Thursday, December 1, 2011


By Frantzi P. Manuel

The earliest Utopian visions are that of a paradise that does not exist on earth. It’s a paradise after death. And they don’t just depict a single person. It’s a vision of a whole lot of people wandering through this beautiful garden and talking to one another. It’s not a solitary paradise; it’s a community. But there’s no connection to reality - immortality was a given, for example. These visions are ethereal. The early Utopian thinkers were not social revolutionaries or social activists; they were pure dreamers.

From the very beginning, people thought in terms of realities other than those of everyday life. And that’s apparent in the evolving nature of paradisiacal Utopias over time. You have the Garden of Eden, with the earth’s “earliest inhabitants,” Adam and Eve, and there is a sharp difference between the paradise of Eden and what happens after the serpent enters the garden. Then you have the future paradise, the days when the Messiah arrives. There is the “world to come” as compared with the world as it is.

The visions of paradise found in the paintings of fifteenth-century Italian artist Giovanni di Paolo were of literate people - nuns, priests, monks - who were meeting and talking together in a beautiful garden. There was natural beauty, but there was also lofty discourse. You then have the Age of Exploration. What vision of paradise pushed Columbus, for example, to venture out to the New World, and did he think he had come upon it when he reached South America? Because whole new lands and new societies opened up, as compared with the old lands of Europe. What pushes us? Fame? Money? We cannot create any generalities about notions of paradise. But one thing remains: There is a division or a distinction between paradise and what people are facing in everyday living.

The sense that one could create Utopia here in this world starts with the work of Thomas More in the early sixteenth century. You don’t find this kind of thinking earlier than that. Even a hundred years earlier, Utopia was much more otherworldly. But with Thomas More, man rather than God is now conjuring life on earth. The idea of Utopia is More’s invention, and it’s very much linked to the life he’s actually living in the sixteenth century. It takes off from there. He doesn’t think that his Utopia will take place after you die and get resurrected. It becomes concentrated on this world.

Thomas More thinks in terms of a whole society with nice proper gardens and decent relationships, which he describes in detail. He thinks it through. And he’s laughing; he’s enjoying it, but he’s serious, too, because he is well aware of the faults of the society in which he lives. He is critiquing the Tudor monarchy of King Henry VIII, and it is a very shaky monarchy. All sorts of things are happening, and More is very much a man of ideals, principles, and faith. After all, he gets beheaded because he upholds his allegiance to the Catholic Church and breaks with the king, which is ultimately recognized; and eventually he is canonized as a saint. He was a brilliant man, a very well educated man, a man who not only thinks ahead but acts on it. For example, he has his daughters educated. He stands out in his world. Thomas More was a different kind of dreamer.

People were beginning to explore the life of the mind and the riches that were around them, not in terms of gold and jewelry but the riches of scholarship, of thought. They were interested in whatever they could find in history, and this went along with opening up the New World, with finding out about other races. They were finding civilizations in both North and South America that they didn’t know existed. Columbus discovers the New World at the end of the fifteenth century, and very shortly after that, Thomas More writes "Utopia". So there’s a confluence of a lot of things - the artistic world, the literary world, the geographic world. An enrichment takes place, and that gives birth to a new thinking, a new dreaming. This is the birth of humanism, and of course, the religious world starts getting hacked away.

The seventeenth-century Utopians, such as Sir Francis Bacon, were imbued with a different spirit. Virtually all of them were men of action who believed that their plans could and would be crowned with success within a foreseeable, not a distant, future. "The New Atlantis", which Francis Bacon wrote in 1626, is hardly a popular Utopia of social regeneration, as was Thomas More’s. Its purpose lies elsewhere. In "The New Atlantis" Bacon introduced science into human thinking, and he had a very clear and interesting conception of how science should be employed. Of course, you had scientists before Bacon - Copernicus, for example. But Francis Bacon is the father of scientific thinking. He was setting things forth, using his imagination and then checking on that imagination, measuring, changing, and testing. Bacon wasn’t just dreaming; he was working things out scientifically. He was developing a practical way to arrive at conclusions, so he used "The New Atlantis" to help introduce the scientific method into society, to alter the thinking of the time. And he was obviously an imaginative, brilliant man.

For Utopian visions to take root and influence the course of history, you had to have a population - more than a few philosophers - that could enact them. Utopia had to be more than someone’s reverie. A Utopian thinker in the seventeenth century, for example, had nobody on whom to pin his thinking. He was isolated, not from his fellow philosophers but from the great masses of people who were barely making a living and were thus unaware of what he was envisioning.

