Imagine living in a society where life is predictable, orderly, and tranquil. Everything – from birth to education to occupation to retirement to death – is laid out meticulously, and every citizen lives free from pain, want, and inconvenience. Sounds utopian, right? However, there is one catch. In order to realize this utopia, life must also be devoid of color, emotion, and choice. Such is the existence of Jonas, a budding adolescent who, though he has grown up accepting and cherishing his society, emerges from the shadows of his metaphorical cave into the light of freedom and reality. Although Jonas remains a fictional protagonist in The Giver by Lois Lowry, his life in many aspects reflects that of a denizen in Callipolis, as described by Plato in The Republic. Through her depiction of Jonas’ struggle between loyalty to societal values and enlightenment for his community, Lowry subtly hints that any carefully envisioned society (including Plato’s Callipolis) can only exist at the high cost of freedom and choice. The question that remains, therefore, is whether or not the trade-off is worth it.
Both Lowry’s and Plato’s communities are defined by three forms of control: population control, education control, and vocational control. In Jonas’ society, rules state clearly that “two children – one male and one female – [are assigned] to each family unit,” led by spouses carefully paired by the governing Committee of Elders (Lowry 8). From puberty onwards, all citizens regularly swallow pills that suppress Stirrings, or erotic desires. Only the Birthmothers bear children, presumably through artificial insemination, and “there [are] always fifty in each year’s group, if none had been released” (Lowry 11). Release to Elsewhere, as Jonas later learns, is a euphemism for infanticide or euthanasia, routinely used when infants fail to meet development standards or when the elderly reach a given age. In The Republic, Plato similarly envisions a city regulated by a complex system of eugenics. Socrates explains to Glaucon:
The best men should have sex with the best women as often as possible, whereas for the worst men and the worst women it should be the reverse. We should bring up the children of the best, but not the children of the worst, if the quality of our herd is to be as high as we can make it. And all this has to happen with no one apart from the actual rulers realizing it, if our herd of guardians is also to be as free as possible from dissension (Plato 459d – 459e).
To cast a veil over the actual intents of this breeding program, Socrates suggests a lottery process that would match men and women of compatible classes with each other. Then, after birth, all children will be reared communally, with no distinction given to parents and their natural children. Once past the age of childbearing, men and women are allowed free sex with non-relatives, on the condition that any embryos accidentally conceived must be aborted.
In addition to regulating population, Lowry and Plato also utilize education control through surveillance of thoughts, words, and actions to maintain order and predictability. After birth, children in Jonas’ community are placed in classes corresponding to age, and are trained during the day by Childcare specialists and school instructors. Rulers of the community exercise a mysterious, Big Brother-like surveillance over it, issuing public chastisement when community rules are broken. Special attention is also paid to teaching children the precision of language – in other words, conforming the use of words to standard, measured meanings understood by the community. Once, when Jonas was a Four year-old, his teachers had explained that “the reason for precision of language was to ensure that unintentional lies were never uttered” (Lowry 71). In eliminating even the smallest of lies, the community not only ensures uniformity, but also devises a regimen whereby even the smallest use of the smallest of words is self-checked by each member. The mandatory, honest sharing of dreams at breakfast and sharing of feelings at dinner also guarantees scrutiny of every citizen’s actions, words, and feelings. Jonas aptly reflects his community’s homogeneity of speech and thought when he ponders, “How could someone not fit in? The community was so meticulously ordered, the choices so carefully made” (Lowry 48). In his Callipolis, Plato likewise establishes strict censorship for guardians in training: outlawing objectionable stories of Greek gods while presenting sanitized stories of “good” gods, restricting elaborate and mixed styles of imitative poetry (in which the poet writes in the voice of another character) while allowing austere styles of simple poetry (in which the poet narrates straightforwardly), banning rhythmically and harmonically discordant music while permitting Dorian and Phrygian modes of music, excluding reed instruments while including the lyre, cithara, and panpipes, and prohibiting unacceptable works of art while authorizing wholesome crafts. Socrates makes clear the intentions for his censorship of the elite guardians’ upbringing when he remarks, “Anyone with the right kind of education…will have the clearest perception of things which are unsatisfactory…Being rightly disgusted by them, he will praise what is beautiful and fine…he will feed on it and so become noble and good” (Plato 401e – 402a). In his pursuit of the ideal city, Socrates, who himself so values the art of questioning and inquiry, ends up creating a society that is trained to fit a rigid mold, as he clearly states, “They would absorb our laws as completely as possible, like a dye. We wanted them to possess the right character and upbringing, so that their views on danger and other things would be color-fast, incapable of being washed out” (Plato 430a). Although Socrates undoubtedly describes Callipolis’ education in an esteemed and lofty manner, he does not realize, or perhaps purposely overlooks, that such a controlled community may not ultimately prove ideal or desirable in every way, as Lowry later suggests in The Giver.
