"The Fertilising Conflict of Individualities": H. G. Wells's A Modern Utopia, John Stuart Mill's on Liberty, and the Victorian Tradition of Liberalism

Article excerpt

  For all the humanity he wins to, through his dramatic device of
  dialogue, I doubt if anyone has ever been warmed to desire himself a
  citizen in the Republic of Plato; I doubt if anyone could stand a
  month of the relentless publicity of virtue planned by More.... No one
  wants to live in any community of intercourse really, save for the
  sake of the individualities he would meet there. The fertilising
  conflict of individualities is the ultimate meaning of the personal
  life, and all our Utopias no more than schemes for bettering that
  interplay. At least, that is how life shapes itself more and more to
  modern perceptions. Until you bring in individualities, nothing comes
  into being, and a Universe ceases when you shiver the mirror of the
  least of individual minds.
  --H. G. Wells, A Modern Utopia (1)

In "The Latest Apocalypse of the End of the World," a review of The War of the Worlds (1898) published in the Review of Reviews, W. T. Stead begins by noting how H. G. Wells's conception of Martians who invade the earth in an attempt to escape their own dying planet makes original use of the theory of entropy that had earlier had a profound influence on John Stuart Mill: "I remember long ago hearing Mr. Morley tell of the effect which was produced on his master, philosopher and friend, John Stuart Mill, by the sudden realisation of the probable extinction of the human race by the gradual cooling of the planet" (389).

The shared consideration of the implications of entropy for the human race noted by Stead is indicative of more substantial parallels between Wells and Mill. Both were involved in politics and social reform. In distinctive fields the names of Wells and Mill have each become synonymous with a particular movement, even though the association often understates the complexity of the authors' work. Hence Wells is often considered to have been the only committed utopian writer of the twentieth century, despite the fact he never wrote a major unequivocal novel (Parrinder 96). (2) Similarly, as early as the 1900s Mill's "name acted symbolically to conjure up certain associations [to individualism especially] rather than to denote any very precise principles or policies" (Collini, Public Moralists 332).

Although he died in 1873, Mill continued to be an influential and widely discussed figure in the late-nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth century. (3) This explains why Wells, writing some thirty years after Mill's death, might have been prompted to appropriate the philosopher's principles as--having secured his name with such early "scientific romances" as The Time Machine (1895) and The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), as well as The War of the Worlds--he abandoned his adherence to entropic and degenerative theory and turned his attention to social reform after 1900.

Wells's proposed vehicle for social reform was the formation of a world state, a concept that would increasingly preoccupy him throughout the remainder of his life. (4) One of his most ambitious early attempts at portraying a world state was A Modern Utopia (1905). (5) Intended as a hybrid between sociological discussion and novelistic endeavor, (6) A Modern Utopia concerns two protagonists, the narrator and his botanist travelling companion, who are transported by an instantaneous act of the imagination to a world beyond Sirius identical to our own in terms of population and physical constitution. Each person alive thus possesses a utopian double. Utopia possesses a different history to our own planet, however, and has established a world state of the sort that Wells would spend much of his life campaigning toward. As they journey through utopia, the protagonists discuss the ways in which this new world illuminates contemporary earthly problems. Yet the protagonists also interact with utopia, which often illuminates their sociological discussions in ways in which they are not fully aware. …


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