For more than 2,000 years utopian visionaries have sought to create a blueprint of the ideal society—from Plato to H. G. Wells, from Cloudcuckooland to Shangri-La. The utopian impulse has generated a vast body of work, encompassing philosophy and political theory, classical literature, and science fiction; yet these utopian dreams have often turned to nightmare, as utopia gives way to its dark reflection, dystopia. Taking the reader on a journey through these imaginary worlds, this work charts the progress of utopian ideas from their origins within the classical world to the rebirth of utopian ideals in the Middle Ages. Later we see the emergence of socialist and feminist ideas; while the 20th century was to be dominated by expressions of totalitarian oppression. Today it is claimed that we are witnessing the death of utopia, as increasingly the ideals that give rise to them are undermined or dismissed. These arguments are explored and evaluated here, as are contemporary examples of utopian thought used to demonstrate the enduring relevance of the utopian tradition.
About the Author
Merlin Coverley is the author of several Pocket Essentials, including London Writing, Occult London, and Psychogeography.
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By Merlin Coverley
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2010 Merlin Coverley
All rights reserved.
The Birth of Utopia: The Golden Age
The first eutopias we know of are myths that look to the past of the human race or beyond death for a time when human life was or will be easier and more gratifying. They have various labels – golden ages, Arcadias, earthly paradises, fortunate isles, isles of the blest. They are peopled with our earliest ancestors; heroes and, very rarely, heroines; the virtuous dead; or in some cases, contemporaneous but little-known noble savages ... These utopias of sensual gratification are social dreaming at its simplest. Every culture has some such stories. Gregory Claeys & Lyman Tower Sargent.
The term Utopia was coined by Thomas More in his work of 1516 and has spawned a vast literary tradition that continues to this day. And yet the desires and the fears which this term has come to encapsulate are to be found within the earliest forms of human expression, present in both the oldest examples of the written word, and no doubt originating in the oral traditions which preceded them. In the Western world, this utopian tradition anticipates More's celebrated text by more than 2,000 years, and it is rooted in the earliest myths of a golden age. Many of these myths are also to be found in the utopias of the Middle Ages, brought together through the intervening centuries by the crucial role of Christianity in shaping these early utopian longings into a coherent system of belief. The Christian millennium provides a utopian future towards which the believer may strive, while heaven awaits for the chosen few after death. But, in the pre-Christian era, utopias tended to describe a time long since passed, a lost age of earthly abundance to be contrasted with the hardships of the present. It is here that utopia was born, within tales of lost civilisations whose history continues to resonate today.
The Myth of Atlantis
The source of the Atlantis myth is commonly ascribed to Plato. As the story goes, Egyptian priests told Solon, the semi-mythical Athenian poet and lawgiver who lived some three generations before Plato, about a city which had been destroyed by a cataclysmic flood some 9,000 years earlier – in around 9600BC. First in the Timaeus, and later in the Critias, in which the island is described in some detail, Plato relates how Atlantis was founded by the god Poseidon, who fathered the island's first inhabitants in conjunction with the beautiful Cleito. This Atlantean civilisation was based upon a main island which also ruled over several lesser kingdoms on smaller islands and was, initially at least, an earthly paradise of abundance and harmony. The historian of the occult, Jonathan Black, has provided the following summary of the Platonic account:
The largest island was dominated by a beautiful and fertile plain and a large hill. Here Cleito lived, and the people enjoyed food which grew abundantly on the island. Two streams of water came up through the earth, one of hot water and one of cold.
To keep Cleito for himself, Poseidon had a series of circular canals dug around the hill. In time a sophisticated civilisation grew up, taming wild animals, mining metals and building – temples, palaces, race-courses, gymnasiums, public baths, government buildings, harbours and bridges. Many walls were coated with metals – with brass, tin and a red metal, unknown to us, called orichalcum. The temples had roofs of ivory and pinnacles of silver and gold. The islands of Atlantis were ruled over by ten kings each with his own kingdom, the nine others being subservient to the ruler of the largest island. The central temple, dedicated to Poseidon, had statues of gold, including one of the god standing in a chariot pulled by six-winged horses and flanked by hundreds of Nereids riding dolphins. Live bulls roamed freely around the forest of columns in this temple, and every five or six years the kings who ruled the islands were left alone in the temple to hunt these bulls without weapons. They would capture one, lead it up to the great column of orichalcum, inscribed with the laws of Atlantis, and there behead it.
