The Closed Society and Its Friends: Plato's Republic and Lucas's THX-1138

By Cormier, Raymond | Literature/Film Quarterly, July 1, 1990 | Go to article overview

The Closed Society and Its Friends: Plato's Republic and Lucas's THX-1138


Cormier, Raymond, Literature/Film Quarterly


It is not new to find Utopian and dystopian elements combined in a single work. They appear in both an ancient text, Plato's Republic (dates from ca. 375 B.C.), as well as in a modern science fiction film classic, THX-1138 (dir. George Lucas, 1971; based on an award-winning film school short subtitled Electronic Labyrinth).

The authoritarian "managerial meritocracy" proposed in Plato's Utopian vision has been most severely criticized by Sir Karl Popper, a philosopher/political scientist who, in The Open Society and Its Enemies, considers Plato's state a closed, tribal, and magically-imposed society. The presentation here attempts to compare and contrast the classic treatise and the modern science fiction film in very broad terms. Our conclusion will draw on Popper's critique of Socrates's pupil.1

Although Plato in part echoes the Golden Age from the dawn of history that is described by his Greek predecessor, Hesiod, his concept of "civil society" remains today nevertheless a controversial Eden. It is a rather naive quest for a definition of justice that leads to an elaborate and revolutionary Utopian construct. In the end, justice, it is decided, "'consists in minding your own business and not interfering with other people'" (Lee 204).

For Plato, a strife-free, interdependent, and communitarian society, however remarkable for its promulgation of happiness, would have no personal freedom or liberty as moderns might define these terms. Plato was openly critical of Athenians who were left too much to run their own lives, the result of which, he thought, was unhappiness and undiscipline. In this Ideal State, the leader is followed by the unquestioning faithful. Moreover, it is one man, one function: no "Jack of All Trades," no "Renaissance men" may exist here (Lee 152, 156-57).

Fearless and indomitable. Guardians of mettle and vitality rule and govern and protect the civil society (Lee 125); Auxiliaries execute their decisions. According to Plato's "magnificent," or "noble," or "handy lie," the Myth of the Metals, Guardians, like thoroughbreds, have gold in their veins; Auxiliaries have silver; and the rest are made of bronze and iron (Lee 182 ff). Golden parents beget golden children, silver parents silver children, etc. Yet in this world, the family is abolished and replaced by the state. Eugenic breeding will assure that the best men mate with the best women; procreation is regulated so to produce the best possible children for the society (Lee 240). With unified personalities, the "real pedigree herd" (Lee 240) will not be allowed to know their parents and thus will avoid any conflicting loyalties; they will love the state above all and consider all their peers brothers and sisters. Thus allegiance to the community will prevail.

Plato calls for a world in which any innovation in education is banned because it might lead to disorder (Lee 191); as in THX-1138, brain-washing indelibly imprints the brain (Lee 200). The wise, gifted and best-educated minority will control the less respectable majority, asserts Plato (Lee 202). But, alas, finally, the ideal pattern cannot exist, insists Plato, until "philosophers become rulers in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy come into the same hands . . . ." (Lee 263). These are the lovers of knowledge whose eyes are raised up so high they usually step in it! Plato's Ideal State admits of no flaws, but the alert reader will find many reasons to reject life under the royal scepter of the Guardians.

Plato envisions the golden Guardians or philosopher-rulers in the allegorical underground cave as unchained; they must be educated so as to recognize the connectedness of all knowledge, the ideal Forms, and ultimately goodness itself. It is they who will be able to leave the cave, understand the realm of knowledge, and see and even be blinded by the sunlight; the shadows of the allegory represent what is assumed to be reality by the prisoners, but which the unchained prisoner/philosopher knows to be mere reflections. …

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