The Uselessness of Utopias

The woodcut for Utopia's map as it appears in Thomas More's Utopia printed by Dirk Martens in December 1516 (the first edition). Date 24 February 2020 Source Utopia Thomas More (1516) Bibliothèque Nationale de France

(The term ‘utopia’ was coined by the great statesman and martyr, Thomas More, in his 1516 book by the same name. It literally means ‘no place’, but comes to mean a ‘perfect place’, often in an ideal sense. More’s book is taken as a satire on Henry VIII’s England, on the impossibility of building such a perfect society, and here is Carl Sundell’s own take on such).

A utopia may be defined as an ideal society. In his dialogue, Republic, Plato imagined such a world, ruled by philosopher-kings. Yet no ideal world has ever been created except the one inhabited by Adam and Eve, and that utopia was short-lived. Ever since, people of intellect and imagination have been trying to figure out how to recreate the Garden of Eden. College campuses and their guru professors all over the world have supplanted philosopher-kings as the architects of hypothetical utopias. It should be no surprise to anyone that the unrest and radicalism found on campuses are rooted in some deep-seated hatred for a real society that can never live up to the aspirations of utopia.

The Founders of the United States republic were not deluded idealists. They knew it was possible to improve the world, but impossible to create a perfect one. As Thomas Jefferson put it: “Although I do not, with some enthusiasts, believe that the human condition will ever advance to such a state of perfection as there shall no longer be pain or vice in the world, yet I believe it is susceptible of much improvement, and most of all, in matters of government and religion, and that the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which it is to be effected.”

But utopian thinkers never give up on the belief that a perfect world is possible. So far as Catholic theology is concerned, this belief in a perfect society is really a kind of heresy. In the first place, utopian thought defies the consequence of original sin, which is that we are all heirs to the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil. We cannot avoid the struggle of choosing between pleasure and suffering or between good and evil. It is in the nature of our free will that we are allowed to choose. Utopian thought denies freedom more than anything else. In a utopian world you would not be free to choose because all your choices would have been made for you, and you would be obliged to follow the course laid out by others rather than choose your own destiny. How else would a utopian world be possible?

This means that those who manage utopias would be the masters of the world. It would be their vocation to keep everyone else in line, much as a mechanic’s job is to keep all the parts of a machine greased and well-tuned to perform their proper function. This situation has to breed a collectivist mentality. The will of all must become subject to the will of the State, or Big Brother, as George Orwell called it in his novel 1984. It was this fact Orwell noticed about the difference between the promised prosperity of Karl Marx’s world under Communism versus the horrible actual and very real poverty of the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin. And it was this disparity that everyone noticed about the messianic promise of the Third Reich of Adolf Hitler and the horrors that followed.

To the degree that socialism seeks to solve all human problems, the State usurps the place of God, and the State is worshiped as the First Cause of all things material, educational, spiritual, and militaristic. But as Lord Acton liked to remind us, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Count on it. As the social planners increase their power of planning utopia, everyone’s will must be sacrificed to theirs. When those who protest the will of the planners are perceived as enemies of utopia, they will be removed by the quickest and most expedient method. It is this very maniacal power that the framers of the American Constitution sought to prevent when they created a system loaded with checks and balances, all dependent on the vote of the people themselves.

That small societies can design themselves to approach the conditions of utopia is no doubt possible. Catholic monks in a monastery can provide each other’s needs for a simple life with far fewer troubles. However, such a life is purely voluntary. No one can be a prisoner of the system in a monastery. Every monk freely gives of himself to all the others and the good of the Order, and ultimately to God. The abbot is a leader, not a tyrant. If at some point a monk should decide to leave this kind of ideal existence and take his chances in the outside world, he is, in one sense, free to do so (even if to do so canonically and morally he must be released from his voluntary vows – Ed.)

In a utopian society no one is free. Even the managers ironically are slaves to the system because they dare not buck the rules of the system to which they have given themselves and from which they get their daily bread. This is proven by the mainstream media who slavishly manage the lies and the fake news that pervade society. These managers lie constantly and without blushing.

Yes, Jefferson believed in progress. But if he lived in our time he would see among the so-called “progressive” (liberal) types a thinly veiled impulse to return to the slavish mentality of the ancient world.

The decline of our Judaeo-Christian religion (which has relied upon swearing on a Bible to tell the truth) and the rise of modern atheism (which repudiates the Bible) will make virtually inevitable the return of universal slavery in the form life-suffocating  utopias. This is because human nature demands absolutes in one form or another.

If these absolutes are not found in God, they will be found in Big Brother.

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Carl Sundell is Emeritus Professor of English and Humanities at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts. The author of several books including The Intellectual and the Gunman, Four Presidents, and Shaw versus Chesterton, he has published various articles in New Oxford Review and Catholic Insight. He currently resides in Lubbock, Texas where he is developing a book of short essays for students of Catholic apologetics