The Great Good Place

Utopian Thought in the Western World

by Frank E. Manuel and Fritzie P. Manuel
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 896 pp., $25.00

This is an exceptionally substantial and suggestive work, generously conceived, vivaciously written, richly documented, aptly illustrated, and attractively produced. The subject matter is necessarily controversial through its nature; the authors do not shy away from expressing definite opinions of their own; and, besides, it is frequently characteristic of utopian discourse to fall into a dialectical mode. I should therefore like to proffer my warm respects to Frank and Fritzie Manuel at once—to the scope, the quality, and the importance of their joint achievement—so that I may feel free to diverge at times from some of their interpretations and evaluations. Professor Manuel is justly esteemed for his studies in European intellectual history and in historiography, especially during the Enlightenment and the Romantic period. Mrs. Manuel is an accomplished scholar herself, who has collaborated with her husband notably in an anthology of French utopian thought.1 Given the diverse terrains and the intricate topographies that this party of two set out to explore in the present inquiry, they have together covered an immense amount of ground.

Since the exploration could scarcely proceed without a good many frontiers being crossed, we cannot object to the authors’ declared intention of “bypassing a rigorous definition.” Instead they speak of “the utopian propensity,” adopting the noun from William James’s nondefinition of religion. This resembles, though with less emotional coloration, “the utopian longing” of which Melvin Lasky speaks in his recent and stimulating Utopia and Revolution. Lewis Mumford, in his pioneering outline written over fifty years ago, The Story of Utopias, posited a “will to utopia”—which may likewise have been inspired by James, but with a touch of the Nietzschean imperative. “A state of mind is utopian,” according to the almost psychiatric definition of Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia, “‘when it is incongruous with the state of reality in which it occurs.” The concept has been set in its broadest context and framed by its most philosophical perspective with the three teeming volumes of the late Ernst Bloch, Das Prinzip Hoffnung. Bloch’s principle of hope is virtually an anatomy of the libido in all its longings, stretching from the self-delusions of daydream through the stages when plan becomes action to a culminating renewal of society along neo-Marxist lines.

A bibliography of utopias compiled by Glenn Negley lists 1,608 titles, about one-fourth of which are marginally categorized as “works influential in utopian thought.”2 Though the Manuels have attempted no reckoning, they would clearly take a less formally restricted view; they are more interested in the latter category, whereas Professor Negley and J. Max Patrick (who collaborated with him on an earlier anthology, The Quest for Utopia) are primarily concerned with works of fiction. This can be a fascinating genre, branching out into such overlapping subdivisions as pastoral, dream vision, voyage imaginaire, robinsonade, prophecy, apocalypse, and—with ever-increasing significance—science fiction, not to mention uchronia or dystopia. It can also be boring, since there is all too seldom much correlation between the moral purposes of such writing and its artistic merits. The narrative tends to observe the established conventions, generally professing to derive from a wide-eyed traveler who has somehow strayed into terra incognita and who is reporting back to his fellow citizens, summarizing his observations and his friendly dialogues with the enlightened native informants while stressing the manifest superiority of their modus vivendi.

Often the details are ingeniously filled in, but sometimes with so subjective a fantasy that—as in the instance of the Duchess of Newcastle’s Blazing World—the Manuels dismiss it as an idiosyncratic case history. For the most part their canon is “latitudinarian and ecumenical,” even as their “pluralism” allows them to take account of varying aspects and viewpoints amid their material. They are not as dogmatic as they sound when asserting that “in the present work we declare writers to be utopians by sovereign fiat.” For the questionable example there at hand happens to be that of Hobbes’s Leviathan, always worth reconsidering as a diametrical antithesis to Harrington’s Oceana, and elegantly dystopian in its concluding analogy between “the [ecclesiastical] Kingdom of Darkness” and the hierarchies and dogmas of Fairyland. Through their catholicity in entertaining nonfictional accounts of social systems and political programs, the Manuels may be said to have broadly extended the idea of utopia. Though their selective method properly enables them to concentrate upon certain “exemplars,” the panoramic scale of their undertaking tends to depreciate whatever they may have overlooked or chosen to omit, and in this process the more belletristic versions have occasionally been played down.

