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  • Imperfect Men in Perfect Societies:Human Nature in Utopia
  • Gorman Beauchamp

I

Utopists view man as a product of his social environment. Nothing innate in the psychic make-up of man—no inherent flaw in his nature, no inheritance of original sin—prevents his being perfected, or at least radically ameliorated, once the social structure that shapes character can be properly reordered. Utopists, in short, deny that there is such a thing as "human nature"—if, as John Plamenatz suggests, to say that something is human nature is just another way of saying that it cannot be changed.1 To accept the psychic constitution of man as fixed, immutable, is anathema to utopists, who agree rather with Ortega y Gasset: "Man has no nature. What he has is history."2 The social conditions that have obtained historically, that is to say, have made man what he has been—anything but utopian; but if man's history could be changed, so could his "nature." The idea of Progress, so pervasive in the West from the seventeenth century on, lends some credence to this contention. W. D. Howells's Altrurians, their creator notes, "get some sad amusement out of the fact that the capitalist world believes human nature cannot be changed, though cannibalism and slavery and polygamy have all been extirpated in the so-called Christian countries, and these things were once human nature, which is always changing. . . ."3 Utopia is merely a means, then, of imaginatively expediting, directing, culminating the historically progressive creation of a morally exemplary race of men.

The environmentalist psychology espoused by utopists springs from one of two anterior assumptions (although in the creation of many fictional idola the distinction between them is often blurred). The first [End Page 280] assumption is formulated most famously by Rousseau in the Discourse on Inequality: that "man is naturally good, and only by his institutions is he made bad."4 The second assumption is formulated most famously by Locke in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding: that the mind—and by extension the character—is a tabula rasa that takes impression from the stimuli exerted by the external world and thus is neither innately good or bad, but plastic, malleable.5 An intriguing conflation of these two theories operates, for instance, in the psyche of the monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In the long middle section of the book, where the monster's side of the story is presented sympathetically, his character develops in a text-book demonstration of Lockean psychology; yet, at the same time, this lumbering tabula rasa quivers with enough benevolence (the implausible provenance of which mystifies) to put most saints to shame. He becomes evil and destructive only after being persecuted unmercifully for his misshapen appearance.6 Indeed, the criminal career of Mary Shelley's monster rehearses the common utopian argument that society's injustice to man (or monster) is the source of his crimes. "With our present state of society," writes James Casey in A New Moral World (1885), "we manufacture criminals and then punish them for being so."7 H. G. Wells, in A Modern Utopia (1905), concurs: "Crime and bad lives are the measure of the State's failure, all crime in the end is the crime of the community."8 And both are but restating the charge of Sir Thomas More's Raphael Hytholoday, leveled several centuries earlier in the original Utopia (1519): "If you allow people to be badly brought up and their habits to be corrupted little by little from childhood and if you then punish them for crimes to which their early training has disposed them, what else is this, I ask, but first making them thieves and then punishing them for it?"9 Evil deeds, then, to reiterate the utopist's point, result not from some vicious mole in human nature, but from the malfunctioning of society itself. Utopia, by contrast, is—or theoretically ought to be—a world without crime.

Rousseau's concept of the innate goodness of man and the evil of his institutions most often informs primitivist models of utopia, exotic worlds inhabited by noble savages uncorrupted by civilization. The idealized Indians of Montaigne's essay...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 280-293
Launched on MUSE
2007-10-25
Open Access
No
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