Utopia: Dystopia

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The term “dystopia” was coined to describe novels about imaginary societies—often situated in the future—in which human potential and desires are repressed.  Orwell’s 1984 is the example that comes most readily to mind, but Stephen Spender says that it was actually written as an allegory about the Cold War and was originally titled 1948.  If that is true, it isn’t really a dystopia at all.  Besides, it is rather tiresome, very much less interesting than Animal Farm—but Animal Farm is a beast allegory and doesn’t fit into the dystopia formula either.  Huxley’s Brave New World, on the other hand, is a dystopia, and there is little to like in the imaginary world it displays.


The 16th century philosophical romance Utopia by Thomas More gave its name to the genre.  “Dystopia” was formed by adding dys-, as in dysfunction, to utopia, which actually means “nowhere” in Greek.  Samuel Butler’s satire on 19th century England, Erewhon, takes place in the utopia for which the novel is named.  “Erewhon” is “nowhere” spelled backwards, and almost everything in Erewhon is done backwards from the way it would have been done in England (and most things seem to make much better sense when done that way).  It is obvious that both utopias and dystopias tell us a great deal about the opinions the writers had about their own societies, but they can’t tell us anything about the future.  Looking Backwards by Bellamy is a good example.  Its vision of the future (actually our past!) is laughable, but for anyone reading between the lines it is a fount of information on American life in 1888.


The dystopia/utopia genre has attracted writers of all kinds, including crackpots.  Butler was a sort of crackpot, but one of immense and prodigal talents, and he has left us a great semi-autobiographical novel, The Way of All Flesh.  Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance is not a great novel, but it is probably the warmest, most human thing Hawthorne ever wrote.  It is a satire upon Brook Farm, a transcendentalist utopian community in which he had lived for about six months.  The behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner’s peculiar novel, Walden Two, could almost be regarded as a kind of self-parody.  Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland is a surprisingly good-natured novel about a parthenogenic women’s society modeled after a hive of bees.  Needless to say, men don’t have the sensitivity to cut it there.


Utopian, socialist communities, both religious and philosophical, were a feature of the 19th century American landscape.  Among the first proponents of such communities were Saint-Simon and Fourier in France.  Fourier’s failure to understand human impulses is clear in the way he arranged for the distribution of work:  small boys were to be made the trash collectors of his phalansteries on the premise that they liked to play in dirt.  It’s clear that he had never asked a small boy to take out the garbage!  In England, Robert Owen proposed similar communities, and the poets Coleridge and Southey promoted pantisocracy, a utopian notion.  (You will note the fondness for grandiose names:  phalansteries, pantisocracy, etc.)  In fact, they planned to establish a community in America on the banks of the Susquehanna River.  They picked the site because they liked the name, “Susquehanna”:  Mellifluous isn’t it?  Brook Farm, itself, was inspired by Fourier, and Owen founded a community in Indiana.  The Oneida Community, New Harmony, the Shakers . . . the list of these failed experiments probably runs into the hundreds.  That they no longer exist is evidence that their founders didn’t understand human impulses any better than Fourier did.


The earliest account of such an ideal society in Western literature is the island of Phaeacia in Homer’s Odyssey.  Atlantis, which has given its name to several utopian novels (notably Francis Bacon’s 17th century utopia, The New Atlantis), seems to have been an invention of Plato’s.  In the Timaeus he attributes what he says to stories told to Solon by Egyptian priests, but Plato was writing in the 4th century BCE, and Solon lived a century earlier.  (Atlantis supposedly existed 9000 years earlier, yet.)  Since there are no other Greek accounts of the myth at all, except for Plato’s enlargement of the story in the Critias—in which he gives detailed information on its social organization—it seems clear that he is making up a parable.  Atlantis never existed.