Not that anyone who has slogged through a quantity of utopian novels would be eager to see them all recapitulated seriatim and compendiously. Repetition, uniformity, and conformity, the banes that go along with every attempt at collectivization, would soon be setting in. The human imagination, when accorded free play, really ought to be more creative than that. But we are not much less put off when we advert to the socio-political blueprints. Once man has broken with nature in order to refashion his own environment, as Raymond Ruyer suggested, it is liable to be pervaded with a monotonous symmetry.3 Thomas More’s utopians, like conscripts or convicts, wear garments of the same color. Robert Owen’s live in “rectangular units” like barracks. Cities are planned—and it is surprising how urbanized most of these idylls turn out to be—in gridiron or in radial formation. If we value our privacy, we are not likely to apply for utopian citizenship. As for legislation and administration, well, the easiest course is to let them wither away into some benign form of anarchy. Fictional utopias get around the issue by predicating a primal law-giver (Utopus, Solamona, Solon, Lycurgus) or an elite of omnicompetent Platonic guardians.

Yet Paradiso is notoriously less interesting than Inferno, and the special appeal of these better worlds has lain in their implicit protest against those imperfect worlds from which they have become detached. Structurally, utopias could be aligned in a long-drawn-out spectrum which would extend from the literary genre to the tract in social sciences. Milton’s Anglo-German friend, Samuel Hartlib, frankly offered his Macaria “by way of novel.” On one side we could expect to find what the Manuels term “a speaking picture,” borrowing a phrase from Sir Philip Sidney which was actually a commonplace of neoclassical criticism. (Incidentally, Sidney’s Arcadia is disrupted by a much more turbulent regime than its bucolic place-name would suggest.) Utopiographers might well write off such escapist fantasies as Wonderland, Oz, the Middle Earth, Camelot, or Ruritania. But where does that leave us when approaching the opposite side? Should any scheme or project or speculation involving government or society, so long as it has proved impractical, be classified as a utopia? This would encompass a considerable portion of political science and sociology. One might even include Christianity, on the Shavian grounds that it has never been put into practice.

However, models of perfection are there to be approximated, rather than exactly reproduced. The saving grace of high ideals is that they serve to humanize our basic animal instincts. When Lamartine remarked, “Les utopies ne sont souvent que des vérités prématurées,” he was exuding the optimism of the nineteenth century. Yet Oscar Wilde may have been more ambiguous than he intended in his remark: “Progress is the realization of utopias.” It may be so, but we have painfully and repeatedly learned that utopias are not so easily realized. There is an ironic inference to be drawn by contrasting J.B. Bury’s sanguine Idea of Progress (1920) with the Manuels’ cooler treatment of such figures as Turgot and Condorcet. A comparable irony is underlined by the two collaborators themselves when they point out that proposals for everlasting peace were launched by Guillaume Postel in the sixteenth century, by the Abbé de Saint-Pierre in the early eighteenth, by Immanuel Kant in the late eighteenth century, and so onward—though without naming Alfred Nobel, Andrew Carnegie, or Woodrow Wilson—“into the slaughterhouse of the twentieth century.” The fact that Kant is considered enough of a utopist to be allotted a chapter by himself might warrant a query about the methods the Manuels have employed.

I have noted that, at the literary end of the utopian spectrum, they have exercised some rigor in selecting and excluding fictions. At the other—the more open, the more heterogeneous—end, where there are no formal paradigms to delimit their choices, they have been more miscellaneously inclusive. Hence the captious reviewer could argue about what has been left out at one end and what has been let in at the other. The messianic preacher Thomas Müntzer might strike him as a marginal figure in this connection, possibly magnified in Marxian retrospect, whose fragmentary writings—it is freely admitted—“hardly constitute a treasury of utopian thought.” Always an exception, Giordano Bruno was “more forceful in denunciation than in utopian portrayal”; and though Frances Yates has done her supersubtle best to systematize his wayward lucubrations, they add up to nothing like a utopia. Although Leibniz “never composed a ‘proper utopia,”’ the authors turn him into a kind of honorary utopist through a synthesis of his scientific, religious, and international plans. But these are extensions rather than limitations, after all, and most of the examples are more central. The differences among them could be described as differences of emphasis between ideological romances and romanticized ideologies.

