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Ancient Thinking for a Green Age


Melissa Lane

The transition to a sustainable society is a profound challenge to ethics and political thought, as well as to humankind. It is comparable to the great transitions of the past, such as the Enlightenment. Yet the distinguished tradition of groundbreaking ideas has not so far been widely invoked in public debates in this area. What can we learn from the history of ethics and political thought to enable us to cope with climate change?
Climate change and sustainability are not just technical problems or problems in applied ethics: they require a new political imagination. Melissa Lane identifies Key messages – on the role of the individual, the household, the nature of citizenship, and the significance of the imagination – which bring the wisdom of the past to bear on the challenges of the present. Using these resources, and building on these insights, she calls for the construction of a ‘new normal’, remaking our imagination of our society and our selves. Drawing on Plato’s Republic as a model while also challenging aspects of Platonic politics, the book sets out the political and psychological challenges that we face in moving beyond the psycho-political settlement of modern commercial society.


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Part II Imagination Prologue to Chapter 4: Post-Platonic Perspectives on the Republic The first model for a totalitarian state, laying down the template for Hitler? Or the first model for radical communism, threatening the traditional family? The ‘beautiful city’ (Kalli-polis in ancient Greek) of the Republic has been read as everything from a prescription for universal poverty ruled by universal dictatorship,1 to a destructive fantasy which is intended as satire, to a utopian dream which can’t possibly be realized. We have to confront this plethora of interpretations in order to understand both how they can be so diverse, and the grounds for appropriating the Republic in this book in yet another way: as an abstract model of questions that need to be asked rather than a blueprint of answers to be applied. As I wrote in an earlier study, Plato’s Progeny, the Republic has been appropriated by both Left and Right, by nineteenth-century communists as well as by twentieth-century partisans of fascism. The reason, I think, is as I stated there: the ‘radical means’ which it proposes for its ideal city – including depriving its rulers, both women and men, of private prop- erty and free choice of procreation – has appealed to the Left, while ‘the holistic goal of a citizenry shaped to be cohesive has appealed to the Right’.2 Some of those in the middle, animated by liberal values, have condemned the Republic as the original recipe for political totalitarianism. This was the burden of Karl Popper’s attack on...

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