(BEING CONTINUED FROM 08/01/18)
by Anthony Egan
We do not live in a perfect world. Nor do we live in an absolute nightmare.
The word utopia is derived from a novel of the same name, written in 1516 by St Thomas More. A description of a perfect society, many commentators believe that this enthusiastic account of absolute equality, justice and surprisingly liberal cultural life – which includes religious freedom, legal euthanasia, easy divorce and even women priests – can only be read as satire. Thomas More, while he was still England’s Lord Chancellor before the Reformation, actively persecuted Protestants, and had no conception of social equality (let alone gender equality!). Even the name u-topia – from the Greek meaning ‘no place’ – suggests he is mocking the very idea.
As its polar opposition, dystopia means the very worst possible world: a place of absolute tyranny. It is most brilliantly expressed in George Orwell’s 1947 novel, 1984. The vision here is one of totalitarian government, surveillance of everybody, secret police operating at will and truth subverted by propaganda. Some folks may think that dystopia is all too real in our present world of surveillance cameras, state capture and alternative facts.
This is mistaken. Though all these manifestations of lack of freedom exist, the fact that we know about them – and to varying degrees resist them – suggests that such absolute tyranny does not exist. Insofar as we continue to resist, dystopia – though a possibility – is deferred.
Oddly enough, some might even say that utopia is the first step to dystopia. In trying to create a perfect society we may well accidentally create a disaster. Utopian dreams of absolute equality motivated the architects of dictatorships and failed states from China to Venezuela. Creating perfection means eliminating imperfection and nonconformity. Yet we cannot eliminate our capacity for sin: potential or real greed, power and revenge lies beneath even our noblest sentiments.
St Augustine of Hippo long ago warned that the Human City was by its nature flawed. However much we try to promote the best, we shall not achieve it this side of eternity. People are not equal, whether in intelligence, looks, abilities or moral character. Even economic equality is an impossibility: no society on earth has achieved this. In those that have tried we have seen situations where the vast majority are equally poor, while a ruling elite – the ‘guardians’ of equality – have lived in luxury. Normally the states that have emerged have also maintained ‘equality’ with ruthless efficiency, creating in the process totalitarian ‘dystopias’.
We must be on our guard against utopian visions, even as we should take the values of utopia seriously. The latter are the ideal. It is the moral benchmark against which we make social, political and economic decisions. In the best possible world (which, following Augustine, I argue cannot exist) this is what we’d like. In the real world where greed, personal ambition and the capacity for evil exists, we need to find better alternatives and workable compromises that advance the good as well as we can, while avoiding the terrible unintended consequences.
While some well-regarded scholars argue that utopianism is a Western phenomenon and that utopias do not appear outside the West until the influence of More’s Utopia was felt, others have argued that utopianism developed independently in non-Western cultures. Thomas More invented a literary genre, but there are texts in the West and outside it that predate More’s Utopia that describe a nonexistent society that is identifiably better than the existing society. Probably the best-known early non-Western utopia is “The Peach Blossom Spring,” a poem of T’ao Yüan Ming (also known as T’ao Ch’ien) (365–427), that describes a peaceful peasant society, but there are golden ages, earthly paradises, and other forms of utopianism found in Sumerian clay tablets and within Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, and Daoism.
Once it is established that there are utopian traditions that are certainly non-Western, there are problems that confront a scholar approaching the subject at the beginning of the twenty-first century. One is the issue of what is non-Western. Scholars disagree profoundly over what constitutes non-Western and Western. Some would limit Western to Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand and thereby exclude the substantial Portuguese and Spanish literatures published in Central and South America, which contain many utopias. Others would include these literatures. A second problem is that there are no good bibliographies of any non-Western utopianism not written in English. A related problem is that there are debates in a number of countries, even in countries such as India, where English is an official language, over the status of works written in English, particularly those written by authors who choose to live outside the country.
In ancient China, Moist and Legalist thought had utopian elements, and the same can be said for neo-Confucianism and Daoism. In twentieth-century China, Mao Zedong (1893–1976) was clearly utopian in his desire to transform Chinese society along the lines of his vision for it, and it can be argued that Mao’s Communism was both Marxist and rooted in Confucianism.
There have been a number of twentieth-century political movements with utopian dimensions. In India, Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869–1948) was a utopian and used the Hindu notion of Ramaraja (the rule of the Rama), the golden age, as a means of communicating his ideas. The vision of the Islamic republic developed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900?–1989) and by the Taliban for Afghanistan were also clearly utopian and fit Popper’s analysis of the dangers of utopianism.
There are oral utopian traditions among the aborigines in Australia, the first nations in Canada, the Maori in New Zealand, and the Native American Indians in the United States. The struggle against colonialism produced millennial movements with strong utopian elements, such as the Taiping Rebellion (1851–1864) in China and the Ghost Dance movement in the United States. There were dozens of such movements in South America and movements among the Maori in New Zealand, some of whose successors still exist in the early twenty-first century, such as the Maori’s Ratana Church.
Also, there is a strong communitarian tradition in both Buddhism and Hinduism, and there is a traditional communitarianism among various indigenous peoples that has redeveloped since around 1980 as chosen, better ways of living, particularly among the Maori in New Zealand.
Most non-Western utopianism is post-More and clearly connected with the genre of literature he invented, and as a result are deeply influenced by the West. Since China had the strongest pre-More utopian tradition, it is not surprising that it has the strongest post-More tradition. The Chinese utopias that are best-known in the West are Li Ju-Chen’s (c. 1760–c. 1830) Flowers in the Mirror (1828), which favors the rights of women, and Kang Youwei’s (1858–1929) Da T’ung Shu (1935), which is concerned with world unity.
Works that most nearly fit the genre of utopian literature appear to be most common in former colonies, and aspects of Chinese utopianism fit this model. There are utopias in English in various African countries, including South Africa, where utopias are in Afrikaans, English, and indigenous languages. In addition, there are utopias (because of limited research, how many is not known) in various indigenous languages in other African countries and in India.
African utopias in English are the works most widely read in the West. They come from many different countries and have a strong dystopian flavor. But as with many contemporary Western utopias, they often hold out hope of positive change. Ali A. Mazrui (1933–), who was born in Kenya, wrote The Trial of Christopher Okigbo (1971), which is mostly dystopian but still holds out hope. Authors born in Nigeria include Buchi Emechta (1944–), whose The Rape of Shavi (1983) shows the destruction of traditional utopia by colonialism; Wole Soyinka (1934–), whose Seasons of Anomy (1973) is primarily dystopian but includes the possibility of a better life; and Ben Okri (1959–), whose Astonishing the Gods (1995) presents the search for utopia. Bessie Head (1937–1986) was born in South Africa and lived in Botswana; her When Rain Clouds Gather (1969) presents a village that is both described as a utopia and is the location of an attempt to create a utopia.
The best-known Indian utopia in English is probably Salman Rushdie’s (1947–) Grimus (1975), which includes a society that is described in the text as “utopian” because it functions on a basis of rough equality and with no money. Other Indian utopias do not appear to have gained much of an audience outside India.
Comparative studies on Western and non-Western utopianism are only just beginning. (An early-twenty-first-century example is Zhang Longxi’s “The Utopian Vision, East and West” in the journal Utopian Studies .)
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Lyman Tower Sargent
(TO BE CONTINUED)