On science, society, philosophy and literature by George Zarkadakis
Monday, April 27, 2009
Utopias and Dystopias
Thomas More published in 1516 the book Utopia, based on the Republic of Plato. The Greek origins of the term, as well as the inspiration are rather telling. The word means the place that does not exist. Plato, in his original work, which is aiming to provide a context for what he defines as “virtue” (αρετή), positions his thesis on the unattainable. True virtue can only be realized in the world of ideas “out there”; not in our coarse world of shadows. The Republic is by definition unattainable. For the mind of Plato’s contemporaries, for his listeners if you will, “utopianism” did not hold the same meaning as it did in the 16th century, or indeed in our present time. In other words, the unattainable did not imply the will to attain; the interpretation must have been more literal, the way mathematics is, or even better perhaps geometry. There is no such thing as a perfect sphere. A perfect (platonic) sphere is unattainable, but that does not mean that having less than perfect spheres in the real world is a let down. The Republic is a “perfect” society (at least according to its writer) in the same sense. That is exactly the difference in the narrative that I am trying to underline: that the utopian of ancient times was a different animal from the utopian of modern times. The modern version is someone who has not given up on the idea of attainment. In fact, rather the contrary: the attainment of a utopia is a goal in itself. This is profoundly evident in the totalitarian dreams and nightmares of fascism, Nazism, as well as Marxists: the Perfect society and the Perfect man (and woman). This is a major shift in understanding utopias between the ancient and the modern, and I could not stress enough the importance and repercussions of this shift. When Aldous Huxley published “Brave New World” in 1932, the foundations of a utopian/dystopian narrative have already been laid. Indeed they have replaced liberal realism – if ever such thing existed. Utopias or dystopias are attainable. Either by action or inaction. Climate change is a point of fact, as well as the idealist-utopian perception of a westernized Middle-East that led President Bush to invade Iraq. The New Narrative at work is aiming to fulfil its unattainable prophecies.