“Nothing mortal can last. At best it can leave legends that can bear fruit in later ages.” -Athene, “The Just City”
Apollo, jilted and confused, decides to try mortality for a while in an effort to learn more about “equal significance and volition.” His sister, Athene, suggests he live as a mortal inside her experimental world—the first known attempt to create Plato’s Republic.
Plato’s “The Republic” is a series of imagined philosophical dialogues between Socrates and other philosophers. Plato, a student of Socrates, uses Socrates as a mouthpiece to express concepts of justice. These discussions explore achieving happiness by living a just life. According to Socrates (Plato?) an ideal city should be like an ideal soul, balancing the three parts of human nature: reasons, passions, and appetites. “Arranging the city justly maximizes justice within the souls of the inhabitants.”
Athene carefully chooses the site for her experimental city: Mt. Thera in the time before the Trojan war when King Minos rules Crete and Mycenae is the greatest city, before the eruption that submerges Atlantis. Here Athene assembles teachers, men and women from across time and space who prayed to Athene, and enlists them as “masters.” She travels through time collecting children from slave markets over the course of centuries—10,080 boys and girls all roughly 10 years old. Athene imagines that, over the next century, these children will grow into the best versions of themselves. They will bear children, a generation of philosopher kings raised within the safe but challenging environment of the Just City. However, even a goddess cannot foresee what will happen if Plato’s blueprints for justice are too theoretical to put into practice.
The story unfolds in the alternating perspectives of Apollo (who is Pytheas in mortal form), Simmea, and Maia. Simmea is a child when Athene brings her to the city. Born to an Egyptian farmer between AD 500-1000, she comes to the city when raiders attack her village and sell her into slavery. Maia is a master in the Just City. Born as Ethel, a rector’s daughter in Queen Victoria’s England, Maia appreciates the freedom granted to females in this new world, but she becomes a concerned observer as the years pass. Each character brings different insights into the Just City, both into the city’s creation and into the experience of living within the Republic. When Athene pulls Socrates (spelled Sokrates in the book) through time to teach rhetoric to the students as they turn 15, she unintentionally waters seeds of dissent she doesn’t know exist.
This is a bizarre world that feels ancient and modern—both forward-thinking and backwards. Women have equal access to education, but are still subjected to the brute force and will of men. The masters control the flow of information, denying certain texts based on suitability and fear of destroying the experiment. The also masters dictate what career paths the original students take, pair them up for mating rituals, and contrive every other aspect of the students’ lives. The lack of practical advice for establishing a “just city” in “The Republic” result in this incongruous controlled freedom. These inconsistencies are also the result of Athene and the masters playing as God, or Zeus, and thinking specialized education can tame free will.
I care about Simmea and Maia, even Pytheas who, though he learns much, is appallingly god-like in his human form. Simmea and Maia share my hunger for knowledge. I appreciate that Simmea questions whether happiness comes for seeking, or as a bi-product of living a just life. I appreciate that she suggests trust is not an absolute and her ability to see the good in others, even buried deeply.
Socrates is both kind and petty, straight-forward and manipulative— a philosopher but first a human. I appreciate his portrayal as a flesh-and-bone being who sees the flaws in this theoretical system brought to life. Walton explores questions about a soul, about what makes a being alive (if not human) through Socrates and the machines the city uses as slaves.
This book attempts to cover a lot of theoretical and philosophical territory. The territory might be a little too wide as the questions are not explored deeply. This is, in part, due to the pace of the book— the momentum necessary to move the story along does not match the meandering explorations of philosophy. This might also be because Walton is encouraging readers to read more, and explore these questions themselves.
“The Just City” reminds me of so many other wonderful reads. The mythological backdrop and school setting remind me of Rick Riordan’s two runaway bestselling series, “Percy Jackson” and “Kane Chronicles.” Walton’s treatment of Apollo, the humanization of a god, reminds me of Madeline Miller’s “Song of Achilles.” The machine workers are reminiscent of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s Russian dystopian novel “We.” The philosophic discussions of trust, power, equal rights, slavery, and happiness drive the plot, but also explore deep questions that are important today. This is a literary mash-up that is both entertaining and challenging, and affirms Walton’s place as an innovative storyteller.