Life on the islands of Atlantis was generally idyllic. In fact life was so good that eventually people could not bear it any longer and began to become restless, decadent and corrupt, searching after novelty and power. So Zeus decided to punish them. The islands were flooded until only small islets remained, like a skeleton sticking out of the sea. Then finally a great earthquake engulfed all that was left in the course of one day and one night.
For Plato, the history of Atlantis is a cautionary tale, in which a society that could once boast perfection is gradually weakened by luxury and corruption, a process of degeneration through which this first utopia is gradually transformed into its opposite, a dystopia. Indeed, Plato contrasts the negative example of Atlantis with the ideal attributes of Athens, the society which was to attain greatness through its heroic struggle with Atlantis. In this light, Plato's Atlantis can be viewed as little more than a fairy tale, a device with which to bolster the foundation myth of Athens, and it has since been dismissed as a product of Plato's imagination. Aristotle implies precisely this when he claims, 'Plato alone made Atlantis rise out of the sea, and then he submerged it again.' But Plato's account is corroborated by numerous other references to Atlantis throughout classical literature, from Proclus to Pliny, and Plutarch to Posidonius. Indeed, Plato's description finds further confirmation in other ancient cultures: 'The Aztecs recorded that they came from "Aztlan ... the land in the middle of the water". Sometimes this land was called "Aztlan of the Seven Caves". It was depicted as a central, large step pyramid surrounded by six smaller pyramids. According to traditions collected by the invading Spaniards, humanity had nearly been wiped out by a vast flood ...' Certainly, Plato's date of 9600BC corresponds with that of the Aztecs, in placing this flood at around the end of the Ice Age. This lends the Atlantis legend both the support of modern geological science, as well as placing it within the wider context of biblical accounts of the Flood, which have been recounted across numerous other cultures.
The legend of Atlantis is a powerfully symbolic one, for there is no clear agreement as to its true location. Today, its existence acts as a shorthand for all those civilisations that time has erased but whose identity lives on in a kind of half-life, somewhere between the reassuring permanence of historical fact and the ethereal otherworldliness of myth. Furthermore, the destruction of Atlantis was an act of punishment, and here its utopian perfection can be identified as the very cause of its downfall, acting both as a rebuke against hubris and a reminder of the inherent dangers of the quest for human perfectibility: 'The Atlantis belief helps to perpetuate the idea of a multiplicity of worlds, all striving to attain perfection, seeking absolution for the sin that drowned their world and gradually growing nearer forgiveness through the ages.'
The Golden Age
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, dating from the third millennium BC, Utnapishtim, Noah's Sumerian counterpart, describes a place called Dilmun, where 'the croak of the raven was not heard, the bird of death did not utter the cry of death, the lion did not devour, the wolf did not tear the lamb, the dove did not mourn, there was no widow, no sickness, no old age, no lamentation.'
Of course, the literary myth of a primeval world of limitless abundance is a universal one, its Christian equivalent to be found in the Book of Genesis as the Garden of Eden. An anthropological explanation for the ubiquity of such imagery, in which fantasies about food predominate, appears to be that, contrary to common belief, early hunter-gatherer societies enjoyed both better nutrition and greater leisure than the primitive agriculturists which were to succeed them. Because men and women were forced to abandon a way of life that was, relatively speaking, one of ease and plenty, in order to accommodate a higher density of population, these ancient dreams of the good life invariably display a retrogressive longing for a time now passed, a Golden Age never to be revisited.
