Saturday, October 15, 2016

Is Utopia Possible?

Not many books on my “To Read” list are 500 years old, but Utopia was on that list until I read it recently. “Utopia” was a term coined by the author, Thomas More, for his book with that title published (in Latin) in 1516.
Introducing More
Many of you probably remember that More was a staunch Catholic who opposed King Henry VIII breaking away from Rome and declaring himself the head of the Church in England. Accordingly, in 1535 More (b. 1478) was convicted of treason and beheaded.
A few of you also may remember that “A Man for All Seasons” was the movie which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1966. That is a fine film about Thomas More, a fine man.
During the seventeen semesters I taught one of the required theology classes at Rockhurst University, a Jesuit school in Kansas City, Thomas More was always a part of my lecture about the beginnings of the Church of England. I would always tell my students how I admire More because he was a man of great integrity.
It is hard to know what to make of his Utopia, though
More’s Utopia
“Utopia,” from the Greek words meaning no place (ou topos), is said to be a pun on the Greek words meaning good place (eu topos). The first definition of utopia in the online Miriam-Webster dictionary is “an imaginary and indefinitely remote place.” But when capitalized, it means “a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions.”
The island of Utopia in More’s rather complex book was inhabited by people who lived quite differently than people in England—or in other parts of the world, for that matter. It was a socialistic society where people lived with little interest in gold (and all that that represents) and with a high level of equality—and satisfaction. 

Attempts to create Utopia
Since the time of More’s intriguing novel, there have been several actual attempts to create a utopian community. One such example was New Harmony, which I mentioned in my Aug. 20 blog article. Started by one idealistic group in 1814, the whole town was sold to Robert Owen, a wealthy Welshman.
The Wikipedia article about Owen (1771–1858) says, “In 1824, Owen travelled to America to invest the bulk of his fortune in an experimental 1,000-member colony on the banks of Indiana’s Wabash River. . . . New Harmony was intended to be a Utopian society.”
But guess what? It didn’t work. In spite of all the grand plans and lofty ideals, they were unable to create a utopian society—and so has been the case of similar experiments throughout the last 500 years.
Pride, greed, sloth, and other inherent human weaknesses (sins) seem to have doomed most (all?) attempts to create Utopia.
The best examples I know of utopian societies that have existed for any length of time are those which did not seek to form Utopia but rather simply to follow the example of Christians in the Book of Acts.
For example, the Bruderhof, the Hutterites, and to some extent the Amish all seem to have been successful, at least to some degree, in creating utopian communities. Those groups all have roots in the Swiss Anabaptist movement that began in 1525, just a few years after More wrote Utopia—and a movement he would have opposed.
Does More’s Utopia, or especially the groups I just mentioned, have anything to teach us today? Most likely—if we just had the will to put the needs of all ahead of the privileges of the few.


  1. The first comments on this article came from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago. (I much appreciate his faithful reading and commenting.)

    "Since dystopias have been much more common than utopias (if any), I doubt that it is possible to ever build a utopian society. The main problem is that we cannot agree on what values and institutions a utopian society would include and exclude.

    "The Amish and similar groups can approximate their visions of an ideal society because of their deeply held religious beliefs,their strong families and social institutions, and the fact that they agree on their visions of an ideal society. Although I respect certain aspects of Amish society, I could not live in an Amish community.

    "On a secular level, Denmark and Sweden, at least in my view, probably come the closest to being ideal societies, although they are far from perfect."

    1. Eric, I was interested in your mentioning two countries "the closest to being ideal societies." In thinking more about that, I found the following CNN article posted in March of this year:

      "Fans of Denmark must be even happier than usual: Denmark has retaken the title of 'world's happiest country,' knocking Switzerland into second place.

      "Denmark and Switzerland were closely followed by Iceland, Norway and Finland, according to the World Happiness Report Update 2016, released Wednesday in Rome by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network for the United Nations."

      Sweden was ranked 10th. But, surprisingly (to me at least), the U.S. was 13th. And I was shocked to see that Japan was 53rd.

      I didn't take time to read what criteria were used in making these rankings.

  2. Thank you, Leroy, for getting my brain cells humming on this Saturday morning. I’m feeling contrary this morning, for which I’ll apologize in advance, but here goes. I think you were wise not to try to definitively answer the question in your title. The topic needs much greater treatment than a short blog can provide. And while your conclusion is spot on (!!), I would raise some questions about the line of reasoning. I don't know what is meant by “a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions” (the Merriam-Webster def.), but among the last places I would label such are the Bruderhof, the Hutterites, or the Amish. These communities can be considered utopian only if you think "utopian" can mean an authoritarianism tolerating no dissent from official thought and behavior and closing your borders to people diverse from you, not that outsiders have ever clamored to get into those communities.

