Eco-Republic: Ancient Thinking for a Green Age

December 1, 2011

No sooner had I reviewed for this publication (3 November) William Ophuls' Plato's Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology, which asks us to rethink our relationship with the most famous Greek philosopher from an environmental perspective, than Melissa Lane's Eco-Republic came along. Interestingly, she manages to make the same request with scarcely any echo of Ophuls' argument. This is due not only to the comprehensiveness of Plato's thought, but also to Lane's capacity for original insight.

While mindful of the declared elitism of the Republic, she believes that its general thrust can serve as a useful corrective to modern liberal democracy, which has long since abandoned the ideal of civic responsibility in favour of a market that functions by the artificial creation and satisfaction of the individual consumer's desires. Plato offers an alternative ideal: the concurrence of social harmony and individual virtue, of "city" and "soul". A properly functioning constitution, or "republic", would not simply be a chaos of competing greeds; it would be a model of balance, mutual cooperation and sustainability.

Sustainability is a term that might seem anachronistic in a thesis that reminds us of what we can learn from a political programme addressing the demands of the ancient Athenian state. But Lane is thoroughly convincing in her closely argued progression from the idea of civic integration to that of natural equilibrium. A sustainable society is a stable society; a stable society is possible only if it is also ecologically sustainable.

The trouble is that we have been plunged into a condition of inertia; and the task is to move from here to a capacity for initiative. But how can we get beyond a sense of negligibility and helplessness in order to take responsibility for our actions? The answer is imagination: we need to refigure our relationship with the wider world.

In effect, Lane is addressing the whole topic of mythology. It is one on which she offers some passing thoughts, although not quite enough. She rightly insists that it is the psychosocial dimension of human endeavour that matters as much as the technical-legal dimension. We need to be moved as individuals to change the way we act, not rely on politicians and advisers to sort things out. In short, we need to challenge the norm that holds us in thrall. This is a reasonable enough argument, but the pedant in me complains that this kind of insight might best be supported by a more thorough enquiry into the relationship between myth, society and ecology.

However, it is not difficult to forgive an author who neglects to expound a proper theory of myth if she can make me see for the first time what a powerful vision is contained in the episode in the Republic that we usually refer to as "Plato's Cave". You will remember the scene: the prisoners in the cave see only the shadows of objects cast by a fire, and are ignorant of the existence of the sunlit outer world. Lane's brief exposition is a model of clarity and cogency: "By positing that the citizens are trapped and unable to move, the Cave models their inability to escape the limited, artificial horizon of the existing city, lit by the distorting light of a man-made fire than by the limpid and natural light of the Sun." In such statements, we see how mythic imagination, political philosophy and ecological awareness might conjoin, and any minor doubts about this or that aspect of Lane's case for Plato's relevance are dispelled.

Eco-Republic: Ancient Thinking for a Green Age

By Melissa Lane. Peter Lang, 245pp, £25.00. ISBN 9781906165178. Published 29 September 2011

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