The most striking resemblance between Jonas’ world and Callipolis lies in their respective regulations regarding residents’ vocations. In Jonas’ community, “Like the Matching of Spouses and the Naming and Placement of new children, the [lifetime] Assignments [are] scrupulously thought through by the Committee of Elders” (Lowry 49). Whether assigned to be a Storyteller, Sanitation Laborer, or Doctor, denizens trust the Committee to decide their futures in order to keep the community functioning like cogs in a well-oiled machine. Correspondingly, Plato divides the people of Callipolis into three main classes: guardians, auxiliaries, and producers. Raised together, rulers and auxiliaries are respectively responsible for ruling over the people and defending the city. Their education, as described above, is designed to hone their natural dispositions for aggressiveness towards enemies, gentleness towards their own people, and inclination towards knowledge and philosophy. Furthermore, those selected to be rulers undergo additional training in mathematics and philosophy. Socrates sums up these requirements by saying, “The person who is going to be a good and true guardian of our city [must] be a lover of wisdom, spirited, swift and strong” (Plato 376c). Like the Committee of Elders in Jonas’ society, the guardian class in Callipolis, is only “its smallest group and element” (Plato 428e); most inhabitants belong to the producer class, which includes blacksmiths, painters, doctors, lawyers, and more. To ensure stability within the city’s hierarchy, Socrates proposes propagating a useful myth partially of Phoenician origin. Mother earth, as the fable elaborates, fashions each individual with a certain form of metal: gold, silver, bronze, or iron. Those with gold in their souls are created to be rulers; those with silver, auxiliaries; those with bronze or iron, farmers and other skilled workers. Neither are the soul’s elements necessarily hereditary – children born with elements different from those of their parents must be relegated to their appropriate divisions in society. If ever any individual mixed from the wrong metal rules over Callipolis, the oracle foretells imminent ruin of the city. Indoctrinating every citizen to accept “the task he is naturally fitted for” is essential in maintaining the class hierarchy of Callipolis, which is why Socrates later explains: “The overseers of our city must keep a firm grip on our system of education, protecting it above all else” (Plato 423d; 424b).
Interestingly, Socrates relates this very notion of class divisions to his definition of justice in The Republic. He expounds, “Doing one’s own job, and not trying to do other people’s jobs for them, is justice…which gave all the others [i.e. virtues of self-discipline, courage, and wisdom] the power to come into being, and the thing whose continued presence keeps them safe once they have come into being” (Plato 433b). According to Socrates, justice is achieved when society’s elements function in their rightful niches. Even though he does not define justice as a policing force, Socrates’ definition of justice for Callipolis clearly shows that tight oversight and regulation of society – through population, education, and vocational control – is needed for justice to be attained. This justice represents the culmination of the ideal city, and, although not completely analogous, can be compared to Lowry’s concept of Sameness, the meaning of which Jonas discovers when he receives his life assignment to be Receiver of Memory. As Receiver, Jonas inherits the community’s collective memory, which the people relinquished in days past when they decided to go into Sameness. Jonas’ mentor, the previous Receiver, reveals, “Our people made that choice, the choice to go back to Sameness…We relinquished color when we relinquished sunshine and did away with the differences…We gained control of many things. But we had to let go of others” (Lowry 95). Like justice in Callipolis, Sameness in Jonas’ society succinctly describes how utopia is achieved, through fixed supervision of society and its members to ensure that order and harmony prevails. Not only does the community dispense of suffering, unpredictability, and inequality in their creation of a peaceful society, but they also abandon depth of emotions, vibrancy of life, and freedom of choice in their acceptance of Sameness, thinking that this trade-off is worth it. However, when Jonas receives memories of vivid colors, intense joy, indescribable beauty, and warm love, along with memories of animal cruelty, physical agony, and excruciating death, he yearns for his community to experience deeper meaning and richness in life. With surmounting frustration and loneliness, Jonas hatches a plan with his mentor to return to his community the memories he has acquired, in the understanding that doing so could possibly cost Jonas his life.