    I would concede that the question of the limits of possibility in human community is huge for nations and for the world, probably for the very existence of humanity. And I think it’s a little too flippant to point to attempted utopias (never really the aim of Hutterites and Amish, by the way) that have failed, and make or even imply any kind of conclusion regarding the possibility of utopia. In addition, to point to human sin or weaknesses as the problem is also to reduce the complexities of social reality to psychology, which has its own problems. (Presumably, by the way, the Hutterites and Amish share the same inherent human characteristics as other people.)

    We live in a modern world in which the vast majority of people are of good will, but in which we’re trying to hold together contradictory ways of being and thinking while creating and maintaining the conditions for human life in a world of conflicting “parties” and tribes, and which is continually changing. Certainly the odds of doing utopia on this “good earth” would appear to be slim. Let’s consider superficially what some of these opposing forces are: an economic system that is authoritarian, hierarchical, exploitative, promoting self-interest, if not also greed, but highly productive vs. forms of democratic government that seek to make all voices heard, serve the commonweal, and require compromise and cooperation, but which various self-interests seek to dominate. Then we have modern individualistic values of self-interest, self-development, and human rights vs. traditional communal values of tradition, tribe, family, conformity, and collective well-being. (Religion is a complicating factor, with its many varieties, often intolerant of others, and their own blends of modern and traditional values.)

    I would suggest, still being cantankerous, that the questions that need to be asked today (in our postmodern global world) do not include whether utopia is possible. If the answer is sought in human history or even present circumstances, it results in an inevitably conservative answer of no. Among the questions we need to ask, I would argue, are these: Is it useful to aim for utopia in human affairs? Has humanity progressed in demonstrably positive ways? If we have progressed, we need to explore how we’ve done that and how we might continue progressing, given the huge and complex issues we face as a species? In other words, can we improve, and does utopian thinking contribute to improvement?

  3. Anton, thanks for your lengthy, thought-provoking response early on a Saturday morning. There is much I would like to respond to -- and I wish we could sit down and talk as we did from time to time before you moved off to a far country. (For those of you who don't know, Anton moved this year from Kansas City to northeast Iowa.)

    Let me first write only about the Bruderhof, the Hutterites, and the Amish. There is, to be sure, a religious hierarchy of sorts--just as there were bishops in New Testament times. There is also a high degree of egalitarianism, and it seems true that in those communities everyone's physical needs are met.

    There are no closed borders, as far as I know--just firm expectations for those who wish to join them. As you indicated, there are not many who make that choice. But people are welcomed if they want to accept the "rules" and join.

    On the other hand, people who wish to leave those communities are free to do. The Amish give their children freedom explore other options from the time they are 16--but I hear that about 90% of them end up choosing to stay.

    There are rules/regulations/"Ordnung" which members of the community are required to follow if they choose to be, or to remain, part of the community. To varying degrees those groups have practiced "the ban," which was one article in the Schleitheim Confession of 1527. By that means, the Hutterites have been able to exist since the late 1520s, the Amish since 1693, and the upstart Bruderhof since 1920.

    Four years ago June and I had a delightful, several-hours-long visit with Hutterites in South Dakota. Everyone we saw and talked with there seemed perfectly content.

    As I wrote in my Sept. 30 blog article, last month I had a good conversation with an Amish man on his farm in north Missouri. Seldom have I talked with anyone who seemed to be more at peace with himself and the world around him (which, I admit, is very limited--although he indicated a surprising awareness of the larger society).

    Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to visit the Bruderhof in New York. But for the last couple of years I have been reading "Plough," their new, nicely done quarterly magazine. Recently, I also read "Discipleship," a book by J. Heinrich Arnold (1913-82), the son of Eberhard Arnold, founder of the Bruderhof. There were things in the book I disagreed with, but basically I was impressed with their community.

    As I indicated in the article, these three groups did not set out to create Utopia. But by following the New Testament it still seems to me that they have created utopian-like communities to a rather impressive degree.

  4. Here is part of a comment from a local Thinking Friend:

    "Your closing word is what American democracy promised but still has not realized. Maybe Hillary will be able to get us closer to an egalitarian society. I hope so."

