The Philosopher Kings: Jo Walton

★★★½

Thessaly: Book II

We rejoin the inhabitants of the island of Kallisti twenty years after the conclusion of The Just City, when the project to construct a living version of Plato’s Republic foundered on the rocks of debate, arrogance and divine impatience. A generation has passed since then and, with many of the Masters dead and a new crop of Young Ones growing up, it falls to the Children – those brought to Kallisti at ten years old – to steer their way towards the best possible world. But things are not what they once were and, in the absence of Athene, the high ideals of a philosophical city are already beginning to crumble.

Apollo, amazingly, is still committed to making his mortal incarnation work. He’s almost forty and has witnessed the changes taking place over the last twenty years, as the strict Platonic rules have softened in the face of human needs. The festivals of Hera have been discontinued; families have been allowed to form; and children now live with their parents. The eating halls remain, as does the system of division into different classes based on metals, and two of the Workers are still present – Crocus and Sixty-One, the two who were awakened by Sokrates’ debates. But the rest of the Workers are gone, and the City ekes out the remaining parts and electricity, with many of the simpler tasks being adopted by human labourers. It hasn’t been easy. But Apollo (or rather, Pytheas) has nevertheless found a life which suits him. With his beloved friend Simmea, he acts as parent to a family of brilliant, complicated half-siblings and strives to improve the excellence of those he loves, and the City which has made all this possible.

But not everyone is grateful. Since the Last Debate, at the end of The Just City, the original population has fragmented. Without a divine hand guiding the reins, factions have arisen and splinter groups have set off to form their own cities elsewhere, each believing that they’ve found the true essence of a just and philosophical realm. For example, one group believes that Athene was right all along and the regime should have been strictly as Plato described it; one believes that Sokrates was right to encourage equality and discussion rather than a hierarchy; another believes that Plato is best viewed through a Neoplatonic lens, in which women are no longer permitted to be citizens and life is ruled by elevated theories of numerology. And then there’s the Lost City, founded by the group of exiles who left with Kebes aboard the Goodness and fled out into the Mediterranean to escape completely from the rule of Plato and find their own vision of peace and justice elsewhere.

Walton asks us to consider whether a pure philosophical city can ever exist without the kind of divine assistance that delegates all tasks to some mechanical, unthinking workforce – assuming that this workforce doesn’t become self-aware, at which point they become slaves and the city is no longer pure. She invites us to consider the different ways in which human nature and human interest are incompatible with a purely philosophical life, and to see how different societies make different compromises in order to advance the excellence of some of their citizens at the expense of others. As the book unfolds, with tragedy spurring Pytheas into an ambitious voyage out into the unknown, we have the chance to see for ourselves how Plato’s system of degeneration works – from pure philosophy to timarchy and oligarchy and so on. And there are other questions too. Can philosophical life only be carried out in a pagan context? Is goodness sometimes better than philosophy? Should the thinkers of the Just City keep themselves isolated in order to avoid affecting history or, if they believe that history is already written, do they have a moral obligation to help those whom they can save from war and poverty around the Aegean and Mediterranean?

As ever, the book bristles with ideas. They aren’t always as smoothly or accessibly described as in the first book, and there were a couple of occasions where the plot was weighed down by overly pedantic arguments, but then again, these are philosophers! Like the first book, The Philosopher Kings playfully nods to certain legends, most notably in this case to the myth of Apollo and Marsyas, and encourages us to take a good, hard look at what justice really means. Can violence and cruelty be justice? Is it just to acknowledge the fact that some are innately more excellent than others? And is vengeance right, or just?

The book ends on an interesting note, which I assume will be developed more fully in the final volume, Necessity. This will presumably take us further into genuine sci-fi territory. It’ll be interesting to see how it works. In some ways, I think The Just City could have worked as a brilliant stand-alone. The Philosopher Kings expands and further questions this intriguing world, but it feels added on as opposed to necessary. I wonder if Necessity will live up to its name.

Buy the book

Last in this series – The Just City

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