Historians' Books


Melissa Lane |

In clinging to the comforts and familiarities of our current way of life and its fossil-fuel infrastructure, despite a mounting consensus of scientific studies documenting the damage which this is doing, are we trapping ourselves in what Plato called the cave of illusion? What would it mean for our conceptions of our cities and ourselves if we were to dare to leave that cave, facing the challenge of making our conveniences and competitions conform to the implacable demands of external reality?

In this book I take Plato's challenge seriously, while developing a more positive answer than he offered to the question of whether a democratic society could conceivably generate such change from within. Following a cue of the British Academy in a letter to Her Majesty the Queen arguing that 'a failure of the collective imagination' was responsible for the financial crisis not having been more widely foreseen, the book's three parts are Inertia, Imagination, and Initiative. And it investigates the role of individuals in bringing about an imaginative shift, not as an alternative to political solutions, but by helping to open a space for them.

Plato can help us to rethink the imaginative basis of current capitalism, founded in the eighteenth century in the great shift from what Albert Hirschman called the passions to the interests. That movement from valuing glory to an acceptance of the pursuit of greed as the lesser social evil, more conducive to economic growth and so to social peace, has now hit the wall of environmental sustainability. Greed - parsed as measuring prosperity in terms of material production and growth in GDP without concern for its environmental impact - can no longer be accepted as a legitimate strategy for social benefit. And it follows that we can no longer accept an ethics of the division of labour in which people pursue their own projects or transactions without concern for how they undermine the health of the system as a whole, or indeed concern for whether the system as a whole is designed to achieve genuine social value. Instead, those operating within social roles must be held responsible for considering the effects of their actions on the social (and, indeed, environmental) system as a whole, and citizens generally must take responsibility for ensuring that the whole system is aiming at what Plato would call 'The Good'.

Plato's Republic offers a structural model for the redefinition of the relationship between the individual and society - what Plato called the city and the soul - in orienting itself toward the good. Plato proposed that social stability could only be achieved in a society oriented toward the good, or toward genuine value; I explore stability as an analogue for the psycho-social balance needed as a part of environmental sustainability. Plato showed that individuals matter to the political imagination and political outcomes more profoundly than do many modern thinkers, who have been seduced by purported proofs of the negligibility of individuals in mass society. His case for the importance of the individual is however skewed by his assumption that social change is more likely to be possible top down, from an elite ruling few. My adaptation of his argument abandons that assumption, allowing that the few who are motivated to initiate social transformation - those whom the 'new norms' scholars in sociology, economics, and law call 'norm entrepreneurs' - may be found anywhere in society, and may be able to initiate such transformations from the bottom up.

I go on to explore the role of the virtues in achieving social stability and individual agency. Here I argue that Plato treats health as even deeper than happiness - contrasting with the way in which an unbridled materialism, framed by Plato as the love of money and of consumption, undermines agency by generating addiction. The idea that the psychic core of virtue must be self-control or moderation is treated as key to achieving a sustainable psycho-social balance. This leads on to an exploration of the idea of the Good, arguing that we can give up Plato's assumption that there must be a univocal, metaphysical truth about goodness, while maintaining his framework of goodness or value being the source of intelligibility or meaning, and the object of action. We know that we want good medicine and good friends, and we shouldn't settle for less in the ecological sphere. As industrial designers William McDonough and Michael Braungart argue in their book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (New York: North Point Press, 2002), 'to be less bad [the current aim of relative eco-efficiency] is to accept things as they are, to believe that poorly designed, dishonourable, destructive systems are the best humans can do. This is the ultimate failure of the "be less bad" approach: a failure of the imagination.'

Finally, the book explores the idea of 'initiative'. Consider one example. Ray C. Anderson, as CEO of the American carpet company Interface, likewise rejected a piecemeal, blinkered 'do less harm' approach in favor of a holistic reorientation of Interface toward the good in his book Mid-Course Correction: Toward a Sustainable Enterprise. The Interface Model (Atlanta: Peregrinzilla Press, 1998). Instead, he adopted the mission 'to convert Interface into a restorative enterprise, first to reach sustainability, then to become restorative ...doing good to Earth, not just no harm - by helping or influencing others to reach towards sustainability'. Just as in Plato, this is seen not just as right, but as 'smart'. The new strategy redefines the parameters of value, adopting a target of zero waste and radically redefining what waste means. The company eventually 'declared all energy that is derived from fossil fuels to be waste, waste to be eliminated systematically, first through efficiency improvement and, eventually, to be replaced by renewable energy'.

This example demonstrates the power of Platonic thinking: that true value is gained through a holistic reorientation to the good, one which combines virtue and knowledge in the radical nature of its quest. The message of Eco-Republic is already beginning to be discovered and lived. I wrote this book in the hope that by making it explicit in the terms of an ancient ethical model, I can contribute to the power and value of those initiatives.

About Us

H&P is an expanding Partnership based at King's College London and the University of Cambridge, and additionally supported by the University of Bristol, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Leeds, the Open University, and the University of Sheffield.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

Read More