This outlook was to find its most fervent expression in the poem Works and Days, by the Greek poet of the eighth century BC, Hesiod. A farmer's son living on the slopes of Mount Helicon in central Greece, and disenchanted with the unrelenting toil of his own age, Hesiod imagines a long-lost era of prosperity in which men lived as gods, contrasting this Golden Age with the paucity of his own existence. In this way, Hesiod describes a process of gradual deterioration, as the Golden Age was to give way to a Silver Age and later a Bronze, as man's innate foolishness and warlike nature destroy the idyllic existence that he once enjoyed. Following the brief respite afforded by the Age of Heroes, Hesiod describes man's fall into the fifth and final age, his own Age of Iron, a time characterised by strife and hunger:
Fifth is the race that I call my own and abhor.
O to die, or be later born, or born before!
This is the Race of Iron. Dark is their plight.
Toil and sorrow is theirs, and by night
The anguish of death and the gods afflict them and kill,
Though there's yet a trifle of good amid manifold ill.
An unhappy age made all the more difficult to bear through comparison with its golden forbear:
The gods who own Olympus as dwelling-place
deathless, made first of mortals a Golden Race
(this was the time when Kronos in heaven dwelt)
and they lived like gods and no sorrow of heart they felt.
Nothing for toil or pitiful age they cared,
but in strength of hand and foot still unimpaired
they feasted gaily, undarkened by sufferings
They died as if falling asleep; and all good things
were theirs, for the fruitful earth unstintingly bore
unforced her plenty, and they, amid their store
enjoyed their landed ease which nothing stirred
loved by the gods and rich in many of herd.
Bernard Levin has argued that it is better to read Hesiod's poem backwards, his tragic lament for that which has been lost (but which, of course, had never been) characteristic of a pessimistic strand of utopianism which chooses to romanticise the past at the expense of the present. The baleful consequence of yearning for something long gone (or never to arrive), is an entropic sense of time passed, a retrospective faith in past glories that can both emasculate the present and undermine the future. And yet this frustrated longing cannot so easily be discharged, and some six hundred years later, the Roman poet, Ovid, was to echo Hesiod's melancholic lament in his Metamorphoses:
In the beginning was the Golden Age, when men of their own accord, without threat of punishment, without laws, maintained good faith and did what was right. There were no penalties to be afraid of ... indeed, there were no judges, men lived securely without them. Never yet had any pine tree, cut down from its home on the mountains been launched on ocean's waves, to visit foreign lands: men knew only their own shores ... The peoples of the world, untroubled by any fears, enjoyed a leisurely and peaceful existence, and had no use for soldiers. The earth itself, without compulsion, untouched by the hoe, unfurrowed by any share, produced things spontaneously, and men were content with foods that grew without cultivation ... It was a season of everlasting spring, when peaceful zephyrs, with their warm breath, caressed the flowers that sprang up without having been planted ... Then there flowed rivers of milk and rivers of nectar, and golden honey dripped from the green holm-oak.
Yet, if life remains hard and one can find solace only in the recall of a golden past, one may also look forward to an afterlife which, for some at least, will be spent in paradise. This paradise has, of course, been imagined in myriad forms and, in classical mythology, those favoured by the gods enjoyed their afterlife in the Elysian Fields or the Islands of the Blessed. The former, also known as the Elysian Plains or the Fields of Asphodel, were the final resting place of the heroic and the virtuous. The Elysian Fields lay on the Western boundary of the Earth and were encircled by the stream of Oceanus, which, according to Homer in the Odyssey (8th century BC), 'sends up breezes of the West Wind blowing briskly for the refreshment of mortals.' Hesiod refers to the Isles of the Blessed as lying in the Western Ocean, where the fortunate dead live a heavenly existence under the rule of Kronos, while the poet Pindar describes a single island whose inhabitants spend eternity, 'with horses and with wrestling; others with draughts; and with lyres; while beside them bloometh the fair flower of perfect bliss.'
Indeed, islands, as John Carey has noted, tend to be the favoured form of paradises and utopias, perhaps because of the seclusion and sense of purity they provide. But such islands also recall the existence of the unborn human, marooned within the foetus, and so it has been claimed that the island may represent the deepest longings of the human for the protective fluid which once surrounded him.
