April 12, 2017 8:49 PM   Subscribe

Crooked Timber ran a seminar last year on Jo Walton's The Just City and The Philosopher Kings. John Holbo: Walton's Republic
Thanks to Jo Walton for writing an SF novel in which people, including a pair of gods, try to realize Plato’s Republic. (I’ve only read the first Thessaly novel, The Just City. So if what follows is premature? That sort of thing happens.) This is an experimental novel. Succeed or fail, you learn from an experiment. But even well-constructed experiments can be failures. That’s the risk.

Ruthanna Emrys: Under The Lemon Tree, Distracted By Chores
One of the great appeals of the Thessaly series is the implicit invitation: join us in Socratic dialogue beneath the lemon tree, arguing practical philosophy with the best company from all of history. But I am not a philosopher king, and definitely not a Gold of the Just City. As evidence, between the first and second sentences of this paragraph, I took ten minutes to reassure a baby who’d pinched her finger in a dresser drawer. Over the past couple of days I’ve engaged in crafts and cleaning, cooking and political argument and snarky write-ups of old horror stories.
Maria Farrell: Original Sin
The Just City story is triggered by an attempted rape. The god Apollo chases and tries to ‘mate with’, as he puts it, a nymph called Daphne. Nymph-chasing is one of his favourite hobbies. Daphne flees and prays to Artemis who turns her into a tree. Apollo cannot understand why Daphne would do this rather than be mated with by a god. As Apollo later points out, “Father’s big on rape”, swooping down on girls and carrying them off. Apollo likes the seduction and the chase; they’re on a continuum for him, and not binary states with consent as the switch that turns the light of passion on or off.
Henry Farrell: Gods Behaving Badly
It’s a terrible idea to reduce a novel into an argument. As Francis Spufford said in another Crooked Timber seminar, the great thing about a novel of ideas is that you can have your cake and eat it too; using negative capability to present multiple arguments in serious tension with each other, with many possible interpretations, and never resolve any of it. The tensions between these arguments and interpretations are part of what make it a novel rather than a tract (an interesting question, which I’m hopelessly underqualified to answer, is whether Plato’s dialogues can be interpreted as novels …). So treat the below as not being an attempted answer to the question of What The Thessaly Books Are Really All About, but instead some guesswork about where one particular thread of argument in the two books that have been published to date might be leading.
Sumana Harihareswara: Intertextuality, Feminism, and Reinforced Arguments in Thessaly
In this post I’ll discuss some ways in which Walton’s Thessaly series is transformative and some ways in which it’s feminist, and some thoughts on how those choices reinforce each other.

To start with, clearly, Thessaly is transformative in that it concentrates on reusing and commenting on a text someone else made. As Walton says:
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.
Neville Morely: We Philhellenists
Like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Jo Walton’s Thessaly novels offer both a celebration and a critique of philhellenism, the love of ancient Greek culture, by staging it and letting the consequences play out. From the beginning, we are presented with the attractions and seductions of the classical tradition. The classical is idealised self-consciously by the generation of Masters, who are plucked out of their lives in later centuries because of their declared allegiance to the wisdom of the Greeks – contrasted with the values of their own times, whether the extremes of religious intolerance or the oppression of women. The return to the classical represents for them liberation, the rule of wisdom and reason, and the exciting possibility of realising an ideal world that had seemed beyond reach in the face of the unyielding structures of medieval belief, the chaotic violence of Renaissance Italy, or strait-laced Victorian values. They are all highly educated people who have found in ancient Greece everything lacking from their own times, and so have yearned for it all their lives.
Ada Palmer:Plato vs. Metaphysics, or How Very Hard it Is to Un-Learn Freud
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.
Leah Schnelbach: Thinking Through Violence in The Just City and The Philosopher Kings
The Just City and The Philosopher Kings are two of the purest examples I’ve ever read of “a novel of ideas”. Being novels of ideas means that scenes that would be gut wrenching or stomach-churning in other books are instead only jumping off points for the real work –complex, constant thought, and the moral consideration that comes with it. I wanted to take a few minutes and look at the way scenes of rape and violence are woven into the thoughtfulness of the book.
Belle Waring: Socrates As Mary-Sue
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.
Brad Delong also provied some pointers: I Must Say: Crooked Timber Is Being Its Best Possible Self This Week...

Jo Walton: A Dialogue With a Very Odd Bibliography
I was sweeping the sand in the palaestra one morning when Sokrates came along with Apollo, deep in talk. “Ah, Crocus,” Sokrates said when he caught sight of me. “Just the person we need to add to our conversation. Ruthanna believes that leaders should have varied experience, that this would make them more excellent. What do you think?”
posted by the man of twists and turns (7 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Worth noting that there is also an Ada Palmer/Too Like the Lightning seminar in progress.

In general, the CT seminars tend to be rather good.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:07 PM on April 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I really like the idea of Louis Wu being the male Mary Sue.

My take away from all this commentary is that I need to read these books now.
posted by ethansr at 9:47 PM on April 12, 2017

I've picked up and put down The Just City a few times. Not for lack of interest or poor writing or anything like that.

It's that I feel like I need to devote the right amount of attention and focus that it deserves and I haven't been in that type of a mood. I need to try again. I think I'm ready for it. This is a great post. Thanks for sharing.
posted by Fizz at 10:07 PM on April 12, 2017 [4 favorites]

Worth noting that there is also an Ada Palmer/Too Like the Lightning seminar in progress.

In general, the CT seminars tend to be rather good.

They are indeed, not least because of their genre focus - the one on Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was very thoughtful - but for Palmer's books the CT editors took the bizarre decision to put up the seminars on the release date for Seven Surrenders. I don't particularly mind spoilers but I'm in the same boat as Fizz, this is a book that requires a helluva lot of focus to be on a level to get much out of the seminars. Will have to come back in a few weeks...
posted by ocular shenanigans at 1:27 AM on April 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

These books could not be more tailor made for me if I tried. I look forward to reading them - Ada Palmer's commentary is what finally caused me to make the jump.
posted by corb at 6:37 AM on April 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Even though there was quite a lot of rape in The Just City, the book would be more plausible if there was some rape of men and boys. I can't think of anything that was keeping it from happening.

This includes rape by women. While the average man is stronger than the average woman, this doesn't mean every man is always stronger than every woman, and some men have inhibitions about using violence against women, even in self-defense.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 7:42 AM on April 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thanks, this definitely sounds like something I'd like to read. I hadn't heard of Jo Wolton's trilogy. The essays were really interesting even without having the books.
posted by nangar at 9:34 AM on April 13, 2017

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