    1. I think Hillary and the Democrats have far more interest in creating a more egalitarian society than Trump and the Republicans. But with the gridlock in Congress, which will probably be as bad, or nearly as bad, after the inauguration of the new President (presumably Hillary) in January, I am not optimistic that there will be great strides made in that direction. But, yes, we can hope.

  5. Another local Thinking Friend wrote,

    "Enjoyed the blog. How would you rate Clarence Jordan’s Koinonia Farm?"

    1. I have long been a great admirer of Clarence Jordan--even raking him as one of the "top ten" Christians of modern times. And I have admired what he tried to do at Koinonia Farm.

      In some ways there was a "utopian" motif in the formation of Koinonia Farm, for Jordan wanted to make a "demonstration plot" to show what the Kingdom of God would look like in the present. And he was successful in doing that to a degree.

      But for some reason after Jordan's much-too-early death in 1969, Koinonia Farm doesn't seem to have continued on with the same impact as it had during his lifetime--although I am happy that it still exists and still has some good influence in society.

  6. Dr. Thomas Howell, a Thinking Friend who is a history professor at William Jewell College, sent the following important comments (and permission to post them here):

    "I’d be a little careful about wholesale admiration of Thomas More (admittedly a view I once held). His enthusiasm as a heretic hunter and burner reminds me of, for example, Martin Luther on the Jews.

    "The writer of the column you can read at this link is one sided and biased, but that does not mean that he is, in this instance, wrong: "

    1. Thanks, Thomas, for your important comments.

      By saying that I admire Thomas More as a man of great integrity does not by any means indicate that I agree with all that he believed and certainly not with all that he did.

      He was so faithful to his Catholic beliefs that he gave his own life to uphold them. It was those same beliefs that impelled him to oppose and to eradicate as much as possible those who opposed those beliefs.

      More (and Luther) were men of their times--the 16th century--in which religious tolerance was minimal and seeking to destroy "heretics" or (in Luther's case) Jews was common. That makes me appreciate the Swiss Anabaptists of the 16th century even more, for, while perhaps not completely tolerant of others, they did not believe in using violence toward anyone.

  7. Years ago in physics class we studied something called an "ideal gas." This gas was unusual for physics, in that it does not and cannot exist. Rather, it is the result of studying limits, and provides a target for designers of internal combustion engines and such. The goal was to get an actual engine with actual fuel and exhaust gases running as close to the "ideal gas" limit as possible. One of the reasons engineers look for alternatives to the internal combustion engine is that even an ideal engine running at the ideal gas limit would still be pretty inefficient.

    Utopia is sort of an ideal gas limit for humanity. If we could work our way around some pesky problems, what would be the best society we could build? What could we learn from such an ideal society that might help us improve our actual society? Actually, many thinkers try this, and some very conservative thinkers even trumpet the limits they believe they find. Neoliberal economists claim we are just stuck with a miserable society for the masses. On the other hand, Thomas Hobbes famously wrote of life as "nasty, brutish and short," but not to describe the necessary state of society, but rather to describe life in the state of nature, without any society at all. What actually exists is a world where almost everyone seeks a society specifically where life is not nasty, brutish and short. We look in horror at a place such as contemporary Syria, where those dreadful conditions actually exist.

    Most people live somewhere far from both utopia and dystopia, yet we can learn from both. As Leroy's list of happy nations suggests, liberal democracies with mixed economies seem to provide the best of available worlds. It is not extreme libertarianism nor extreme socialism, it is not extreme authoritarianism, nor extreme anarchy. Nor, I would warrant, is it imperialism or pacifism. Perhaps we should learn from what Buddha called "the Middle Way." Even the US Constitution works with such a balancing act, from its checks and balances to the surprisingly nuanced language of the Second Amendment. (Yes, that one.) "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Some people read that and only see gun control. Others read only a right to bear arms. A Middle Way see both. Maybe not Utopia, but still a step in the right direction.

    1. Craig, thanks for once again posting erudite comments.

      I like your reference to "the Middle Way," which resonates with my call for seeking the radiant center in Christian theology, as I propose in my book "The Limits of Liberalism." I would, however, want to frame "imperialism or pacifism" differently.

      Unwillingness for today's U.S. politicians to seek common ground in the middle is the major reason for the gridlock we see so graphically. I would like to have high hopes of something better in the next four years (after January), but, alas, I am fearful of more of the same polarization. But as I wrote above, we can always hope for better.

  8. Why would "Utopia" need to be socialistic? In my lifetime I have watched firsthand national socialism fail because there were insufficient resources to make it work, and when it was transitioned to communism it became deadly very quickly.

