Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

Essay: The Great Literary Utopias Have a Nightmarish History

Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

Essay: The Great Literary Utopias Have a Nightmarish History

Article excerpt

Literary utopias, a seemingly modest form of fiction intended for amusement and contemplation, have had a surprising history. They have been a source of conscious civilizational design that has been taken seriously by some very powerful leaders, more often than not with dire consequences.

Plato's Republic, written 2500 years ago in ancient Greece, was the first to explore seriously what it would take to create a perfect society. Thomas More, one of England's greatest Renaissance intellectuals, redesigned Plato's Republic for his own time a thousand years later. His Utopia reflected the European fascination with the entirely novel civilizations discovered in the New World. One can better understand one's own culture through comparison with that of another.

Both Plato and More contemplated the conditions needed to support a perfect state. They considered geography, economy, and the ethical nature of leadership required to produce such a state. Most essential were social equality, even of the sexes; careful population control; rigorous education for commonality of values, and rule by only the most mentally fit.

Utopias leaped from the pages of literature with the birth of the United States. Our Founding Fathers, familiar with the works of Plato and Thomas More, reflected their vision for our country. But other readers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were thinking about these ideas, too; among these were Marx, Lenin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot.

Today we have seen that dystopias are more real than utopias. The newest dystopians among us are Al Qaeda and its imitators, imagining a brave new world under a caliphate. This is, of course, just one more fantasy utopia. The anarchists are their real model.

Types of Utopian Fiction

From the time that human beings had the leisure to think, there have always been those who did not like how their cultures were organized. One of the quatrains of Omar Khayyam (the Rubaiyyat), as translated by Edward Fitzgerald, expresses it best:

"Ah Love! Could thou and I with Fate conspire

To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,

Would not we shatter it to bits-and then

Re-mould it neared to the Heart's Desire!"

He expresses in this verse what others have felt from antiquity, that the world should be organized much better. Some who felt this way imagined paradises, fantasies, satires, and even today, imaginary brave new worlds (such as the cinema version in Avatar). But one Athenian genius, Plato, tried "to grasp this sorry scheme of things entire," and the key here is entire. He was the first to attempt to analyze what makes a republic function and how to design a better one. His fictional Republic has gone on to live and to influence the world in an astonishing way, including creating some societies that are not ideal utopias, but are nightmares.

According to that master of Utopian analysis, Lewis Mumford (The Story of Utopias, 1922), there are two kinds of literary utopias: fantasy and reconstruction. The fantasies and satires make fun of existing society and create an imaginary alternate universe, or are elaborate imaginings of either life after death or "brave new worlds." The construct utopias seriously attempt to imagine a perfect state, one that explores all aspects of a human society. Plato's Republic, written 2500 years ago in ancient Greece, was the first to seriously explore what it would take to create a perfect society.

Thomas More, one of England's greatest Renaissance intellectuals, redesigned Plato's Republic for his own time. His Utopia reflected the European fascination with the entirely novel civilizations discovered in the New World. One can better understand one's own culture through comparison with that of another.

A perfect state, they both said, would have enough land to feed itself, access to the sea or waterways for trade, every citizen working at what each did best, the best brains educated for unselfish leadership, absolute equality of all goods (to prevent corruption of the leaders), women freed from domestic duties to participate in all work for which they were qualified, all meals eaten together with cooking chores shared, and strict birth control (having no more children than could be fed). …

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