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Utopias Unrealizable and Ambiguous: Plato, Leo Strauss, and The Dispossessed

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The secondary literature on The Dispossessed mostly treats the novel as a conveyer of ideas, and Le Guin herself has frequently objected to this. I wish to situate The Dispossessed within a tradition of ambiguous literary utopias by linking The Dispossessed with Plato’s Republic. According to Leo Strauss, Plato isn’t writing a blueprint for a perfect society. Instead, he’s writing about the unrealizability of utopia. The anarcho-syndicalist state of Anarres contains an element of similar unrealizability. Borrowing from Peter Kropotkin, Le Guin retains a post-Hobbesian view of human nature as something related to enlightened self-interest, while also endorsing a Habermasian view of communicative rationality that, according to Strauss, Socrates in The Republic considers impossible.


  • Anarchy
  • Leo Strauss
  • Modernity
  • Plato
  • Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Utopia

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  1. 1.

    As Burns shows, Le Guin’s categorization of her own novel seems to have evolved. The phrase “literary utopia” is a retroactive label not initially available to Le Guin, so Burns builds his argument around Le Guin’s early worries, expressed mostly in Dancing at the Edge of the World (1989), that the genres of “novel” and “utopian literature” are logically incompatible. Notably, the contribution by Isabelle Stengers to this volume of essays, “Thinking in SF Mode,” gives a sense of what reading “novelistically” might mean for SF. Rather than the de-contextualized thought experiments common within modern philosophy and the social sciences, SF offers “situated” thought experiments that shows abstract ideas in their living, breathing applications among people. This quality, let me suggest, also permeates Plato’s work.

  2. 2.

    Krishan Kumar, for one, agrees that Socrates’s City-in-Speech does not provide a “blueprint for … some future reformer” (1987, p. 24), yet he still sees the dialogue primarily as providing “illustrations of philosophic categories expressing the nature of justice” (187, p. 25). For an in-depth presentation of The Republic as an earnest utopian blueprint, see George Klosko in Jacobins and Utopians (2003).

  3. 3.

    This “impossibility” reading, as suggested, runs counter to how most political scientists—down through and including Aristotle—have read Plato’s dialogue. The strongest evidence that Aristotle took Plato’s Republic seriously occurs in Book 2 of The Politics (1986), where he dismisses Plato’s proposed communism of wives, children, and property, and in Nicomachean Ethics where he denies that a universal, absolute Form of the Good can apply in common to multiple things (2004, 1096b–1097a). Many also cite Plato’s Seventh Letter as evidence that he intended The Republic seriously—this epistle, whose authenticity is debatable, recounts his failed attempt to transform Syracuse’s newly ascended tyrant, Dionysius the Younger, into a philosopher king. Among modern analytic philosophers, Simon Blackburn offers a typically dismissive response to the Straussian view, which he thinks appeals only to “weak-minded commentators in love with the idea of hidden, esoteric mysteries penetrated only by initiates” (2006, p. 5). As I proceed, I hope to motivate the compelling character of the Straussian position given its applicability for The Dispossessed.

  4. 4.

    For example, traditional family structures and private property are abolished, and both utopias mandate communal living. Of course, Plato’s Republic features a heavily centralized government whereas Anarres does not. Likewise, the City-in-Speech cares nothing for personal happiness or the individual conscience; such things obviously matter a great deal to the Anarresti.

  5. 5.

    For an example of a utopia that denies human nature, see Samuel R. Delany’s Triton. This novel assumes that human nature is infinitely malleable rather than only partially malleable, which no one would deny. This differing attitude partly explains why Neil Easterbrook considers Triton an “authentic anarchy” but Anarres a mere humanist liberal isotopia. “What makes one an anarchist,” says Easterbrook, “is the philosophical disavowal, the renouncing and debunking of extrahistorical (transhistorical) or extrapolitical (“natural”) grounds upon which one might theorize a better state” (1997, p. 71). My own concerns, of course, are less about delineating the parameters of “authentic” anarchy than in how Le Guin’s and Plato’s respective visions of human nature permit ambiguity to enter their utopian loci.

  6. 6.

    Although Burns insightfully ties “Le Guin’s interest in fundamental ethical dilemmas … with Greek tragic drama” (2008, p. 9), he never seems to consider, when removing The Dispossessed from the utopian literary tradition, how the Straussian reading of Plato might apply to Le Guin’s novel. Although Burns once co-edited (with James Connelly) an essay collection meant to introduce Strauss to British political science (Burns and Connelly 2010), Strauss’s name never appears in Burn’s monograph.


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Wise, D.W. (2021). Utopias Unrealizable and Ambiguous: Plato, Leo Strauss, and The Dispossessed. In: Robinson, C.L., Bouttier, S., Patoine, PL. (eds) The Legacies of Ursula K. Le Guin. Palgrave Studies in Science and Popular Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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