9 September 2016

Death of Utopia

Author: Leonidas Donskis / Source:
Map of Utopia by Ortelius, cca 1595
Niccolò Machiavelli, the quint-centenary of whose Discourses on Livy will be celebrated in 2017 as a great event in European history of political ideas (the treatise was written around 1517) is regarded as one of the founding fathers of modern political thought, and rightly so.

Yet the same could be said about one more colossal figure of the Renaissance, Sir Thomas More, whose Utopia is celebrated in 2016 for its quintcentenary – it was published in 1516.

As we know, Machiavellism and Machiavellian have become pejorative terms, painting Machiavelli as a sinister figure. Curiously, something similar happened to the concept of utopia and utopianism, which began signifying a modern form of evil, with its dismissal of individual freedom and full embrace of global social engineering.

Utopiaappears as one of the most mysterious and enigmatic works of literature and politics in modern history. A social satire and a political pamphlet disguised as a travel story, it emerged as a work of a conservative thinker who was far from suggesting a revolution as a road to justice and wellbeing.

Yet the storyteller Raphael Hythloday – a fictional character in More’s Utopia- did not see only bad things in England, such as ineffective royal counselors and selfish politicians on a war-footing with neighboring countries, but good things too. The most important good thing was his having seen a person of exceptional wisdom – theArchbishop John Morton. Thus, More was able - through the lips of the fictitious Portuguese sailor - to immortalize his good friend and benefactor.

The storyteller gradually exposes a complex character of what he takes as a perfect place. Hythloday describes a magnificent island he has visited which is as different from England and all other lands he has been to as are night and day. To say the least, Hythloday’s account does nothing to trigger the fondest of memories for those readers who have had the unhappy distinction of having lived in a totalitarian state.

However, when it comes to the island of Utopia, some excerpts from More’s Utopia may come to us as a shock, as something that disturbs our modern sensibilities.

One of the most shocking discoveries is that privacy is a dishonorable thing in Utopia. Only public life is encouraged to prevent anyone from hatching plots against the government. Dining takes place en masse. Travel abroad is only possible when accompanied by older clan and tribe bureaucrats known as Syphogrants, or members of higher categories known as Philarchs and Tranibors.

Everyone is required to work, but the most onerous tasks are performed by slaves, who are dangerous foreigners and prisoners of war. Utopia is the complete opposite of thoroughly commercialized England. It is an ancient polis reminiscent of an agricultural community living in the premodern phase.

Dualities permeate Utopia. For example, we do not learn in the end if More’s utopia is "nowhere” (υ + τόπος in Greek), or "the best place” (ευ + τόπος). More uses a Latin equivalent of utopia, Nusquamus (Nowhereland), but hints of the Greek superlative (ευ) also appear in the text. This form of modern ambivalence is a genial allusion by More, which resonates with the dual nature of our modern life.

We would never know if some of the most surprising novelties described in the book were thought up by More as futuristic follies or as a mental experiments of what is possible in the world if it abandons the cannon, wisdom, and learning. For instance, the ordination of women, who can serve as priestesses in rather tolerant, diverse and multi-religious Utopia. Or euthanasia described as an established, wise practice in Utopia.

Are we to believe that a pious Roman Catholic, who refused to give the oath to Henry VIII as the Head of the Church of England, who remained faithful to the Pope and the Catholic Church, who was beheaded in 1535 with the final words said on the scaffold, "the King’s good servant, but God’s First,” and who was proclaimed by the Church, in 1935, Saint Thomas More, was endorsing the ordination of women and euthanasia?

Or was he sending a message that what appears as a vice and folly to us will be regarded as a virtue and wisdom in the future? Was it a smile of a great fan of Lucian, a laughter of a wise humanist, or was it his courage to admit that the human world and politics is much too complex to be judged by Plato’s Republic?

Yet in the twentieth century utopianism came to signify radical evil and global social engineering. Nikolai Berdyaev, whose words of warning were used as the motto in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, wrote that we have to protect humanity from summoning utopias into life, as utopias turned out to be no more and no less than realizable nightmares.

In fact, few things are more discredited than utopias and utopianism. Since Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and George Orwell’s 1984, dystopia has become a form of wisdom dismissing utopia as evil, as a folly of detachment from reality, from the needs and wants of the flesh-and-blood human beings.

Paradoxically, we seem to have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. By abandoning utopia, we have abandoned the idea of good and just society. As Zygmunt Bauman suggests, utopia was privatized in modern society, it became the individual’s success story.

What happened to social and political dreams? Are they abandoned as dangerous follies? And what happened to the entire critical enterprise, then? How to maintain social critique without dreaming up at least some components of the alternative?

In the nineteenth century, people believed in Progress and History in the way we believe in the free market now. In the first half of the twentieth century, the radical political views and ideological passions led quite a few thinkers and visionaries to believe in the historical inevitability of socialism (or communism). They firmly believed that "there is no alternative”.

It is a great irony of history that this phrase was coined by Margaret Thatcher as if to say that there is no alternative to neoliberalism – namely, that the free market, free trade, and capitalist globalization are more than the best of all possible worlds (to paraphrase Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss); nay, TINA (there is no alternative) became the banner of the twenty-first century indicating that there is no reality outside of the free market, individualization, deregulation, and dissemination.

And this is the real death of utopia.
Leonidas Donskis is a Lithuanian philosopher, historian of ideas, and writer. A former Member of the European Parliament (2009–2014). Donskis has written and edited over forty books, seventeen of them in English. His works have been published in eighteen languages. He serves now as Professor of Politics at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania. Donskis holds an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Bradford, the UK (2011), and an Honorary Degree of Doctor Honoris Causa from Valahia University in Târgovişte, Romania (2014).

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