The Fort Lauderdale Socrates Cafe Meetup Group Message Board › Past Message Board › Thoughts on Utopia encouraged by last month's meeting.
|Dr. Norman R. W.||
Fort Lauderdale, FL
Thoughts about building “Utopia”
This month at “Socrates Café” the question was if there was any way to form or structure society so that we would have a truly compassionate and just community and culture.
It is not a new question. This is what motivated the writing of the Republic by Plato. Though in reality the real issue was how an individual person might properly order their soul the social and political aspects of that question spilled out immediately. In fact our discussion soon echoed Plato’s thoughts that unless the character of the individual person could be radically altered then there was little hope for any healthy community to develop.
Our thoughts moved I some common directions.
One was that some thought that the “good” core of humanity had become polluted with civilization, laws, and complicated culture. The way forward was to go back to the tribe and village. Here we have the “noble” savage reborn. All laws and government is wrong and people should live in simple tribal contexts.
The concept of the noble savage can be traced to ancient Greece, where Homer, Pliny, and Xenophon idealized the Arcadians and other primitive groups, both real and imagined. Later Roman writers such as Horace, Virgil, and Ovid gave comparable treatment to the Scythians. Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Confessions (written 1765–70) will point out the innate goodness of a human being and the corruption that takes place due to civilization. John Dryden’s Conquest of Granada (1672), in which the term noble savage was first used, was a play which portrayed the uncivilized human as the good human.
Now Rousseau in The Social Contract will actually see that civilization has helped humanity to become more than they were when they were mere savages.
“the mere impulse to appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty” (The Social Contract, 196).
natural liberty, possession based on personal power
civil liberty, secure proprietorship based on
respect for the law
from a “stupid and unimaginative animal” to “an intelligent being and a man” (The Social Contract, 196)
Now the problem is this idealizes such simple tribal states. People who live in “lawless” communities rarely fare well. The biblical book of judges records a civilization where each person “did what was right in their own eyes” and records betrayal, violence, rape, and murder becoming a way of life.
While some anthropologists have tried to present the idea of simple tribes as peaceful societies, recent studies have confirmed that mortality from violence is very common in small-scale societies today and in the past. As Matt Ridley reports
“Almost one-third of such people die in raids and fights, and the death rate is twice as high among men as among women. This is a far higher death rate than experienced even in countries worst hit by World War II. Thomas Hobbes's "war of each against all" looks more accurate for humanity in a state of nature than Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "noble savage," though anthropologists today prefer to see a continuum between these extremes.”[/url]
So it would seem that the “noble savage” or “noble village” is a myth that never really existed in history.
Now another idea we discussed did not take us to the past but to the future.
Perhaps by combining evolution and technology we can create a “new humanity” in which each person would be genetically programmed to become a “saint”. Marx’s actual philosophy was for there to be no government when the “new man” eventually evolved out of the natural process of biological and economic forces. Marx saw such an evolution as predetermined and inevitable by natural factors. This “dream” of a perfect civilization of perfect people is one of the reasons by Marx’s vision has been so popular. Some scholars see in Marx a secularized version of the Jewish/ Christian idea of the millennium which was to be an ideal human society.
Now it is harder to criticize a possible future state created by future technology since it is all speculation. However, George Orwell's, 1984 might be a good reminder of the potential dangers of such a quest towards “Utopia”. More recently the movies Equilibrium (2002) or Gattaca (1997) reminded us of the complications and danger that can arise in attempts at social and engineering and who can forget “V” (2005). While most will admit that genetic engineering could make people stronger and smarter, the real issue is if it can make them “saints”. Sometimes stronger and brighter people simply use their greater abilities to do greater harm.
Everyone agreed that only if we could find a way through education, genetics, social structuring or some other means to improve the character of people could any ideal “Utopia” occurs. One could of course also read Thomas More’s book “Utopia” for another meditation on this idea of an ideally structured society. The dream and desire for such a perfect state seems to be part of a deep human passion among many people.
Now there was little hope that “religion” or “faith in God” could produce the “New Humanity”. It was felt by most of those at our discussion that this idea had been tried and been found a failure. Most people felt this was true of the Christian faith in particular. Some seemed to think that some forms of Buddhism or “Samurai society” (watch The Last Samurai (2003)) might be the answer.