Men’s wishdreams of happiness together, of the good life so deeply embedded in myths of paradise on earth and folktales about Cockaigne, manifested their earliest documentation in Sumerian cuneiform. The Manuels’ preliminary section, which surveys the classical and medieval testimony, reads as if it were commendable homework rather than—like so much of what follows—penetrating research. One voice which emerges saliently is that of the twelfth-century prophet Joachim of Fiore, whose triadic pattern of history would find counterparts in Vico and Comte, as well as echoes in Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Hitler’s Third Reich. But the historical prototype for utopia was More’s, which put its indelible stamp upon the theme, the form, and the name. The word itself was both a humanistic paradox and a skeptical Greek pun: the good place (eutopia) was nowhere (outopia). The Manuels appreciate the complex ambivalence of this arch-lawyer who questioned the ownership of property, this future saint who consecrated an ethic of pleasure. On the other hand, when they speak as “Freudians of sorts,” I cannot see that their quotations from Freud throw much fresh light on the Lucianic and Erasmian interplay of More’s wit and humor. I wish that they had spoken further about the more immediate associations with Rabelais’s Abbey of Thélème.

Their descriptive method is to present “constellations,” groups of utopias more or less related by chronology and ideology. This involves some risk of straining or blurring in order to fit individual designs into broader categories. Thus the varied profusion of the seventeenth century is categorized as Pansophia, a heading which gives particular expression to the Christian humanism of Comenius. It applies pertinently to J.V. Andreae’s influential Christianopolis, and to such minor contributions as Samuel Gott’s Nova Solyma. But the collocation is too blandly constraining for Tommaso Campanella, the long incarcerated Dominican monk, whose City of the Sun was so thoroughly radical in its rearrangements for abolishing the family along with property. And the shortest shrift is given to Francis Bacon, an ad hominem sketch which reductively stresses his disgraced public career—as if, with so brilliantly articulate a writer, that could not have produced higher aspirations in the intellectual sphere. Credit is begrudged to his critique of the scholastic fallacies or of the mind itself, or to what Basil Willey has described as his “rehabilitation of nature.” Has any utopia been more direct in its impact than The New Atlantis? Salomon’s House became the matrix of the Royal Society.

The contention of one French scholar, that utopianism has had a peculiar affinity with the English, is disputed by the Manuels—and indeed refuted by their impressive labors in the Continental vineyards. They make it even clearer where they stand when they call the English utopists “parochial.” Their chapter on the Levellers, Diggers, and millenarian sects, “Topsy-Turvy in the English Civil War,” echoes the scriptural title of Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down. Yet they show no interest in the Antipodes of the Victorian iconoclast, Samuel Butler. His Erewhon, with its trenchant Luddite satire against machines, is never mentioned, though the chapter entitled “Utopia Victoriana” finds room for the Austrian economist Theodor Hertzka. James Harrington is severely criticized for his aridity, despite his seminal influence upon—among other serious minds—the framers of the American Constitution, an influence which is recognized but shrugged off. H.G. Wells may deserve a little more than passing mention, if only for the volume and variety of his forty-four utopian texts (plus the utopian tendencies of his popular science and history).4 No doubt that record has since been eclipsed by Isaac Asimov, but we must draw the line somewhere.

As we might expect from Professor. Manuel’s previous studies,5 Utopian Thought in the Western World deals most fully and authoritatively with the dynamic sequence of French thinkers from the Encyclopédie to the Second Republic. It is occupied not so much with the “speaking pictures” that men of letters then were turning out in abundance6 as with manifestoes, pamphlets, periodicals, and para-utopian treatises. France, moving into its cycles of revolution, offered a continual stimulus for coining slogans, drafting platforms, reforming institutions. Balzac discerned the spirit of the age in the Saint-Simonian catchword, organiser. Utopian energies would be channeled into activist movements, communes and colonies, quasi-religious cults. Though the Manuels concentrate on theory rather than practice, they have had to pay some attention to “applied utopistics” in their excellent chapters on Saint-Simon and Fourier. On the whole, they resist the temptation to follow the phalanges to America—or, for that matter, the Icaries of Etienne Cabet. That would require another monumental book, perhaps an updating of History of American Socialisms by John Humphrey Noyes, the grand progenitor of the Oneida Community. Some of us, nonetheless, may miss such names as Jack London and William Dean Howells.

