or fully characterized. If she’s fully characterized and ridiculously awesome, she’s a wish-fulfillment character but a *very specific* one, as opposed to the more generic Mary Sue designed to fit everyone’s fantasies.

Dante in Dante’s Inferno probably does qualify as a Mary Sue. Despite being an explicit author-insertion character, he’s actually undercharacterized and a bit blank, really intended for the audience to identify with.

Anyway, that’s my piece on Mary Sue. Better technical terms include author-insertion character and audience-insertion character.


Nathanael 02.11.16 at 8:48 am

I guess the reason I tend to write this mini-essay whenever people talk about Mary Sue — while the author-insert or author avatar is a well-recognized category, the deliberately genericized audience-insert character is so poorly recognized as a category that even TV Tropes only covers it in the computer-game and Choose Your Own Adventure context (where it’s so common it can’t be ignored) and doesn’t have much of a discussion of doing it deliberately in the linear-story format.


Nathanael 02.11.16 at 8:52 am

OK, I guess they have Audience Surrogate now.


etv13 02.11.16 at 10:11 am

@Niall McCauley: but wouldn’t that same objection apply to being Stephen? Or is Stephen so like you that you could be him and still be yourself?


Brad DeLong 02.11.16 at 5:53 pm


Are you saying that Platonic Dialogues–Plato’s real dialogues–are Unlogged comment threads, but that Plato has taken out comments he thinks are too persuasive but doesn’t agree with and replaced them with weaker versions of the arguments?


Joseph Brenner 02.11.16 at 6:18 pm

Nathanael@34: That’s an interesting taxonomy there. Let me propose a few technical terms of my own, which might or might not map to aspects of MarySueness: (1) A “Superman”: a wish-fufillment character that’s too powerful to tell interesting stories about– these typically require artificially tacked-on weaknesses (a “kryptonite”). (2) A “Robin”: a character interjected into the story based on an misconceived theory of audience identification (little kids don’t necessarily need or want a little kid character in the story, certainly not kids as wimpy and ineffective as they are).

For example, the trouble with Wesley was that he was a Robin.

Instead of Superman & kryptonite you could talk about the Green Lanter & the “yellow impurity”, but I gather the weakness against “yellow” has been retconned away. (It now resides in the Dorkoverse, the bizarro phantom zone where early-DC concepts deemed unfit for the modern world have been consigned.)

By the way: I think Doctor Who’s companions are essentially “Watsons”.


Lawrence Stuart 02.12.16 at 1:32 am

225 ZM “‘But Schönwerth’s stories show us that once upon a time, Cinderfellas evidently suffered right alongside Cinderellas, and handsome young men fell into slumbers nearly as deep as Briar Rose’s hundred-year nap.’”

Just so. It’s the cultural expectations, not the formula of the genre, that’s fucked up.


Lawrence Stuart 02.12.16 at 2:02 am

@ 30 burritoboy “What we can perhaps intimate is that Plato is dubious about writing – the famous discussion of writing in the Phaedrus, for one example. “

You’ll certainly get no argument from me regarding the difference between Plato’s dialogues and a discursive treatise. I was taught Plato as literature pretty much from the get go (by a sort of kind of Straussian, no less), so I’ve never been disappointed by the fact that Socrates does what he does. And there are times, the bit about writing in the Phaedrus among them, when I swear he’s slyly winking at me across the ages. If this isn’t a mis en abyme of the first order, I’ll eat my toga:

“Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing.”

One and the same thing indeed. Two millennia later and we’re still still vitally and creatively engaging with the text!

I would not, however, be so quick to dismiss Socrates as a Gandalf like figure, as long as by Gandalf is understood what Propp calls a ‘sender.’ The role of the sender is very much that of the midwife, she or he who brings the hero to, and sometimes through, her or his quest. This often involves testing, or training, the imparting of some skill or power, etc. The sender themselves, however, never quite make it to the promised land.


pnee 02.12.16 at 3:44 am

I just don’t think Mary Sue is useful term outside of fan fiction. To me a key element is that instead of writing a story about the canon main characters, those characters are reduced to admirers of the author insert character who is awesome and wonderful and special.

I think that attempts to expand it’s meaning beyond that original context have resulted in a term that everyone agrees is derogatory but no one can agree on what exactly it’s meant to criticize. Another specific term with a precise meaning that got overused by people who didn’t completely understand the original purpose and overapplied because it sounds cool. See also macguffin.

If you think a character is too perfect, or underdeveloped, or doesn’t earn their dramatic successes, why not just say that, instead of trying to hang a lable on it that will just confuse the issue anyway?


sam 02.13.16 at 12:01 pm

Speaking of Plato, SciFi, and Star Trek, anyone here old enough to remember Plato’s Stepchildren?

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