Sea Captains and Philospher Kings: Melville's Billy Budd and Plato's Republic
This article shows how Melville’s Billy Budd, rightly one of law and literature’s most widely studied canonical texts, answers Plato’s challenge in Book X of the Republic: Show how “poets” create better citizens, especially better rulers, or banish them. Captain Vere is a flawed but instructive version of the Republic’s philosopher-king, even as his story is precisely the sort of “poetry” that Plato should willing allow, by his own republican principles, into the ideal polity. Not surprisingly, the novella shows how law’s agents must be wise, even as their law must be philosophical, if they are to do justice. Paradoxically, the novella also shows how “poetry” can save law’s agents, particularly the more Platonic, from Captain Vere’s “veer,” a dangerous turn from natural justice to false severity.
Captain Vere has a “tragic flaw” all too common among leaders otherwise completely conscientious and competent: When faced with a range of courses – all legal, moral, and practicable – Vere invariably charts the most personally painful. Part of his “no pain, no gain” course steers him into fastidious studies that exclude both “mere” fiction and “pure” theory, ironically banishing Plato himself along with his “poets.” But Vere’s own story, with its narrator’s frequent theoretical interruptions and occasional allusions to Plato, demonstrates that the reading of just such stories may deliver leaders like him from over-harsh treatment of themselves and their most vulnerable charges. The novella, then, not only reveals Captain Vere’s “veer”; it also shows a way to avert that ever dangerous, often fatal tack. If the studious captain had been prepared to study stories like his own, his readings might have made him a vastly better guardian of his symbolic flock, particularly of Billy Budd, his most innocent sheep; had “Starry” Vere been more a philosopher-king and less a surrogate father-god, he need never have made his excruciating mistake, sacrificing his most beloved foster son to save their microcosmic world.
Robert E. Atkinson. "Sea Captains and Philospher Kings: Melville's Billy Budd and Plato's Republic" ExpressO (2009).
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/robert_atkinson/2