Except for a few pages on Edward Bellamy, one or two allusions to Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Skinner, and several to Norman O. Brown, this book hardly touches the extraordinary flowering of utopianism in the United States. It comments on the absence of a utopian tradition in Spain, but cites one or two items including Guevara’s Dial of Princes, and might have added Gracián’s Criticón and Quevedo’s Política de Dios. Though it alludes to “the figure of Don Quixote,” it does not specify Sancho Panza’s island of Barataria. Vasco de Quiroga, “a Mexican judge,” began as a Spanish humanist, and had translated More before he tried to model his pueblos on the original Utopia. There has been a countervailing effort to demonstrate that some of More’s notions came from the South American Indians.7 Hispanic American literature has been rich in utopias.8 So has Russian, from the days of Ivan the Terrible. The Manuels give a nod of recognition to Chernyshevskii’s What Is to Be Done? and Zamiatin’s We. They might have recalled how Dostoevsky responded to the former in Notes from Underground. There is even something utopian about the party lines and positive heroics of Socialist Realism. Verily, “the Western World” ranges far beyond the geographical boundaries of the Common Market.

But this is merely to indicate the external dimensions of the subject, and to suggest—so far as the Manuels are concerned—how large a part of the territory they have admirably managed to traverse. The repudiation of utopia came about through its most powerful offspring, Marxism; and it should be noticed in all fairness that Friedrich Engels looked upon the interrelationship as a continuity, not as a break, in 1882 with Die Entwicklung der Sozialismus von der Utopie zur Wissenschaft (The Development of Socialism from Utopia to Science). This did not deter the Marxists from their anti-utopian polemics, rear-guard forays against the Fourierists and the Saint-Simonians under the presumptive aegis of science, which had become a new religion for the Comtists, with proselytes as far away as Brazil. Meanwhile what was becoming the Communist International had been fighting off the Anarchists—Proudhon, Bakunin, and others later—and consequently handing on to posterity an official conception of the state in its most rigidified mold. It was Karl Marx’s role to formulate what the Manuels seem fond of calling “the banderole,” the ultimate motto: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” That, as their entire endeavor proves, is the very essence of utopianism.

Scientific world-views long had seemed to favor the utopian propensities. Darwinism in the nineteenth century, reinforced by Freudianism in the twentieth, undermined the more hopeful expectations for human nature through reducing it to an innate aggressiveness. Industrial technology, originally regarded as a progressive and liberating force, showed itself increasingly repressive and confining. Accordingly, over the past two generations, projectors of imaginary societies seem to have shifted their gaze from utopias to dystopias. Such a shift, of course, had been possible all along, depending upon the beholder’s point of view. Any lover of music or poetry who has read Plato’s Republic will recognize that every utopia is a potential dystopia. The Cloud-Cuckoo-Land of Aristophanes would be a heaven if it were strictly for the birds; it is the Athenian interlopers who turn it into a replica of their city’s peccadilloes. But regimentation had never before loomed so large as it has in the epoch of Zamiatin, Orwell, and Aldous Huxley. Science fiction concurrently finds it more and more difficult to keep ahead of scientific invention. It has fast become a predominant genre, most strikingly in iron curtain countries, where its neverlands can be used as a cover for local criticism.

Along with More’s utopia and its terminological antonym, the Manuels have made use of two other related terms. One of them, uchronia/euchronia, coined by the philosopher Charles Renouvier, refers to temporal rather than spatial idealizations: a primordial golden age or a futuristic millennium. The second, eupsychia, a coinage of the psychologist Abraham Maslow, seems to be more doubtfully relevant. “Selfactualization” or “an ideal State of consciousness” may be the long-range goal of utopian enterprises, but utopianism as such has mainly to do with collective rather than individual strivings. Both of these strains conjoined in the double—not to say multiple—mind of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: the moi and the moi commun, the unique personality and the social contract, leading contradictorily or complementarily toward le monde idéal. The preoccupation with women, sexuality, eugenics, and other matters connoted by eros, let alone the advent of a female messiah, though it is present in the accumulating documents, has not heretofore been adequately brought out. For all the current vogue of the Marquis de Sade, I am not sure how seriously his orgiastic projections ought to be taken. And I believe that Restif de la Bretonne is more worth studying as a writer than as a shoe-fetishist.