In many ways, Jonas’ journey is parallel to that of the enlightened philosopher in Plato’s cave allegory. In the allegory, prisoners live entire lives chained inside a cave, unable to see anything besides shadows reflected on the cave wall. When one of the prisoners breaks free, he is initially overwhelmed by the outside world, but eventually realizes that his former cave is simply a meaningless shadow of reality. Those still in the cave misunderstand and mock his newfound enlightenment, but the philosopher ultimately ends up governing his people due to a sense of duty, because he is aware of a greater reality that his people do not comprehend. In The Giver, Jonas is the philosopher who, upon his training as Receiver, stumbles from the shadows of the cave, his literally black-and-white community, into the dazzling brightness of the sun, a new reality of color and rich memories. As Socrates describes, Jonas is at first confused, and takes time “to acclimatize himself…to see things up there” (Plato 516a). Later, Jonas also vainly tries to transmit his awareness to Asher and his sister, but finds himself misunderstood, much like the philosopher from the cave whom others said “had come back from his journey to the upper world with his eyesight destroyed” (Plato 517). Like the Receiver before him, Jonas, because he has seen and understood the light, is fated to return to the shadows of his former cave and govern his people in wisdom. As if exhorting the future philosopher-kings of his ideal city, Socrates speaks: “We produced you as guides and rulers…So you must go down, each of you in turn, to join the others in their dwelling-place. You must get used to seeing in the dark. When you do get used to it, you will see a thousand times better than the people there do” (Plato 520b – 520c). Jonas, however, refuses to accept his lot and govern his community as Receiver of Memory. Unlike the enlightened philosopher in Plato’s allegory, Jonas recognizes that his community remains in chains precisely because he is the only one allowed to bear the memories of generations. As his mentor pitifully remarked, “They can’t help it. They know nothing” (Lowry 153; italics in original). In Plato’s allegory of the cave, the enlightened philosopher returns to rule his people, who remain chained in the darkness. Jonas, however, makes the difficult decision to leave and betray the community he has always known and accepted, risking his life to free them from the captivity they do not yet understand. Knowing that freeing his people would drastically undermine the orderliness and harmony upon which his community is built, Jonas nonetheless chooses true meaning in life, along with its potential chaos, over uninterrupted Sameness and its imprisonment. As he and his mentor acknowledge, “It’s true that it has been this way for what seems forever. But the memories tell us that it has not always been. People felt things once…like pride, and sorrow…and love…and pain…things must change” (Lowry 154-155; italics in original).
In her portrayal of Jonas’ community, with all its parallels to Plato’s Callipolis, is Lois Lowry conveying a deeper message of what an ideal society truly is, or is not? By presenting a twist on Plato’s well-known allegory of the cave, is Lowry suggesting, perhaps, that the very society Plato constructs in The Republic is, in fact, the antithesis of meaningful human existence? In his dialogues, Socrates remains insistent that only certain individuals have the potential for philosophy and true enlightenment; thus, to achieve justice and prevent disorder, Callipolis must remain governed and regulated the way Socrates describes. Socrates, however, sees himself as On the contrary, Jonas rejects his community’s Sameness even as he and his mentor realize that “the community…will be thrown into chaos” for a period of time until they adjust to the new memories they acquire (Lowry 156). Even if restoring freedom of choice and vividness of life means inevitably sacrificing the bumpless efficiency of the planned community, Jonas reckons that this costly trade-off is worth it. Instead of returning from the light to rule over people who remain chained in the shadows, Jonas does everything he can to drag them “right out into the sunlight” (Plato 515e), no matter how much they will initially resent his efforts. While Socrates teaches that individuals without gold in their souls should not receive the education and freedom reserved for philosopher-kings, Jonas grasps that freedom of choice is what makes humans human, even if that freedom further complicates life.
Plato ends The Republic with an air of satisfactory triumph, having developed an ideal city containing in its hierarchy what Socrates and his friends have defined as justice – each person dutifully living out their allotted assignment and contributing to the greater order and structure of the city as a whole. As a consequence of attaining this justice, however, the people of Callipolis surrender their freedom of choice (or, at least, freedom of choice as defined in today’s terms), which necessarily results in a loss of individual significance and autonomy. Instead, each member of society exists only to serve the greater order, in submission to the community’s elite ruling class, as the inhabitants of Jonas’ society lived. Certainly, the freedom of choice also comes with the possibility of wrong choices and their ramifications (Jonas notes this early on when he comments, “We really have to protect people from wrong choices” [Lowry 98]), but disposing of these risks at the cost of true human fulfillment is simply not worth it. Plato’s Callipolis ends as a utopia, but Lowry’s community more realistically ends as a dystopia. In her book’s ending, Lowry chooses not to directly depict the outcome of Jonas and his community, but she does clearly imply that Jonas, through his escape journey, reverses the trade-off his community had made generations “back and back and back” (Lowry 113). Even today, as leaders seek to create Callipolis’s in our own societies, may we consider carefully the very same trade-offs that Plato and Lowry set before us.
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