Utopia: Good Place or No Place?

Much has been written about the perennial temptation of the Utopian project embraced by intellectuals and political reformers across the ages. The impulse to radically transform existent society and replace it with a new, smoothly functioning, and presumably idyllic alternative never seems to diminish, a sign of perpetual dissatisfaction with the world as it is and, to a great and unchangeable extent, must be. The subject is as timely as it is timeless and slides along a continuum between the nostalgic desire for what once was or might have been and the revolutionary ambition to create a social paradise in the here and now.

As to be expected, the literature is interminable, grouped for the most part under the generic term “Utopian fiction” and including a wide ambit of texts of considerable thematic latitude, ranging from the Garden of Gems in the ninth tablet of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Garden of Eden in Genesis and the Golden Age in Hesiod’s Works and Days (when men “dwelt in ease and peace”) to, say, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two and Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia. The models developed are practically countless and, in the later exemplars, the rhapsody of destruction masking as beneficent change pretty well uncontrollable.

The myth of the earthly paradise or Golden Age has taken many forms, for example, the belief in an El Dorado hidden deep in inaccessible jungles, which animated explorers of old and was mercilessly mocked in Voltaire’s Candide; or the construction of an entirely new organization of social and political life, the attempt to bring the Golden Age into time, whether by stealth or by force. But perhaps the most celebrated source for the concept of Utopia, among a plethora of classical and Renaissance works too numerous to mention here, is Thomas More’s 1516 treatise of that name. More’s Utopia fixed the word in the language and is often read as a serious exploration of a possible, rationally conceived society, that is, of an “eu-topos,” the Greek word for “good place.” At the very least it reified the dream that has never ceased to beckon. The problem with this benign interpretation is that it dismisses the many satirical or ambifocal elements that call the book’s ostensible thesis into question.

It’s worth looking closely at More’s seminal book, which “deconstructs” the beau idéal of the Utopian program, revealing all sorts of deflationary traces that signal More’s original intent. Scholarship has determined that Utopia owes much to Lucian’s True History, which More had earlier translated, in which the 2nd century satirist had rollicking fun at the expense of the idea of another world categorically better than the one we inhabit. Names and titles are an even more direct giveaway. As Paul Turner points out in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Utopia, the main character’s surname, Hythlodaeus, is Greek for “dispenser of folly” or “Nonsenso.” The title of “chief magistrate,” Ademus, means “peopleless,” the river Anydras is “no water” and, of course, “Utopia” in its first acceptation is “ou-topos” or “no place.”

It gets even better as we move along. None of the inhabitants of Utopia, apart from Hythlodaeus, are given personal names, for they are not real people. The Utopians find Lucian “delightfully entertaining,” oblivious to the fact that he judged their progenitors a pack of utter imbeciles. Utopia has passed sumptuary laws forbidding extravagance in dress and accoutrement, yet exports “scarlet and purple cloth” to advance trade. The heads of family units are called “syphogrants” (silly old men) and their superiors are known as “tranibors” (plain gluttons). The capital of Utopia is Amaurotum, or “Dream-town.” Travel is restricted; nevertheless, the Utopians consider that “perfect happiness implies complete freedom of movement.” They despise precious metals and regard ascetic acts as ludicrous, yet More wore a golden chain and beneath it a hair shirt. Utopians have few laws and despise lawyers, but More devoted his life to the law and became England’s chief law officer. Divorce is permitted in Utopia; More went to prison rather than consent to King Henry’s divorce.

Hythlodaeus asserts that private property and material accumulation are the root of evil and must be abolished. He is rebutted by the More character in the story who, clearly parsing his mentor Aristotle’s Politics — we recall that he donates “even more of Aristotle” than of Plato to the Utopian library — argues that redistribution would lead to laziness and reduced production. Hytholodaeus has no riposte except to say that “in Utopia the facts speak for themselves,” which is palpably no answer at all. Indeed, More might be described as a proto-capitalist. In his more sober tracts, he savagely attacked the ethos of communal sharing practiced by the Anabaptists, and began writing Utopia when he was on an embassy to Flanders to promote the wool trade and thus increase the wealth of England’s mercantile classes.

The list of discrepancies in the text, and the contradictions between the historical More and his fictional stand-in, would fill several pages. I’ve provided only the merest hint of the discontinuities that strongly suggest, despite a few scattered indications for the improvement of social life, that Utopia is not to be taken seriously and that it is, ultimately, a bucolic and whimsical exercise in a genre we might call “romantic satire,” puncturing the figment of a surrogate Creation. Utopia is to be taken cum grano. It’s also interesting to note that the book has generated a respectable posterity. One thinks in particular of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in which a foolish Gonzalo boasts that he “would in such perfection govern [as] to excel the golden age,” of Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, in which the Utopian world culminates in ennui and discontent, and Samuel Butler’s hilarious Erewhon (an anagram for “Nowhere”), where everything is done backwards.

What is true of the Utopia and its successors is even truer of the Utopian enterprise itself, in all its diverse manifestations. It is like a country without an invoicing currency. It is riddled with incongruities and plain impossibilities, flies in the face of human nature and leads inevitably to terrible suffering. The “Big Brother” syndrome is unavoidable — as More writes, “everyone has his eyes on you.” (This is a remark to be taken both literally and prophetically. As Anna Funder shows in Stasiland, the declassified East German Stasi files revealed, as in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR, a vast network of child and spousal informers spying and reporting on their own kin.) Dystopian fictions like Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, Yvegeny Zamyatin’s We and John Calvin Batchelor’s undeservedly forgotten The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica (among others) flesh out the darker implications we find in More’s libellus (or “little book,” as he called it) and are mirrored in actual human societies that have followed the Utopian leveling and redistributive script: Soviet Russia, Mao’s China, the Jongleurs’ North Korea, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.