But these are small defects in what, more generally, may be viewed as one of this study’s major strengths: an acute awareness of the relations between utopiography and biography. Professor Manuel has been bold enough to compose a psychological portrait of a master scientist.9 Here, with his collaborator, he probes the lives of the utopists for the motives that animated their visions. They constitute a variegated assemblage: reformers, naturally, and revolutionists, but also churchmen of various ranks and creeds, several martyrs sacrificed for very different causes, statesmen, salesmen, scientists, poets, peers, philosophers, psychologists, philanthropists, scholar-teachers, certified madmen, and canonized saints. We are not more struck by their quixotic exploits than by the austere confinements that so many of them underwent: in asylums, prisons, and monastic retreats. What did they have in common beyond the passio utopiensis? The Manuels’ stress on diversity is likewise an argument for universality. I have already caviled at their psychoanalysis of Bacon; his prose style is better illuminated by Senecan rhetoric than by the mere conjecture that he was a “classically anal” type. Yet I trust their gallery of portraits when they rely on their own perceptions, instead of attaching Freudian labels.

We should not expect them to guide us toward any single or firm conclusion, though their final section is entitled “The Twilight of Utopia” and their epilogue is a short preview of continuity, revision, tergiversation, and probably obsolescence. Looking backward across so many generations who looked forward with ever-changing hopes, we are apt to envisage the contemporary scene as a future which has arrived, but which fulfills George Orwell’s grim prediction for the Eighties rather than Lincoln Steffens’s naïve report on Soviet Russia. If we try to imagine experiments in communal living today, our memories are fatefully overclouded with images of Auschwitz and Gulag, not forgetting Jonestown. We are reminded that Herbert Marcuse proclaimed an end to utopia at—where else but the Free University of Berlin in the late Sixties?10 We should remember too that those rebellious students, there and everywhere, were the first generation to grow up in the shadow of a demonstrable millennium: the apocalyptic consciousness that the world’s populace could be suddenly destroyed. Habitually utopians have counted upon a happy futurity for mankind, a chiliastic sky made bright with pie and not with nuclear missiles. In the face of more minatory prospects, it is the present that interposes its urgent priorities.

  1. 1

    French Utopias: An Anthology of Ideal Societies (Schocken Books, 1971).

  2. 2

    Utopian Literature: A Bibliography, with A Supplementary Listing of Works Influential in Utopian Thought (The Regents Press of Kansas, 1977).

  3. 3

    L’Utopie et les utopies (Paris: Les Presses Universitaires, 1950), pp. 41-44.

  4. 4

    See Pierre Versins (ed.), Encyclopédie de l’utopie, des voyages imaginaire, et de la science fiction (Lausanne: L’Age d’Homme, 1972), p. 953 ff.

  5. 5

    The New World of Henri Saint-Simon (1956), The Eighteenth Century Confronts the Gods (1959), The Prophets of Paris (1962), all published by the Harvard University Press.

  6. 6

    For a treatment focusing on these, see Raymond Trousson, Voyages au pays de nulle part: Histoire littéraire de la pensée utopique (Brussels: Editions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 1975).

  7. 7

    See A.E. Morgan, Nowhere Was Somewhere: How History Makes Utopias and How Utopias Make History(The University of North Carolina Press, 1946).

  8. 8

    See Juan Durán Luzio, Creación y Utopia: Letras de Hispanoamérica (Costa Rica: Editorial de la Universidad National, 1979).

  9. 9

    A Portrait of Isaac Newton (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968).

  10. 10

    Das Ende der Utopie (Berlin: von Maikowski, 1967); English translation included in Five Lectures: Psychoanalysis, Politics, and Utopia (Beacon Press, 1970). See also Oskar Schatz (ed.), Abschied von Utopie? Anspruch und Auftrag der Intellektuellen (Graz: Styria, 1977).