Defining “utopia”

As I mentioned in a previous post (“Contrasting Utopias”), I was reading Thomas More’s Utopia this past week. I used Yale University Press’ Second Edition translated by Clarence H. Miller which has an afterward from Jerry Harp, a professor at Lewis and Clark College. Harp reminds the reader that most of us come to this book with a preconceived idea of what “utopia” means and reminds us that we need to understand what More meant by the word. The word is a “Greek pun”: “‘Utopia’ is the good place (eu-topos) that is no place (ou-topos).” In Latin, it’s Nusquama, which means “Nowhere” (pp. 146-147). Harp draws from this polyvalence of “good place,” “no place,” and “nowhere” the following observation:

Although the term has come to mean an imaginary and ideal place, an impractical social scheme, More’s text works in more complex ways than popular usage allows. Utopia is a nowhere that opens into new discursive spaces. Were the realm of the present and pragmatic concern to dominate entirely, we would be led into stagnation. The nowhere of Utopia—the work as well as the genre and mode of thinking—provides one way to keep consciousness on the move even though it is an impossible place.

Utopia, p. 147

With this in mind, Harp says, “We do well to read the text in more complex terms that as a blueprint to an ideal state.” (p. 147) For Harp, “Reading Utopia means entering into a dialogue, with oneself and others, that continues to this day.” (p. 153). This dialogue goes back to St. Augustine of Hippo who imagined the “City of God” as standing outside of the “City of Man” (pp. 148-150). It goes further back to Plato’s Republic (p. 155)

Harp draws our attention to one of the key participants in this dialogue, Paul Ricoeur, who links utopia to ideology—ideology being “the taking of the provisional and pragmatic for the metaphysical.” (p. 157) Harp writes of Ricoeur:

In his reading, the best function of the utopian thinking is as an antidote to ideology, for such thinking provides an opportunity to play one’s identity out and away from the prison house of the here and now. As he puts it, ‘This function of utopia is finally the function of the nowhere. To be here, Da-sein, I must also be able to be nowhere.” Utopian thought relates to identity because part of identity is prospective, who and what we desire and strive to be— “What we call ourselves is also what we expect and yet what we are not.” But ideology and utopia will not remain separate; they tend to interweve, and one issue worth further reflection is how the two function together as well as tend to tear apart, in Utopia and elsewhere.

Utopia, pp. 157-158

While Harp reminds us that utopia can’t be divorced from ideology (discussing and citing Ricoeur’s Lectures on Ideology and Utopia, pp. 310-312), I want to briefly highlight Ricoeur’s point that utopia can contrast ideology. If ideology is, as Ricoeur defines it, a categorical confusion where we claim ontological necessity when it’s unwarranted, then utopia helps us break free from our assumptions that what is now must be what is. It allows us to question our norms and taboos. It asks us to stop claiming that this or that is “natural” and ask what the world looks like if we remove appeals to nature as an excuse for inactivity. (In a sense, this is where SciFi thrives.)

But as Harp observes, and when we return to the aforementioned previous post, ideology and utopia can’t be separated. This is what the “What’s Left of Philosophy?” crew recognized: normalizing and essentializing what we know as if it must be is another form of utopia. It assumes that the reality we know can remain as it is without consequence. This line of thinking acts as if it’s based on empirical reality but it’s as fanciful as utopias-for-change, if not more. The best example may be climate change. Yes, it may be utopian to imagine this or that action, or international agreement, is going to save us (collective humanity) from this or that consequence but it’s equally utopian, probably more so, to stick our head in the sand and imagine we can go on without global disruption and dysfunction. When we advocate for static utopias against dynamic ones, we’re refusing to admit that we’re fine with the trajectories that our current ways of life may take us, and we’re masking that refusal with the justification that our contemporary ways of life are good and right and shouldn’t be changed. While this or that aspect of our current ways of life may be good, it’s foolish to act as if there aren’t things that by being changed would be better for others and in turn better for us (due primarily to our ultimate interconnectivity with one another).

Imagining dynamic utopias can be scary. For one reason, my utopia may not be your utopia. I don’t know that I would want to live in Plato’s Kallipolis or More’s Utopia. In fact, I’m sure I wouldn’t. So, there’s a risk in moving toward a world that’s imaginary and dreamy. All of our dreams may not align. Your utopia may be my dystopia. But this is true of static utopias. My comfort with the current status quo might be someone else’s discomfort; my utopia may be their dystopia. Either way, we risk making things worse while trying to make things better—whether by action or inaction. So the question isn’t so much whether the present is good or not but whether we are willing to risk the present for an even better future.

