Saturday, May 26, 2012

Utopia, Dystopia, and Irony

Great works have been written over the centuries, presenting themselves as blueprints for an ideal society. The most obvious of these is Sir Thomas More's Utopia, written in 1516. He coined the word 'utopia' - the literal meaning is 'nowhere' - and used the book as a vehicle for social criticism. He was preceded by Plato, whose Republic has, in its closing chapters, a plan for the perfect society.

By contrast, 1984 and Brave New World are books in the category of dystopia: a world gone wrong. Like utopian literature, dystopian literature can, and often does, serve as a vehicle for social critique: these two titles are find fault with Soviet totalitarianism and with spiritually void materialist consumerism respectively.

While the message in dystopian prose is relatively clear, utopian works are more likely to be misunderstood: otherwise sophisticated scholars have taken both Plato and Thomas More to be serious social engineers, instead of seeing the irony with which both proposed their recipes for ideal societies. Utopia and the Republic were not meant to be taken literally: as Aristotle's analysis quickly revealed, Plato's proposed ideal society would be utterly impractical if one attempted to implement it on a word-for-word basis; beyond being impractical, it would be universally undesired (which parent would happily turn his child over to the state at birth?). More's Utopia was likewise not intended as a strict blueprint, but merely a hypothetical construct designed to highlight certain flaws found in the society of More's time.

By contrast, other utopian works are almost certainly intended as literal instructions. Both Marx and Rousseau seriously considered themselves as giving a set of instructions for social engineering. Both, when readers took them as seriously they hoped, led to disaster.

The common thread is a type of intellectual naivety: a literal reading of More and Plato naively assumes that they saw themselves giving literal instructions, which Marx and Rousseau naively thought that it was possible to give instructions which would successfully yield a utopia.

The opposite of such naivety is a sober realization that a perfect society is not possible in this world, given that human nature is what it is: humans being flawed, any society composed of humans will be flawed. To strive for the perfect society inevitably leads to a crash. It is more practical, and more humane, to attempt to formulate a society which is good but not perfect, i.e., to account for humans flaws rather to the try to eradicate them.