I have something of a complicated relationship with the word “philosophy”. I know, more or less, what it means, and what it can imply, but if someone tells me that a book is, specifically, “about” philosophy or is “philosophical”, my tendency is to eye the book warily and wonder whether or not I want to devote time and energy to it. This might seem rather strange, because any voracious reader is, technically, dealing with philosophy whenever they read, whether they are aware of it or not. But in recent years the words “philosophy” and “philosophical” has been twisted around in a way that I don’t particularly appreciate, becoming a label generally applied to lengthy essays and dry tomes that I’ve found boring and, all too often, condescending.
If I want philosophy, I am much happier encountering it couched in poetry, or in prose. Some of the snobbier folk out there might consider this cheating, or a dilution from the “pure” philosophy that they prefer, but I find that fiction and poetry give philosophical concepts the necessary scaffolding they need to become truly “real” in my head, giving them a structure and a shape that lets them, in my opinion, find their truest meaning. Once that’s been done, then I can bring myself to address it, untangling it from the plot and dialogue, uncovering it from underneath the lines and stanzas. There are some exceptions to this (The Art of War and The Prince are two of my personal favourites), but if I feel in the mood to dissect existentialism, or contemplating the nature of the divine, I’ll read a dystopian sci-fi novel or Rumi’s ghazals.
My initial interest in Jo Walton’s The Just City therefore, didn’t have much to do with Plato, or Socrates, but more to do with the fact that it’s a novel, and apparently a really good one, too, written by a really good author. I’d heard of Walton’s work before, not least because Hope is a fan and has for some years now been trying to get me into her work. I tried, before, with her novel Tooth and Claw, but I lost interest in it after a while, despite the inclusion of dragons, and hadn’t thought to pick up anything new since.
But when I learned that she was coming out The Just City, and that it was to be the first book in a series, I decided that it was as good a time as any to try again. This time, however, I didn’t lose interest, and The Just City is most certainly going to be ranked in one of my favourite reads for this year, and very likely beyond.
The Just City opens with the gods Apollo and Athene deciding to attempt an experiment: they will try to create recreate Plato’s ideal government based on what he set out in The Republic and his other writings. It’s not an easy task, but in the end, they manage to get it just the way they want it, more or less: a few hundred adults, made up of philosophers and thinkers of different ages and genders from many different points of time and space, teaching just over ten thousand children who were rescued from slave markets near where they set up the city. Athene chooses to retain her divine powers so she can help run the city, but Apollo chooses to incarnate as mortal, to truly experience the life of the Just City and to learn from its inhabitants.
And for a while, everything goes as planned. The children grow into young adulthood, learning from their teachers and “reaching for excellence”. However, when Athene brings Sokrates to teach the children rhetoric, the careful balance maintained in the city slowly begins to crumble, as Socrates does what he does best: ask questions.
It’s easy to assume, just from reading the title, that an understanding of Plato and his work is absolutely necessary for comprehending Walton’s novel, but that’s not necessarily the case. I’m sure that having previous experience with Plato’s work will help make things a lot easier to understand, but speaking as someone who hasn’t read more than a few extracts of Plato’s Republic, this novel doesn’t require even a complete working knowledge of Plato—or any philosopher’s work, for that matter—in order to enjoy it. Perhaps a quick skim of Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World will suffice as preparation, if one thinks one needs to prepare, but I can guarantee that even without any preparation of any sort, one can enjoy the novel.
What it does require of the reader, however, is that they are willing to spend time thinking. The novel’s action is slow, encouraging contemplation; even the way the chapters are written allow the reader to leave off at the end of two or three chapters, to think on what they’ve just read, and then come back to the novel without feeling any loss of reading momentum. Despite that, however, the prose does not drag in the least, and it’s entirely possible to devour the book in one sitting, if one is in a mood to do so. However, this is a novel that is most rewarding for those who take their time, and for those who go back and re-read.
There are many concepts and ideas in this novel. It goes back to what I was saying earlier, about my preference for tackling philosophy in the form of fiction or poetry: the story acts as a scaffold upon which the concepts hang and are given flesh, and this novel is a near-perfect illustration of that idea. There is not much action in the story: the children grow and learn; the teachers teach, learn, and manage the community; and Apollo and Athene go about living their lives in their own way. But in the everyone tries to do what they think is best for themselves, their charges, and the city, and it is in those quiet, seemingly unremarkable spaces of their lives that they ask some of the most extraordinary questions—questions that we still ask and contemplate upon today.
It certainly helps that the characters are, in and of themselves, well-written and interesting. The novel is told from the point-of-view of three characters, who tell their stories from first-person perspective: Apollo; Simmea, a child kidnapped by slavers, and then bought and brought to the Just City; and Maia, a young woman from the Victorian period who prayed to Athene and was brought by the goddess to the Just City to act as one of the teachers for the children. While Apollo is interesting to read about, it’s Simmea and Maia’s stories that really sucked me in, especially when they were interacting with their fellow children (in Simmea’s case) and teachers (in Maia’s). One would assume that those interactions would be charming idylls, and they are, for the most part, but Walton does not shy away from addressing certain hard truths that any woman of the twenty-first century would recognise. After all, even in the Just City, women can and do still run into, and have to deal with, prejudice.
These encounters with prejudice, and a great many other issues, besides, are at the core of what I think this novel’s about: the question of whether or not a utopia is truly possible. It addresses the inherent fragility of a utopia, how the very concept cannot withstand close inquiry. The more questions one asks about a utopia, the more likely it is to fall apart—which, ironically, begs the question: Is it better to leave those questions unasked, as long as the utopia can keep existing, or would it be better for the utopia to fall if it cannot withstand being questioned?
Overall, The Just City is an exquisite gem of a book, the perfect gateway not just to Walton’s prose, but also to certain key concepts and ideas in philosophy. It’s not very action-heavy, but that’s not the point: the point is to open the mind to inquiry, and to think deeper thoughts. The language is lovely and easy to read, but the reader may want to take their time with this book, to give them time to really understand and absorb the topics and questions that Walton proposes throughout the course of the novel. The characters are also charming and well-written, and are, in many ways, the key to engaging with the novel, and with its content—and once one is hooked, there is no possible way one can go back. Fortunately, the next book, The Philosopher Kings, is coming out sometime this year, so readers will not have to wait very long to find out what happens next.