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Changing Times in Utopia

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 22, Number 1, April 1998
pp. 219-230 | 10.1353/phl.1998.0028

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Philosophy and Literature 22.1 (1998) 219-230

Notes and Fragments

The goal of utopia is, as William Dean Howells's spokesman for Altruria puts it, "an order so just that it cannot be disturbed." This statement provides the crucial clue for understanding the utopian attitude toward stasis and change: if, that is, a truly and wholly just order were once achieved, either in the imagination or in reality, then any change in the structure embodying justice would necessarily represent a falling away, a decline from the ideal. This fear of change permeates Plato's Republic, the work which initiated the tradition of utopian thinking in the Western world and which, as J. B. Bury notes, exemplified "the tendency characteristic of Greek philosophical thinkers to idealise the immutable as possessing a higher value than that which varies." The Republic, then, projects "an absolute order in society, from which, when it is once established, any deviation must be for the worse." Such reasoning, more or less explicitly, shapes almost all utopian models and determines their attitude toward change. For the utopian theorists, disagreement, disorder, conflict are inherently bad; unity, order, harmony are inherently good. As a consequence, they reject the conflict-model of society -- one in which the state regulates and adjudicates among competing interests -- in favor of an equilibrium-model -- one in which social life is so perfectly adjusted that no further systemic change is either desirable or possible: in short, an order so just that it cannot be disturbed.

One manifestation of the perfect equilibrium of utopia is the absence of politics -- that is, of any of the legislative bodies that respond to pressures for social change or of any of the parties or interest groups that exert these pressures. Even where there are elected assemblies -- as, for instance, in Sir Thomas More's Utopia--their actual purpose is administrative, not legislative: the fundamental laws of Utopia were laid down by King Utopus a century before. (Significantly, Raphael Hythloday reports that the Utopians punish any discussion of politics outside their assembly with death.) The spokesman for utopia in Edward Bellamy's enormously influential late nineteenth-century work, Looking Backward, when asked about their legislation, declares: "We have no legislation. If you will consider for a moment . . . you will see that we have nothing to make laws about. The fundamental principles on which our society is founded settle for all time the strifes and misunderstandings which in your day called for legislation." William Morris, whose own utopia News from Nowhere was written in reaction against Bellamy's and which, in most respects, stands as its antithesis, wholly agrees, however, about the obsolescence of politics: "We are very well off as to politics," Morris's cicerone explains, "because we have none." Indeed, in Morris's utopianized England the Houses of Parliament have been converted into a dung market, "a storage place for manure." The most explicit statement of the utopian attitude toward change, however, is probably that found in another (this one relatively obscure) nineteenth-century American work, Chauncey Thomas's The Crystal Button:

"Please tell me have you a government or not?"
The Professor smiled. . . .: "Yes, Mr. Prognosis, we indeed have a government -- the simplest, the strongest, the most effective, the most enduring that the world has thus far known. . . . [T]his is called 'The Government of Settled Forms.'
"The Government of Settled Forms is very simple, and needs no tinkering. . . . It knows nothing of the uncertainties of law-making. . . . There can be no general disturbance of the public in these days, for the simple reason that education of an advanced type is now universal, all men and women are usefully employed, and there is no school of poverty or vice for developing a discontented class. Moreover, the population has again become homogeneous, with common customs, needs, language, religion, aims, ambitions. If we were called upon now to trust the decision of momentous questions to the nod of majorities, we could safely do so; but there is no longer any such need. The initial questions have been determined in the stormy past. We are now enjoying the results, and peacefully developing details."

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