Contrasting Utopias

This week I’ve been reading St. Thomas More’s Utopia (specifically Yale University Press’ Second Edition translated by Clarence H. Miller). I was drawn to it by an episode of the “What’s Left of Philosophy” Podcast (30 | What is Utopia? Part I. Thomas More: Critical Realism in a Time of Enclosure). And while there’s much to say about the book, the thing that has stood out to me the most was planted in my head by that podcast episode —which features Gil Morejón, Lillian Cicerchia, Owen Glyn-Williams, and William Paris—before I began reading the book itself. They pointed out that while Book II of Utopia provides a vision of an ideal place, Book I offers a counter-utopia, of sorts. That counter-utopia isn’t the perfect place but it’s a utopia nonetheless. How is it a utopia? Let me explain (or, go listen to the aforementioned episode).

In Book I, the character Raphel Hythloday is visiting Thomas More (who is a character in his own story). While Book II explains what kind of place Utopia is, Book I is critical of England so that a juxtaposition can be formed. (More published Utopia in 1516 when King Henry VIII reigned.) This can be read as realism v. utopianism. King Henry’s England was a real place while More’s Utopia is imaginary (like Plato’s Kallipolis). One may be inclined to reject More’s vision in favor of what was real because reality should trump fantasy in our expectations. And utopianism can be even more demoralizing than realism. But here’s why real London was as utopian as imaginary Utopia: London in the early 16th century had allowed a variety of injustices to simmer; for Hytholoday, the status quo couldn’t stand without dire consequences. In other words, as the “What’s Left of Philosophy” crew observed, while Utopia may be utopian, it is as much utopian thinking as to look at the status quo and ignore the potential questions of social stagnation.

Many of the social ills that Hytholoday critiques mirror modern troubles. There are critiques that can be applied to some of our own parallel ills today, at least in the United States: obsession with being armed (p. 21: “standing armies of mercenaries…destroyed not only their government but also their fields and even their cities”); the military-industrial complext and nation-building (p. 38: “their blood was being spilled to provide someone else with a smidgeon of glory…at home the war has corrupted morals, imbued the citizens with a lust for robbery, that slaughter in warfare made them completely reckless”); the prison-industrial complex (p. 23: “even as vagrants they are thrown in jail because they are wandering around idly”); environmental deprivation (p. 22: “they destroy and despoil fields…these good men turn all habitations and cultivated lands into a wilderness”); inflation and recession (p. 23: “the price of grain has risen sharply in many places”); the school-to-prison pipeline (p. 25: “when you bring people up with the worst sort of education and allow their morals to be corrupted little by little from the earliest years, and then punish them at last as grown men when they commit crimes which from childhood they have given every prospect of committing”); etc. As regards the willingness of the wealthy to allow the poor to remain in their state, Hytholoday says:

…how wrong they are in thinking that the poverty of people is the safeguard of peace, for where can you find more quarrels than among beggars? who is more intent on changing things than someone who is most dissatisfied with his present state of life? or, finally, who is more driven to create a general disturbance in the hope of gaining something that someone who has nothing to lose?

Utopia, p. 41

For Hytholoday, it’s outrageous to imagine that the status quo is safe; to imagine that there are no consequences when we fail to care for our most disadvantaged neighbors.

The most privileged in our society have some cushion between them and the least fortunate. Elon Musk isn’t impacted by homelessness in Los Angeles, the assault on women’s bodily autonomy in Texas, or gun violence…well, everywhere now. But as January 6th, 2021, showed us, social instability is always present. And social instability may not impact Musk the way it would impact me but it would impact him. Jeff Bezos may be untouchable but I think Amazon does better if there’s stability. The kingdoms of these men may seem invincible but they’re not if the common good is abandoned. And to presume that they are is as utopian as anything More or Plato can imagine. As Americans, to imagine our country is invincible is utopian. If 9/11 didn’t teach us that we’re not invincible then 1/06 should’ve. Social unrest can’t be ignored. Growing inequality can’t be ignored. Climate change can’t be ignored. To do so is utopian thinking.

Hytholoday makes the argument that “it does not befit the dignity of a king to rule over beggars but rather over wealthy and happy subjects” (p. 41). We don’t have a king in the United States though we do have oligarchs (like Musk and Bezos) and these oligarchs are probably semi-permanent figures for the foreseeable future. Their comfort with growing inequality, social unrest, environmental deprivation, etc., show us that they’re utopian thinkers. Their counter-utopia is one of the status quo. More through Hytholoday asks us to consider what’s more absurd: imaging a better, more equitable world or imagining that maintaining the status quo won’t have negative consequences. I don’t know that there’s a universal answer for all times and places but both have the potential to turn out to have been wildly utopian. If this is so, which utopia would we rather seek?