Divergent: a case study of Plato’s Republic

In the world of Divergent, society is divided into five factions, each based on a different virtue.  At the age of 16, teenagers are forced to take a test to see where they best fit into this society.  The story centers around Tris Prior, a teenager from the abnegation (selfless) faction.  When she takes her test to see where she best fits in society, she finds that she is divergent, meaning she does not fit into one single faction.  Because of this, she must technically be punished by death. The story follows Tris as she attempts to keep the fact that she is divergent a secret while undergoing extreme physical and psychological tests to join her new faction.  As the story unfolds we see that Tris has a choice to either save the ones she loves from this faction system and risk losing her own life, or conform and find a place in a society that has no place for her.

For those who have spent much time reading or studying philosophy, this society should sound rather familiar.  In The Republic, Plato creates a picture of a perfect society based on the idea of “justice”.  According to Plato, a society is just when each of its citizens does exactly what he or she is meant to do.  He divides society into three factions, based on the specific jobs the citizens are meant to do.  Those who don’t conform to this faction system are deemed “unjust” and should technically be punished.  In Plato’s eyes, this faction system would be the only way to reach a utopian society.

The society in Divergent seems to be built on this very same idea of justice: each person has a specific job to do in order to best benefit society as a whole.   However, what Plato’s Republic portrays as a utopia, Divergent portrays as a dystopia.  In fact, Divergent seems to operate from the premise that nothing good can come from any “utopia” where humans are involved. This premise begs the question: why do these two very similar societies paint such polar opposite outcomes?

To answer this question, we must quickly examine a thought on human nature. Even Plato himself said that this utopian society he thought up would never work simply due to the human element.  He says that as humans, our virtues and vices are always at war with one another.  Though we may want to do good, we always have a pull to do the evil.  Therefore, even though we may know that sacrificing our freedom and taking our place in a faction to benefit society as a whole may be the right thing, our human nature always pulls us towards keeping our freedom to benefit ourselves.  We will always be tempted to step outside of our place in society to benefit our own good or the good of our family (as we saw happen in Divergent).  As long as we cannot find this harmony inside ourselves, a utopian society will always fail.

Is it possible for us to control this war between our vices and virtues?  Is it possible to find an “inner harmony” that can create this “perfect and just society” that Plato talks about? Or will we continue to strive for hope and liberty outside of society?  In other words, what’s worth pursuing?

The story of Divergent seems to show that the very society that was meant to be the “ideal society” inevitably becomes the exact opposite.  Divergent shows that surrendering our freedom is not worth it in order to be what society deems “successful”.  It is more important to be able to be with the ones we love and remain free to choose our own paths than to be placed into a role that someone else chooses for us.  This freedom helps define our humanity.  The option to choose the wrong is what gives us the ability to find worth in what is right.  A life lived without this libertarian freedom is a life devoid of meaning and purpose.  Which, to me at least, does not sound anything like a utopia.

I don’t know where the Divergent story leads from here, as I have only seen the first movie.  But I think it’s fair to ask this question: is a utopia of any kind possible for humans, and if so what would that look like?

DISCLAIMER: all of my thoughts here are based on the 2014 movie Divergent.  I have not read the books or seen all of the movies.  If you have finished the series, please feel free to comment any thoughts you can add to this conversation.

Read More:

The Republic – Plato

Divergent – Veronica Roth


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