That begins to change with the Industrial Revolution and the shifting economic and world systems. You begin to have a population that can think. People begin to find their voices. They begin to become aware of themselves, to know who they are. Working people of the period come closer to philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was articulating Utopian visions. As a result, these thinkers begin to stir things up in a way that hadn’t happened before. The French Revolution led to emancipation and the rise of a middle class. And it was happening in the American colonies as well - the Declaration of Independence is a Utopian document. It wasn’t just somebody’s dream - you have a mass uprising and different classes of people begin to have authority. These people become part of a Utopian vision of the future, and Utopian ideals actually begin to take flesh. That’s when you see a change in the thinking, the wishing, and ultimately the working of Utopian thinkers.

In the nineteenth century, a much broader Utopian thinking emerges that concentrates on creating a whole new society. Important Utopian thinkers from the period included Charles Fourier and Henri Saint-Simon in France and Robert Owen in England. Their visions were not merely dreams of the future. They were meant to be adopted by groups, by cells, by societies - and they were.

Fourier and Owen were the two major early-nineteenth-century apostles of the small-community movement. They had confidence that a single successful experiment based on their principles of organization would provide an example so compelling that it would persuade the rest of humankind to adopt their systems. On the other hand, the main thrust of the Saint-Simon movement was not directed toward establishing small communities but was rather a total reorganization of the whole scientific-technological society. He began to think in much bigger terms and also in very specific terms, down to the kind of roadways he wanted to see. To join the Saint-Simon movement was an act of commitment to the future progress of man - a world of order and limitless progress in the flowering of all capacities, a world virtually without pain, a world of love and cohesiveness. The movement, the religion, was the new world in miniature.

In the twentieth century humanity chose some ruinous and catastrophic directions. Totalitarian regimes set out to create new societies. But in this context, we talk of dystopia rather than utopia.

Immediately after World War II, dystopian novels sold more copies than any literary Utopian works in memory. Dystopia portrays the future as a living hell. You have apocalyptic visions of human beings overpopulating the earth and clawing one another for survival, of nuclear disaster, of escaped pathogenic bodies heedlessly being created by experimental scientists. Yet out of these visions, the Utopian propensity shows signs of stirring again, because at the heart of a dystopia has to be a utopia. You say, “This is awful. This is terrible. We’re going in the wrong direction.” But you’re saying that because you think there’s the possibility that it can change. If you didn’t think there was that possibility, you wouldn’t bother. Aldous Huxley, author of the ironic dystopian "Brave New World" lived to write the Utopian "Island". The impulse behind a dystopia is really Utopian.

Utopians are true realists. They know what would be good for the world. And they know that you have to have an ideal before you can move toward it. So they’re realists in that sense. Those who merely accept what is are really the non realists because they’re denying that the world is going to change, that the world moves. But what direction the world moves in is another story. And if you have no goal toward which you hope it will move, no goal you’re pushing toward, then you’re accepting everything that’s bad and you don’t need to. The Utopian thinkers of the past were often far in advance of their societies, and it’s good to know about them. Of course, sometimes the societies that were founded on their ideas didn’t work out that well. That’s certainly true of Marx, for example. But that, too, gets corrected in time. By new utopias.

If you’re alive and you’re a thinking person, then you have to hope for something, even if you’re not very optimistic that it will be achieved. You still want to work for it. You want to better this world, and you have the feeling not only that it needs to be bettered but that it can be - that its evolutionary fate is ultimately to be better. Therefore you have to align yourself with those who think similarly and not with those who either have given up or think that the world begins and ends with them.

In the twenty first century life is different, and the province of the Utopians is changing. They’re not worried about sexual freedom anymore. Economic ideals still move Utopians, but they are moving other people too. Issues that were once Utopian have become common objectives; they’ve been gobbled up by the Democrats, who are no longer called Utopian! So Utopians are really hard-put today, don’t you think? For instance, would you call the ideal of world peace Utopian thinking? I don’t think so. This has almost become a world ideal, whether you think it’s possible or not. What was once specific to Utopians has now spread to entire populations, linking what used to be Utopian with the life of humanity.

You don’t need a vast number of people to destroy the planet anymore, and that puts Utopians in a different position altogether. There’s talk of the end of humankind. In the nineteenth century, that would have been considered crazy. But people who think in those terms are not considered wild dreamers anymore. Utopian thinking now has to do with the preservation of the human race. Utopians in the twenty-first century are those who think we can preserve the world. And it’s not one class or society; it’s all of humanity. So Utopians are no longer simply isolated in little enclaves of their own. Without the whole world to back them, their ideals can’t move into a practical phase. We all have to become Utopian because we all have to believe we can preserve the world. And if we don’t, we should give up right now and go into a cave, or pray, or just think, or spend our time knitting. The alternative is the end. That sounds gloomy. 

From an interview with Jessica Roemischer for What is Enlightenment, 2007

About the author:

Fritzie P. Manuel is a scholar and art historian. Together with her husband, the late Harvard professor Frank E. Manuel, she coauthored Utopian Thought in the Western World. This seminal work chronicles the unique nature and progressive history of Western utopian ideas and their influence on the development of civilization, past to present to future. 


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Image source unknown but greatly appreciated