Equal Significance: A Brief Review of The Just City
|Plato--cropped from The School of Athens|
by Raphael 1509-1511
The Just City by Jo Walton (2014) dramatizes Plato's thought experiment about how to create a perfectly just city ruled by "Philosopher Kings." It’s an interesting thought experiment, of course.
How would you build this perfect city? Largely through censorship, is Walton’s conclusion. The Just City keeps out or eliminates any element they believe will negatively affect their citizenry including human life and anything smelling of Christianity, including names.
In Walton's story, Athena takes everyone in history who has ever prayed to her that they be part of the Just City to the island of Atlantis before it is destroyed. There they work together to build Plato's model. One of these "masters" is the woman Ethel (renamed Maia because names of Christian origin are bad) born in England, 1841 and limited in her options as a woman.
The masters go throughout history, buying 10 year old slaves to raise to be citizens in their new city. One of these children is a girl named Lucia (renamed Simmea) and another is the incarnation of the god Apollo in disguise (called Pytheas). Later in the story, Socrates is brought to the city as well.
The story’s theme is equal significance and consent. Walton seems to combine the ideas of empathy and respect—the understanding that other people are just as important as you are, and they should be allowed to make their own decisions about what they want, even if what they want is not necessarily good for them or others.
Walton uses this theme to make some interesting points about sex and rape, of course, but she also attempts to transcend that conversation and apply these values socially and politically.
The masters believe they are “trying to reach excellence, trying to reach justice and the good life” (Walton 360). However, Socrates argues with Athena, “It can’t be the good life unless people can choose to stay or leave, and can choose for themselves how to make it better” (Walton 362).
He also argues that even when one person does something for another’s own good, it makes the first person worse because they disregarded the other’s choices, especially if the action did not result in perfect justice (Walton 350).
Walton does not make points in this book about the limitations of equal significance and consent, such as suicide (does stopping them make you worse for disregarding their choice?), but The Just City begins an interesting conversation. Personally, I always found Socrates a bit heavy handed, but he makes a good mouth piece for Walton as he did for Plato.
In the end, though, I didn’t enjoy the story. The main character was too happy in her life, so there wasn’t enough conflict to push her or the story forward. The book was more about theme than story, which makes poor entertainment.