Hollywood loves turning books into movies. So what would Plato’s The Republic look like on the big screen? I would wager money it would look something similar to the movie Divergent. I spent the weekend lounging around the house with my dogs and rented a few movies. Prospects were low but I came across a movie about a young girl in post-apocalyptic America who rebels against an evil group set out to prioritize reason over everything else humans might value. Intriguing! So I popped some corn, grabbed treats for the dogs, snuggled into a blanket, and hit “Purchase.”
Divergent, directed by Neil Burger, takes places in Chicago sometime in the future. The city is walled off from the rest of the world and inside the walls, society is divided into five factions which represent the human virtues: Abnegation (the selfless caregivers), Amity (the peaceful acting government, Candor (the honest farmers), Dauntless (the brave military force), and Erudite (the intelligent wise educators). At birth, parents raise their children in their familial faction until the age of maturation. At that point, they’re given an aptitude test that will determines their place in society. The plot centers on a young girl (Tris played by Shailene Woodley) born into the Abnegation faction but who always felt unsure about herself.
In one scene, she’s standing in line for her test when members of Dauntless arrive. They don’t walk into the field like the rest but jump from a moving train and barrel roll into the field. She’s clearly intrigued and wishes to join. In another, a fellow Abnegation is bullied by a Dauntless member and Tris steps forward to defend her peer. However, she’s quickly stopped by her brother who reminds her it’s not her place. During the aptitude test, it’s revealed she’s capable of joining three factions, not just one. She’s labeled a Divergent, or someone who doesn’t conform and poses a threat to society. The sympathetic test facilitator quickly adjusts the test so Tris appears to be part of the Abnegation faction and removes her before her true skills are discovered. The movie follows her journey through the announcement ceremony where she can choose any faction she wants, how she is trained in her new faction, and her discovery of the evil plot brewing within Erudite to remove Amity from power and take over.
Similar to The Republic, Divergent explores many facets of human nature. How far are you willing to go for love, family, and self-preservation? Plato explores this as well believing a division of labor will produce the best society because each individual understands their purpose and place in the whole. He argues that a just life is the only life worth living. In his society, what is better for the whole, is better for the one. The Erudite leader believes that it’s human nature to live within a society but, she claimed it’s also part of human nature to steal, lie, and protect oneself at the potential cost of others in that society. In order to achieve her ideal social structure, she uses mind control to take over the Dauntless faction and use them as her personal military enabling her to wipe out all factions against the Erudite takeover.
The idea of Utopia has long been argued, discussed, and explored but humans have always come up short in achieving the ideal society. I think the idea of Utopia is wonderful and like Plato, I’d be willing to give it the old college try but I’m pretty skeptical of our species being able to achieve such a thing due to our human nature. At our core, we seek to preserve our individual and corporate well-being, but our inner struggle to balance our virtues with vices complicates our goal to evolve as a species. Divergent explored these themes beautifully. The Erudite leader, played by the graceful Kate Winslet, claims society will only work when each individual understands their natural place and conforms to the essence of their nature; much like Plato claimed in The Republic. She believes wholeheartedly that the aptitude test works and will benefit society if implemented. But given that her faction designed the test and the blueprint for their society, her claims seem disingenuous and rife with self-interest. Still, I agree with Plato’s assertion that individuals thrive when they exist in harmony with each other, and it follows when you embrace your inner talents, you thrive as an individual.
Plato claimed each person has a purpose, and that purpose should be embraced, nurtured, and made available for personal excellence and social benefit. Plato thought that this purpose is a product of social and natural fate; an inherent caste system where each individual fills a role not chosen but determined by forces outside his or her control. Early childhood education, it could be argued, attempts to correct for this by providing a more egalitarian approach to training. Each individual child scratches the surface of every available topic learning subjects like Math, English, and Science in much the same way and at the same pace as their peers. Differentiation and individual choice is ignored at best or suppressed at worst ostensibly so that no student is “left behind” (though it should be added that there is some encouraging signs that this is changing). It’s not until graduate studies, well into the twenties, sometimes thirties, do individuals have a chance to focus solely on their inner talents and life passions—if they have had the chance to develop such a thing.
Admittedly, this is a complex and important debate and not one I wish to treat lightly or inadequately here. I raise it because the notion of individual talents and establishing a “life purpose” is a theme both of the movie and of The Republic and both works encourage us to think about the role such psychological and epistemological devices play in our ability to be more fully human. While the movie sets up a society with individuals serving one purpose, the moral of the story is that no matter how hard you try to be only rational, or a caregiver, or selfless, or a soldier, you will fail unless you learn to balance all these characteristics. This is true, I think, because a person guided by reason alone would lack the necessary compassion to see when a lie was no longer noble. And in that, I think our educational system is correct: we do need to be well rounded, we just need to know when to stop going broad and embrace our talents. In the The Republic, Plato asked what’s worth pursing? He claimed that if an individual shows strong leadership ability, perhaps government and politics suits them best. Maybe they’re natural caregivers and the medical field should be their focus.
Plato claimed we should expose our children to a variety of experiences and learn what suits them best early on. He divided his Utopia into three major factions: Guardians, Workers, and Philosophers. I appreciate the idea that we all have a purpose, we all have a strength, and we all can contribute to society in a positive way. But, I’m skeptical that such rigid social roles, determined at a young age serves either the individual or society. In Divergent, the Erudite leader believed in Plato’s system and put reason above all things; it’s as if Socrates himself was in charge. Like Socrates, the philosophy of the Erudite leader can appear cold, dismissive, and her rhetoric exhibits a kind of certainty in the belief that logic supersedes all emotions. Like Socrates, she’s willing to die for her beliefs.
Many stories attempt to establish a foundation for social and personal success in terms of a rulebook and assert that human thriving is a product of following these rules. I see one element of human nature, even in Plato, that hinders all Utopian societies: is a part of our nature to evolve and destroy. When it comes to evolution, the mind is strong and individuals always seeks to preserve themselves over their fellow man. Plato recognized that his Utopia was theoretical because in each of us virtue and vice are continually at war. We evolve out of childhood into an individual hell trying to be good but continually tempted towards evil which can result in a destroyed self. Our virtues and vices play games with each other and cloud our reason. Even in The Republic Plato rationalized lying over truth telling in order to preserve the State. But, could Plato be right that if we control this balance we would preserve humanity and exist in a perfect Utopia?
Are we, at least in the West, living in a failed Utopia because we have failed to find that inner harmony that will lead to a just life? Divergent appears to be operating off of the premise that with any utopia where mankind is involved, only gloom and doom can be an outcome. The heroine is a champion for the society built on the principles of The Republic, but she comes to realize what Plato predicted thousands of years ago: Democracy is a popularity contest and a just Totalitarianism works best. But under a less-than-just ruler with absolute power, the system can corrupt absolutely. If Plato’s thoughts on Utopia are to be followed, we must remember that one element of human nature is not extinguished too easily: hope. We hope for liberty, choice, and the pursuit of the good. We hope our will to live is strong persists, and we hope our society will find a balance and finally, our utopia.