BMCR 2012.05.31

Eco-Republic: What the Ancients can Teach us about Ethics, Virtue, and Sustainable Living

, Eco-Republic: What the Ancients can Teach us about Ethics, Virtue, and Sustainable Living. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012. ix, 245. ISBN 9780691151243. $29.95.

Table of Contents

In Eco-Republic: What the Ancients can Teach us about Ethics, Virtue, and Sustainable Living, Melissa Lane takes up Plato’s Republic as “an ancient road map” for social change that can chart the social and psychological transformation required to face the contemporary challenge of living sustainably in the face of imminent environmental catastrophe. The Republic, Lane argues, offers “an intuitive and imaginative model” that can inspire responsible individual action, showing how we must incorporate the notion of the good into all social roles through re-imagining the interdependence between individuals and political community. Lane’s suggestive study presents a successful example of what an encounter between classical studies and contemporary political theory might look like by demonstrating the usefulness of Plato’s thought for devising responses to the urgent political problem of global climate change.

The image of the cave provides a heuristic for Lane’s entire book, which she subdivides into three sections: Inertia, Imagination, and Initiative. Today we find ourselves trapped in a cave of delusions about the sustainability of the modern lifestyle, Lane argues, and we must struggle to overcome the inertia of this situation and re-imagine a social ethos of individual initiative. The image of the cave thus functions as a diagnostic tool for Lane, illuminating the contemporary problem and indicating potential answers. Yet, as I will suggest at this review’s end, while the cave proves attractive and useful as an explanatory image, it also illuminates some aspects of Plato’s account resistant to Lane’s appropriation.

How might we leave the cave of the contemporary status quo? For Lane, Plato’s Republic focuses our attention on virtuous individual action. Section I, “Inertia”, presents the need to reflect on the beliefs and habits and practices that have blocked the necessary social transformation required by the present moment. Living sustainably, Lane argues, drawing on recent reports by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), requires that we meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. What is unsustainable, then, is what undermines the ability of society to develop responses to its needs and prevents it from realizing and instantiating what it deems valuable. To live sustainably we must first ask what is worth sustaining and why. Questions about sustainability, then, point to deeper questions about the good and how we might realize the good in our everyday actions.

Enter Plato. For Lane, Plato offers lessons on how to consider and pursue a good worth sustaining by turning our attention to the importance of individual virtue and individual initiative. Against the modern emphasis on the pursuit of self-interest as sufficient to foster a common good, Plato offers a powerful argument for the importance of virtuous individual action as a response to today’s inertia. The conditions of mass society have led to a belief in the negligibility of the individual, the idea that the actions of one single person can have little effect on the whole and that, because of this, there is little reason to demand individual change. Against such a belief, the Republic, according to Lane, insists on individual reorientation as a starting point for all social change. Individual action can reshape the social imagination, which means that each of us bears some responsibility for creating a social ethos. Reading Plato, we can recognize our duty to act well and thus move “from negligibility to negligence” (75), as Lane puts it, or from taking ourselves as negligible actors to recognizing and realizing our individual responsibility to do otherwise.

In Section II, “Imagination”, Lane returns to Plato’s Republic for an image of “the psychosocial dimensions of sustainability” that can overcome modern negligence. The Republic shows how stability and sustainability depend upon a mutually supportive fit between the psychology of citizens and the principles governing the city. Stability only becomes possible when a particular good is sustained, a good that can temper the values and aims of citizens and foster a sustainable community. Drawing on work by herself as well as by Danielle Allen and Christina Tarnopolsky, Lane presents the Republic as “effecting … a new imagination in its readers” (91). Rather than a blueprint appropriate only for would-be totalitarians, the Republic attempts to transform the imagination of its readers, to help them to envision the organization of their own souls as interdependent with the organization of the society. In other words, the Republic presents a vision of the good society and the good soul with virtue as the basic parameter for the health of each. Lane argues that Plato’s underlying thought in the Republic concerns how political formations are shaped by the characters of citizens, which then shape these political formations in turn. Thus the key for progressive social change according to both Plato and Lane lies in creating “habit-forming structure[s] of virtuous self-control” (121). Virtues such as moderation and justice can overcome a destructive love of money, a cynical belief in negligibility and the apathetic conditions of indifference, as well as destructive images of the human body, time, and growth that accompany these desires and dogmas.