Lycurgus and the Spartans
If the Athens of Plato and Aristotle is remembered for its unparalleled cultural legacy, the adjective 'Spartan' today conveys the same virtues of endurance, frugality and simplicity by which this essentially military society was once defined. The father of the Spartan state, at least in the form which was to ensure its lasting fame, was the lawgiver Lycurgus, a semi-mythical figure about whom we know very little but whose exploits were later to be recorded by the Greek historian Plutarch (c. 46 -120 AD). In his Life of Lycurgus, Plutarch tells us that Sparta was refashioned under his leadership, a society of inequality and corruption transformed into one of shared ownership and rigorous militarism. And, as we shall see, if Plato's Republic appears to offer little comfort to its inhabitants and conforms to many people's idea of an authoritarian nightmare, the Sparta of Lycurgus proves an even more unlikely utopia, in which elements of free-love and communal living for the majority are offset by the existence of a brutally subjugated underclass.
Having seized power in a military coup, Lycurgus established a Senate of twenty-eight members and set about reversing the inequality which he identified as the source of 'insolence, envy, avarice and luxury.' To this end, land-boundaries were cancelled and Sparta was redistributed amongst its citizens in 9,000 equal lots. Furthermore, gold and silver coinage was abolished and replaced by a currency measured in lengths of iron bars, which ended both corruption and the possibility of foreign trade. Sparta further enforced her own isolation by discouraging its citizens from travelling abroad (unless, it would seem, as part of an invading army). Allied to these radical economic sanctions was a collectivist drive that saw all Spartan men eat and live communally. Spartan women were also brought up to favour the state over the family, marrying on the basis of mutual consent while enjoying an unparalleled sexual freedom. And yet, in all societies that proclaim their egalitarian principles, some remain more equal than others, and Sparta was no exception. The Spartans were, 'in effect a leisured military caste. When they were not actually fighting, they spent their time dancing, hunting, training the young, or meeting to exercise or converse. Work of any productive kind was forbidden to them.' And, in an early example of a problem that has bedevilled many future utopias, the question arose as to who exactly was to undertake those menial tasks which nobody in an ideal society could envisage themselves doing. The solution here, as elsewhere, was to draft in a class of slaves who enjoyed none of the rights of citizens. In Lycurgus's Sparta, this underclass of slaves were known as the Helots and their role extended beyond merely cooking and cleaning to providing target practice for the training of young Spartan men, who were free to murder them with impunity.
In order to ensure the health of Sparta's future armies, all fathers were obliged to pass their newborn children to the elders who would examine them for signs of weakness. The sickly would be thrown into a deep cavern called the Apothetae, while those passed fit would, from the age of seven, begin a harsh regime of military training. The result of this policy of selective breeding and intensive training was that Sparta was swiftly propelled to a position of power that rivalled Athens, and today their military prowess is best remembered through the fabled exploits of the 300 Spartan soldiers who resisted the entire Persian army at Thermopylae. Momentarily, and for those of a certain temperament, it can be possible to romanticise this seemingly egalitarian world of martial virtue and domestic simplicity. Such thoughts are quickly dispelled, however, by returning to the details of Plutarch's account where the best antidote, perhaps, to nascent Sparta-worship, is the following description of the Spartan Wedding Night:
In their marriages, the bridegroom carried off the bride by violence – and brides were never of a tender age, but fully mature. When the time came, the woman who had direction of the wedding cut the bride's hair close to her scalp, dressed her in man's clothes, laid her upon a mattress and left her in the dark. The bridegroom – neither overcome with wine nor softened by luxury, but hardy and sober from always eating at the common table – went in privately, untied her girdle, and carried her to another bed. Having stayed there a short time, he modestly retired to his usual compartment, to sleep with the other young men. That is how the marriage would continue. The husband would spend the day with his men friends, and lie down with them at night, not even visiting his bride except with great caution, and apprehension at being discovered by the rest of her family.
Excerpted from Utopia by Merlin Coverley. Copyright © 2010 Merlin Coverley. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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Table of Contents
The Birth of Utopia: The Golden Age,
More, Utopia and the Early Modern Era,
Shipwrecked: Crusoe and the Imaginary Voyage,
Socialism and Utopia,
The Cold War to the Present,
Afterword: The Death of Utopia?,