Cities of Words

4 mins read

By Lapo Lappin

It is a common cliché, first quipped by Alfred North Whitehead, that Western philosophy is a series of ”footnotes to Plato”. This is, of course, entirely true. But it is perhaps not as precise as could be desired. Not only is Western philosophy footnotes to Plato – it is, more accurately, footnotes to Plato’s Politeia.

The Politeia (sometimes translated as The Republic) is without a doubt the cornerstone of Platonic thought, and, thereby, the cornerstone of our philosophical tradition. The impact of the Politeia on the generations of philosophers that followed cannot be understated. Aristotle’s Politics, for one, is really an extensive footnote on The Republic. As are, for that matter, Cicero’s De Republica, Saint Augustine’s The City of God, or Saint Thomas More’s Utopia. In short: Plato’s shadow looms over the history of political thought as we know it.

The question at the heart of the Politeia is the same question at the heart of this edition of Uttryck: that of utopia. In this Platonic dialogue, Socrates and his interlocutors set out to find what justice is. The ensuing argument is an elliptical one, sprawling over ten ”books”, touching upon the divisions of the soul, the nature of knowledge, the genres of music, what you would do if you were invisible, the world of the Forms, and, finally, the ineffable Form of the Good. In order to find Justice Socrates endeavours to paint the picture of a perfect polis (which is a slippery word to translate: city, perhaps, but also commonwealth, republic, etc.). Socrates’ idea is that, in the process of ”constructing” a just city, they will find Justice.

Should the Politeia be seen as a political programme? Some scholars think so. Plato is said to have travelled to Sicily (then a Greek colony) to implement his political vision. The local tyrant was far from impressed, and the mission was aborted. More persuasive are scholars who claim that this is a purely hypothetical or speculative exercise. It is, simply put, a utopia, a non-place – or, as Socrates puts it: ”a city of words”. This ”utopian” reading of the Politeia is not incorrect, but it does miss the point. The key point is, I think, another one.

First, we need to ask: what does Plato’s polis look like? The blunt answer is: a steaming pile of crap. Plato’s utopia is probably the last place on Earth one would want to live. It is probably justifiable – although perhaps somewhat anachronistic – to call Plato a fascist, as the philosopher Karl Popper famously did. In Plato’s commune women are common ”property”, as are children (in order to combat nepotism), the elite are tasked with systematically deceiving the masses, the class (caste?) system is set in stone, social mobility is impossible, and eugenic programs are in place to coerce only the best human specimens to reproduce. And yes – the philosophers are kings.

Today, everyone will assent to the reasonably trivial point that utopia is impossible in practice. Perhaps due to material limitations, or temporal ones, or that the journey to the proverbial omelette would involve too many ”broken eggs”, or whatever secular substitute for the doctrine of original sin we fancy – that people are simply way too messed up. And this is really Plato’s point: people are, in fact, so messed up, that we cannot even say what utopia is like. Our imagination and reason are so limited that we cannot even paint the picture. This is what the Politeia, through its failure of delivering utopia, shows. 

This is an important lesson. I doubt any of my fellow scribblers in this magazine will cough up a blueprint for utopia. Nor has anyone ever done so. The Frankfurt school even went so far as to argue that the only way to describe utopia is silence; it can be imagined only through the brief glimpses of happiness we snatch en passant. A few years ago, the tech-magazine Wired invited the world’s leading science-fiction authors to design utopias. The results are depressing. Plato was right.

But Plato was also wrong. And it is Plato himself that shows us this. Utopia is – yes – impossible, but it is at the same time necessary. It is presupposed as a necessity in all our political dealings. Everything we do in the polis is geared to an idea of the ”better”, and where there is a better, there is also a most perfect. All our political thinking is drenched in this idea of utopia, by necessity; but we do not own this idea, and when we try to amber it in words, our attempts reveal themselves as impossible. It is this mysterious dialectic that the Politeia unearths: in utopia, the impossible and necessary coincide. This dialectic, where words always fail us, takes on a special kind of language in Plato: that of myth. Utopias are myths by which we live. Myths are necessary, in that they allow us to utter what cannot really be uttered. 

What can this mythical language say to us today? Not much, it seems. ”Myth” in contemporary parlance denotes tin-foil hats and healing crystals. The raw energy that myth meant to the ancients has seemingly petered into the sand. And yet – if Plato is right, there is no such thing as political philosophy without myth. Liberal political theory crawls with myths: for instance when John Rawls summons a mythical creature like the impartial observer, furled within veils of unknowledge. The prime example of utopian mythology, however, has to be Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which recounts a mythical creation story of how isolated individuals cocooned in ”hyperplanes” of ”rights” magically develop a ”state” by bouncing off each other. 

Myth is thus alive and well. We just no longer recognize it. We should get better at that, because only a mythical consciousness can discern the dialectic of utopia: not only are the cities that utopias paint impossible; the cities of words that paint these utopias are just as impossible. And yet they are, somehow, something we cannot do without.

By Lapo Lappin

Artwork: Maria Ekstrand

Previous Story

Can the EU be a Utopia for Georgia?

Next Story

Has COVID-19 Busted the Myth of Swedish Utopia?