Entry updated 26 April 2021. Tagged: Author.
(circa 429-347 BCE) Greek philosopher, included here partly because his dialogues Timaeus and its appendix Critias (circa 350 BCE) have been taken as examples of Proto SF in their vivid description of Atlantis, a fortified circular Island City on a plateau, embedding in a sketchy (but useful) narrative glimpses of a communal society. The sinking of Atlantis below the sea 9,000 years previously is also mentioned. Significantly, Plato does not date the catastrophe as happening at some unplaceable moment prior to and distinct from history as such, in that mythic or "deep time" Mircea Eliade used the phrase in illo Tempora to define. Atlantis sinks at a date connected to secular history, though at its very beginning (see Time Abyss). Atlantis is described asan island we can hope to find.
This vivid and fixative representation may for later generations have enriched perceptions of Plato's early more famous but unnarratized description of Utopia in The Republic as an ideal state housed in an unfortified circular City on the Island of Crete. The two cities do in fact resemble one another, though "regents" rather than monarchs are in command on Crete, and life here is conspicuously less eventful. Everything is held in common. In what may be the first prefiguring of the use of the principles of Eugenics to keep the population healthy, partners with good genes are encouraged to breed; and the children of inferior stock are seemingly culled. Boys and girls receive the same education, though once they are grown women are shared by all men, seemingly at the volition of the latter. There is no closing cataclysm.
Plato's importance to the history of utopian thought was absolutely central for more than 2000 years, and must be seen as contributing to the utopian emphasis on an ideal stasis over the constant changes and evolution of the sensual world; this application of Platonic form to social construct was challenged in some nineteenth-century utopias, and of course runs counter to the social ideas of most twentieth-century sf writers. Arthur C Clarke's The City and the Stars (November 1948 Startling as "Against the Fall of Night"; 1953; exp and much rev vt 1956) is effectively an attack on a Platonic utopia. Plato's disapproval of poetry in The Republic is a typical of his proscriptive views, and his remarks on children's games in Book VII of The Laws (a late work) are even better:
when innovations creep into their games and constant changes are made in them, the children cease to have a sure standard of what is right and proper. The person most highly esteemed by them is the one who introduces new devices in form or colour, or otherwise. There can be no worse evil for a city than this.... Change ... is most dangerous for a city.
This understood, and though he argued here against the idea of change, Plato does remain one of the first philosophers to contemplate the idea that the future could be better than the past – an imaginative leap ancestral to the whole of sf.
Another dialogue, The Statesman (360 BCE) includes a brief anticipation of the Time in Reverse theme, with men described as growing younger, dwindling to children and at last vanishing entirely.
Plato's famous metaphor of the cave can be summarized quickly: we are prisoners in a dark cave and take the flickering shadows cast by the firelight on the walls as reality; but the philosopher finds his way into the sunlight and sees that he has hitherto been deceived. It is a metaphor which, literalized as appropriate to the genre, reappears everywhere in sf, especially in stories of Conceptual Breakthrough and Transcendence in general. [JC/PN]
born Athens: circa 429 BCE
died Athens: 347 BCE
There are many editions of the complete works of Plato. We do not presume to recommend one above the others.
about the author
- Colin Starnes. The New Republic: A Commentary on Book I of More's Utopia Showing its Relation to Plato's Republic (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1990) [nonfiction: hb/]
- Christopher Bobonich. Plato's Utopia Recast: His Later Ethics and Politics (Oxford, Oxfordshire: Clarendon Press, 2002) [nonfiction: hb/]
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