Writing Plato’s Republic in the 21st century

Plato’s Republic might seem to be the ur-canonical literary and philosophical text. It is regularly reported to be one of the most frequently assigned literary works in US undergraduate education (as in this Washington Post report; there’s also a lively debate as to whether that place is merited). But assuming that the Republic is a timeless text with a timeless status turns out to be something of an anachronism, albeit one that has proved extremely productive for those responding to it.

Plato’s Republic hasn’t always been the top text. For many centuries, his other works, notably the cosmogony of the Timaeus, were more cited and central. When Raphael wanted to identify Plato in his School of Athens fresco, he showed him holding a copyof the Timaeus, while pointing upward to show his focus on the divine and the cosmic. Political and educational reforms in the nineteenth century led to the re-evaluation of Plato’s works and a new role for the Republic (including taking its place in a reformed syllabus for ‘Greats’, the final exams taken by students of Classics); increased citizen participation in politics, as democratic reforms were extended, and calls for women’s right to participate, made Kallipolis, with its equal roles for men and women, look all the more interesting. For Plato and reform advocate Benjamin Jowett, the Republic’s advocacy of a political role for women made it an important addition to the Oxford curriculum.

Any assertion of the timeless validity of the Republic and its argument for the role of knowledge in ordering society has to contend with its inherent strangeness, and the huge presence of aspects of Plato’s own society within it. Even in antiquity, the Republic needed explanation and reframing to address the political concerns of different societies, from the pseudo-Platonic Seventh Letter applying Plato’s political thought to monarchical Sicily to Cicero applying it to the Roman republic in his own De Republica. In the present day, however, the role of philosophy has been challenged, often by scientists working in branches of science that have replaced Plato’s Timaeus as guides to the cosmos. Hasn’t empirical scientific knowledge replaced the abstract speculations of philosophers?

Book covers for Alain Badiou's Plato's Republic, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's Plato at the Googleplex, and Jo Walton's The Just City.
Three recent books which use Plato to think about contemporary political and social issues: Alain Badiou’s Plato’s Republic, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex, and Jo Walton’s The Just City.

A paradox emerges in which Plato’s text is revered for containing timeless truths and for heading a philosophical canon, but requires constantly changing exegesis to render it comprehensible or useful. Part of the reason for undertaking the work of updating it is to gain access to those truths, and to participate in the continuation of that canon. Seeing how authors address this, and which issues they feel need attention or change, can itself be a productive exercise.

Three writers working in very different genres have addressed the problem by writing works which draw heavily on Plato’s dialogues, in some cases to the extent of rewriting the Republic. Alain Badiou’s La République de Platon uses the dialogue form, adapts some of the characters, and tweaks Plato’s politics and philosophy. Badiou introduces a female interlocutor, Amantha, modernises Platonic metaphysics into mathematical theory, and updates political references so that recognisable twentieth-century events and leaders replace the wars and rulers of Plato’s Greek world. Badiou described his rewriting as a form of ‘hyper-translation’ and explained its necessity:

he is the one we need first and foremost today, for one reason in particular: he launched the idea that conducting our lives in the world assumes that some access to the absolute is available to us … because the materiality of which we are composed participates … in the construction of eternal truths. (Badiou, Plato’s Republic, Preface, xxxi)

Philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein departed further from Platonic structure in her Plato at the Googleplex, but tackled the question of philosophy’s continuing relevance (under assault from scientists who see their discipline as replacing it). If philosophy has anything to offer, Plato is a limit case; she argues that he could attend present-day graduate philosophy seminarsand understand what was happening:

[Plato’s] antiquity removes him to a time and a sensibility that some have argued are all but irrecoverable to us. And yet, despite the historical distance, Plato could stroll into almost any graduate seminar in philosophy, seat himself at the elliptical table around which abstractions and distinctions would be propagating with abandon, and catch the drift in no time at all. (Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex, p.18)

In our seminar discussion, it was suggested that this table might be the ‘Harkness table’ associated with a Socratic method of teaching in US schools and colleges; Goldstein might be subtly suggesting that Plato belongs to an elite. However, she does not place Plato in a conventional academic setting in her book, but imagines him on a book tour, presenting his ideas as a public intellectual, in ten chapters which alternate between exposition and dialogue, and very loosely follow the argumentative structure of the Republic. We first meet him as a guest lecturer at Google’s headquarters, about to give a talk to the assembled staff. The dialogue we read is narrated by Rhonda, the friend to whom book publicist Cheryl unloads the details of her eventful day; the conversation is between Plato, Cheryl, Plato’s publicist, and Marcus, a Google programmer. The replication of Socratic dialogue in this structure, even down to an interruption by Rhonda reminiscent of Crito’s in the Euthydemus, is a delight:

