The Man in the High Castle

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My wife – Ashley – and I do a sort of exclusive book club. In February, I choose a book that we both read together and in March, she picks a book that we read together and discuss.

We both enjoyed watching Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle miniseries, so I thought that reading the book would be a good idea. I should mention that due to an alarming lack of internet at our house we have not seen the final two episodes.

But I do feel component to speak to the differences between the book and the movie, as it were. It’s a weird book to turn into a series. It just doesn’t really call for it. Perhaps the original idea was simply a story set in Philip K. Dick’s alternate history universe.

Because The Man in the High Castle is about ethical choice, spiritual and personal questing, and moral action. A series of characters ruminate on their lives and situations. Each struggle with forces beyond their control. There is no one single overarching story, but a series of personal situations and resolutions which only have tenuous – but crucial and interesting – connections. In fact, the various characters never fully meet or recognise each other; each remains alone.

It’s 1962, and the Japanese run the western seaboard. The Nazis have taken over basically everything east of St. Lewis. There is a neutral buffer state which keeps the two titanic empires from direct contact; this buffer state is under the sway of the Japanese. Philip K. Dick’s acute understanding of totalitarian society and the actual nature of fascism reveals itself in the situation. The Nazi’s are very advanced in hard technology, such as rockets and jets. But they lag behind in soft technology like televisions or radio programming. They have exterminated Africa and drained the Mediterranean. It’s a world thats both scary and very, very believable. The Japanese are the relative good guys.

Philip K. Dick does a great job depicting and illustrating how these catastrophes come about and how they are explained and why people believe in the propaganda. The reality? The Nazis have economically wreaked Europe and as their economy gets worse and worse, the Nazi leadership (Hitler is alive but is essentially too ill mentally and physically to have any influence) is driven to increasingly grandiose and absurd lengths to make things look ok.

Essentially, then, the setting for The Man in the High Castle is that WWIII is about to start between Germany and Japan; the Nazis planning a nuclear strike on the Japanese Home Islands to assume control over the much healthier economy of greater Japan. This book is less about overthrowing the Third Reich then it is subtly about moral choice and attempts to avert WWIII.

It’s a short book. Too short. Philip K. Dick seems to deliberately avoid plot line that would push the tender limits of his alternate universe too far. And in the end, I think this is right. It’s a meditation on moral choice and defining the self in a strange and cruel universe. And it’s an awesome fantasy which I’m surprised people haven’t riffed off of.

Better than the tv series.

The Republic

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Here it is. The fount of western philosophy. Pretty much any academic discourse can trace its roots back to this text. It’s timeless – and problematic. If you have ever heard a comment along the lines of “all philosophy is a response to Plato”, than let it be known that I am inclined to agree.

It’s set as a dialogue staring Socrates, Plato’s master. Plato never seems to make much of an appearance in his own works: it’s always played out as “Socrates”. It’s interesting to note that everything we know about Socrates comes from Plato’s pen. I suspect that we can use their names interchangeably.

Anyway – in this dialogue, Socrates and his aristocratic Athenian companions debate the nature and meaning of Justice. The discussion ranges quite widely, but centres around the life and soul of the Just Man and the constitution of a Just State. Subjects as far apart as censorship, pedagogy, the afterlife, poetry, and military gymnastics are discussed. There is frequent use of metaphor, illustration, and allegory. All is ostensibly logically strung together by the use of the dialectic method.

All in all, it’s a masterful work; all the more impressive because of it’s pure originality. And that’s part of it’s magic: it comes as if out of thin air. Yes, some Greeks where into philosophy-like subjects, and yes, some non-Greeks where coming up with some interesting metaphysics, but nothing and nobody comes close the achievement that is The Republic. It’s part utopian fantasy, part sociological investigation, part political science, and part philosophy. All is discussed and disposed of with breath-taking…um well…gumption.

I did not quite enjoy reading Plato. He’s wordy and obtuse. His willingness to hold forth on an astounding range of topics seemed to guarantee a sort of comprehensive “mistaken-ness” about the whole work. To a certain extent I could see how his view of the universe and the use and role of reason would enable him to be “competent” on the kaleidoscope of issues he writes about. But this still does not change the fact that he over-commits himself. Some issues are exceedingly well done; some seem down right immature.

The actual structure of this utopian republic must have been based off of the constitution of Sparta. Plato’s ideal state is austere, communistic and aristocratic. Based around the aristocratic military caste which he calls “guardians”, Plato’s city will ban poets, censor myths and stories, children will be held in common (and not know who their parents are) and be based a surprisingly rigorous education producing citizen soldier philosophers. It’s profoundly aristocratic and elitist; yet communistic and austere. Plato does argue for its possibility (claiming that a prince who is a philosopher could create this state) but we are struck by it’s impossibility; its ultimate nature as fantasy.

It’s not that anybody finds Plato’s conception to be compelling or even vaguely appealing. But Plato’s vision has nonetheless dominated western political and ethical considerations ever since. The idea of the perfect state can be seen driving people’s aspirations ranging from Francis Bacon to Karl Marx. Plato’s elitist quest for the perfect community can be seen in Nazism. In other words, Plato does not fit into a “right wing” or a “left wing” box.  Rather, his ideas form a sort of bedrock or framework that we continue to frame our thoughts and aspirations into.

The Republic has a lot of the famous Platoisms, such as the Allegory of the Cave, the need for philosopher-kings, and a vision of the afterlife which Dante cribbed off of. In the end, what fascinates is how contemporary Plato seems to us. Two thousand five hundred year separate us, and yet Plato seems little more than antiquated or a bit odd. He would go unnoticed on Twitter. And this speaks to the profound power and influence of his thought.

Totally different than anything you have read before, and at the same time, totally familiar. A toss up.