[Warning: minor spoilers, but this isn’t really a book about suspense]
First things first: I loved this book. It’s got possibly my favourite premise of all time, namely that the goddess Athena gathers together all the people across time who have prayed to her to be brough to Plato’s Republic, and then she gets them to actually try and set it up.
This goes surprisingly better than you’d expect.
In fact, that it goes better than you’d expect is one of the things I loved about this book. It actually makes an attempt at being sympathetic to Plato. Many aspects of the “Just City” are pretty okay. They try to do gender equality, and they do a decent job of educating people. And even the flaws are presented sympathetically. Sure, everyone is allocated their role in life by an unnaccountable council of elders, but they’re fairly well-intentioned, and actually a lot of people aren’t too bothered.
A lot of this comes down to the people, and they’re a great cast. How can you not love a time-travelling band of philosophers whose first move is to go and rescue the contents of the Library of Alexandria? But well-meaning and thoughtful though they may be, they’re a heterogeneous bunch, and a lot of the conflict comes from the inevitable cultural clashes, especially since many of them are women… and most of the others are unreconstructed pre-Englightenment sexists.
Of course, an enormous fly in the ointment is that the city’s masters are all ex hypothesi slavish Plato fans, and they follow his directives to the letter. But before too long the agent of change is injected in the form of Socrates, reprising his role as the authorial voice1. Socrates is delightful, and I very much enjoyed how the workers’ sub-plot was set up for Socrates to upend everything by focussing on an unexamined certainty.
But the big theme of the book (apart from, you know, Plato) is consent, both personal and political. The men (some of them divine) struggle even to understand consent, and the women strugle with their lack of understanding. But the citizens also struggle with whether they’ve consented to the system of governance that they find themselves under.
And, oddly, that’s where the book falls down for me. It doesn’t quite press its central theme – consent – into the argument that it could have been. The climactic point of the book is the “Last Debate” between Athena and Socrates. Leaving aside the fact that Athena, the goddess of wisdom, is shockingly tongue-tied during the entire debate, the central points that Socrates makes are about relatively minor, contingent problems of the city. The tier assignments are rigged? Well, they could be made more meritocratic. The festivals of Hera (randomly assigned mating) make everyone miserable? Then abolish them.
(Or even, as Maia argues earlier, while the festivals may be unjust from the point of view of any individual, but they may be necessary for the organization of the city itself to be just - much as Plato would argue that it is necessary that some do the work of the irons. It’s particularly disappointing that Athena isn’t even able to make the arguments that are made by others earlier in the book!2)
So what might Socrates have said? Early on in the novel, we see two complicated violations of consent. Ikaros rapes Maia, but tries to justify this by claiming that her body wanted it, even if she claims that she didn’t. Maia struggles with the truth of his claim, disturbed that her “traitor body” could have betrayed her despite her unwillingness. Later, Kebes argues that no matter how good his life in the city is, it cannot make up for the violation of being ripped from his parents and the life he “should” have had.
Is there an analogy between these two cases, where (more or less) good outcomes cannot overcome the injustice of their inception? Justice, Socrates might have said, is impossible for a city, since no matter how well it fulfills its citizens, they had no choice over the accident of their birth there. Whether or not this applies to “natural” cities, Athena’s abduction of thousands of children for her “experiment” is a mass violation of consent, regardless of how fulfilled those children grow up to be.
That seems to me to be the truest culmination of the themes in the “Just City”. Not the condemnation of the precise mechanisms in place – which are shown sympathetically, and are improved throughout the book – but the fundamental violation of autonomy that it represents. I don’t necessarily agree with that argument, but I’d have liked to see it made.
So “The Just City” falls slightly short of what I might have wanted - which is to be not only a philosophical novel, but a work of philosophy - only because it already brings so much to the table. Besides which, although I’ve mainly focussed on the philosophical themes of the book, it’s a tremendously enjoyable story too. Highly recommended.