I could tell… how traumatic this whole business with his friend Socrates must have been for him.
So I asked him: How long ago did this happen to your friend?
Oh, it’s ancient history, he said. I was a young man, not yet out of my twenties.
That’s interesting, I said, breaking into Cheryl’s narrative, which she doesn’t exactly encourage. It’s rare for a man to care so much for a friend, I said. (pp.64-5)

Goldstein’s point, in both this dialogue and the closing, is to assert that philosophers still have something to offer. Marcus aims to program an ‘Ethical Answers Software Engine’ which will crowd-source answers to ethical questions; but Plato points out that his ranking of the information gathered and control over the algorithm that develops the answer puts him in the position of being a philosopher king.

Novelist Jo Walton has had a life-long fascination with Plato’s Republic. Explaining how she came to write her version, she wrote:

Writing about Plato’s Republic being tried seems to me an idea that is so obvious everyone should have had it, that it should be a subgenre, there should be versions written by Diderot and George Eliot and Orwell and H. Beam Piper and Octavia Butler. Of course, it simultaneously seems like a crazy idea that makes people roll their eyes when I describe it.

Walton’s Thessaly trilogy imagines Kallipolis as Kallisti, a real rather than thought experiment, set up by the goddess Athena. In the trilogy’s opening novel, The Just City, some of the problems of Kallisti are caused by the reception of Plato itself; the masters are those who’ve prayed to Athene for Kallipolis to be real, which means many old men from pre-modern times. We see the city largely through the eyes of two female characters, Maia (formerly Ethel), rescued from a life of superfluity and intellectual frustration in Victorian England, and now chafing at the gender politics of Kallisti, and Simmea (once Lucia), one of the children bought by the masters in time-travelling raids on ancient slave markets, in her case from the northern Africa of late antiquity. Women masters are handed responsibility for maternity matters, as a new generation of citizens is bred from the children; at times the city starts to seem a little like Margaret Atwood’s Gilead.

Like Goldstein, Walton uses encounters with technology to examine issues of identity and personhood – while Goldstein gives Plato an MRI brain scan, Walton’s Kallisti is serviced by futuristic robots, which her Socrates engages in conversation (Walton’s descriptions somewhat resemble this prototype robot from the University of Osaka in Japan).

Yellow robot with caterpillar tracks and two arms, developed by the University of Osaka
This prototype robot, developed at the University of Osaka in Japan, features the arms and tracks of the robots in Jo Walton’s The Just City.

Although all three works operate within different literary genres, they suggest that Plato’s Republicrequires the updating Badiou identified, at which point it might help us to understand the problems of our own societies. These works also suggest that any dialogic encounter with Plato’s text which applies it to a specific situation could generate a similar transformative rewriting. Acknowledging the need for such a transformation, and the productive forms it might take may offer a fruitful way to read current academic scholarship on Plato, inevitably engaged in similar if less explicit or imaginative reworkings of Plato’s ideas.

  • I will be considering the political implications of engaging with Plato’s Republicin my talk at the Anachronism and Antiquity panel at the FIEC/CA conference in July.
  • Observant readers will have noted scenes from Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ on two of the book covers featured; it also makes an appearance in these blog posts on Scholarly Communities and Anachronistic Communities, as well as in our forthcoming book Anachronism and Antiquity.

References

  • Badiou, A. (2012) Plato’s Republic, trans. S. Spitzer (Cambridge: Polity).
  • Burnyeat, M.F. (1998), ‘The past in the present: Plato as educator of nineteenth-century Britain’, in A. Rorty (ed.), Philosophers on Education: historical perspectives (London: Routledge), 353-73.
  • Goldstein, R. (2014) Plato at the Googleplex: why philosophy won’t go away (London: Atlantic Books).
  • Walton, J. (2015) The Just City (London: Corsair).
  • Weinberg, S. (1993) Dreams of a Final Theory (London: Hutchinson Radius), ch. 7 ‘Against Philosophy’.

 

Author: Carol Atack

Researcher in ancient Greek political thought and history, and its contemporary reception. Post-doctoral researcher on Anachronism and Antiquity project, Faculty of Classics, University of Oxford.

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