A book has been published recently that looks at utopian writings by four late-19th century authors with limited name recognition: Edward Bellamy, William Morris, Edward Carpenter, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The book’s author, Michael Robertson, examines contradictions and paradoxes that pepper each author’s conception of what it would take to build an ideal world. For instance, slaves exist in some, women are restricted in significant ways in others, privilege based on money or birth flourishes in still others. As I finished the review, I knew I won’t be reading the whole book though I’m glad Mr. Robertson has written it. But I will continue puzzling over why people ponder the physical and psychological and political landscape necessary to call a place or culture an utopia.
Because I’ve been rereading Greek drama in order to facilitate a discussion group in my living room, Plato has found his way into my consciousness again. When I worked at the University of Minnesota, I often reminded students that we are still suffering from his insistence on an “either/or” theory of human behavior/consciousness. What would it have been like for us, as inheritors of much of classical Greek (and Roman) thinking if some leading philosopher of that period had advocated for a world order based in “both/and” instead, I would ask my earnest students. Recently, however, I see another deep problem underlying Plato’s definition of who and what are necessary and forbidden in his conceptualization of an ideal state. Of course, this has taken me back to his work, The Republic, published around 380 B.C. In it he states quite emphatically that two kinds of people are not to be admitted if there is any chance of an ideal state–poets and musicians. His reasoning is clear even if disturbing: poets and musicians create works that enter our consciousness so fast that we are unable to exercise rational control over our responses to their work. That means we might prefer to listen to Aretha Franklin rather than going to work, or we might read Mary Oliver’s poetry rather than learning the latest catechism purveyed by the church or state of our choice. This would in turn create disorder and Plato is quite clear that any ideal community must have order and agreement about how to think and behave along certain fundamental principles.
Mr. Robertson surely is pointing out a similar requirement proposed by his four more modern authors. Utopias require a kind of moral and behavioral adherence to a set of laid down rules or protocols or norms. Some cultural scholars interested in today’s world are telling us that democracies are messy enterprises because they are systems that keep reaching out to include more kinds of people and ideas. This requires an ability to keep expanding our definition of “citizen” and opening ourselves to those we are inclined to label “strangers.” In contrast, cultures that organize around some form of tribalism or clannishness tend to limit who or what can be tolerated or even admitted. So those cultures may well be, whether their adherents know it or not, arguing against democracy in favor of utopias. “Make America Great Again” implies a paradise lost somewhere along the way, some idyllic place where there were no “strangers” or, if they existed, they were easily consigned to some outer circle that was under the control of the founders who drew up the blueprint for the utopia.
I’m glad Michael Robertson has written his book because, whether he intended it or not, he invites some of us to continue knowing that those imagined or nostalgically recalled “paradises” or utopias either never existed in any mundane sense or, as John Milton believed, were not a place where mere human beings could learn who we really were and then work to become better. At the end of the review that got me started on this blog idea, its author says: “We always want to get past the room we’re in in order to break out and change the universe. The lesson that life tends to teach is that change begins at home, and that we can’t escape rooms on our way to worlds. The world is made of rooms.”