Section III, “Initiative”, outlines a call to action inspired by Plato yet departing from his thought in important ways. While the image of the cave imagines cultural change as controlled by elites such as Socrates, Adeimantus, and Glaucon in the dialogue, Lane detours from the Republic and forwards a democratic theory of cultural change. Rather than relying on philosophic culture-creators, Lane returns to the original Platonic insight about the individual’s duty to act virtuously and ties this duty to the project of remaking all cultural systems and the importance of aiming for the full achievement of some good. Norms, the habits and conventions that structure daily behavior, can change through the imaginative innovations of “norm entrepreneurs” that spark initiative. While biking (rather than driving) to work will not contribute significantly to the reduction of carbon emissions, the symbolic value of this choice can: the friends and neighbors and colleagues who witness this choice and hear your reasoning could in fact shift their paradigm. As understanding of the whole emerges, roles change too: no longer can individuals see themselves as negligible atoms in a system beyond their control; instead, as Plato’s Republic beautifully elucidates, we come to see that no good society can afford individual indifference. Each one of us has the power to create a culture that supports sustainable goodness.

Lane ends her book with an “unwitting Platonic parable” that translates the insights won from Plato back to contemporary life. Ray C. Anderson, founder and CEO of Interface, an American carpet company serving businesses and based in the state of Georgia, provides Lane’s example. Upon reading Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce, Anderson transformed his company, redefining the enterprise’s mission around what Lane calls a “Platonic goal of doing good” (180). This new strategy redefines parameters of value, understanding value not just in monetary terms but as embracing product quality, aesthetics, utility, durability, and resource efficiency. Moreover, Anderson comes to view the changes at Interface as a kind of norm entrepreneurship. In his view, “a public with a high sense of ethics, morality, a deep-seated love of Earth, and a longing for harmony with nature” will drive institutional transformation; the “good guys will win in the market place and the polling booth”; and business and political leaders will follow (181).

In Lane’s vision, Anderson’s story depicts the reorientation to the whole elicited by Plato. Eco-republic shows how Plato’s Republic can offer a model of social transformation inspired by a love of wisdom while further demonstrating that the elitism of the Republic need not preclude our appropriating its understanding of sustainability for thinking in today’s egalitarian contexts. Moreover, Lane astutely avoids prescribing a particular good or set of virtues, instead bringing her readers into a conversation worthy of a Platonic dialogue about the purposes of modern society and how we might act to re-imagine these purposes in sustainable, beneficial ways. Building on work by scholars such as Jonathan Lear, Alexander Nehamas, and others, Lane reinvigorates Plato studies by showing how Plato might speak to the present and inform contemporary social and political debates.

Nonetheless, and despite its hortatory tone, I did not find myself wholly convinced by the conclusions of Eco- Republic, in part because Lane never fully acknowledges the ways in which Plato’s Republic might resist her appropriation. To return to the image of the cave, I wonder why Lane ignores the description of what transpires to the man who descends again to the cave after seeing the world in the light of the sun. Upon returning, such a man will be a laughing-stock, Socrates says, but this is not the whole of it: “Wouldn’t it be said of him that he had come back from his journey to the upper world with his eyesight destroyed, and that it wasn’t worth even trying to go up there?” Socrates asks Glaucon. “[And] as for anyone who tried to set them free, and take them up there, if they could somehow get their hands on him and kill him, wouldn’t they do just that?” (516e-517a, tr. Tom Griffith). Given the resounding condemnations of the IPCC and the pervasive animus against even the minutest change to “the American way of life” in the United States, I wonder: could Plato’s Republic also serve as a cautionary tale about the ability of communities to undergo the kinds of transformations Lane deems urgently necessary? Lane seems to ignore the chilling death of Socrates which is said to inspire the Republic, not to mention the implications of Socrates’ admission toward the end of Book VII that the kallipolis will inevitably become corrupted. In other words, not all prophets of transformation have their messages well received and not all transformations redound to the good. Perhaps Lane’s argument for social change is far too sanguine — or, rather, in light of Socrates’ own fate, not sanguine enough.

(This reviewer found no factual or typographical errors in the book.)