Plato wrote his own utopia, The Republic, which Karl Popper attacks in The Open Society and Its Enemies as having been a prop to repressive governments throughout history.  (Apparently the Nazis did claim to be bringing about Plato’s ideal society, although this was undoubtedly persiflage intended to enlist the support of intellectuals.)  However this may be, there is no doubt that Plato was an enemy of democratic thinking.  He was a friend of Dionysius, the unsavory tyrant of Syracuse, and he conspired with him, unsuccessfully, to put his social ideas into practice.  His slanted version of the death of Socrates in his Phaedo puts the blame for Socrates’ death on the Greek democracy.  A very different version of Socrates’ life and death is given by Xenophon in his Memorabilia and other dialogues.  And The Republic brings us to a rather grim realization:  utopias may well be as repressive as dystopias.


The exceptions to this rule appear to be successful only because their portrayal of human nature is distorted.  It is imagined that—given the right social organization, relationship to work, architectural environment, or what have you—people will be mutually supportive, productive, and happy.  That is true in Phaeacia, and it is true in the big-rock-candy-mountain fantasy-land of El Dorado in Voltaire’s Candide.  Such will-o-the-wisp notions have attracted theorists of every stripe, from Karl Marx to Lewis Mumford, and it would be nice if they were true—but they are just too easy, too simple.


The other utopias succeed by the power of their governments.  In The Republic the rulers are the philosopher-kings, the “guardians”—I wonder who would have been chosen as the guardians if Plato had been a butcher instead of a philosopher?  The exposition of the system is interminable and repellent.  Brave soldiers are to have more wives than others and to get first choice of them.  The guardians own nothing, but they hold women in common, and the women have no choice in this.  Poetry is to be banned except for hymns to the gods and poems praising great men.  Music suffers a similar fate.

In More’s Utopia, all the houses are identical and everything is shared in common.  Everyone takes a turn working in the city, and then working on the farms.  Lest you think that this is too idealistic, you should know that couples engaged to be married get to inspect each other naked to make sure that there are no hidden defects!


Utopian notions—like Esperanto—attract good-hearted cranks, but any good that is to be done in the world requires that people live in it, and not spend their time indulging in other-worldly and often menacing fantasies.



As mentioned above, we know hardly anything about Socrates.  There are two accounts of his life by people who knew him, Plato’s and Xenophon’s.  They are vastly different—so much so that they don’t seem to describe the same man.  There is some reason to believe that Xenophon’s portrayal of a sort of provocative, cracker-barrel philosopher is the most accurate.  At least he doesn’t shape his version of Socrates into a mouthpiece for his own philosophy, as Plato does.  But though we can’t say for sure what Socrates’ teaching was like, the parodies of it in Aristophanes’ play, The Clouds, probably show how most ordinary people saw it. 

The trial and death of Socrates, as presented by Plato in Phaedo, is worth a more careful look than it generally receives.  Three of Socrates’ disciples, Alcibiades, Charmides, and Critias, were charged with various crimes, including treason, and this didn’t seem like an accident to many Athenians since Socrates’ teaching apparently encouraged people to question the value of established beliefs. The Athenian legal system differed from ours in important ways.  The State didn’t have an appointed prosecutor, and charges were brought by private citizens.  Socrates was charged with corrupting the youth by three of his enemies, and he was found guilty by a small majority of a jury that consisted of over 600 citizens.  Another oddity of the legal system was that the jury was provided with a choice of penalties for someone found guilty: one offered by the “prosecutor” and one offered by the defendant.  In this case the prosecution asked for death, and if Socrates had asked for exile it would surely have been granted to him.  Instead, he asked for a reward from the State.  The jury, having found him guilty, now had no choice:  they couldn’t reward a man they had just found guilty, and the vote for the death penalty was larger than the vote for his guilt.

Plato’s account in Phaedo essentially taints the Athenian democracy with the murder of a pure seeker after truth, and this is what we might expect of the author of The Republic.  Plato was an elitist in one of the worst senses of the word, and an enemy of democracy.