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A blockbuster about Plato, starring Brad Pitt?

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  September 25, 2013 09:22 AM

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Over the summer, rumors spread that French philosopher Alain Badiou intends to write a screenplay about the life of Plato, with an eye towards casting Brad Pitt in the title roll, Sean Connery as Plato’s mentor, Socrates, and Meryl Streep as Plato’s wife. The idea has generated a small buzz because it seems so preposterous. The founder of Western philosophy as a vehicle for a Hollywood blockbuster? On top of which, how much do we even know about Plato anyway? He died more than two thousand years ago, and many of the basic facts of his life have been lost to history.

I was curious to know more about what a Plato popcorn movie might look like, so I called Rusty Jones, a young professor who recently started teaching ancient philosophy at Harvard. I asked Jones how he’d go about the project and I was surprised that he had such a clear answer. He said that any dramatization of Plato’s life would have to make lots of big leaps—but if you’re willing to make those leaps, there’s a reasonable base from which to start.

Along with the dialogues and “The Republic,” there are thirteen surviving letters credited to Plato. Whether he actually wrote the letters is a matter of dispute, and some letters are more dubious than others, but one long, purportedly autobiographical letter provides a straightforward map for screenwriters to work from.

“If I were going to make a movie, I would take the seventh letter as definite and go as if that represents Plato, which it may or may not,” Jones says. “I would suppose that he was very interested in public life, and suppose he had debates with Socrates about whether he should do that.”

That, Jones says, would be the basic setup as he saw it: The story of a young man caught between his wise teacher and his own brimming desire to make a mark in the world. As a young man, Plato studied intently under Socrates and Socrates taught that philosophers should avoid politics because politicians necessarily end up acting unjustly. But, Socrates ended up ensnared in politics anyway, getting tried on the trumped-up charge of “impiety” and executed with hemlock poison. All of this undoubtedly had a big impact on young Plato.

“Plato thought Socrates was one of the best people if not the best person he’d ever met,” Jones says. “Plato was almost certainly frustrated, upset, hurt, deeply saddened and that motivated him very strongly to go and change the world.”

After Socrates’s death, Plato tried to teach the rulers of Syracuse how to act more like philosophers (and was nearly killed in the process) and wrote “The Republic,” which became the cornerstone of Western philosophy. Jones thought the two parts of Plato’s life provides the possibility for a movie told in flashbacks, with cuts between Plato’s intense formative years with Socrates and his later years trying to carry forward his mentor’s ideas.

The real Plato is lost to history, and it’s impossible not to fill in the blanks with terms that fit our own templates about what makes a dramatic life. But, once you do start thinking like that, an image of a character snaps into focus fairly quickly, and he might even be wearing Brad Pitt’s face.

“Put yourself in that time,” Jones says, “if you think of yourself as a young man with a lot of energy, who is well connected, with a lot of resources, at a time when there’s a lot of change and dispute, and it’s time a lot of intellectual flourishing…someone who gets caught up in all that is the picture I have of Plato.”

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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