    I have also seen communities work, such as convents and monasteries, but that requires a sacramental commitment. The concept has worked with within families for millennia, using familial resources to produce, develop, and release the next generation - is that Utopia?

    I like the proven concept of traditional Families and Communities (despite their human "warts), over Utopia or communism.

  9. Leroy, I wanted to jump in yesterday but needed to go house-hunting in anticipation of a move. Yesterday was “Nietzsche Day” in Wilsonland and the inhabitants (trees, spiders, ants, squirrels, etc.) didn’t care. No utopia here. Or maybe so?

    Your post brought to (my) mind Aldous Huxley and his dystopian-ish “Brave New World” (1932) and utopian-ish “Island” (1962, last work). Thinking about that reminded me that Plato’s “Republic” is utopian literature. Conjecturing about ideal places has a long history. As I see Craig noted in his excellent manner, we are thinking about approaching ‘limit’ conditions.

    What popped into my head was a notion that neither the negation (‘ou’) nor the positive valuation (‘eu’) is as problematical [to me at least], as ‘topos’. More writes of the “island of utopia”, hence Huxley’s allusion. Why an island? Perhaps it is so that the “no-place” becomes a “some-place” by being “set apart” from the larger space. And that’s the problem for me.

    When Aristotle (and others, I suppose) started us “westerners” into questioning Plato’s ‘ideals’ (understood as ‘fixed’, ‘permanent’ conceptual ‘places’), he (we?) began to see the value of “middle ways” when the “real” world is recognized as dynamic, fluid, without ‘fixed place’, etc. A community set apart from the larger community by the use of ‘closed’ boundaries dies from lack of energy exchange [persons not permitted to come and go]. A community with ‘permeable’ boundaries [as you described the Amish] survives because of the energy exchange (though the community risks being ‘poisoned’). They may appear “set apart”, but they are really “set within” the larger human community. And, gee, they really aren’t “set” at all; they are moving-in-relationship.

    The not-reaching but increasingly approaching a “limit condition”, an ideal, is the ‘ou’ of utopia. The ‘eu’ is discovered and lived in the “middle way” of dynamic relationship. So it occurred to me today; who knows about tomorrow. :-)

  10. Charles Kiker: There seems to be an inherent bias that utopianism is necessarily socialistic. I think there is a right wing utopianism: libertarianism. Part of me is drawn to libertarianism: fewer regulations, more personal freedom. But libertarianism is utopian, and will not work in a capitalistic society where gold is god, and the golden rule means "Them that has the gold makes the rules." Libertarianism in this society would result in increased environmental degradation and increased inequality in wealth and health. Utopia requires a community committed to the well-being of all its citizens. In that kind of community libertarianism would work. But not in our society, or any society without a sense of community.

    1. This is why many people, myself including, divide libertarianism into civil and economic libertarianism. Civil libertarianism has a long and distinguished history (think what the initials ACLU stand for) based on the idea that letting people decide their personal lives for themselves as much as possible is an inherent good. Economic libertarianism is utopian, or something, because it is in practice a terrible idea.

      We all have 24 hours a day, and take up about the same amount of space and eat roughly the same amount of food, so civil libertarianism has a chance to work. Economic libertarianism assumes billionaires and paupers can and will contract together in mutually beneficial ways. That has been obviously wrong for thousands of years. Think of the story of Joseph in Genesis, and how he helped Pharaoh "contract" with the people of Egypt until they had sold all their belongings and finally themselves in return for desperately needed food. Today Joseph would be cheered as a neoliberal hero who made huge profits for his employer by exploiting the poor. Today Joseph would be a banker on Wall Street, lobbying to get the government out of his bank's way. Or maybe a pharmaceutical manufacturer seeing how high he could raise the price on a life-saving drug before the world revolts against him. Libertarianism may be Utopia for certain asocial young men, but for the high and mighty it is a most convenient cover story for why the rich must get richer even as the unfortunate poor must get poorer.

      From FDR's New Deal to LBJ's Great Society America demonstrated that a nation and its economy did not need to function as a neoliberal economy at all. Indeed, today we look back at this as the "good old days" when the economy grew and created good jobs all at the same time. It was a Keynesian mixed economy with some some socialist features, and plenty of carefully regulated and significantly taxed businesses. Imagine what America might be like if we worked half as hard at finding the best balance in a new Keynesian economy, instead of feverishly seeking to destroy what is left of the old one. Would that be utopian? Or merely a practical way to actually "Make America Great Again" by fixing real instead of imagined problems?