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Dreaming of Better Worlds

ISSUE:  Summer 1975
Perfection and Progress: Two Modes of Utopian Thought.By Elisabeth Hansot. The M. I. T. Press. $16.50.

IN periods of cultural stress, the age-old longing in the hearts and minds of men to dream of better worlds wells up again. Despite its stresses, though, ours is an age of Western civilization that seems more bemused by dystopias than beguiled by Utopias. As journalist Garry Wills recently put it, “We are in a period of pop apocalypses. Lifeboat earth is rocking, and taking on water.”

Is it a loss of nerve that represses dreaming and brings on nightmares? Some scholars, such as the Dutch philosophical futurist Fred Polak, believe our period is infected by a growing inability of man’s “imaging” faculty. “When man’s Utopian aspirations to develop his own humanity die out,” writes Polak, “then man himself dies.” The rankness of our age with anti-utopian and counter-utopian iconoclasm partly explains the difficulty for Polak. As well, it is for him the death of eschatology in Christian belief, when to speak of realized salvation is “sheer caricature.”

Elisabeth Hansot, in her study “Perfection and Progress: Two Modes of Utopian Thought,” also seeks to find the difficulties that burden authors of modern utopias. Through a scholarly look at some Utopian schemes from Plato’s “Republic” to William Dean Howells’ “A Traveller in Altruria,” she finds the main problem: Utopian perfectibility is inconsistent with further progress. Modern Utopians have had no standpoint outside their created society from which they could criticize it and attempt fundamental changes.

Utopias, set apart from fantasies by presupposing no miracles or wild improbabilities, are totally fictive constructions or reconstructions of society. Standing at the other end of the spectrum of political proposals from limited and pragmatic projects for specific change, Utopias are “thought experiments,” a particular kind of political theory that sets forth in vivid terms the priorities among possible forms of social life.

Hansot shows a key difference between classical and modern Utopias. Classical ideal worlds, to the extent that they are successful, are a method of reaching agreement about standards, about ideals. They describe how their ideals would work if reality could be made to conform to them. Modern Utopias, by contrast, usually start by assuming a diversity of values and standards validly to be sought, and they are “time-bound” because of the belief that man’s future environment will influence his nature.

The Christian view of salvation set in motion a shift, gradually confirmed by the renaissance of science, from a concern with perfection to a search for progress. Classical Utopias do not depend on a particular form of social organization directly. Rather, they hinge on the existence of a suprasensible reality. Even the full-blown Utopian social organization itself, as in Plato’s “Republic,” is only a pale shadow of the primary transcendent ideal, the very sun of pure justice. By contrast, the modern utopia by the nineteenth century aimed mainly to change the arrangements of society rather than the nature of man.

Hansot traces in six Utopian commonwealths not so much the issue of their merit or realization but the nature of the Utopian thought experiment as a complex mode of inquiry. She is interested in the questions raised about human values, the process of change, and the basis for value judgments. The scholarship and writing are cool and clear. Her choice of examples are: Plato’s “Republic,” More’s “Utopia,” and Andreae’s “Christianopolis” as types of classical thought; and Bellamy’s “Looking Backward,” Wells’s “A Modern Utopia,” and Howells’ “A Traveller from Altruria” and “Through the Eye of the Needle” as forms of modern thought. Good as these choices are, it is too bad that Karl Marx is omitted. His vision, affecting one third of the world, of the evolution of social organization and the curious withering away of the state, makes the Utopian in him important even though he never wrote a fully developed Utopian work.

Utopias, Hansot concludes, are nice places to visit but no places to live. Her text is Hegel’s dictum: “Actually, perfectibility is something almost as undetermined as mutability in general; it is without aim and purpose and without a standard of change.” Discussing this point with a student of Thomas Aquinas brought forth an apocryphal story: “You know, that remarkable man thought of everything, including what the saints would do in Heaven. He concluded roughly that they would have their being as circles, the circle being the perfect form ; would arrange themselves at distances from the Godhead varying directly with merit; and there would vibrate forever.”

Indeed, even Heaven itself seems to be no home for restless modern man. Hansot’s analysis—like Utopian thought experiments themselves—is only a beginning. It is a good beginning; without doubt study of Utopias is therapeutic for those who see politics as science and economics as social physics—it helps drive sleeping dogmas from narrow lives.

But further, since we moderns are aware of spinning here on a tiny planet in a breath-taking universe in evolution, more awesome than the Heavens of poets or Utopians, our Utopias are dwarfed by immanent, on-going processes of reality already in view. It is the thought experiment of the Utopian enterprise, seen as a logical class with many members, that should be taken seriously. Out of it may come, not salvation, but creation.

Perhaps that is why, after World War II, in a world showered by a storm of new knowledge and its possibilities, but sickened by the reality of depression, dictatorship, and war, a new small band of prophets has arisen. They are the futurists, a disparate group bound together in hope of inventing the future rather than becoming its passive victims.

Led by Bertrand de Jouvenel and Dennis Gabor, and feeding on twentieth-century ideas of time-space, logic, and intuition, the futurists try to get beyond our dying industrial age of iconoclasm, not to some static Promised Land but to the ability to envisage alternative futures, following Whitehead’s doctrine that “infinite possibilities inhere in the future.” Doing so, they hope to create the means of choice again for too many victims of old concepts of linear times and its “inevitable” trends, of earth-bound “humanism” and its paltry images of man, of outmoded logic and its serially-ordered cause and effect. Elisabeth Hansot clears an important path to dreaming, in rejecting utopias of both perfection and progress; but does she abandon the chase after dreams too short of the quarry?


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