Clearly, local churches are attempts at reflecting a small society or community in which the ideals of Christ like sacrificial love are practiced. One ancient church historian records the following examples of the first century Christian community.
“All the believers in Messiah Jesus continued together in close fellowship and shared their belongings with one another. They would sell their property and possessions, and distribute the money among all, according to what each one needed. Day after day they met as a group in the Temple, and they had their meals together in their homes, eating with glad and humble hearts, praising God, and enjoying the good will of all the people. (Dr. Luke, 60 A.D.; Acts 2:44-47)
“There was no one in the group who was in need. Those who owned fields or houses would sell them, bring the money received from the sale, and turn it over to the apostles; and the money was distributed according to the needs of the people. “(Dr. Luke, 60 A.D. ; Acts4:34-35)
But reading the rest of the New Testament we would see that the church was not able to maintain this type of beauty of human relationships with a deep loving unity among each other. The communities of disciples of the Nazarene soon fell into the struggles of all human groups including lying, power struggles, sexual misconduct, and lack of compassion for the needy. So while the potential for healthy “micro communities” can be hoped for among churches the ability to maintain such small “utopias” is hindered because all of “the saints” don’t act many times very saintly. None seem to be able to create a stable subculture in which such healthy human relationships continue over decades.
The problem is that the actual transformation of people’s character to become selfless and loving towards others is very hard to accomplish. Many Christian groups have attempted to form such ideal societies and these experiments have had moments of real success and also failure. One should not discount all of these efforts for they at times have demonstrated some great moments of human harmony.
I was part of such a group in the 70’s and we had moments of great beauty in human relationships. However, over time this decayed and we disbanded, many discouraged and disillusioned.
One of the dangers of thinking about such idealized human groups is that on the one hand they can motivate us to make great sacrifices for the common good, but on the other hand create cynicism and despair when they fail. They can also allow us to justify hurting the “one” for the good of the “many”. Much harm, hurt, and oppression has occurred in the quest for the creation of “Utopia” both secular and sacred. One only has to look at the history of the communist states to see the brutality that people can justify in order to create a brave new world.
Orthodox Christianity would never point towards the church as an “ideal” society. Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book “Life together” warns of thinking about the church as an ideal society. Instead the real church is made up of wounded, weak, and wicked people who have been wonderfully forgiven their sins which is causing them to strive to give mercy to others as well. The real church is made up of messy people and will not know an ideal community because they are still far from ideal. While having transforming power within them they are in the process of transformation and still far from actually being able to live out being “saints”. [/url] Don Mears reminds us;
“Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn points out that the separation between good and evil does not fall conveniently between groups of people, or between those in our church and those outside it. It runs through the middle of every human heart.”
So if the church was able to become an ideal community in history then this would disprove Christianity because the Bible does not teach us that such an ideal society can be formed out of human beings as they now exist.
What then is the Christian hope for the formation of a perfect civilization and community? It is believed by Christians that this perfect “Kingdom of God” comes as a gift from God when the Messiah Jesus returns. This is what transforms humanity and therefore provides the missing key for the “peaceful kingdom” to be established. Some ancient Christian writers describe it in these words
“Think how much the Father loves us. He loves us so much that he lets us be called his children, as we truly are. But since the people of this world did not know who Christ is, they don't know who we are. My dear friends, we are already God's children, though what we will be hasn't yet been seen. But we do know that when Christ returns, we will be like him, because we will see him as he truly is. This hope makes us keep ourselves holy, just as Christ is holy.” (1John 3:1-3)
And the ancient Jewish Prophet Isaiah pictured it in the following words.
“Many people will come and say, "Let's go to the mountain of the LORD God of Jacob and worship in his temple." The LORD will teach us his Law from Jerusalem, and we will obey him. He will settle arguments between nations. They will pound their swords and their spears into rakes and shovels; they will never make war or attack one another.” (Isaiah 2:3-4; a statue representing this is outside the United Nations building in New York.)
So the idea of Utopia is an interesting one and seems to be one that captures our minds quickly. It is worth musing about. For an interesting site on Utopian societies see http://www.nps.gov/history/nr/travel/amana/utopia.htm