Jo Walton's Thessaly Trilogy

2020-01-01

Fresh from a re-reading of Plato's dialogues, recently I dove into Jo Walton's Thessaly trilogy (The Just City, The Philosopher Kings, and Necessity), a speculative epic set in a society consistent with Plato's Republic. It's an enjoyable, thought-provoking blend of science fiction, ancient Greek myth, and Platonic philosophy. Although I recommended Walton's trilogy if you like philosophical novels, I do take issue with several aspects of her story.

First, Walton presents Socrates as a staunch advocate of democracy and the common man (since this is SF, even the common robot!). Yet, as I.F. Stone well relates in The Trial of Socrates, Socrates, despite his rather humble origins, was an unapologetic elitist who consistently pressed for an aristocratic or autocratic form of government in Athens, even when that devolved into a violent dictatorship under the Thirty Tyrants (led, I might add, by Critias, student of Socrates and cousin of Plato).

Second, Walton's several narrators repeatedly assert that over thousands of years Plato was the only thinker to have considered women capable of philosophy. It's true that Plato took on a few female students in the Academy, such as Axiothea of Phlius and Lastheneia of Mantinea. Yet, several generations after Plato, Epicurus opened his philosophical community completely to women and that tradition continued throughout the wider Epicurean movement in Greece and Rome for many hundreds of years; female philosophers with Epicurean commitments included Pompeia Plotina, a Roman Empress and the wife of Roman Emperor Trajan (who reputedly chose Trajan's successor Hadrian, who in turn chose Marcus Aurelius, perhaps the only true philosopher king in history, as Emperor). That's a lot more than Plato and the later Academy have to show for themselves.

Third, Walton has a few of her characters cast aspersions at Aristotle for his opinions about women and slaves. (How these characters could have known about Aristotle's philosophy is unclear, because no doubt his works would have been on the proscribed list in her Just City, as Aquinas and many others were.) Now, I find Aristotle's views on women deplorable and unjustified, even though apparently he treated the women in his own life quite well (read his last will and testament sometime). What he really thought about servitude (the economic foundation of the ancient world) is less clear - some scholars have argued that his criteria for being a "natural slave" (e.g., the complete lack of foresight) are such that almost no human would qualify, and we do know that he was opposed to accidental servitude such as being enslaved because of war or conquest. Furthermore, some of the adjustments that the residents of the Just City make, such as allowing marriages and families, directly oppose Plato's instructions in the Republic and align with Aristotle's criticisms of Plato. And Aristotle advocated democracy, which is more than you can say for Socrates and Plato.

Finally, these are the only novels I know of that would have been banned in the ideal society they depict, for they show the gods acting in ways that Plato would not have sanctioned. I find that ironic and perhaps even self-contradictory.

Even so, Walton's trilogy is well worth reading.


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